Daytrip options around Chengdu tend to be slim: temples, mountains, sleeping pandas, reconstructed "ancient" towns. But every now and then we discover something that motivates us to take a bus out to who knows where and schlep around without guarantee we'll find anything before we have to return.
One such place is Anren Town, Dayi County, and its vast grounds collectively known as the Jianchuan Museum Cluster. The "cluster" is comprised of 10 exhibition halls, several outdoor plazas, and a handful of teahouses and souvenir shops. Other than the massive museum grounds—allegedly China's largest—and Anren Old Town, home to Liu's Mansion (刘氏庄园博物馆), the tiny, sleepy town appears to contain a small bus station, one intersection, and a handful of homely restaurants. It's quiet and filled with odors.
Because the cluster is the town's main attraction, banners are hung every few meters to remind you of its existence, and since there are not many other reasons an outsider would be hanging out in Anren, theoretically, you should have no problem finding your target destination. But things don't always work out like you think they might, and if you miss the massive billboard marked with an arrow, follow the bus route from the Anren Middle School for one stop.
Before you even hit the entrance, however, you'll have to start making decisions, which can take a while, especially if you're in a group. Here's a rundown, so you can discuss during the bus ride:
+Pay RMB5 per passenger to take the tram the 100 or so meters from the street to the real entrance of the grounds or walk it?
+Visit only one or a couple of the halls and pay RMB20 apiece—and which ones do you visit?—or get a pass for the whole shebang for RMB100? There are helpful interactive displays and videos and a less helpful brochure in the ticketing office, which is more like an auditorium, to aid you in your choice. The halls are grouped into series according to theme—Age of Red, War of Resistance, and Folk Customs.
+Pay for an audio tour or a live tour guide or wing it on your own? With few exceptions we're fans of the latter, and besides, nobody really offered us any of the former, but other people were being herded around by megaphone-wielding guides, so they must exist.
+Particularly if you're short on time, but even if you're not and you're looking for a good time, we recommend that you rent transportation. But you'll have to decide between a horse or a bicycle—of which there are further, sub-choices: single bike, traditional or bench tandem bike (described in the brochure as "lovers' peripatetic cart"), or, if you're in a larger group and in luck (it was broken the day we went), the prize Flintstones-style four-seater bike.
Once you hop in and are safely beyond the call of the ticketing-room attendants, the temptation of turning donuts and seeing who can leave the worst skid marks will be too much to continue warding off, but when the novelty of that has worn off, you can cruise over to the Chinese Heroes Statues Plaza. Vaguely reminiscent of a modern-day Terra Cotta Warriors layout, but with about 100 life-sized bronzed statues, the plaza lies at the bottom of a short but quite steep ramp, presumably for a spectacular view. For those lacking in patriotic lust and blessed with wheeled transportation, it provides less of a viewing opportunity and more of a loud and clear invitation to roll down the incline at breakneck speed—which will culminate with your running headlong into the statue army.
"Can we wait 'til the end of this song? It's my favorite."
To accompany one of the cluster's themes, propaganda songs play on loudspeakers disguised as rocks hidden in bushes. These tunes will accompany you along your way to the Red Age Living Necessities Hall, a sprawling collection of Cultural Revolution-era artifacts—radios, dishes, a bicycle, a sewing machine, clocks, letters, newspapers, and a spread of many miniature Mao Zedong busts. Most are in glass display cases, but one wing of the hall features rooms set up to show visitors various facets of daily life during the era—a typical living room, a goods shop, a hospital, the room of a privileged family, army barracks (complete with antique cups holding toothbrushes and toothpaste that look suspiciously like they were purchased from the local Huhui Market c. 2007).
The War of Resistance halls feature fairly typical war-museum fare—soldiers' uniforms, artillery, lots of binoculars, handwritten notes, and tons and tons of photographs. This is particularly true in The Hall of the Heroes of the "Flying Tigers," an unapologetic homage to the American soldiers who were based in China during the Second World War. There's also a shoddily built trench that visitors can walk through, but it ends in a wardrobe whose back has been removed, so while you're re-living the experience of Lucy or Edmund from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, try to avoid hitting your head on the low overhang.
To uphold the folk customs part of the exhibitions there is a traditional furniture hall and a "Hall of the Three-inch Golden Lotus," also sometimes translated as "Gallery of Women's Tiny Shoes." Inside are hundreds of, well, tiny shoes used in the days when bound feet were the norm. The floor of the gallery is paved unevenly, we're presuming on purpose, to simulate the experience of walking on bound feet, although we didn't see any sign confirming this. In the center of this hall an "erotic" chair is prominently displayed; according to the sign it was used for copulation—foot binding had strong sexual connotation. The second floor of the hall discusses the end of the foot-binding custom, starting with the wartime need for women in the workforce and ending during the Cultural Revolution, when it was made illegal.
Relative to some of Chengdu's other museums, Jianchuan has quite a bit to offer in terms of artifacts, but its value is more evident in quantity rather than quality. Emphasis seems to be on the expanse of the cluster, the number of halls, and the variety of subjects it showcases; the information it has to offer—in general, but especially in English—is oftentimes lacking. This is particularly noticeable in the halls where many photographs or handwritten notes are on display, and without captions, there are few clues to tell visitors their significance. On the other hand, most of the navigational signage on the external grounds is translated into English as are most of the main signs in the halls, so getting around and seeing the big picture is no problem.
The ticketing-office attendants recommend two-and-a-half to three hours to view all 10 halls. Tickets are RMB20 per hall or RMB100 for all 10; there are also a handful of entrance-free plazas. Attendants punch holes in the RMB100 tickets at the door of each hall you enter; if you do not visit 10 halls in one day you're allowed to come back on another day (within the same year) on the same ticket.
From the Jinsha Station take a coach bus to Dayi County (大邑/RMB16.5/approx. 50 minutes to destination/departs every 40 to 50 minutes with the last bus departing at 6:40 p.m.). In front of the Dayi station, take bus line 11 (RMB2.5) to Anren Town (安仁古镇). Follow the signs to the museum district. You can also take a smaller bus directly from Jinsha to Anren (RMB14), but it runs less frequently and along a slower route, making more stops along the way.
If you miss the bus back to Chengdu, there's always the option of a night's stay at the Jingui Residence Hotel—"the only one three-star hotel in China themed with Chinese Red Age"—down the street.
War of Resistance Series
Chinese Heroes Statues Plaza
"Flying Tigers Heroes" Hall
The Hall of the Sichuan Army in the War of Resistance
The Hall of Unyielding Chinese Prisoners of War
Core of Resistance Hall
China Anti-Japanese Veteran Handprints Plaza
Conventional Battlefront Hall
China Folk Customs Series
Traditional Furniture Hall
Three-inch Golden Lotus Hall
Age of Red Series
New China Porcelain Wares Hall
Age of Red Everyday Items Hall
Age of Red Seals, Clocks and Badges Hall
Most famous resident Zhu Jianqiang, the 'heroic' pig that survived the 2008 earthquake laying 5 weeks under ruins, has found a cozy home in the museum cluster Photo by Qi Hong