Across China: Austrian father running homestay in China's mountainous village

HEFEI, Dec. 2 (Xinhua) -- As the countryside wakes up in an early winter morning, Armin Schober sits in the courtyard of his homestay, sipping hot coffee while gazing at the mist-shrouded mountains in the distance. Upstairs, his wife and daughter are sleeping soundly.

Peaceful moments like this often remind him of his childhood at the foot of the Alps in Austria.

Schober and his Chinese wife, Huang Qiong, run a homestay in Tachuan Village at the foothills of Huangshan Mountain, another world-famous mountain and a UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage site in east China's Anhui Province.

Known for having one of the best autumn views in China, the village is a magnet for painters and photographers. But like many other villages near the scenic Huangshan, it has long eluded the benefits of a mature tourism industry. Schober is among the entrepreneurs trying to make a difference.

Yet the story of this homestay, "Alina's Garden," started with a simple wish to find a natural environment for their daughter, Alina.

Alina was born in 2018 in Shenzhen, a tech hub in south China's Guangdong Province, where Huang ran a company. The couple had initially planned to escape the urban hubbub and retreat to the European countryside when Alina turned three.

"I want to preserve her innocence as much as possible. I hope she can grow up in a free and natural environment and live her life to the fullest, just like I did when I was a child," said Schober, whose hometown is a small mountain village in Innsbruck, nested in the Alps.

"When I was a child, I often played in the forest and built my own tree house," Schober recalled, picturing his ideal of Alina's childhood garden.

But a trip changed their minds. In 2021, they traveled to Tachuan Village and stayed in a homestay with a gurgling stream behind the backyard and the mountainous scenery in the distance. Huangshan City, where Tachuan is located, is famous for its natural landscapes with a forest coverage rate of 82.9 percent.

"We immediately felt that this was the life we wanted," Schober said.

Schober and Huang decided to take over the homestay business. But moving from the fast-paced metropolis of Shenzhen to a small mountain village to start a rural homestay from scratch requires enormous effort.

From painting walls, fixing tables, to installing lighting fixtures, the couple did everything by their own hands, gradually turning the ancient house into their dream home, which blends the local Hui architecture style with European elements, such as a coffee bar and European dishes.

The couple hopes the homestay can bring the best of Eastern and Western worlds together. During the Spring Festival, Schober writes English red couplets with a Chinese ink brush.

Their business is booming, though Schober said his greatest sense of accomplishment comes from the way his daughter is growing up here with confidence and independence.

"Although she is only five years old, she can already help us greet our guests, show them around, and play with the guests' children. She is like a little boss here," Schober said.

"People here are all very friendly and willing to help, from our next-door neighbors to the village leaders. I don't have to worry about Alina because here, everyone knows her, and everyone helps take care of her," Schober said.

In recent years, new businesses, including homestays, are flourishing at the Huangshan Mountain amid the country's rural revitalization drive. This new development has been credited with creating more jobs for villagers and improving their income.

According to He Yi, the mayor of Huangshan, the city currently has over 3,100 homestays, which in 2022 received more than 3.3 million tourists and generated an overall output value of 6.5 billion yuan (about 913 million U.S. dollars).

"The booming homestay industry has not only attracted people, capital, and information to flow into villages but has also inspired entrepreneurs to establish businesses in rural areas," He said.

In October, Schober's new coffee and pizza shop opened in Hongcun, a traditional village under state protection next to Tachuan, to serve hand-made pizza and coffee to tourists from all over the world.

"We hope to make more investments here in the future and explore more different business ventures. I'm personally very positive about the outlook," Schober said.

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