China Deep Dive: Huanglongxi

Community Highlights Asia China Deep Dive: Huanglongxi

One aspect of Chengdu that had surprised me was that it didn’t feel much different from Beijing or any other major Chinese cities we’d visited. We had visited some cool nightlife areas but overall the city felt fairly generic. I thought it might have been because of my narrow Western perspective but Mei Ling agreed that Chengdu was not particularly representative of Sichuanese culture. We decided that for our remaining days in Chengdu we should make an effort to get outside of the city limits.

On Saturday morning Mei Ling used her app to find a taxi large enough to take us to the ancient town of Huanglongxi, notable for its seventeen hundred year history and Qing Dynasty architecture. The main draws of the city are ancient streets paved with stone slabs and distinguished Buddhist temples. The taxi dropped us off in a residential area about a kilometer out of town where there was a small food market. We bought an entire duck but there were no tables and no utensils so we sat on the ground and tore it apart with the flimsy plastic gloves the vendor provided.
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It was a long and boring walk from the market to the gates of the town. As we approached we were rather puzzled by a profusion of stores and street vendors who were specializing in the sale of water guns. These weren’t the little single squeeze pistols but rifles with enormous capacity and range. We were used to seeing incongruous items for tourists in Cihina but the emphasis on this one item was strange. Eventually we reached the main gate of the town where there was a public restroom displaying an impressively witty English double entendre.
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Not long after we got through the gates the mystery of the water guns was solved. There was a circular plaza with stairs leading downward to a central lower level. A huge fountain at the upper level was dumping water into a shallow pool and about a hundred screaming kids were firing water guns at each other with the occasional assistance of adults. As soon as I saw the scene I knew there was no way we could deny the kids the opportunity to participate. I was annoyed at the prospect of buying three super soakers that we were only going to use for an hour and then discard but as usual Mei Ling came to the rescue. She found a vendor to sell her the water guns at half price with the promise she would return them when we were done. The kids immediately plunged into the fray while Mei Ling and I did our best to stay out of range. Of course Cleo quickly overpowered Ian who was soon soaked and quit in frustration. I coached him back in but he quit a few more times until they had finally had enough of the battle after an hour.
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At this point I still had some hope that as we proceeded further into Huanglongxi we would encounter some peaceful and austere ancient streets but nothing could have been further from reality. The entire town seemed to be basically a low cost water park for kids. Across from the fountain there was a short waterfall which led to a canal that extended for blocks, the entire length chock full of screaming kids in underwear or less. The sidewalks were choked with people as well streaming in both directions and bunching up around souvenir stores and refreshment stalls.
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There was a full range of entertainment facilities including some rickety-looking rides that the visitors were shunning, haunted houses, and a variety of other schlock. We bought some flimsy propeller toys for the kids which they quickly lost in the foliage. There were some interesting snacks such as crispy deep-fried crickets which made our visit a little more worthwhile. One vendor was selling the creepiest toy I had ever seen, a motorized bee on wheels that had the ability to tip over and then right itself while emitting a constant saccharine cackle like a demonically possessed toddler.
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By this point we had given up on the whole concept of a historic village and we had shifted gears to the absorption of yet another modern cultural experience. We were starting to wonder if there were any genuine historic sites left anywhere in China, or if they had all been transformed into entertainment zones for the masses. At least here we couldn’t call them the great unwashed as there was no doubt everyone present was being thoroughly drenched. We decided we might as well lean into making Huanglongxi a fun experience for the kids so we let them have a go at the carnival games and the virtual reality rides.
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There were no large taxis available so we had to split into two groups to get back to Chengdu. Mei Ling, Cleo, and Spenser went to visit Lulu while Ian and I decided to go sightseeing on our own. On the way back into Chengdu we had an opportunity to see some of China's innovative modern architecture. I've often wondered how and when East Asia moved ahead of the United States and Europe in creativity and boldness in designing skyscrapers. I think I noticed it for the first time in Bangkok in the early 2000's and since then one of the highlights of any trip to this part of the world has been the amazing variety in shapes and styles of the apartment buildings and office towers.
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I still had a couple of items on my list of Chengdu sights that we hadn't gotten to on the previous day. So far we had mostly spent time in the center and in the northwestern quadrant of the inner circle but this was barely a scratch on the surface of the enormous city.
