The Joys of Quaint Villages
About the Author: Victor Paul Borg is from Malta. He has lived in six countries on three continents and spent much of the past 12 years in Asia. He currently spends his time in Europe and China. His travel articles and photographs have been published around the world.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Shangli is one of China's best-kept secrets - and it's only a three-hour drive from Chengdu, tucked in the mountains of Ya'an. It's a small village with fantastic stone bridges that have an exaggerated archness (almost like horse-shoe roundness, built in an age preceding mortar or concrete), a town square with an ancient opera house and handsome wooden townhouses that survive the Ming and Qing dynasties, alleyways with clusters of wooden houses fronted by bundles of drying corn and red paper lanterns, and an old musty Buddhist temple in the governor's old quarters. The houses have a source of fresh water in the form of water channels running along the village’s alleys - the water channeled from the two streams that run along the village on two flanks - and the village is situated on a plateau surrounded by slopes of lush subtropical forests. The rural tapestry and the evocative village make Shangli a snapshot from a traditional age.
It's also a great pace to get away from the clammy heat that descends on Chengdu in the summer - Shangli is considerably cooler because it's situated at an elevation of 1,000 metres; the summer air is freshened and sweetened by the lush forests - and many people from Chengdu do just that. In fact Shangli gets very busy with tourists on weekends. Its quaint teahouses fill up with people playing mahjong and sipping the region's specialist wild teas (most popular is the rosewood tea, brewed from the bark of a wild tree), and then feasting on the town's specialty dishes: hearty, rustic dishes made from wild mushrooms and river fishes and forest herbs. The food is a highlight in Shangli; dishes that have faded away in the cities still predominate in Shangli. (Accommodation is in local households - families in some of the old wooden houses take in lodgers in their spare rooms: the rooms, many of them with attached bathrooms, are basic but clean.)
The village can feel a tad too commercial in the busy summer months - souvenir shops do brisk business - so best would be to visit midweek to avoid the thickest of the crowds. You can also get away from the clamourous tourism by walking along the paths that radiate out of Shangli, weaving among fields and hamlets, where peasants go about their daily life unfazed by all the tourists that descend on the town. The countryside holds a tapestry of old China with the farmhouses nestling among groves of bamboo (grown for its utilitarian value in making home-made furnishings and farming implements).
Other traditional towns within striking distance of Chengdu
Although Shangli is arguably the most outlandish and evocative village within a few hours' drive of central Chengdu, there are other villages that are attractive in their own right and closer to Chengdu, making them ideal for a day-trip. Here is a roundup of five villages within striking distance of Chengdu.
Less than an hour's drive from Chengdu ushers you into the Sichuan countryside: a small village spread along a river with old wooden houses and a fresh market along the riverfront teeming with fresh produce and outlandish offerings. Yet the little village has become highly commercialised by tourism - parts of it have been rebuilt into something approaching a theme village resort – and the best parts of it lie in the hamlet across the river, where there is a fantastic temple dedicated to Guanyin.
About two hours' drive southwest of Chengdu, in Hongya County,Liujiang is another old village that is good for a day's trip. It's actually a very old village - some of the houses are reputably 800 years old - although there is not that many. The village has the usual trappings - restaurants, teahouses - and it is fronted by a wide river.
About 90km west of Chengdu, Pingle is less busy than many other ancient villages scattered around Chengdu. It has a few blocks of old wooden houses, although its main allure is the bamboo forest - it is actually possible to stay in guest rooms within the forest, making this a great getaway for a night or two.
Renowned for its Ming and Qing architectural legacies, Xilai boasts ancient wooden houses and, most famously, the Wenfen Pagoda with its exaggeratedly curved, tiled roofs. The village remains relatively sleepy, its inhabitants laidback and friendly, despite the proximity to Chengdu - it's within two-hours' drive. Although it may not be outstanding enough to merit overnight stays, it makes for a good day's outing.
This Hakka village has almost been fully rebuilt as a tourist attraction, but it does offer an educational tour of the Hakka outposts in the Chengdu plain. In fact its greatest attractions are the guildhalls, which were constructed after the Hakka migration into Sichuan about 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty era. This village is less than an hour's drive east of Chengdu, and it gets busy with tourists: the touristy, kitschy offerings, and a variety of street artists (fortune tellers, erhu players, and so on) are part of the village's distractions. The restaurants are another distraction, offering a great variety of dishes competently prepared and cooked.
Excerpted from HELLO Chengdu June Issue in 2017