by Ernie Di
This year in China, national holidays have been divvied up. A transportation system, once pushed to collapse by hundreds of millions on their week-long odysseys, will now whistle along a mere hundred million or so. Gone are thoughts of a day’s travel. The formula for three-day weekends allows at most an early morning Friday departure and a late Sunday return. More than four hours in transit reduces the all-important chill quotient. The odds of dropping your China cool coefficient skyrocket.
With that calculus in mind, and assuming you inhabit a Chinese megalopolis, your getaway circle has shrunk threefold, if you’re going anywhere “away from it all”. So for those of you in Chengdu, Shanghai or Beijing, China Expat humbly suggests these destinations. Remember, you never have to go too far in this country to crack your urban casing.
From Beijing: Jiu Long Tan
Nine Dragon Springs is the marketing name: when you pull over to the side of the road, you might ask the helpful roadman Xinlongzhen Shuanlingcun?. Hebei, slandered by its workaday rep, holds a fairytale valley of ancient forests, hoary cliffs , and nine springs. The latter are earthly manifestations of a divine dragon’s sons. They protect Longwocun, an authentic village which features their likenesses on every roof or otherwise auspicious spot. Stock up on the famous local chestnuts, mushrooms, and hawthorns, and cross yourself against Monsanto.
Long ago, at the foot of the mountain where the dragons spring, they fought a terrible battle. The tumult threw up great cliffs, and the combatants turned to stone: two lions, the double eagle, a great turtle in the water, everyone but Mr. Tumnus. The springs offer more peace, except for the 9th son, Taijibagua. A nine meter deep Dao mystery, its depth will freeze water in summer, and draw sweat in the winter.
Unless you don’t mind getting dirt all over your Jeep decals, it’s best to take the train to Chengde, and get off at Xinlong Xian train station. That’s when the traditional May holiday games begin. The dazed cabbie or the packed bus?
From Shanghai: Qiandaohu, Thousand Islands Lake
Closer to Hangzhou, but a four-hour bus ride from the long distance terminal next to Shanghai’s south railway station, Qiandao is a man-made monster formed by the creation of Xinanjiang hydroelectric station. Close to six hundred square kilometers of relatively clear water hold 1,078 large islands, and thousands of smaller ones. Do not, repeat do not, get hustled into one of the boat tours. Hire your own craft , and spend at least a day salty dogging it, island hopping to your heart’s content.
More rock formations wait here for those who can’t make it to Jiu Long Tan, a veritable stone forest, the fourth largest in China, as though such rankings matter. Rock hounds can make at least a day of the twenty square kilometers, and it’s good fun for at least an afternoon. The forest is split into three sections: Blue Jade Plateau, West Mountain Plateau, and Hawksbill Hill, each a stretch of the legs and a photo op in its own right.
To one-up everyone at the water cooler next Monday, explore Qiandao’s Lion City, submerged under forty meters of water fifty years ago during the Xinanjiang dam’s construction. Big Blue, a Shanghai-based dive operator, runs weekend excursions to the depths of Lion City. No pieces of eight, but many pieces of soggy masonry.
From Chengdu: Luo Dai
A glance at the map makes Lijiang look comfortably close to Chengdu. But mountains are still a nuisance, and plane tickets still expensive. Besides, there’s an ancient town less than an hour from the heart of Pepper City, Luo Dai. A mere jaunt on the 219 bus or from the Hong’an railway station, this cluster of fifteen quaint villages commands forty three square kilometers and a population of just over thirty thousand. By Chinese standards, we’re talking about a hamlet.
But eight out of ten people in Luo Dai are Hakka, which means not just any other ancient town. No defensive tulou structures here, but plenty of that Dali/Lijiang restored ancient street action. Specialty knick-knack shopping and local Hakka dim sum for the pedestrian, and amazing architecture for nerds with more than snacks and tchochkes on the brain. There are more stylized dragons per block than in a teenage Bruce Lee fan’s bedroom, especially at Golden Dragon Temple. The old guildhalls and folk houses are a treat in themselves. When you start feeling claustrophobic, Golden Dragon Lake Tour area lies hardby.