Paul's Travel Pics

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ancient City of Langzhong - Restaurant Reviews


This is probably the first detailed restaurant guide for Langzhong in English -- I couldn't find any prior to our trip, so I decided to write one upon our return.

Below are 7 recommendations that we took from the locals. One Pork Knuckle specialist. One Rice Noodles specialist. One maker of nothing but Lamb Tripes. One specialist for Deep-Fried Pot-Stickers. Two breakfast joints for Steamed Baozi. And finally, a time-honored institution for formal Sichuanese Cuisine.


Please refer to the above map for the locations of the 7 restaurants reviewed.


1. XIE ZHAJIANG

Ask any Langzhong resident about his favorite dish and he'll likely point you to this little restaurant. The delicacy is called Qixing Zhushou, or Seven Stars Pork Knuckle.


Two Pork Knuckle specialists, Xie Zajiang and Jiang Zajiang, battle head-to-head across from the local high school, each attracting its own legion of faithfuls. Note that the word Zajiang has nothing to do with Pork Knuckles, but refers to a meat sauce in their signature noodles. In any case, we sat down at Xie Zajiang among a shopful of afterschool students.



The signature Zajiang Noodles came with a meat sauce as fiery as one would expect of Northern Sichuan. Good al dente texture; even better sauce as long as you can take the heat!



My wife's order came piping hot in a surprisingly spicy soupstock ... we thought we ordered Noodles in Clear Broth! And then I remembered ... we're in Sichuan.



Our Pork Knuckles arrived. And it was the most tender, most gelatinous Pork Knuckle I've ever had of any nationality. I can only describe it as a mouthful of collagen, gently slow-braised for a day until all its tendons and joints disintegrate into a melt-in-your-mouth texture.



It wasn't until we finished the whole thing that I realized ... these were essentially Pork HOCKS, not Pork KNUCKLES as in German Eisbein or in Czech cuisine. There wasn't much meat in it, but my wife was happy with her dose of collagen, and not just from cosmetics.

- XIE ZHAJIANG
- Open approx 16:00 till midnight
- Take a taxi to the Dongfeng (East Wind) High School just northeast of the Ancient City. This shop is directly across from the school. You can simply follow the trail of students if you get there in the late afternoon like we did.

Bill for Two Persons
Seven Stars Pork Knuckles x 2RMB 24
Zajiang NoodlesRMB 6
Beef Noodles in Clear BrothRMB 6
TOTAL before tipsRMB 36 (CAD$6.3)




2. GONGJI YANGZA

In the midst of Langzhong's historic quarters exists this tiny but highly popular family-run eatery. It's the prototypical Chinese recipe of success -- focus on ONE THING, and do it better than anyone else. In the case of the Gong family, this one thing is an age-old Chinese Muslim recipe for Yangza, or Lamb Tripes. Don't even think about ordering anything else.



If the words "Lamb" and "Tripes" both sound unbearably gamey to you, don't worry. These tripes were the freshest and the lightest in flavor that I've ever tasted, beef or lamb. In fact my tastebuds couldn't even tell what they were ... they almost tasted like simmered Calamari! And coupled with freshly hand-rolled noodles all for RMB 7 (CAD$1.2), it's no wonder that officers from the neighboring police detachment all come here for breakfast.

- GONGJI YANGZA
- Open approx 07:00 till 10:00 or until sold out
- Walk east from the Examination Hall (Gongyuan) museum and turn right at the police station. Gongji is directly across from the police. Get here early as they're only open for breakfast and brunch, and will pack up once all the Lamb Tripes are sold out.

Bill for One Person
Lamb Tripes with NoodlesRMB 7
TOTAL before tipsRMB 7 (CAD$1.2)



3. GONGYUAN FENGUAN

Another informal eatery specializing in yet another Sichuanese favorite, Gongyuan Fenguan is widely recognized by locals for Langzhong's best Mifen, or Rice Noodles. I didn't take a photo of the shop, but all taxi drivers know this place.



Everyone comes here for the same thing -- mouthwatering Rice Noodles in an assortment of flavors and toppings, all cheaply priced at around RMB 7 (CAD$1.2) for a medium bowl. It's easy to understand why it's such a lunch staple of blue collar workers.



