Saturday, June 27, 2015
Quaint historic towns are always among our favorite places on our journeys. As we dedicated 18 days to just one Chinese province this time, I made sure to cover Sichuan's ancient towns and villages, from Langzhong to Shangli to Songpan to Danba's Zhonglu and Suopo.
Except this little town wasn't originally on our list.
This was the second half of our day-trip after spending the morning and early afternoon at Mount Qingcheng, the birthplace of Taoism and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. THAT wasn't originally on our itinerary either, but it turned out to be a pleasant half-day hike and we wanted something more. That's where Jiezi came in, almost as an afterthought.
The Old Town of Jiezi wasn't unknown to us -- in fact it's often promoted as one of the Ten Historic Towns (Shida Guzhen) of Sichuan -- there are simply higher priorities on our list. Sichuan is the ancestral homeland to a wide range of indigenous ethnicities and their 2000-year-old settlements, and towns like Jiezi has a lot of competition.
If I were to rank the historic towns of Sichuan, the Ancient City of Langzhong would undoubtedly be on top of my list. Smaller but well-preserved towns such as Shangli and Pingle would form the next tier. Then there is the extensively refurbished type such as Huanglongxi. Jiezi, fortunately or unfortunately, belongs to this third type.
But Jiezi has one unique advantage over its competitors -- its proximity to the internationally famous Mount Qingcheng. Basing ourselves in Dujiangyan it was easy to visit Mount Qingcheng for a half-day then take a 20-minute direct bus ride to Jiezi. And at the end of the day, Bus 102 returned us straight to Dujiangyan. It doesn't get much more convenient than this, especially in suburban Sichuan.
We arrived without even a map due to our spontaneous decision to visit, and as usual taxi drivers circled the bus station like vultures. Trusting neither the taxis nor the golf cart shuttles we started walking without knowing exactly how far and in which direction. Fortunately the way was well-demarcated by a long row of foot massage parlours and noodle houses, and in 10 minutes we reached the town's Paifang gate.
Every noodle stand in town claimed to be the originator of a local variant of noodles known as Dadamian, and each had its own blown-up photo of its founder on the logo. We ordered two small bowls to refuel after our earlier hike, and the noodles were all well-flavored and pleasantly al dente. But which shop had the original original Dadamian? That's China at its most authentic.
Most historic towns in China follow a tourism model in which the town would be enclosed, guarded and charging money for entrance, as typified by the likes of Xitang and Tongli. We half-expected popular Jiezi to follow suit, and were pleasantly surprised by the absence of ticket booths or pesky tour guides hawking for business.
But the Old Town of Jiezi that greeted us was anything but old -- the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 had destroyed most of that. Leading toward the town centre now is a wide promenade of limestone slabs and artificial rivers, flanked by brand new two-storey rowhouses in 18th Century Qing Dynasty style. Everything in camera view was clean and modern as exemplified by these contemporary statues designed as photo-ops for casual tourists.
There's almost an European feel to these airy townsquares and water fountains, except for the red lanterns overhanging the wooden verandas. Fortunately the remodeling was limited to just the main pedestrian zone -- 30 metres off to the side alleys and the real China emerged, with local women selling home-grown vegetables at the back of rundown three-wheeler trucks.
My wife's favorite discovery was an old-fashioned chestnut stand, luring its followers on this cold November day with its familiar crackling sound and hand-warming treats. In my mind few things pronounce Autumn in China better than the charred aroma of roasted chestnuts.
It was only last week when we visited another historic town known as Shangli, but the two couldn't have been more different in terms of refurbishments and tourist volumes. While Shangli still retained its streetfuls of Qing Dynasty houses and medieval bridges, Jiezi had lost much of its old self during the 2008 earthquake and had to reinvent itself into a picture-perfect tourist experience. While there is no doubt about the new Jiezi's commercial success, as a traveler I often wonder if this is the future for many of China's heritage sites.
But Jiezi isn't just a pretty face behind modern cosmetics -- there exists a genuine side in the backstreets where blue-collar laborers work, local grandpas hang out in mahjong parlours and off-school students and their moms zoom by on their electric scooters. Photogenic or not, that's the side that would interest most independent travelers, and it's still observable especially after the busloads of domestic Chinese tourists have departed in the late afternoon.
More importantly the locals seemed perfectly honest and content, as opposed to the entrepreneurism and aggressiveness we experienced in many such towns. Perhaps it's the laid-back lifestyle that Sichuanese people are famous for, something I can easily relate to as a Canadian.
