Five years ago, Benyan Miao and his wife Xudu Chuang took a vacation in the ancient city of Hongcun. Located in the Anhui Province of China and established in the Song Dynasty, Hongcun sits near the slope of Mount Huangshan. During busy season, its narrow alleyways flood with tourists from all over China seeking its antique feel. The village is one of the locations where Ang Lee filmed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Huangshan served as one of the inspirations for the floating mountains in James Cameron's Avatar. The labyrinth-like city is walled and surrounded by water and forest. Between the uneven stone pathways are centuries-old homes built of dark, stained wood, and every single residence has a courtyard in accordance with feng shui. Doorsteps are constructed between rooms to ward off ghosts, and at night the faint red glow of lanterns light up the little city. There's just one post office, a couple of ATMs, and no cars. They wouldn't fit in the streets.
It was after coming here that Benyan and Xudu fell in love, left their corporate jobs, and started Qinghueyue, a youth hostel in the corner of the city.
Within an hour of checking in, I find myself squatting in the corner of the 200-year-old portion of the property, clenching a pile of dried bamboo poles I had just gathered in the backyard. Moments ago, I had wandered into the hostel kitchen and volunteered to help the staff with dinner prep. Without any sort of inquiry about who I was and where I came from, I was immediately given instructions by the staff to collect bamboo and make fire.
I'm sandwiched in a narrow space between the back of a wood-fired stove and a cold wall. Large glass jars of preserved fruit and homemade liquors sit to my side. Above me, tied to a wooden beam on the ceiling, are large, semi-translucent bags of what looks like dried, crumbled leaves. Upon closer inspection I find that they are withered bamboo shoots to be used for cooking.
It's as if I had traveled back in time, to a world before gas and electricity and tiled floors. The architecture is distinctly Chinese. I place pieces of bamboo deep into the belly of the oven and the flames hungrily devour everything I put in. I think I'm doing this right. But I am so distracted by the room, by where I am, and the aroma of warm rice from the other side that I eventually lose my balance and drop all the sticks, loudly, to the floor.
Benyan points to a small stool next to me and instructs me to sit.
The wood-fired stove came with this property, Benyan explains, and he simply didn't have the heart to get rid of it. Although the adjacent room has a gas stove and a proper rice cooker, the wood one is used as a backup or for overflow.
"This stove has character huh?" he winks at me.
In my short week here, I realize that many of the things Benyan and Xudu collect and keep are not essential. Instead, they are kept or made because they have character.
The couple makes porcelain bowls, tofu, liquors, jerky, sausages, and Chinese herbal brews. They have a vegetable garden and a couple of animals, including a monkey. Xudu enjoys creating incense from ground herbs, whereas Benyan is more partial liquors. The hostel bar sells beer made by Benyan. And when he's in a good mood, he'll give out complimentary shots of orange-hued sweet rice wine he made the month before.
One evening, Benyan rallies up all the guests in the courtyard and teaches everyone how to cook mantou—soft, fluffy buns usually eaten for breakfast. In the spring, he and his wife might round up a car and bring people up to their cabin in the woods for picking huangshan maofeng tea. They'll return back to the hostel and roast it in-house. "Huangshan maofeng tea is one of the best green teas in China," Benyan tells me. "It's grown in high altitude and has a soft flavor. No one talks about it though because it's not as heavily marketed as, say, longjing."
Later, Benyan approaches me with a mushroom log he collected from the nearby forest. He begins to give me an impromptu lesson in Chinese herbs. Wild chrysanthemum, he says, is great in the autumn for people who have a fiery temperament, and it will also help with low blood pressure. Wild kiwis, which he buys from a friend, can be submerged in rice wine to create strong, sweet liquor.
"The landscape of Huangshan is quite rich," he says, holding up a small vial of wood ear mushrooms. "In the rainy season, we have a lot of fungus."
He spends the next half-hour showing off his collection. There are seeds from a mulberry tree, used for tea. He is particularly proud of a mushroom he found called ganoderma (in Chinese it's lingzhi)—a medicinal ingredient prized for its tonic effects.
Then he brings out a bottle of silverberry (elaeagnus) infused with lemon water and rice wine. "The drink is good for your health," he says. And before I can ask why he moves onto the next herb.
When Benyan is in the moment, he forgets completely about his surroundings. I have to stop him often to catch the English translations. At one point, I am chasing him around the yard as he lists the down the names of every tree and shrub and seed. The guy is alive with passion.
His proudest find is a white powder called ge gen fen—also known as kudzu, a type of arrowroot. He puts a bit of it in a cup and adds in scalding hot water, stirring madly. Eventually the liquid becomes thick and viscous, like jelly. Benyan stirs in a spoonful of syrup that is part pomelo and part honey and instructs me to drink it. Arrowroot doesn't have much taste, but the pomelo and honey makes the drink slightly sweet.
"This is good for the liver," he says.
Xudu walks over to us and puts her arm around me, a cigarette in hand. "Tonight I'll teach you how to make stinky mandarin fish and hairy tofu!" she says, and waltzes off. I make a mental note of the appointment.
That evening, Xudu hands me a block of tofu spotted with hints of gray and fine white hairs. Hairy tofu is a specialty dish of Anhui; and Xudu, a local of the province, is convinced that her rendition is better than that of the hired cook.
She coats each piece of tofu with egg yolk and deep-fries it. In a separate wok, she mixes a half a cup of oil with chilies, onions, light soy sauce, and a bit of MSG. She coats the tofu in the sauce and adds spring onions for garnish. It tastes like regular deep-fried tofu but has a texture reminiscent of blue cheese. Its shell is crispy and not at all soggy; the yolks make the difference.
Qingheyue is unconventional. Benyan and Xudu are extremely involved with their guests, and when they're in the mood, often teach people about how to play with shrubs, fire, and food. They are the perfect couple: extroverted, knowledgeable, and extremely sporadic.
One night, all the guests gather to swap stories. Xudu steps up to the microphone to talk about her past life as a consultant, and how trapped and unconnected she felt in the corporate world. When she moved to Hongcun, she began to cook more, play more music, read books, and experiment with different crafts.
"After opening this hostel, I felt extremely free," she says. Her husband stands besides her, beaming.
Clarissa Wei is currently backpacking to all the provinces in China. She plans on single-handedly eating the entire country. Follow her adventures on Facebook.