My wife ordered the Red Braised Beef (Hongshao Niurou) in non-spicy (never trust the Sichuanese on this) while I ordered the Pork Intestines (Feichang) in mild. The soupstock turned out flavorful and not overly spiced, the toppings were great (the Pork Intestines were well-cleaned and not too fatty) and the Rice Noodle were of the thick and non-soggy type. I don't think we could ask for a better lunch at the rock bottom price of RMB 14 (CAD$2.5) for two.

- GONGYUAN FENGUAN - Open approx 07:00 for breakfast. Closing time is unknown but they served us lunch at 12:30.
- Just show the words 公园粉馆 (GONG YUAN FEN GUAN) to a taxi driver. Alternatively, walk east from the Ancient City and find the street "Gongyuan Lu." The shop is a couple blocks down from the start of the street, on the left hand side. Note that they're only open for breakfast and lunch.

Bill for Two Persons
Rice Noodles with Red Braised Beef (Medium)RMB 7
Rice Noodles with Pork Intestines (Medium)RMB 7
TOTAL before tipsRMB 14 (CAD$2.5)




4. MINGTE CANYIN MINGDIAN

This little shop produces the best Pot-Stickers in town according to a local. His instructions to me were short: go to Beidajie street and look for the words "Guotiejiao" (Pot-Sticker Dumplings). It would have been easier had he simply told me to locate the greasy wok with my nose ...



This mom-and-pop shop chooses to focus on one and only one item -- freshly hand-wrapped Pot-Stickers, slowly and lovingly fried on a shallow wok. When one batch sells out, they deep fry a new batch with the same wok and the clientele just stand on the side and patiently wait.



Look at how the wrapping comes out uniformly golden color all around, crispy to the bite but never overly charred. No wonder the place is a favorite of grandparents dropping off the kids at the kindergarten down the block. Such great local flavors at incredibly cheap prices (10 dumplings for RMB 5) ... I would never have found this place on my own.

- MINGTE CANYIN MINGDIAN
- Open approx 07:00 until Pot-Stickers are sold out.
- I will elaborate on the instructions given to me by the local ... walk south from the Zhongtianlou watchtower for about half a block and locate the pictured shop on the right hand side. Let your nose guide you.

Bill for One Person
Deep-Fried Pot-Stickers (10 pieces)RMB 5
TOTAL before tipsRMB 5 (CAD$0.9)




5. LIUSHI NIUROU BAOZI and 6. SOME NAMELESS BAOZI SHOP

We found two recommendable shops for the ever-present steamed Baozi buns. The first one was recommended by a local, and the second one was evidently extremely popular with afterschool students.



Located at the heart of Langzhong's Muslim Quarter just east of the Ancient City, Liushi Baozi is well-known as the best Baozi shop in Langzhong. You won't find the common Pork Baozi in this Islamic neighborhood -- instead you'll get the Beef or Lamb varieties, for the standard price of RMB 1 (CAD$0.18) each.



The next day I decided to try a different Baozi shop closer to our guesthouse, located directly across from the kindergarten, half a block from the above Pot-Sticker shop. At 16:00 in the afternoon the place was absolutely swarmed with neighborhood moms, each lining up to pick up a couple of buns for afterschool snack for her kid. You won't find a more obvious sign of a cheap and good local bite.



In true Sichuanese fashion the shop spices their Baozi up with a dollop of chili and pickled cabbages in their pork filling. You can't go wrong with the queue of locals, especially when everything on menu is just RMB 1 (CAD$0.18). What else could you buy with RMB 1 these days, besides a sweaty ride on a non-air-conditioned bus?

- LIUSHI NIUROU BAOZI
- Open for breakfast approx 07:00. Closing time unknown.
- Head to the Muslim Quarter and find the covered vegetable market. Liushi Baozi is just next door from the market.
- NAMELESS BAOZI SHOP
- Open for breakfast approx 07:00 until late afternoon.
- This place is conveniently located inside the Ancient City, directly across from the kindergarten on the street just north of the Zhongtianlou watchtower.

Bill for Two Persons
Steamed Baozi (10 pieces from Liushi Baozi)RMB 10
Steamed Baozi (2 pieces from Nameless Shop)RMB 2
TOTAL before tipsRMB 12 (CAD$2.1)



7. DARONGHE (Langzhong Branch)

Daronghe is widely regarded as one of the foremost restaurant chains for Sichuanese Cuisine in Sichuan, serving an upper-middle class clientele with predictably good food at reasonable prices. It's better known in Chengdu's highly competitive dining scene, and this branch in Langzhong was almost brand new when we visited.