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Wenshu Monastery is a Qing dynasty Buddhist temple that was built on the site of an earlier Tang dynasty temple that was destroyed by fire. It occupies a large area about two miles north of Tianfu Square. The entrance is on a pedestrian street marked by a large traditional gate. I knew we were arriving around the closing time of the monastery but I thought we would still be allowed inside. After racing around for quite a distance in search of the entry I realized that the entrance doors had already been closed well in advance of the official closing time. All we were able to see were a series of small statues on pedestals in front of the outer wall.
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Fortunately for us the area around the monastery proved to be quite interesting. It consisted of modern residential and commercial buildings that were built in a traditional style, somewhat like Kuanzhai Alley without all the crowds and vendors. We still had to kill some time before meeting up with the rest of our family and we had a pleasant walk through these quiet traditional streets.
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As we began to leave the neighborhood in search of a metro station we heard loud pop music coming from a tent on the sidewalk in front of us. There were speakers and people operating video equipment under the tent and a couple of young people singing and dancing in front. We walked past and turned around from a safe distance to watch as a group of three singers watched themselves performing karaoke on a large screen they were facing. They seemed quite confident and professional so I assume they were filming some kind of a television segment or a commercial. There were a couple of elderly women watching them a few feet away and after some minutes of dancing on their own the female dancer went over and tugged one of the elderly ladies in front of the camera. One of the young men held her hand while she gamely shuffled her feet as the female performer sang. At this point I became quite self-conscious as the only Westerner in the area and started to become paranoid that I might be the next one dragged into the performance. I found a column to hide behind while I made a video and as soon as I had enough footage I quickly grabbed Ian and made an escape.
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At the metro station I had to buy tickets from the machines without Mei Ling's assistance for the first time on this trip. It seemed straightforward but I couldn't get the machine to accept the bills. Someone quickly emerged from the office to help me and fortunately I had Ian to translate. It turned out I was at the machine that only accepted credit cards and I needed to use the next one over. Mei Ling and I had agreed to meet at the station closest to Anshun Bridge, a famous landmark in the southeastern quadrant of the city center. We found each other easily and emerged into a plaza surrounded by skyscrapers. The walk to the river took us through some interesting streets one of which was mostly filled with a modern art installation comprised of photographs and scaffolding.
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The Jin River is formed by the confluence of the Fuhe and the Nanhe in central Chengdu. This was our first time seeing a developed river promenade on this trip to China. There had been plenty of water around in Hong Kong and Xiamen but it was all seaside, and Xi'an had nothing in the center of the city. I feel that bodies of water and the way they are incorporated into the urban landscape are a critical factor in the appeal of an inland city. London, Prague, Beijing, and Osaka are examples of cities that have done this well while Rome and Madrid are the opposite. The area around the Jin was somewhere in the middle. It was quite a pleasant and lively environment on either side of the river but just a little sparse in development, possibly reflecting the distance from tourist areas in the very center of the city.
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The Anshun pedestrian bridge was a very impressive structure that reminded me in some ways of the Galata Bridge we had seen in Istanbul just a few weeks previously. Like many historic structures in China it has been destroyed and reconstructed so many times that it is unclear how old the individual components of the bridge actually are. The most recent reconstruction was in 2003, around the same time as the redevelopment of Jinli Street and Kuanzhai Alley. A lot of money must have been flooding into Chegdu around that time. The stone bridge has a triple arch and is topped by Ming style buildings that house a high end Sichuan restaurant. The stone railings around the pedestrian walkway are decorated with carvings of floral motifs representing traditional Chinese culture.
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From the center of the bridge we could look directly down the Jin from either side. This was the most impressive view of Chengdu that we had had so far. In the background were the typical towering Chinese apartment blocks and office towers while closer to the river the buildings were styled in a more traditional way. Restaurants had arranged clusters of tables romantically alongside the river and pleasure boats drifted lazily under the bridge and continued downstream.
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We hung out around Anshun Bridge for a while hoping to see it in its full majesty once it was illuminated at nightfall. Once the lights did come on it wasn't exactly the brightly glowing display I had seen in pictures but it was still a pleasant sight from the bridge a few hundred meters downstream. To the left of the bridge was an illuminated pagoda that was about seven stories tall and to the right were modern skyscrapers. There was another night market here so we finished our evening with some more Sichuan street food before retiring after yet another hectic day of China travel.
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This featured blog entry was written by zzlangerhans from the blog Fledgling Explorers.
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By zzlangerhans

Posted Mon, Dec 25, 2023 | China | Comments