Luodai (洛带), 45 minutes east of Chengdu, is one of the many "ancient towns" surrounding Chengdu city proper that has been fully rebuilt as a tourist attraction. While it's not particularly a place to acquire a wealth of historical knowledge, it's cute enough to stroll around with your friends or family on a sunny day.
Said to be founded 2,000 years ago, the town has seen several immigration waves of Hakka people throughout the centuries. Starting as early as the 4th century and peaking during the Qing Dynasty 300 years ago, these waves brought Hakkas from various provinces.
Although more than 85 percent of the town's 30,000 locals are Hakka, making Luodai the biggest Hakka "city" in Sichuan, most foreigners won't be able to identify the Hakka-ness of the place, as the people are considered to be ethnically Han, and the dialect (Meixian) is said to most closely resemble Mandarin of all the Guangdong dialects.
As such, the best thing to do in Luodai is stroll among crowds and embrace the town's touristy, kitschy offerings. Spend your money on fortunetellers who measure the length of your finger for 1 kuai and hand you a slip of paper telling you about your personality and glorious future; listen to erhu players on the street; make way for wiry old men pushing handcarts filled with fat kids or the occasional old-fashioned rickshaw carrying a young middle-class couple from the city. If you are lucky, you'll get a glimpse of the one rickshaw in town that has a robot instead of a human pulling it. Children blow soap bubbles all day as you hop from shop to shop avoiding the numerous guys throwing toy slime balls on the ground once a minute to push their only product.
Unless you are a fan of handmade Hakka cigars there isn't anything sold in shops anyone actually needs, might it be Russian military accessory, little fortune turtles on the sidewalk, birds in bamboo cages, kitsch matchboxes with images of models or Bob Marley or washed-out cartoon characters from the '80s printed on their covers, plastic chicken-feet key holders, incense in bags, wooden pipes and toys. But all is cheap, as are the snacks found everywhere: buns and cakes, dried and preserved meats, liang fenr and smelly tofu that overshadows your stay. Some might be tempted by the Jiuzhaigou wild-boar (RMB10 for three sticks) and wild-deer meat, which is a little harder to come by in Chengdu. To complete the fun-fair feeling get a stick of cotton candy, shoot balloons with a rifle, watch kites soaring in the sky, take snapshots of tourists walking around in rented costumes, and force your friends to try the fried larvae and bugs (served, in true Sichuan style, with lajiao) or the wormwood buns that'll make you feel a little dizzy.
If you have more time and energy to kill, walk around the Luodai Park, visit the Randeng Temple and Luodai Museum or get to the Golden Dragon Wall in one of the many vans (around RMB5 per passenger) that wait at Julong Square. After a 15-minute ride, you arrive at a miniature Great Wall that leads you to the Buddhist Golden Dragon Temple. While for some the only reason to climb onto the entrance-free wall is to snap a photo of themselves and then caption it "Here I Am at Badaling," others claim to enjoy the hilly landscape surrounding the nearby river.
Attractions and Relevant Terms in English and Chinese
Luodai 洛带 "Jade Belt"
Well Square 水井广场
Point of entry for most visitors. Legend has it that the emperor of Shu Han dropped his jade belt into the well, hence the town's name.
An ethnic sub-group of Han Chinese, the majority of whom live in Guangdong
Hubei Hunan Guildhall 湖广会馆
The first of four guildhalls you'll pass as you exit Julong Square
Jiangxi Guildhall 江西会馆
Like the others, this guildhall serves as a teahouse and snack shop.
Wannian Platform 万年舞台
The platform is sometimes used for performances.
Guzhen Jie 古镇街
One-kilometer strip connecting the first three guildhalls
Guangdong Guildhall 广东会馆
This guildhall was built in 1747 and is the largest of the four.
North Sichuan Guildhall 四北会馆
Golden Dragon Wall 金龙长城
A scaled-down version of the Great Wall
Julong Square 聚龙广场
Pick-up point for shuttle to the Golden Dragon Wall; visitors can also browse the area's numerous traditional-costumes shops.
If you really want to stay overnight, there are three hotels, each offering rooms for RMB150 per night—Brilliance Garden Hotel, Tianlun International Hotel, and the Chengdu Longfu Hotel.
The best time to visit Luodai is during the Hakka Fire Dragon Festival (Lunar New Year) and Water Dragon Festival (July).
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 11 ("guanxi"). Photos by Sam Stearman, Pat Rioux and Chris.