Service was impeccable compared to almost anywhere else we've visited in China. Upon arrival we were offered a private room with our own private waitress, completely free of extra charge. Our friendly server, a local mom in her 40's, was tremendously helpful in navigating the menu and finding representative local flavors at a level of non-spiciness that even non-Sichuanese clients like us could enjoy.



We started with an uncomplicated appetizer of Yak Meat, simmered, thinly sliced and unflavored awaiting the our choice of fresh condiments. I enjoyed this tough but flavorful meat with chili powder and garlic while my wife preferred hers clean. The portion was larger than it looked and we never finished all of it.



My wife loves duck dishes whenever we visit China, and here we had the local Sichuanese variant of the Chaxiangya, or Duck Infused with Tea Fragrance. The infusion wasn't quite as fragrant as we hoped for, though the meat was juicy and well-presented and the seaweed on the side was great.



Auntie Chen, as we came to know our server better by this point, recommended this outstanding dish of Deep-Fried Freshwater Shrimps. It was like popping rice crispies but with the subtle sweetness of these tiny crustaceans and fresh chives.



And it got even better after that. Auntie Chen's next recommendation was somewhat of a contemporary fusion, a marriage between the classic Sichuanese fish-fragrant (Yuxiang) flavor and the classic Cantonese dish of Salt-Cured Fish and Diced Chicken, served in a sizzling claypot. This was a truly excellent dish -- the depth of flavors in the salt-cured fish was better than most Cantonese versions I've tasted. Even Auntie Chen was surprised at my high praise for their chef's creation.



The best dish of the night however was the dessert, the Sichuanese peasant favorite of Guokui Bread with Red Sugar. I'm not exaggerating ... these five little buns at RMB 18 (CAD$3.2) were easily one of our favorite memories of Sichuanese cuisine.



Just look at the half-melted red sugar oozing out of the crumbly bread roll ... it was as heavenly as a Sichuanese Guokui could get. After this meal we tried several Guokui in other restaurants in Sichuan, but nothing compared to this pillowy sweetness I remember from Langzhong.

With a couple beers the whole meal cost around RMB 250 (CAD$44), not cheap in local terms but still a bargain relative to comparable restaurants in Shanghai or Beijing. On our way out Auntie Chen even flagged down a taxi for us and instructed the driver exactly where to drop us off at the Ancient City. It was a heart-warming memory to take away on our last night in Langzhong.

- DARONGHE
- Open for lunch approx 11:30 to 14:30 and for dinner approx 17:30 till 21:30.
- Daronghe is located in a new entertainment district known as Binjiang Xintiandi, located on the riverbank to east of the Ancient City. Take a taxi, as it's too far to walk.

Bill for Two Persons
Yak Meat AppetizerRMB 48
Duck Infused with Tea FragranceRMB 48
Deep-Fried Freshwater ShrimpsRMB 68
Salt-Cured Fish, Diced Chicken and Eggplants in ClaypotRMB 48
Guokui Bread with Red SugarRMB 18
Yanjing Draft Beer x 2RMB 20
TOTAL before tipsRMB 250 (CAD$44)

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2 Days in the Ancient City of Langzhong


This is one of China's highly underrated tourist destinations, a 2300-year-old ancient city tucked away in remote northern Sichuan, boasting a stunning medieval townscape and a great number of private scholar's mansions from the Ming Dynasty, now slowly opening up to foreigners as guesthouses.



Qing Dynasty streets worthy of movie sets, sincere and friendly townspeople and great food at prices cheap even for the local Chinese ... it's a dream for independent travelers like us. The Ancient City of Langzhong was one of the definite highlights in our trip to Chengdu.



Many travelers have heard of Pingyao and Lijiang, two of China's best-preserved ancient cities both rightfully crowned as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Pingyao is in fact one my favorite places in China, which was why I had been looking forward to yet another of the so-called Four Famous Ancient Cities, this time in the Southwest.



Langzhong is certainly not a household name outside of Sichuan Province. Most Chinese won't know where it is, and during our 2-night stay we saw ZERO foreigners. Somehow the old town has successfully preserved its 400-year-old courtyard mansions and still remains relatively unknown to outsiders, even in the Internet Age.



This anonymity is not surprising -- as of 2014 Langzhong is still not on the national rail network, and few outsiders know about the new G75 expressway which has shortened the trip from Chengdu to 3 hours, close enough for a weekend trip. There's really no excuse not to visit Langzhong anymore, especially for those seeking a Pingyao-like experience around Chengdu.



