Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … I’m doing a session of qigong, an ancient martial art that focuses on breathing control, while looking across the tranquil, tree-lined lake of the Amanyangyun wellness centre. The trees sway gently, seeming to mimic my tai chi–like poses, or is it the other way round? I want to allow the trees to move me, as they have others.
As the branches wave hypnotically, I become more aware of my surroundings and the quietude of the setting. You’d never guess that this newest Aman resort lies just 30km southwest of pulsating Shanghai. But I’m absorbed in the controlled movements of a discipline that dates back to the time of Taoism. It requires a form of stoicism, a trait applied to my more recent activities involving the careful padding of the powder for the incense ceremony, and the scooping of flowing water to place on the foot of the glorious, thousand-year-old King Tree, just one of many saved by Ma Dadong.
In 2002, Ma, a self-made Jiangxi investment and real-estate mogul, visited his hometown only to find that the ancient historic homes of the neighbourhood in which he grew up were imperilled and the forests being cleared to make way for a reservoir.
Amanyangyun was built to create a leafy haven of Chinese culture and arboreal isolation
This meant felling the area’s beautiful camphor trees, which had been around more than 2,000 years, since the time of Qin Shihuang, the first Chinese emperor and founder of the Qin Dynasty, and were believed by locals to have souls or spirits living within each of them. To the villagers, these trees were majestic, full of tradition and life, and for them to be erased without a trace would have been a great tragedy. “It can suddenly blow your mind,” Ma said, “to think that these ancient trees, their long lives, might disappear in a snap of the fingers.” Decisive action was required.
Ma determined to find a new home for the trees, and formulated a bold plan to move 10,000 of them 800 kilometres away to Shanghai, accompanied by 50 Ming and Ching dynasty houses from villages soon to be submerged under the reservoir’s waters. He assembled a team of experts in traditional Chinese architecture to revive the ancient houses – brick by brick, pillar by pillar, beam by beam. Botanists, tree surgeons and bridge engineers were also recruited for the project, working quickly to bring the trees to their next home and preserve their existence. “The trees chose me,” Ma said of the selection process.
Meanwhile, Aman, known for discreet luxury and exclusivity, was on the hunt for its next location in China, and on hearing of Ma’s project worked with the visionary businessman to construct what is arguably now among its most ambitious destinations. Surrounded by ancient, replanted camphor trees and incorporating some of the rescued houses, Amanyangyun was built to create a leafy haven of Chinese culture and arboreal isolation. The house-moving project had evolved into something much more, as these homes represented life again – all with the help of renowned architect Kerry Hill – turning history into what will be, creating a handful of Antique Villas and 24 exquisite Ming Courtyard Suites, one of which I have the pleasure to be staying in.
After my final qigong position, and in tune with the world again, I head back to my suite to get ready for lunch. Walking through the bamboo garden, I’m reminded of the resort’s beautiful design that draws on 17th-century rural China. I arrive at the door beyond which lies the promise of even deeper serenity. On walking in, I’m greeted by an outdoor fireplace and private Jacuzzi – in between is my bedroom. The next day I lunch at Lazhu, one of the resort’s three restaurants. Its chefs hail from the Liao Fang reservoir area, and they greet us with a feast prepared with Jiangxi spices. With dishes that range from crushed green chilli on preserved eggs to porcine ears with chilli dressing to prickly sea cucumber in abalone sauce, this is not a meal for the faint of heart. As I indulge, seated in a space that resembles a bamboo grove, and fascinated by the variety of the cuisine placed before me, a cool breeze passes through and my attention shifts to the outdoors.
I’m reminded of my arrival at Amanyangyun a few days earlier, in a leather-lined, massage-seated Mercedes, gazing through the drizzle as I made my way to the property, the view slowly filling with trees and grey stone. I’d looked up the resort just days before, but what the photos couldn’t convey was the feeling of welcome as the staff, all dressed neatly in black, waved to me as they waited for my car to pull up.
But, as always, it’s the beauty of the trees that captivates me.