At home in Shuhe

Updated: 2012-07-01 08:44

By Pauline D. Loh (China Daily)

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At home in Shuhe

Old wood, polished by age, can be seen in the master bedroom of the family villa at the Bivou. Teo Siok Kuan / For China Daily

Lijiang is one of the most popular holiday destinations in China, but amid the tourist bustle, there is a quiet retreat for a gathering of family and friends. Pauline D. Loh visits the Bivou in Shuhe.

It sits on the edge of the old town, and you have to get out at the public parking area and roll your luggage down narrow cobblestone lanes to get to the Bivou. Along the way, quaint little shops invite further exploration, and we pass the village vegetable patch, tended by ancient Naxi women clad in classic blue and their signature lambskin aprons. The mistress of the inn welcomes us with an herbal drink and we relax in the little lounge, eyes wide with surprise.

Old wood, polished by age, is used all over the Bivou, renovated and converted from three farmhouses. The original beams are still there, but they now find second wind as both infrastructure and decor highlights.

Tucked into a corner is a little fireplace, where my nephew and niece immediately gravitate. They find the pinecone pile and settle down to a game of battling hedgehogs.

On the huge tree-trunk trestle table are baskets of little kumquats, sunflower seeds and groundnuts. These are for guests to nibble on as they relax either in the lounge or the upstairs hideaway where comfortable couches beckon for a lazy afternoon surfing the net or reading a book.

At the bar is the inn's pride and joy, a coffee machine that dispenses bottomless cups for breakfast. It is manned by Bob, a visiting scholar from Australia who is here writing a book. He takes time out for his daily morning stints as the Bivou's barista.

It is hard to leave the lounge, where new guests meet old and eagerly exchange news and views on where to go and what to do.

The Bivou has this informal hospitality that makes guests feel at home instantly, but finally, we are reluctantly shooed off to our villa, another converted farmhouse at the back of the main building. It has three levels and is perfectly suited for our family.

Downstairs, a huge sitting and dining room has an open kitchen at the back, complete with built-in oven, island counter and another coffee machine.

We were already informed that booking the villa entitles us to a barbecue the next evening, courtesy of the house.

Up one level is a double room with an en suite bathroom tucked away in a corner one level down. My brother, his wife and two children will camp out here.

My husband and I take the next bedroom one level up, and it has a dressing room, independent Internet access, television - and an electric keyboard. The spouse immediately envisions midnight concerts of Chopin, which I equally hastily dispel with a steely glare.

My mother, the 78-year-old grand dame, decides she wants the loft bedroom and pooh-poohed our concerns about the stairs. It's what she always wanted, she says.

Breakfast is early but always made to order. A group decides to drive out to the Tiger Leaping Gorge and they have coffee at 7:30 am so they have time for a more leisurely excursion.

Our cook is Spring Ayi, a ruddy-faced lady from Dali. She is helped by her niece, another lady from Dali who always has a smile on her face, and between them, they look after all the guests at the Bivou.

We get eggs, toast and homemade cereals with jam made by Bob the scholar-barista. It is mulberry jam, and we pay him compliments in between bites of jam-smeared toast that stain our smiles a deep purple.

Fortified, our next adventure was to explore the old town of Shuhe.

The Bivou is a short walk to the town center, the ubiquitous square always called Sifang Jie. On the way, though, we pass by little souvenir shops that are all different, and we pause to sniff at a specialty shop selling Yunnan coffee.

As we stroll along, we look up and admire the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain above us, its peak obscured by a faint mist of clouds. Like the rest of Lijiang, Shuhe is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it is a lot quieter and there are none of the neon-trimmed bars and loud Internet cafes of Dayan, the better-known old town of Lijiang.

At Shuhe, the pace is more leisurely, although as we stroll its little lanes, we notice an unusual number of wedding parties and photo studios.

Then it hit us. These couples were coming to Shuhe to take wedding pictures for their albums. Apparently, it is now quite a thriving industry.

With an eye on the festive parties, we shopped for souvenirs to take home. There are the usual Miao tribal silver jewelry and phone accessories and key rings made from tiny bells that used to adorn the reins of horses traveling along the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Route.

We are also attracted to the linen door curtains decorated with minimalist Chinese ink painting, and a selection of heavy cotton shawls woven by the Mosuo women.

The children get hungry and clamor for the local cherries and strawberries that are being sold by the roadside. The vendor smiles at them and promptly washes the fruits before handing the bag over, mindful of the impatience of the young ones to sample the berries.

On the slow walk back, we pass the coffee shop again, and a voice calls out a greeting. He has recognized our accents and he knows we are strangers. The owner of the voice also owns a few boutiques by the museum, and he offers to buy us cups of coffee.

And so it goes on. From the warm hospitality at the Bivou to the friendliness of the villagers in Shuhe, it was like a homecoming for us.

It was also a good chance to bond with my own family. We are normally scattered in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong most of the year, and we treasured the opportunity to stay together in one place on holiday.

That night, we have our barbecue, and Bob the scholar-barista shows us what he really does best - an Aussie barbie.

As he expertly grills skewers of meat and vegetables on the grill, my brother David shows off his own culinary skills by turning out perfect roast pork, its skin crackling crisp.

My husband and I tackle the leg of ham that we had ordered, a 3-year-old cured leg from the little black pigs of Yunnan's Nujiang, the Angry River. We serve the shavings on fresh baby spinach sauteed in chanterelle-infused oil. Nothing like eating local.

The Bivou is not cheap, but it does offer safe haven for families with kids, or tired city executives. The inn believes in eating organic, and serves up meals that reflect that principle.

We left fully recharged with the fresh air and good food that we had enjoyed for three full days. You can be sure we'll be back next year.

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