So one morning we took a highway bus from Chengdu's North Gate Bus station and arrived in Langzhong around noon, in time to check into our Ming Dynasty guesthouse located deep within the historic quarters, surrounded by blocks upon blocks of other Ming and Qing Dynasty residences.



Stepping past the Paifang gate was akin to entering a time machine. We found ourselves walking into the 1800's again, and it felt like a déjà vu from our time in Hongcun or Eastern China's Waterfront Towns a couple years back.



For the next two days we strolled the centuries-old alleys alongside the locals, taking their advices for the best breakfast joints and generally fitting into the local life as much as we possibly could. We had a great time, and here are our notes from the trip.



Sightseeing Notes:

My biggest recommendation on sightseeing is ... forget most of the official sights and museums.

Officially the top 3 sights are supposed to be the Zhangfei Temple, Gongyuan (Examination Hall) and Wenmiao (Confucius Temple). IMHO the Zhangfei Temple isn't worthwhile unless you're a die-hard Romance of the Three Kingdoms fan; the Confucius Temple is a 21st Century reconstruction; and the Examination Hall isn't wildly fascinating unless you have a penchant for the inventive methods of cheating displayed. The Fengshui Museum and other minor museums aren't even worth mentioning.

In my view, the best sight in Langzhong is simply this ...



... the ancient city itself! This is NOT a museum, but a 2300-year-old commune that still wakes up to the smell of fried dumplings in the morning, practices Taichi in the park then sends the grandkids to kindergarten, all within the historic quarters.



It's a glimpse of Old China at its best -- not a gentrified enclosure in the model of Wuzhen West, but a genuine slice of a bygone era in an ancient nation racing towards 21st Century urbanization at breakneck pace. You won't see this in Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu, and that's what makes Langzhong special.



Climbing the two watchtowers is the best way to gain an appreciation for the expanse of the historic quarters. Our favorite was the tower of Huaguanglou at the water's edge, its circular windows looking out towards the hilltop pagodas across the Jialing River.



Our other favorite spot was the top of the South Gate for a panorama of the city's medieval skyline. By the way, the South Gate and its surrounding city walls are open 24 hour a day free of charge, great for romantic strolls after dark above the lit-up roofs.



Just south of Huaguanglou a tiny ferryboat carries local foot passengers across the Jialing River for a cheap RMB 2 (CAD$0.3) and drops off at the so-called Old Town of Nanjinguan. Make no mistake -- it's mostly a 21st Century reconstruction associated with a real estate development. We did check out the prices: RMB 700,000 (CAD$123,000) for a fashionable 3-storey modern-Asian house with a rooftop patio and a small garden.



Hiking up from Nanjinguan we scaled the local foothill of Jinpingshan for panorama views of Langzhong, cradled on three sides by a near-circular loop of the Jialing River. It reminds me somewhat of Cesky Krumlov, but on a much larger scale.



Here is a panorama shot taken by my wife. The ancient city is at the centre, the serpentine river around it.



The hike took us about 2 hours roundtrip before we returned to the ferry pier. That was the only excursion we took in Langzhong's surroundings aside from our failed attempt to visit the historic mosque of Babasi, a quick RMB 10 taxi ride from city centre but was closed on the day of our visit.



Comparison with Pingyao:

I can't help making comparisons between Langzhong and Pingyao, two of the best preserved ancient cities in China. Pingyao is still my favorite among China's historic cities, but Langzhong has its own unique charm as well.



Langzhong won't match Pingyao in terms of completeness as an enclosed ancient city -- only a small section of its medieval city wall remains, and the eastern and northern neighborhoods are immediately bordered by modern concrete blocks. It's never going to match Pingyao in terms of medieval monuments either, but there is one area where Langzhong does better than Pingyao ...



Langzhong is IMHO less commercialized compared with Pingyao, and by most accounts much better than Lijiang in this aspect. Most shops in the historic quarters are local businesses servicing locals, like this clinic specializing in treating hemorrhoids.



Funeral garbs for the dead, acupunctures for indigestions and an afternoon at the Mahjong parlour are among things you could purchase ... it's timeless and authentically Sichuan in its own exotic way.



Not very environmentally friendly I know ... but we couldn't resist the romance of setting fly a Sky Lantern at the birthplace of Sky Lanterns.



