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May 23, 2011

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Heaven in the 'hometown of bamboo'

ANJI County is famous for its mountain scenery, bamboo forests and white tea. It's also where some scenes from the Oscar-winning movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" were filmed. Xu Chi looks around.

Known as the "hometown of bamboo," Anji County in Zhejiang Province is blessed with mountains covered with bamboo forests, rippling streams, tea terraces and quaint villages.

A three-hour drive from Shanghai, the county has gone against the trend of modern development. It hasn't tried to attract multinational companies, hasn't tried to set up lots of factories and isn't interested in building loads of high-rises. And this is a good thing.

Three years ago, the county government made a strategic decision to develop its economy in an environmentally friendly way - 75 percent of its land is forested - and focus on tourism.

Under a county project named "the construction of beautiful villages," the county built 108 modern villages and ensured each had its own "character." They also decided to plant more trees instead of building high-rises.

Hongjia Village is one of these new villages and it's famous for its splendid landscapes, stone buildings, and most of all, healthy villagers.

Among the 3,200-plus residents in the village, only 10 have heart diseases and only 16 have diabetes. The overall good health of the population is attributed to the fresh air, regular lifestyle and an unspoiled environment where the villagers never have to inhale fumes from factories.

In Xilong Village the mountains are covered with tea plants exclusive to the area that grow white tea leaves.

White tea leaves are famed for their subtle flavor. It's called white tea because of the fine silvery white hairs that grow on the unopened buds of the plant. White tea is also considered good for the health because the leaves contain high levels of antioxidants that can help reduce the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer, diabetes and protect the skin from damage caused by UV light. It is the least processed of all teas and has less caffeine than both green and black teas.

History has it that white tea once disappeared in China during ancient times. It was rediscovered in 1982, when a scientist accidentally found the white leaves on a mountain in Anji's Daxi Village.

Top-end white tea has sold for as much as 40,000 yuan (US$6,160) for 50 grams at international Chinese tea leaves exhibitions. Other high quality leaves normally fetch 400 yuan to 10,000 yuan per 50 grams while regular leaves sell for less than 100 yuan.

Some farmers in the area are now very wealthy. A farmer in Longxi Village can earn 1 million yuan each year by working about 20 days a year picking the leaves in April and selling them to crowds of tourists and businessmen that descend on the village.

Anji is providing another reason for not following the development model of other places - the booming tourism industry.

Tourists love the bamboo trees, which are practically everywhere. Even the restaurants serve a variety of dishes featuring bamboo.

Bamboo is such a big part of Anji that a "bamboo culture" has evolved and a museum displays how folk artists use different parts of bamboo to create sculptures, statues and even paintings.

And if the scenery looks familiar, it's probably because you've seen a film that was shot in Anji. Many movies have been filmed here including parts of the Oscar-winning film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In this film, a spectacular fight scene amongst a bamboo forest takes place between characters played by Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi.

Going deeper into the county, tourists may be interested in the She ethnic minority group and their unique traditions.

If you're lucky, you may be invited to participate in a She wedding ceremony. According to tradition, the groom has to pass four challenges - solve a riddle, drink bowls of Chinese liquor, catch a chicken and win a folk song singing competition - before marrying his bride.

She people love to get tourists involved in the fun, but don't worry, it's not an attempt to trick you into marriage.

The She villagers have turned their community into a tourist attraction and a small admission fee is charged to enter the village.

There's a lot to appreciate and admire about Anji, including the way its people have chosen to live their lives.


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