Americans look at Williamsburg, Va. and Sturbridge, Mass. as “old towns.” Each is a popular tourist attraction and a replica of the way things were in colonial days, about 250 years ago. The Chinese equivalent of these American places date to the Qing Dynasty, 1,700 years ago, which puts an entirely different spin on what old is.
Once the scare of the coronavirus is over — and it will end — for a truly unique experience, head to the Chinese “ancient town” known as Huanglongxi (roughly pronounced “Wong-long-she”), their equivalent to our colonial towns.
In a country where a small city is about 8 million people, Huanglongxi is actually a small town, with a population of only a few thousand. The homes in Huanglongxi look like they are as ancient as the town, but the Chinese government has restored Huanglongxi’s main street in the Qing Dynasty style into a tourist mecca aimed primarily at locals.
Huanglongxi is located one hour from the major city of Chengdu, which is in the dead center of China, about 14 hours away by direct flight from San Francisco or reachable by connections from Beijing and other major Chinese hubs, again when normalcy returns.
The spring weather was glorious on the weekday I visited on a two-hour stopover after visiting the famous panda park in the general vicinity. The panda park and Chengdu’s high-tech industry are the primary reasons people visit this part of China. But Huanglongxi should not be missed if you are anywhere nearby. It would be difficult to get there by public transit, so either a tour bus, taxi, private car or rental is needed.
You enter Huanglongxi by a pedestrian and motorcycle-only feeder road that connects to a main thoroughfare, a narrow, cobblestoned street with branches leading to ancient wooden homes and neighborhoods. In one direction, the road ends at a river with paddle boats beneath a sculptured, arched footbridge.
As you enter the main road, to the right, roasted foods on a stick were for sale. No ordinary menu. The exotic fare included pre-cooked beetles, crickets, roaches, scorpions, caterpillars, octopus and some unidentifiable protein. Yum! Some of my brave traveling companions dared a taste and enjoyed some of the exotic fare. Others not so much. Other exotic foods were sold in bulk by weight. Corn on the cob and similar, more familiar street food was also available.
We had not walked 10 feet down the main street when we were accosted by men and women offering “ear massage” and back massages. For a mere 30 Yuan (each Yuan is about 16 cents), using a strong flashlight and a long stick, the masseuse removed wax from my ear. The process ended when a long tuning fork was touched to the stick, creating a vibration with an annoying low pitch directly in the ear canal, assumedly to remove any remaining earwax. A very brief shoulder and neck massage followed. A little weird, but very exotic. Afterwards, I didn’t feel I could hear any better, but it wasn’t any worse either, thank you.
Strolling the street, we came upon a place that used fish in a tank to massage feet. It cost 10 Yuan. My feet tickled as I removed my shoes and socks and dipped them into the fish tank at the foot of the chair I had selected and the fish nibbled off my callouses. At the end, the proprietor disappeared around a corner into what appeared to be her home behind the shop. She emerged with an inadequate, single sheet of paper towel so I could dry my wet feet.
In Huanglongxi, the Chinese tourists stop you to be in their photos, as they don’t see many Americans here. That is why it’s a great destination to bond with Chinese visitors. Huanglongxi is colorful, picturesque and a fantastic place for “people-watching.”