One needs to appreciate the authentic Jiezi for what it is -- a 21st Century blue-collar town with remnants of a Qing Dynasty past -- instead of the 18th Century facade the tourist industry tries too hard to project. While it does sport a perfectly manicured, brand new face for the desires of mass tourism, there also exists an ungentrified side as represented by its working class townspeople. I still wouldn't rank Jiezi among my favorites, but there were aspects of the town that I found enjoyable.
Would I recommend Jiezi to fellow travelers? It's a good side-trip if you're visiting Mount Qingcheng like we were, and photographers would probably appreciate the atmosphere of the historic streets especially at dusk. But if you're a serious traveler and want to experience an authentic Sichuanese ancient town, I would recommend heading to Shangli soon, in case it gets devastated by another earthquake and gets redeveloped beyond recognition.
The trusty Bus 102 would take us directly back to our hotel in Dujiangyan. Two days on flatland was just the perfect cure for our slight altitude sickness at Mount Siguniang, though we had to return to the elevation of 2850m the next morning, at the medieval walled city of Songpan.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
We paid our obligatory visit to Mount Qingcheng on our second day in Dujiangyan.
Granted, this is Dujiangyan's most popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the birthplace of Taoism after all, and I wasn't sure why I didn't come with higher expectations. Perhaps I was still apprehensive about religious enclaves in China after running into fake monks at Wutaishan a few years back.
At one point Mount Qingcheng wasn't even on our 18-Day itinerary of Sichuan despite its international fame -- the unheralded villages of Danba Canyon and the Eastern Tibetan Plateau sounded much more interesting. But our time at Mount Siguniang was cut short due to seasonal unavailability of horses and, now with a spare day in Dujiangyan, a visit to Mount Qingcheng seemed almost predestined.
Still I wasn't convinced that Mount Qingcheng alone would be worthy of a full day, and after quickly consulting the Chinese side of the Internet, we decided to combine our hike with a visit of a nearby historic town known as Jiezi. We would ascend Mount Qingcheng in the morning, hike down in the early afternoon before taking the bus to Jiezi. The last bus from Jiezi back to Dujiangyan was supposed to be 19:00, making possible a long and productive day-trip.
Getting here in off-season wasn't straightforward as Bus 101 no longer served Dujiangyan's long distance bus station. We had to take Bus 102 to Qingchengshan Train Station and wait for a quick shuttle to Mount Qingcheng's front gate. There was also a different bus to the backside of Mount Qingcheng, but we decided to stick with the front side that has made Mount Qingcheng famous for centuries.
Two years ago we hiked a different Taoist mountain at Sanqingshan, also of UNESCO World Heritage fame, and came back with memories of some of the most impressive mountain vistas. But we knew Mount Qingcheng was different with more Taoist shrines, less natural scenery, and five times the tourists thanks to highspeed rail. Whether we would enjoy it just as much, we would have to find out.
At 1260m Mount Qingcheng wasn't exceptionally tall, nor were its hiking trails particularly precipitous as far as Chinese mountains go. According to Chinese hikers the elevation gain should be about 700m in a 2 to 3 hour climb, quite reasonable for a leisurely full day's hike.
Except we didn't have the luxury of a full day. There existed other options, one of which came with the embarassment of being photographed while hoisted up by skinny porters ...
... the other option was a highspeed Austrian cable car that beamed us up three quarters of the way in 5 minutes. It's a small price to pay to save 2 hours of time, especially when the uphill and downhill routes followed mostly the same trail. We would take the cable car up, climb our way to the peak then hike back down to the front gate.
Despite its long and illustrious history as a renowned spiritual mecca, Mount Qingcheng has surprisingly few historical buildings surviving from its Qing Dynasty heydays. As photogenic as the incense-filled shrines may seem to the uninitiated, most of the existing shrines and temples are modern reconstructions from the past 30 years or so.
The Cultural Revolution took a heavy toll on the historic artifacts, as did the menace of devastating earthquakes over the centuries, the latest being the 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake that claimed 70,000 lives. The epicentre was merely 40km to the north, and many shrines were observed sporting dedicatory plaques to donors for their contributions to restoration efforts.
Years had passed and the faithfuls have returned in droves, happily forking out ridiculous money (the cheapest was RMB 100 for a small package of incense and candles!) for all their fate-altering needs. Services ranged from your typical fortune-telling out of a bamboo-shaker to full-blown geomancing consultations. I wondered if these Taoists shrines had their own ATM machines for potentially large cash withdrawals, much like some Buddhist temples we saw at Wutaishan.
