When we travel we try to seek out unique experiences outside the loop of standard tourist itineraries. A tough ask with our limited schedules, but we have been fortunate enough to have managed a few detours to some places less trodden.
On our trip to China, one such detour led us to the Chongqing region with its proximity to spectacular natural world heritage sites, rock carvings and ancient walled towns. Of all the amazing places we explored from here, Laitan, considered one of the 10 most beautiful ancient towns in China, was undoubtedly the highlight of our entire trip.
The walled town of Laitan is 28 kilometers from Hechuan City in Chongqing Municipality. Originally constructed during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD) it was rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Unlike the disneyfied old towns within the larger Chinese cities, this one seemed authentic and quite untouched by the China boom.
Our guide Jimmy timed our visit to coincide with the small Sunday market outside the gates. It had started to drizzle and the ground was slushy but the market was buzzing with activity. The local population – evidently poor – seemed laid back and cheerful and refreshingly different from the urban yuppies we had left behind in Beijing. This was the China we had come to see.
But the old town! I cannot find words to describe the little town. “Gobsmackingly beautiful” was one adjective by a previous visitor whose description inspired us in the first place. It is a hidden treasure not mentioned in most guide books. You walk through the ancient gates – not a tourist in sight – down narrow blue stone covered alleys.
Head down some steps to a temple, taking a moment to catch your breath over stunning vistas of the valley below.
Everything is so verdant with rice fields and orange groves and a sparkling river in the horizon.
Inside the temple is the second largest Buddha in all of China (the one in Leshan is the biggest). It is carved into the Jiu mountain and surrounding it in the lower level are 1670 little Bodhisatvas. It was Diwali back home and we lit incense and felt blessed to be in this beautiful place.
From the base of the statue, you climb a flight of stairs to the upper level to view the Buddha’s head close up. A circular door up here, opens on to a path leading to the well preserved Wenchang Palace.
The Tang dynasty performance theatre in the courtyard of the palace has beautiful wood cut details, partly defaced during the cultural revolution.
Another little hall with a panoramic view of the verdant valley below had Mahjong tables set up. Some chilled beer and spicy nibbles and we could have been in heaven. We agreed with Jimmy that staying overnight might have been a good idea.
The rain had long stopped but the path down to the river was still slushy, so we drove down and Jimmy and our driver led us through another village at the bottom of the hill – presumably meant for lesser mortals – to the river. A farmer and his wife on their boat dished up what was one of the best meals in our three weeks in China.
A simple meal of fish (with garlic, chillies, ginger), vegetables & rice. And for dessert, fresh, sweet tangerines plucked from the trees nearby. There were a few young children frolicking in the water nearby, a woman washing clothes and the four of us. Idyllic!
Not sure how long Laitan will remain out of the coach tour radar, but we were so glad we came here before the inevitable invasion of the 2$ souvenir vendors.
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