This is one of 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.
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 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 Nanjing uan. 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 Nanjing uan 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'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.