If you're like most China outsiders, before you arrived you had the stereotypical mélange of positive China images stuck in your head—quaint gardens, kung fu masters around every corner, quiet teahouses. This fantasy, is, of course, stamped away the moment you cross the immigration line and the longer you stay on the mainland the harder it is to conjure up those illusive visions again. That is, until you come to places like Shangli, the kind of Chinese old town that brings to life all of those imagined positive stereotypes—the kind of China you always hoped to see—in miniature format. Just like Huanglongxi it serves as a backdrop for domestic movies and TV production, but offers two distinct advantages to the visitor: it's not overrun and it doesn't look fake.
Your journey from Chengdu starts with a bus ride up a tortuous, gorgeous mountainside road from Ya'an alongside rivers and waterfalls. Once you're 1,000 meters up, the minibus spits you out in front of a stone bridge that leads you to an arrangement of traditional wooden houses. Once the pride of the five big family dynasties, who divided all trading and crafting in the town among them, and from which the town's former name, Wujiakou, derived, the houses now serve as snack shops and bars catering to tourists.
A walk around the old town first takes you to a plaza with another bridge that shows wooden Ming and Qing dynasty houses hanging over the river on one side and the Han Court on the other. At the court's main entrance, an old man is waiting to charge you RMB3, but if you have booked a room inside or just move 50 meters to your left and enter the court through another gate you may skip the fee. The court itself is laid out in a north China style. Some old residents still live here, but more and more guesthouses and hotels have taken over the rooms to let them out to travelers. Still it's a fine example of a Chinese Qing dynasty courtyard that reveals amazing still life in every corner.
Once you're done wondering around Han's, you can head over to the riverside restaurants and teahouses, which offer decent Sichuanese food, the kind you rarely find in the city anymore. There are also some more distinct local dishes with wild mushrooms, wild herbs and fish, and drinks like fruit wines and rosewood tea made of the bark of Dalbergia dyeriana, which you'll see laid out to dry all over town like a carpet.
You can follow the river on stone pathways, pass the old station of the Tea Horse Road, which was in ancient times the last stop of the Southern Silk Road route before traders left the Sichuan basin and entered either the Tibetan or Yunnan Plateau. These days, the horses are gone, and instead of stocking up on provisions, you can take photos with huge dogs, peacocks, all kinds of birds, snakes, and other animals. Additional walking takes you up to an old mill, and if you cross one of the many uniquely designed bridges, you will find yourself in the countryside.
Going up the mountains can take to you to heights of 1,700 meters all the way to Mengding Shan, or you could follow the rivers and check out the Red Army's stone carvings from when they passed by in 1935. Within (strenuous) walking or biking distance are also the Tang dynasty Baima Spring and the Bifengxia Panda Reserve.
Shangli is a good enough place to stroll around, especially for those with an appreciation for visual details like the intricate wood and stone carvings that cover the doors, roofs, and walls, and it's equally suited to lazy hours next to the river watching the tea drinkers and mahjong players, the roaming town kids, the silent painters and villagers from the mountains. It's quiet but still lively with a fresh breeze of air from the surrounding evergreen forests.
The old town saw a small tourism boom a decade ago, when it was poised to become a Sichuanese Lijiang, but it lost momentum along the way, and the 2008 Wenchuan and 2013 Lushan quakes impacted visitor numbers. Luckily, the wooden structures resisted the shocks, and the only buildings severely damaged in the shaking were the stone structures. The low tourism numbers in part mean that prices at Shangli have yet to inflate.
Shangli falls just outside the two-hour-bus-trip radar for Chengdu residents and thus is not a usual target for daytrippers, but the extra half-hour on the bus is well worth it—and perhaps you'll be so attached to the rural magic that you'll want to stay overnight in one of the many 60-kuai rooms. Then again, maybe you'll find yourself not wanting to leave at all, but in any case when you do leave, it'll most likely be with a promise to yourself to return.
Transport to Shangli Old Town (上里古镇)
Buses leave from Xinnanmen Bus Station (新南门汽车站) to Ya'an (雅安) regularly, approx. 2 hours, RMB48. Alternatively, buses run from the Shiyangchang Bus Station (石羊场汽车站) in the south of Chengdu, which shortens the trip slightly. From the Ya'an bus station, minibuses depart for Shangli as they fill up, the 30-kilometer trip takes approx. 30 minutes and costs RMB6.5.