The words "Guards of the Ancient City" watches over the local police detachment. Would I recommend Langzhong over Pingyao for independent travelers to China? Not quite. But if you're visiting Sichuan and find Pingyao too distant, Langzhong is probably the 2nd best-preserved ancient city of the Han Chinese people and it's a shame to miss.



Accommodation Notes:

If you've made it this far into remote Southwestern China, you might as well skip those bland westernized hotels and immerse fully by staying at a 400-year-old scholar's mansion. After all you won't find this experience in most cities in China, and certainly not in metropolitan Chengdu.



These were the extravagant manors of prominent government officials or wealthy merchants, constructed during a golden age when Langzhong used to be the major crossroad north of Chengdu and south of Xi'an. Many date from the 17th Century, about the same age as Versailles.



As Langzhong became gradually relegated to the provincial backwaters, the old town largely escaped the appetite of modern real estate developers and happened to be preserved to this date, almost by sheer luck. Chengdu in comparison has basically lost all of its Qing Dynasty neighborhoods.



It's a near miracle that most of these mansions remain privately owned by descendents of the original clans after four centuries, even through Land Reforms of the 1950's and the latter Cultural Revolution, not to mention various warfare over the past 150 years.



Fast forward to the 21st Century and these mansions have all become protected historical monuments, heralded by the local government as a tourism draw. Descendents of the clans suddenly found themselves sitting on top of gold mines ... or at least copper mines. In any case, the owner's family would get a reliable income renting out spare rooms to travelers for about RMB 150 (CAD$27) a night.



It's only recently that foreigners like us could officially stay overnight in these unique residences. Some of these mansions may still haven't officially registered as "Hotels for Foreigners" (Shewai Binguan), though travelers rarely get into trouble in this relatively politically stable region.



The mansions are invariably constructed in the form of traditional Chinese courtyard houses, with all the private rooms facing an open courtyard designed as family space. The owners typically reserve the Upper Room (i.e. room at the end of the courtyard) for private use, and rent out the East and West Rooms.



We rented the West Room at one such medieval mansion, the Pushi Zhaidi, or Mansion of the Pu Clan. Our room was graced with a Qing Dynasty bed chamber as well as antique mahogany chairs and a dresser. The door lock itself was a good old wooden dead-bolt.



Our room did come with the modern amenities of a private bathroom with a western-style toilet and shower, air conditioning and interesting enough, an electric mosquito incense burner. I went to the front desk and asked in Chinese whether we could tap into their "wireless internet connection" ... and the owner quipped "You mean our Wi-Fi?" It's more modernized than meets the eye.



My favorite part of the experience was to lie down in the museum-worthy antique bed chamber, ornately carved with auspicious medieval themes such as processions of high ranking mandarin officials or military generals. It's a scene right out of Chinese cinema, and it's a rare privilege to not only touch but to roll around inside a priceless piece of folk art.



In retrospect we did come across other guesthouses that were probably larger and more exquisitely built, at least on the outside. I'm not sure if that would have translated into a more comfortable hotel room, and we were mainly satisfied with ours aside from the wet bathroom floor ... but that's a common issue with most Chinese guesthouses and even many mid-sized hotel chains. RMB 168 (CAD$30) a night was a steal for staying in a 400-year-old historic monument.



Transportation Notes:

If you're coming from Chengdu, go to the North Gate (Beimen) Bus Station and take a highway bus like we did. The bus trip currently takes 3.5 hours and drops you off at Langzhong's new bus station just south of the city. A taxi ride to the old city cost us RMB 15.

On the way back we made the bad decision of trusting the advice of the locals to try to catch the highspeed train from Nanchong back to Chengdu. The tricky part was that Nanchong was 80 minutes away (not 40 as the locals claimed) from Langzhong, and we crammed ourselves into a shared taxi with the locals for that stretch. We ended up missing the infrequent highspeed train, and had to take a conventional train which gave us no savings in time ... plus much unneeded stress. Take it from our experience -- take the trusty highway bus.

And if you're coming from Chongqing, completion of the Lanzhou-Chongqing highspeed rail in 2016 is supposed to provide a quick and painless connection to Langzhong. But this is China after all, so we shall wait and see.



Food Notes:

We took LOTS of great tips from the locals on where to eat authentically and cheaply. It was great to discover that food in Langzhong isn't just about its famous marinated beef. This will be covered in the next article.