Rural idyll gives village a natural advantage

An ecology paradise is radiating benefits to rural areas.

Dozens of stilted buildings, typical of the Tujia people's traditional residences, are scattered among a lush and serene bamboo forest.

A serene and picturesque setting, especially when basked in sunlight filters through the clouds.

One of the houses belongs to Liu Qiaohua, a resident of Baiyangping village, Taiping town, Jiangkou county of southwestern China's Guizhou province.

The village sits at the foot of Mount Fanjing, also known as Fanjingshan, which is home to more than 7,100 species of wild plants and animals, an important area of biodiversity in the subtropical zone. The Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve was established in 1978 and designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1986. The reserve covers an area of more than 77,500 hectares and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018.

The ideal natural environment has benefited rural tourism.

"It never occurred to me that our rural house can be rented out, especially the one that had been idle," Liu says.

Liu's old house was renovated and became part of the mountain homestays where the stunning peak of Mount Fanjing and an ocean of clouds on rainy days provide stimulating vista.

Baiyangping, though, was on the verge of abandonment a few years ago, when most villagers chose to migrate to cities to make a living, leaving their rural homes unattended.

"In the past, people continued to leave along with their families, seeking opportunities outside," says Luo Liuyun, a local villager.

"It was a forgotten and hollowed Tujia village, with a mud road spiraling up and only two households that stayed occupied," Luo recalls.

In 2020, the Jiangkou government signed a deal with a hotel management company in Guangdong province and initiated an idle rural housing renovation project, with an aim of transforming the village.

Homes that had fallen into disuse were rented by the company.

"The renovation was conducted without damage to the original structure," says Liu Jianghua, a senior official with Taiping town.

The idea is to offer an immersive local lifestyle to visitors and have them fully interact with nature and village residents.

Villagers can get 50 yuan ($7.4) per square meter of their rented homes from the fourth year, and have been given preference for employment opportunities for homestay operations, which started in July last year.

"All of the rooms have been booked up during major holidays, such as National Day, since the homestays started to receive guests in July," says Ye Fei, a manager with the homestay cluster.

Liu Qiaohua can now get 15,000 yuan a year for renting her house and a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan by cleaning the guest rooms.

"The income can cover my children's college tuition, and working close to home also allows me to take care of my parents," Liu says.

Baiyangping is one of the villages in Jiangkou that have ridden the wave of tourism development in the mountainous area.

About a 20-minute drive, Yunshe village has evolved into a popular rural getaway with its agreeable weather, natural beauty and ethnic culture.

Many have come to appreciate the folk songs and dances of the local Tujia community, ancient papermaking techniques as well as the primitive natural atmosphere of Yunshe, where women wash clothes by a creek, and men remove weeds on river banks with a sickle.

Tang Ji chose to stay in Yunshe and run a homestay business after Fanjing was added to UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2018. He was born in Jiangkou and engaged in space design in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, after graduation from the Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts. He was attracted to the rustic charm of Yunshe during his earlier travels.

"You can soak your feet in the gurgling water to beat the summer heat, and play with ducks in the river," Tang says.

"It is a rare hidden getaway that is also full of everyday life."

Tang had the idea of developing a homestay, so he rented an empty house and renovated it. With the idea of retaining the original look, Tang paved a stone road in front of the house, put up bamboo screens and hand-painted works featuring village scenery, and established a papermaking studio. Visitors can enjoy tea, party music, films, leaf-sculpting and painting on pebbles, as well as try their hand at cooking Tujia cuisine in an open kitchen at his homestay.

"Most travelers will choose to stay a night here after being on Fanjing Mountain," Tang says.

The boom in rural tourism also had local villager Yang Fenghua come back home and run a small inn with his family.

He used to do manual work in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

Now, his inn brings his family more than 6,000 yuan a month in turnover.

"It's much easier to make a living compared to working away from home," Yang says.

To date, more than 60 rural households in Yunshe are offering catering and accommodation services, and more than 800 people get involved in rural tourism operations, says Yang Zhengjun, a senior official in Yunshe.

It recorded more than 126,000 traveler visits in the first six months of last year, raking in 42.5 million yuan in tourism revenue. The village's per capita disposable income has reached 18,000 yuan.

To spice up traveler experience, local villagers have formed a team to offer dragon lantern dance and Tujia wedding ceremonies.

About 15-minute drive away, Zhaishadong village of Jiangkou, is also receiving dividends from the pristine ecology of the Mount Fanjing area.

Ran Qixun says he couldn't be more happier about his life. The 50-year-old local runs a three-story mountain villa that can cater to 200 dining guests and has 15 guest rooms.

"A few years ago, planting crops, chopping woods for sale were our main sources of income," Ran says.

His family then hitched their wagon to the tourism development of Mount Fanjing.

In the best of times, Ran's villa is fully booked and delivers a daily turnover of 5,000 yuan.

His son has also got a job at the village's folk culture performance team.

Rural tourism development has not only given villages a face-lift but made full use of housing and brought employment opportunities to villagers on their doorsteps, experts say.

More than 30,000 villagers have been the beneficiaries, according to data from authorities in Jiangkou.

Yuan Luan, a traveler from the provincial capital Guiyang, had a pleasant stay recently with his friends at a homestay cluster in Baiyangping.

They chatted over tea framed by the splendid mountains and rivers.

"It's nice to stay in the mountains, from morning to nightfall, enjoying a pastoral life," Yuan says.