A view of the sky at night in Xuyi Photo: CFP
When it comes to ancient cultures, rivers were the foundations that allowed the first humans to have the resources they needed to properly settle down and form a civilization. This was also the case for one river in particular in East China's Jiangsu Province.
The Huaihe River that runs through the province helped give birth to one of the province's most beautiful counties - Xuyi county.
The city's geographic position is its most distinctive signature: fertile lands to the east, mountains to the south, beautiful lakes and rivers to the northeast. This mix makes it famous because of its natural resources. Xuyi is located approximately two hours (200 kilometers away) from the provincial capital city of Nanjing and can be easily reached by highway.
It is surprising to see the contrast between this beautiful town and the cities in the surrounding area, like Nanjing, Shanghai or Hangzhou; Xuyi looks like an oasis of nature and peace.
Known as "the pearl of the Huaihe River, the cradle of crayfish, the hometown of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) founder Zhu Yuanzhang (though Zhu was born in Fengyang, Anhui Province), and an ecological homeland," Xuyi is famous for its agriculture and the scenic landscapes it presents when one travels through the different villages that form it.
Each village possesses a unique identity: from Buddhist temples to grape plantations and crayfish farms.
Another characteristic of these towns is their stone constructions, which remind us that there was once volcanic activity in the area.
Today, the residents use these rocks to build their homes and yard walls, which make some of these buildings look like something out of a fairy tale.
Xuyi's historical importance is mainly due to its strategic position where the Huaihe River connects with regions along the Yangze and Yellow rivers.
Because of this location, human settlements flourished at a very early age, which is why many different archeological treasures have been discovered over the years. One of the most amazing ones you can visit is the ancient tombs of the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-AD25), which are around 2,100 years old.
In 2009 in Dayunshan, excavations revealed the ancient cemetery of Liu Fei - a son of the Han Dynasty's Emperor Jing and a half-brother to Emperor Wu - several artifacts made from gold, jade, bronze and other materials were found in the tombs.
Another famous tomb, the Ming Zhu Ling, is the burial place of the grandfather and great-grandfather of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. This is one of the prides of the city. In fact, they want you to see it so much that they don't even charge an entrance fee.
The tomb is surrounded by a quiet park that allows visitors to walk around while enjoying some nice peace and quiet.
Close to the heavens
Besides its history, the county is also leading the way in China when it comes to the emergence of astro-tourism. For those living in major cities in China, it may be hard to think of the country as being a great place for stargazing, but Xuyi is perfect for it.
This tendency of developing astro-tourist experiences is trending world-wide, with countries like Chile, the US and Australia also trying to get a finger in the pie.
Stargazing is not something only reserved for astronomers; it is something that everyone should try at least once in their lives.
Besides being a way to enjoy the beauty of nature, it is also a way to understand how different civilizations have developed. This is especially true when it comes to China.
To truly understand the country, it is important to see how the movement of the stars influenced the culture.
Around 200 meters above sea level, Xuyi's national park, the Tieshan Temple Park, is surrounded by protected green areas, as such the light pollution normally seen in other urban areas of China is nearly nonexistent.
So it is not surprising that thanks to these natural conditions, the Zijinshan Observatory stations, one of the most important observation centers in the country, is located there as well.
The good thing about stargazing in the park is that the stars can be admired with a telescope or with the naked eye.
The best observation zone lies between Hualong Lake and the Tieshan Temple Park. The easiest way to enter the park is by car.
In order to enjoy the experience to the fullest, the ideal visit should involve a stay of a few days in Xuyi. Fortunately, there is a good variety of lodging on offer. You have everything from the Jinling Tianquan Lake Holiday Hotel with its modern facilities to nature-focused hotels like the Plum Garden Hotel.
Back down to earth
As in any other place in China, the experience is not complete without tasting the local gastronomy.
The xiaolongya (crayfish) in Xuyi is famous all across the country. There is even a museum dedicated to this small creature.
The "Xuyi Crayfish Festival" has been held in the county annually since 2000. Since 2008, the festival expanded to become more international. Each year, the festival is celebrated on the 12th of June.
The festival has become such an important part of life in the county, that it is no longer limited to celebrating the region's famous crayfish; beauty contests as well as business meetings, sporting events and other major activities are also held.
Without a doubt, the life in today's big cities makes us yearn for more natural alternatives that allow us to enjoy nature and the simpler things in life.
Xuyi is the perfect place to not just get back to nature by looking at the stars, but also to come understand how ancient peoples allowed themselves to be guided by these lights in the sky as they made major advancements for mankind.