After acclimatizing to the Tibetan Plateau over the past week and adopting the habit to hold back our pace when climbing, the stairs at Mount Qingcheng became surprisingly effortless. It was only yesterday morning when we started the day at a town 3200m above sea level, and this towering peak of 1260m was only a foothill in comparison.
The reward of reaching the peak was a sweeping panorama over the flood plains of Dujiangyan and Chengdu. True to Mount Qingcheng's literal translation of Green City Mountain, its subtropical hills remained lush green even in mid November with some brilliant autumn colours showing through.
Only two weeks ago the gingko trees in Chengdu were still green and verdant; here they're carpeting the mountain trails with a lovely sheet of yellow. It's easy to see why metropolitan dwellers of Chengdu have long enjoyed and refered to Mount Qingcheng as their beloved backyard.
The downhill path winded through deep, shaded forests and passed through the courtyards of a multitude of minor shrines. Some sections of the trail were suspended on top of cantilever beams driven horizontally into the bedrock, though not at the enormous scale and precariousness of Huangshan.
Taoists were supposedly masters of living in harmony with nature, and planted along our downhill path were several of these organic-looking pavilions. We returned to the entrance gate shortly before 14:00, taking roughly four hours including stoppages for snacks and photos. While a half day was quite sufficient as expected, it would have taken us the full day had we hiked up instead of taking the cable car.
Our final verdict of Mount Qingcheng? It's probably unfair making comparisons to the magnificent Sanqingshan, a spectacle of nature in itself before it ever became a Taoist retreat. Mount Qingcheng was more of a typical Chinese mountain progressively overtaken by Taoist shrines, and now by busloads of international tourists. It's a pleasant hike, but to be completely blunt our modest expectations didn't change after visiting.
We had to be thankful that there's a second half to this day-trip. A quick 20 minute ride on Bus 102 would take us directly to the historic town of Jiezi, where we would spend the rest of our afternoon on a less strenuous stroll.
Friday, May 29, 2015
The best cure for our mild altitude sickness was two leisurely days of authentic peasant food at Dujiangyan.
Yes, this is Dujiangyan of UNESCO World Heritage fame. Most visitors focus on sights and miss the mouthwatering Sichuanese dishes at this laid-back city, and we almost did the same. We originally planned for just one night to see Mount Qingcheng, and were glad to stay for two and fully appreciate the locals flavors.
After a restless night of rapid heartbeats and shortness of breath at Mount Siguniang, we descended from the Tibetan Plateau's easternmost edge through treacherous mountain passes 4500m in elevation. Road conditions could hardly have been worse, but we did pound through the section of Highway S303 destroyed by the Wenchuan Earthquake years back. For the next two days we would enjoy a break from high altitudes before returning to an elevation of 2850m at the medieval walled city of Songpan.
We were lucky to reserve a room (elong.com to the rescue again) just hours before our arrival. Basing ourselves near the bus station was ideal for traveling to Mount Qingcheng, the Old Town of Jiezi and our next destination of Songpan. Located also in this working-class neighborhood were some of Dujiangyan's best cheap places for authentic Sichuanese eats, from Twice Cooked Pork to Braised Tofu to Catfish in Chili.
With two nights in town we reserved one full day for Mount Qingcheng and Jiezi, and spent our first afternoon visiting Dujiangyan's historic quarter, also known as the Ancient City of Guanxian. While it's remodeled way too much to be ancient in my view, it's still a pleasant place with at least some authentic markets and shops catering to locals rather than tourists.
My favorite sight in Dujiangyan wasn't even Mount Qingcheng or the ancient irrigation channels, but this obscure little shrine known as the Palace of Ten Dragons (Shilongdian). The intricate series of parabolic rooflines makes for a fantastic subject for any photographer or fan of architecture. And best of all, entrance has been made completely FREE since the great Wenchuan Earthquake. The tourism industry probably still hasn't recovered.
Comparatively the price of RMB 90 to see the ancient irrigation system up close seemed almost extortionate. While we're aware that it's considered one of the great achievements in ancient engineering, we weren't convinced that we would enjoy paying RMB 180 (CAD$32) to see the refurbished dyke and levees. Walking the downstream end of the channels was quite enough to appreciate the furious whitewaters -- in fact my wife felt dizzied by just the sights and sounds of the swirling currents.
