It’s been a while.
For one of the so-called three furnaces of China, the summer so far in Chongqing has been a non-event. For all the humidity, temperatures have only been touching around thirty degrees, the long awaited scorching sunshine under clear blue skies have been usurped by an unshifting blanket of drab cloud, fog and drizzle, usually typical of the winter.
Fortunately, my schedule cleared over the weekend, and I resolved to take a spin out of the city to explore pastures new. The destination of choice this weekend was the northeatern Sichuanese city of Langzhong, a three hour plus drive to the north of Chongqing, noted for its old town area. The trip also alowed us to placate relatives needing a ride to Hechuan en route.
The weather cooperated magnificently the entire trip, from the moment we left on Saturday morning, until the moment we set foot back home on Sunday afternoon.
Locals normally head for cooler climes over July and August, so our choice of weekend graced us with clear roads for the entire journey, and the atmosphere in Langzhong was perfect, with enough people making for a lively scene, whilst far from being overcrowded.
I’d like to share a small anecdote to my experience of Langzhong.
Back in my university days, I spent a term on ERASMUS, a European student exchange program, that sent me to Besancon in eastern France. While the architecture of Besancon and Langzhong share no resemblance at all, as I laboured up the steps of White Pagoda Hill 白塔山, the view of the Jialing River bending round the peninsula brought back very strong memories of climbing La Citadelle, then taking in the breathtaking scenery of the city, rolling countryside, and the similar way the Doubs River takes its course around the city centre.
The Ancient Town
The traveller should be aware there are many ‘Old towns’ in existence that are really recent developments designed more as tourist traps. My impression was that Langzhong attains a reasonable balance, as there are sites of historical interest and educational value, whilst the long streets that meet at the central crossway, where you can see the Zhongtian Tower中天楼, offer ample opportunity to browse local wares, delicacies and spices. There are plenty of the ubiquitous drinks and snack stalls, but not so many you feel the area is blighted by over-commericialisation, and there you don’t see much in the way of tacky trinkets and chain shops or delicatessens you find at many other old towns.
There are guesthouses within the old town, but we opted for the comfort of the Meihao Lizhi Hotel a few kilometres westward along the river road, and took up their offer of a lift to the West Gate.
Outside, there are lovely views over and along the pristine looking Jialing River, and I was tempted for a while to jump on one the tourist boats moored at the bank and view the surroundings waterside.
Walking through West Gate, we picked up a few gifts from stores along the way, such as attractively designed purses made of donkey hide. After a short walk, we reached the Zhongtian Tower 中天楼, a tall wooden structure that tourists can purchase tickets to climb, and where a huge circular golden lunar calendar is fixed underneath, into which the Chinese year cycles are intricately carved.
Having climbed similar structures in the past, we decided to continue exploring the town rather than going up the tower, but I would still recommend visitors take up the ‘Through ticket’ for around 110 Yuan, which allows you access to all the paid entrance sites.
The most appealing attraction for me was the Chuanbei Daoshu 川北道署, a museum and courtyard that was a government courthouse in feudal China known as a ‘Yamen 衙门.’ Inside, there are great exhibits, including a prison, a beautiful display of court official outfits, living quarters, and informative materials explaining the administrative developments and chronology of feudal China.
The only downside for overseas visitors is a dearth of translations and foreign language guides. My Chinese is quite good nowadays, but the Chinese tour is heavy on ancient terms that even many locals are unfamiliar with.
Once out of the courtyard, we had explored most of what the main drags had to offer, and while there were still many alleyways left over, our sore feet and a desire to escape the searing heat made us resolve to take up a foot massage before heading to the pagoda across the river.
You will find many small spas here that lure you in with 10 Yuan vinegar foot baths, with an option for a rather short and perfuntory massage. It was still very much what the doctor ordered at the time.
White Pagoda Hill Park 白塔山公园
The Uber style Dididache was our choice of transport for the rest of the evening. We took a ride across the bridge, and the driver dropped halfway up at the foot of a long steep line of steps.
My original intention was to stay for the nightview, but seeing there was no obvious lighting, climbing back down at night seemed too treacherous a feat to be worth risking. Nevertheless, we climbed to the top, enjoying lovely views over the river, peninsula and surrounding countryside from platforms along the way, as the same time catching a well earned breather.
At the top, we climbed the pagoda, only to find a small window to peer out of, rather than the expected terrace. Feeling pretty tired by this point, we took a leisurely stroll all the way down the main road, and found another ride back to the hotel.
Langzhong makes for a pleasant weekend trip. It is a fair distance from other major cities, like Chongqing and Chengdu, so staying overnight definitely allows you more time to explore at a leisurely pace, without the journey there taking a toll on your enjoyment.
For the short term visitor to Chongqing, I would say Langzhong is slightly out of range, especially for travellers without private transport. Also, there are old towns in Chongqing, like Ciqikou磁器口 and Hongyadong洪崖洞 that makes the express trip unnecessary.
However, I would recommend a visit to the long term resident, given the right opportunity.