CHENGDU is a city that embraces a leisurely pace of life, with plenty of options for escaping the pressures of work.
In addition to its prime sightseeing spots, Chengdu also has a number of nearby ancient towns, each with distinctive features. One of these, Huanglongxi - "yellow dragon stream" in English - offers visitors the winning combination of history, local delicacies, plus a getaway from city stresses.
Situated in Shuangliu County, 40 kilometers from Chengdu city, Huanglongxi boasts natural scenery and more than 1,700 years of history, going back to the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280). While not big, it takes several hours to walk around Huanglongxi's major scenic spots.
Six trees, seven streets
The seven ancient streets dating from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties are preserved well, with stone pavements and houses on stilts epitomizing features of these periods.
Many still house families today, their homes tucked away behind tall wooden gates, while a number have been turned into storefronts.
Although it attracts many visitors, the area is still an interesting and peaceful place to observe the life of locals.
Strolling down the alleys on a sunny day, you can see children playing on the streets and adults doing housework or gather to play cards - a game especially popular in Sichuan.
On the main street, there are three temples built during the later Qing Dynasty: Gulong Temple, Zhenjiang Temple and Chaoyin Temple.
Gulong Temple is the oldest, and where two ancient banyan trees can be found. In Huanglongxi, there are six banyan trees said to be more than 600 years old. One of the pair at Gulong Temple is reputed to date back 900 years. Red strips attached to the huge tree contain wishes put there by the visitors.
When you're tired of walking around and want to see the town from a different perspective, taking a boat and traveling along the river will give you a more comprehensive overview of the rows of stilted houses and the natural landscape. The river banks are also ideal for fishing; often locals come to catch fresh fish for the dinner table.
One particularly charming aspect of travelling in ancient towns is that you discover small treasures along the way.
In Huanglongxi, the busiest section is a main ancient street around a small creek decorated with plants and stones in the middle. On both banks are restaurants and shops selling everything from antiques and folk crafts, through to local snacks, including candies to pickled vegetables.
In food and spice stores and some family-run restaurants, you can find fermented black beans sold in small bags - an important ingredient in Sichuan cuisine that adds extra layers of flavor.
Many stores not only sell local specialties, but also make them on the premises. Among these is dingding taffy, a kind of candy made from malt sugar. The malt sugar is repeatedly folded over using a stick, then cut into small chunks and packaged. It looks like a lot of effort and takes a long time to make a batch.
A must-try local dish is "one noodle" - a bowl containing one extremely long noodle. It can be ordered either hot or cold, and small restaurants only offer this one item on the menu.
When making "one noodle," the chef picks up a portion of prepared dough, and forms the noodle by throwing the dough high in the air, then slamming it onto a steel plate. The resulting super-long noodle is then cooked in boiling water. After adding sauces and toppings, this traditional delicacy is ready.
It is amazing how a single noodle makes a whole dish. It has a very chewy texture and chili lovers can add more hot sauce.
The single noodle offers romantic possibilities too. Couples sometimes try to find both ends of the noodle and start eating from different ends. As they finish eating the noodle, they end up mouth to mouth.
During peak hours and holidays, the queues in front of the shop can be very long as almost every visitor is keen to try the "one noodle."
Another snack dish offered by most family-owned restaurants is fresh bean curd pudding, boiled and served with spicy sauce. Many still use a stone grinder to make fresh bean curd every morning. The texture of the pudding is much softer than tofu, but at the same time still quite solid.
As a typical ancient town with strong local features, many films and TV series and movies have been shot in Huanglongxi, including the 1986 film "Hibiscus Town," directed by Xie Jin and starring Liu Xiaoqing and Jiang Wen.
Whether you enjoy Huanglongxi's natural landscape, local food, ancient architecture or shopping, it makes a great day trip away from the city, offering a quiet and romantic setting.
During the Three Kingdoms period, Huanglongxi was of great military importance in the south of Chengdu, capital of the Shu Kingdom. It is said that the town was heavily guarded by the Prime Minister Zhuge Liang during the southern expedition he led. The loss of the expedition accelerated the collapse of the kingdom.