Mount Qingcheng and Jiezi will be the subject of the next article. For dinner we followed advices from the locals and returned to the bus station area, taking advantage of the concentration of excellent cheap restaurants in the blue collar neighborhood. We're talking three course meals and beer for two people at RMB 75 (CAD$13.4) or less, definitely cheaper than Chengdu and a steal if you're used to prices in Beijing or Shanghai. And the quality of food was very respectable, as reviewed below:
1. ZHANGSANHONG JIACHANG CAIGUAN
This streetside restaurant is a true Dujiangyan institution. If you have one chance to experience authentic Sichuanese food in Dujiangyan, this would be my suggestion.
The Sichuanese have an affable nickname for such hole-in-the-wall places -- Cangying Guanzi, or Eateries of Flies. It doesn't necessarily imply substandard hygiene, but the tables are typically wobbly and the floors may be sticky and strewn with peanut shells. But that hardly matters to the hundreds of faithfuls returning week after week -- it's the flavor that counts.
Strategically simmering at the storefront were various concoctions of spicy slowcooked goodness one could smell from two blocks away. We arrived early at 18:00, having been warned by the locals of how notoriously crowded this place could get and how the favorite dishes could sell out anytime.
Featured prominently in a giant wok was the ingredient for everyone's favorite dish. Every grandmother in Sichuan probably has a different recipe for Braised Tofu, each with a different choice of side ingredients, peppers and bean sauces. But to be famous for a homestyle dish that even grandma would approve of? That's what makes this little shop legendary.
This was Sichuanese cuisine at its core: simple ingredients married to surprisingly deep, complex flavors achieved through time-honored fermentation processes, and designed to be the perfect companion for plain rice. Suicidal levels of spiciness was not mandatory (we asked for mild), just widely appreciated. At this incredibly low price of RMB 15 (CAD$2.7) it's tough to find a more addictive topping for rice.
Even better was the familiar Twice Cooked Pork, arguably the most famous Sichuanese contribution to the culinary world and my own favorite Sichuanese dish. It had everything I could wish for -- crispy caramelized edges, dose of heat from the green chili and marvelous flavors from the spicy Fermented Bean Sauce. Elevating this to another level was the addition of Salted Pickles, deep-fried to a mouthwatering crisp for that extra zest. I don't think I've had better Twice Cooked Pork anywhere.
This refreshing dish of Shredded Pork with Yellow Chives was almost a palate cleanser in comparison to the rich flavors of the Twice Cooked Pork. Every dish turned out first-rate as the locals suggested, but even more enjoyable was the experience of rubbing shoulders with the neighbours while washing down the Twice Cooked Pork with beer ... and paying about CAD$5 per person!
- ZHANGSANHONG JIACHANG CAIGUAN
- Jingzhong Lu 14, Dujiangyan, Chengdu
- Starting from the Long Distance Bus Station, walk north from the Li Bing statues along the main road of Guanjing Lu. Turn right on Jingzhong Lu. Zhangsanhong is about 50m ahead on the right side.
Bill for Two Persons
|Braised Tofu||RMB 15|
|Twice Cooked Pork with Salted Pickles||RMB 20|
|Shredded Pork with Yellow Chives||RMB 15|
|Draft Beer||RMB 15|
|Rice x 2||RMB 2|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 62 (CAD$11.1)|
That was dinner on our first night. For lunch we purposely took a taxi to the pedestrian street of Yangliuhe Jie in search of a tiny eatery recommended by the locals, this time a specialist for Dumplings.
2. XINFAN NIUROU DOUHUA
Despite being located within walking distance from the main tourist attractions, this place was so tiny it took us 10 minutes to find, even with its address on hand.
Like most family-run eateries, Xinfan chose to specialize and excel in a small menu of local favorites. The Niurou Douhua in its name refers to the Sichuanese specialty of Tofu Pudding with Beef, but it's the Dumplings that everyone has come for.
The top seller by far was Shuijiao Dumplings with Black Sesame Sauce, a breakfast portion of paper-thin dumpling skin, pork fillings and a fragrant dollop of ground sesame on top. Spiciness was optional -- my wife ordered non-spicy while I preferred mine in mild. Unless you absolutely can't handle spices, I would recommend mild for that authentic Sichuanese kick.
