Guidebooks, as I’ve said before, are a great planning aid when I want to go somewhere specific or just want to browse for travel ideas. But guidebooks, of course, have an inherent limitation: they only describe those places that have already landed on the tourist’s map. In China, this often means that fascinating but difficult to reach sites remain unknown and uncommercialized, flying under the radar of travelers who don’t go beyond the guidebook.
Taishun County, in Zhejiang province, is one such place. The county is home to almost a thousand bridges, many of them old wooden covered bridges (langqiao) built hundreds of years ago. Some of the bridges are remote, nestled in the valleys between Taishun’s tree-covered mountains, while others stand in the middle of small towns and continue to be used by pedestrians every day.
I’d never heard any of this until a few weeks ago, when my friend Jeremy proposed a weekend trip to check out the covered bridges. Jeremy runs a study abroad program here in Shanghai and was considering taking next semester’s students on a covered bridge tour, but first he wanted to go on a scouting trip to see how feasible that would be (not very, as it turned out). He got a small group together—the director of a CET program in Beijing, one of the current Shanghai students, a Chinese student, and me—and on Friday afternoon, I set out on the high-speed train from Shanghai to Wenzhou to meet everyone else.
We gathered in the lobby of our Wenzhou hotel at 5am on Saturday, where a driver met us with a minivan. Though our original plan had been to hike more or less all day both days, the weather wasn’t cooperating: Saturday’s forecast was for steady rain, so Jeremy decided to keep the driver for the entire weekend, rather than have him drop us off on Saturday morning and return on Sunday afternoon.
The driver steered us carefully along the wet highway as we exited Wenzhou and wound our way through the countryside. We drove for close to three hours, moving deeper and deeper into the mountains, but our trip was smooth: we were traveling on a newly built road that gently surfed the green peaks, one of the many infrastructure projects the Chinese government has funded in recent years. It drizzled on and off, and the mountaintops were encircled with a mist that made them look exactly like the Chinese landscape paintings I’ve seen in museums.
We finally arrived at, literally, the end of the road, which terminated in a small mountain village composed of a dozen crumbling houses that seemed at first glance to be abandoned. They weren’t, I quickly realized, glimpsing an elderly woman picking her way along the slippery stone street, but the village was silent save for the barking of a dog that had caught sight of our group.
Our weekend would have been impossible without twenty-first-century technology, as Jeremy relied on a handheld GPS and Google Maps to lead us to the bridges he had identified as good ones to visit. Even with those tools, though, our first attempt to find a bridge was fruitless: we walked out of the village and followed a path down the mountain for about ten minutes before it grew impassable and we had to turn around. We retraced our steps and tried a different path on the other side of the village, but that too abruptly disappeared into overgrowth that we couldn’t penetrate. Returning again to the village, we tried to ask the woman how we could get down to the valley, but she didn’t understand the standard Mandarin that the five of us speak—like many elderly Chinese, she had never learned putonghua (“the common language”) and spoke only a local dialect that bore no resemblance to the Chinese taught in schools today.
We decided to try a different approach entirely and left the village to walk back down the road we had driven in on, then turned off at a dirt road that ran past a farmhouse, where I could see a large Chairman Mao poster hanging up in the entryway. We skirted the farm’s fields and entered the dense forest once more, using our umbrellas to hack through the undergrowth. The rain had stopped, but the ground and bushes were wet; my sneakers had grown squishy and my jeans were soaked below the knees. Part of me wished I were back in my plush (and amazingly inexpensive) Wenzhou hotel room, while another part of me enjoyed the feeling of doing something that few other tourists—Chinese or foreign—would ever think to do.
Besides, it’s not like I could have backed out at that point.
We soon gave up on that trail, and the next one we tried, and Jeremy finally declared our search for bridge #1 concluded. We settled back into the van and tried to dry off a bit as the driver took us to a town where we could get lunch. Before digging into hot bowls of noodle soup, though, we saw our first covered bridge, which spanned a small river running behind the town’s main (and only) street. Covered in weathered gray wood shingles, the bridge stood out against the green landscape but also seemed perfectly at home in it—a man-made structure that had melded into the environment over hundreds of years.
After fortifying ourselves with noodles and Cokes, we drove to the spot where we would begin our second hike. The trail there, fortunately, was better defined than the ones we had been attempting to follow that morning—but after about forty minutes of walking, the path suddenly ended, the well-worn dirt giving way to a wall of trees on three sides. We had to admit that this search, too, was a bust, and returned to the van to drive to our campsite.
The campsite was the highlight of the weekend for me: we walked down a long path of stone steps and ended up at an isolated covered bridge, where we spent the night. In the dark, I couldn’t see much; it wasn’t until I woke up Sunday morning that I realized how beautiful the scene was, with a plain wooden bridge rising over a rushing river, connecting mountain trails on both sides. On Saturday night, though, we knew none of this as we set up our tents using the light from flashlights and cell phones, then sat on the bridge eating oranges, pretzels, and cheese as we chatted. We were all exhausted from the day’s early start and the hours of hiking, and by 9pm I was zipped into a sleeping bag listening to the rain on the bridge’s roof as I fell asleep inside my tent.
We were on the move again by 9am on Sunday, clambering up the steep stone stairs to meet the van and driver at the top. Jeremy pulled out his maps and GPS and plotted a bridge itinerary for the day, this time favoring spots we could drive to—none of us was enthusiastic about the idea of another day of hiking, even though the rain had ended and the sun even came out from time to time. We drove to a much more elaborate covered bridge than the previous two we’d seen, this one featuring carved railings and topped with a pagoda-style roof. While Saturday’s bridges had both had small altars at one end, this one stood next to a one-room temple. It was also set up for tourists—a large poster in the middle of the bridge explained its history—though I wondered how many visitors found their way to the destination.
More driving, this time to a busy market town where another plain bridge rose steeply over a muddy green-brown river. This bridge was the most utilized of all the ones we saw, as townspeople walked back and forth over it and a group of girls played in the middle before running off as we approached. Another group of girls, though, wasn’t so reticent, and after Jeremy asked where we could find some noodles for lunch, they led us to a narrow restaurant filled with customers (always a good sign in China!). I sat next to the entrance and, as I waited for my noodles to arrive, watched the pedestrian traffic on the town’s main street. I’ve heard many times that rural China is filled with the young and the old, as working-age people leave their children with their parents and move to the cities for whatever jobs they can find, and all the towns and villages I saw throughout the weekend provided more than enough evidence to confirm this. Everywhere I looked, grandmothers chased after running toddlers while older children wandered town streets in groups and chatted. Elderly men stood in clusters smoking, or sat around tables playing mahjong or cards. It’s an interesting dynamic, and I wondered what rural life was like with most residents at the ends of the age spectrum while the middle was mostly deserted.
We managed to see one final bridge on Sunday afternoon before we had to return to Wenzhou for trains and flights. That bridge was a two-story structure that had altars at both ends of the second floor. It wasn’t as elaborate at the first one we’d visited that day, but not as plain as the other three; while the sides were covered in wooden shingles, two dragon sculptures faced each other atop the pagoda roof. I looked out over the rice paddies that sat next to the bridge and mentally thanked Jeremy for coming up with the idea for this weekend. Even with a guidebook, I doubt I would have gotten there on my own.