It’s almost midday in Youtian, a close-knit cluster of houses surrounded by tea plantations in the hills of Zhejiang province, and Chen Yingqiang is drawing nails out of an ancient beam with a claw hammer. ‘Some are as easy as peeling a banana,’ says Chen, a gnarled 62-year-old who has known no trade but village carpenter. ‘Others are like…’ The sentence ends with language we won’t print here.
Once the nails are out, the beam will be incorporated in the house that Chen is restoring, one of several in Youtian that are part of China’s burgeoning rural renaissance. The village is among dozens in Songyang county in which centuries-old houses, rather than being ground to dust beneath a bulldozer blade, are being given a new lease of life that’s come about through local pride and hefty handouts from heritage organisations. Transmogrified into homestays, restaurants and cafes, what was formerly peasant accommodation has become a hip bolthole for professional millennials in search of a bucolic escape. And while restoring old buildings is by no means a novel idea in China, the current trend is both wide-ranging and very much a grass roots initiative.
‘The only way of life around here used to be agriculture,’ says Bao Guohua, who now runs a one-man taxi service to Youtian and other ‘renaissance’ villages. ‘Then, over the past few years officials came to suggest we should start restoring our houses. At first we thought they were barmy – we were born in them, a lot were falling down. Why would anyone want to come and stay here? A lot of villagers would be only too glad to get away from here and go and live in the city. But then, slowly at first, the idea started to catch on.’
More than a dozen houses in Youtian have been given a full makeover. Most are homestays, one is a cafe, while No. 17 – formerly a cowshed belonging to several families – has become a restaurant.
Much of the financing comes from the Beijing-based China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation, which has earmarked RMB 40 million for restoration in about 50 villages in Songyang county. The owners contribute RMB 5,000 per bedroom, which has to be paid before work begins, while the foundation takes care of the other parts of the house. Once complete, nightly rentals start at RMB 580 per double room, while an entire house with a 10-metre infinity swimming pool costs RMB 1,980. Given the sums involved, Youtian’s residents have been quick to appreciate the project’s commercial advantages.
‘It was sad to see our old houses falling down,’ says Ye Lianhan, who heads up Youtian’s village committee. ‘They belonged to our ancestors, but we simply didn’t have the cash to put them right. That’s all changed now, and we can make a bit of money on top of what comes in from selling tea.’
For foreigners – and around these parts anyone coming from outside Songyang is labelled thus – somewhere like Youtian is the perfect spot to experience the rural renaissance first hand. Viewed from a distance, the village could easily be used as a backdrop in a costume drama set in the Ming dynasty. The roofs are capped with layers of curved black tiles, and the walls are a muddy ochre. Steep steps and winding alleyways thread their way up and down the hillside, and the unrestored houses remain an intriguing amalgam of semi-fortress, warehouse and home for humans and livestock. A thin, calf-high slab across the main entrance prevents flooding, the interior courtyard can act as living room, al fresco dining space or work area as occasion dictates, while the bedrooms – each catering to half a dozen occupants in the days when Youtian housed extended families rather than just elderly couples – lie upstairs.
In short, rather than having been Disney-fied, Youtian is still an authentic agricultural village, with cows penned next to their owner’s home and ranks of neatly trimmed tea bushes marking the village perimeters.
And yet the Duo Er Cafe – with Wi-Fi, a well-stocked library and easel, brushes and a battery of oil paints – serves excellent coffee and some powerful Spanish beer. The village restaurant’s menu may reflect its humble surroundings, but the food is dished up in a hushed courtyard centred around a carp pond. And the homestays are trim and neat, with antique furniture contrasting with more modern beds and mattresses, and small kitchens that should appeal to self-caterers. Small wonder city folk head here in search of whatever it is that’s the antithesis of hustle and bustle.
Farther afield, other villages in Songyang have not been slow to slip aboard the renovation bandwagon. Most successfully, what was called Papa’s Home in Pingtian was converted into a youth hostel. The exterior was left unchanged apart from the addition of a single picture window, but the interiors were completely transformed: the ground level was opened up to become a communal space with homely wooden flooring, while the upper floor became a ‘house within a house’, with four units each capable of sleeping up to six guests.
‘We also used a lot of transparent tiles to let the light in through the roof,’ says architect He Wei. ‘So in the end we turned a run-down village building, Papa’s Home, into what is now Papa’s Hostel, a place for young people to socialise and play.’
A little over an hour’s drive to the east of Youtian, China’s state-of-the-art high-speed trains halt briefly at the city of Lishui before cruising away at 300 kilometres per hour to their next destination. Ask Chen, the carpenter, if he’s ever travelled aboard a ‘lizard’, as the trains are sometimes nicknamed, and he snorts loudly. ‘Where would I get the money? And anyway, why the hell would I do that?’
Flower in Hometown
+86 0578 8017688
This homestay in Youtian village, redone by its architect owner, features a cafe and villa with Zen-like interiors, as well as five more bedrooms decorated by different colour themes.
The Vine House
+86 1815 7897878
Located on the ancient streets of Songyang town, amid numerous traditional shops. Tall windows and glass ceilings give guests wide views of a courtyard and starry skies.
Little Tea Girl
+86 1891 8854232
Tea appreciation is a theme at this homestay. Located near the Damushan Scenic Area, it is set up with a tea-taking area on tatami mats and offers six guest rooms.
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This two-floor building in Pingtian village retains its original rammed-earth walls, while the space inside is now separated by semi-transparent dividers and filled with bunk beds for guests.
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High up in the hills of Xikeng village, this refurbished guesthouse’s main attraction is the dramatic view of clouds rolling in, best enjoyed from the terrace outside each room.
Pingtian Agricultural Centre
+86 1835 8883585
The refurbishment of several dilapidated buildings created a complex consisting of a rustic gallery space, a workshop, a garden and a guest room.
Songyang Damushan Tea House
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Songyang county’s standout buildings aren’t limited to refurbishments. Feel total calm in this newly built structure in Damushan Scenic Area, featuring double-height windows facing a reservoir, skylights and shade from sycamore trees.