The other variety of Dumplings on the menu was the Sichuanese favorite known as Chaoshou. Spiciness was NOT optional here -- it came unadulterated in a Spicy Fermented Bean Sauce. These were good, but not as extraordinary as the Chaoshou we had at a tiny hole-in-the-wall stall in Chengdu a couple weeks back.
Out of curiousity we did order the shop's namesake Tofu Pudding with Beef. While the Tofu was smooth and velvety as advertised, we just didn't quite enjoy Tofu Pudding as a savory snack rather than a dessert. It was more of an eye-opener for me.
My wife's favorite was -- no surprise here -- this bowl of Drunken Tofu, flavored with the syrupy sweetness of fermented glutinous rice wine. Everything came in small and manageable portions, but excellent altogether as a light meal.
At the end I couldn't resist ordering one more bowl of Shuijiao Dumplings with that addictive Black Sesame Sauce ... in mild spiciness. Those were some of the best Sichuanese Dumplings I've ever had, and I knew I may not visit Dujiangyan again.
- XINFAN NIUROU DOUHUA
- Yangliuhe Jie 67, Dujiangyan, Chengdu
- Take a taxi to the pedestrian street of Yangliuhe Jie. You may want to make use of the above photo of the store front, as it's not easy to find.
Bill for Two Persons
|Shuijiao Dumplings with Black Sesame||RMB 5|
|Shuijiao Dumplings with Black Sesame||RMB 5|
|Shuijiao Dumplings with Black Sesame||RMB 5|
|Chaoshou Dumplings with Fermented Bean Sauce||RMB 5|
|Tofu Pudding with Beef||RMB 5|
|Drunken Tofu||RMB 5|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 30 (CAD$5.4)|
After a great meal at Zhangsanhong we returned to the same area for dinner on our last night in town. There was another restaurant recommended by the locals just two minutes walk south of Zhangsanhong, not as incredibly cheap but still a good place for authentic Sichuanese dishes at very affordable prices.
3. TUQIAO SHOUZHANGJI
Tuqiao Shouzhangji was another renowned restaurant within walking distance of the Long Distance Bus Station, also specializing in Sichuanese family dishes. The operation was somewhat self-served: you order at the front cashier, wait for your food at the table and return to the cashier to pay at the end. No gimmicks or fancy service, just solid good food.
This was the biggest single dish of our 18-day trip, in terms of sheer mass.
Frankly we expected something half of this size when we paid RMB 40 (CAD$7.1) for our Steamed Catfish in Black Beans and Green Chili, and were pleasurably surprised to see this monster on our table. While it did take a long time, we had no difficulty finishing this expertly steamed fish with appetizing flavors and minimal bones.
We would have ordered the restaurant's namesake Shouzhangji, or Palm-sized Chicken, except we had little room for meat after that massive catfish. More fitting for our stomach room was this little dish of Chinese Yam and Leeks with a delightful soy-based marinade.
On the other hand this Steamed Squash was way too filling after the fish. I'm not sure if we even finished it.
So here's the finished product -- our 50cm long fish with nothing left but backbones and a gasping mouth. On our way out the cashier gave us a RMB 3 discount for not taking a receipt. That, is the authentic China.
- TUQIAO SHOUZHANGJI
- Guanjing Road First Section 50, Dujiangyan, Chengdu
- Starting from the Long Distance Bus Station, walk north from the Li Bing statues along the main road of Guanjing Lu. The restaurant is about 300m ahead on the right side.
Bill for Two Persons
|Steamed Catfish with Green Chili and Black Beans||RMB 40|
|Stir-Fried Chinese Yam with Leeks||RMB 12|
|Steamed Squash||RMB 10|
|Draft Beer||RMB 14|
|Rice x 2||RMB 2|
|Discount for Not Taking Receipt!||RMB -3|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 75 (CAD$13.4)|
Finally we should give props to our comfortable and reasonably priced (less than RMB 200 in late 2014) hotel in Dujiangyan.
An-e Courtyard Hotel seems to be a local chain in Sichuan, and the Dujiangyan branch happened to be located within a 5 minute walk from the Long Distance Bus Station. Staying next to the transportation hub was ideal for catching local buses to Mount Qingcheng or the Old Town of Jiezi, and long distance buses in the direction of Songpan and Jiuzhaigou. Plus, two of the three restaurants reviewed above, all recommended by locals, were in this neighborhood.
But make sure you book your room online (e.g. elong.com or ctrip.com) -- a young Chinese couple walked in and were quoted a price nearly doubling ours.