Nestled between the cities of Chengdu, Chongqing and Xi’an, the city of Bazhong clutches to the southern foothills of the spectacular Daba Mountains, and at the same time straddles the banks of the Bahe River.
It’s a city of over 3 million, yet it still feels rural. It seems isolated, yet it stands confidently on its own two feet.
This is a city, I’ve discovered, that seldom sees Western visitors.
“You are a rare species”, I was even told.
Enduring blatant and unmannered staring from locals was something I was learning to tolerate, but as we ventured into this Sichuan city, it was becoming even more of a novelty for locals to see someone that appeared different from themselves.
Westerners truly are a rare species in these parts.
The history of Bazhong goes back more than 5000 years, with the Ba people being the original caretakers of this fertile, mountainous land. A fraction closer to the current time – ok, three thousand years ago – the Yellow River civilisation and geographically-secluded Bashu (Chongqing & Sichuan) culture intermingled along the ancient Micang Road through the Daba Mountains.
This was a time when trade caravans traversed the ancient road during the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907), and along with them came travelling monks. Many of these monks set up
One such place can be found in Bazhong on Nankan Mountain, with at least 122 niches cut into a cliff face during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Nankan Grottoes – or Bazhong Grottoes – contain 1800 carved statues of Buddha all along the cliff face; many still retaining their original colourful paintwork.
The cost to enter the South Niche Grotto is ¥40 per person.
Ascend the stairs to the right of the grotto to see the Feixia Pavilion, a relatively new structure that straddles the top of the hill. There are great views over the city from up here, and if you’ve got the time, take a wander around the newly-built Red Army Museum and nearby cemetery.
Downtown Bazhong is a vibrant place, be it night or day. Hundreds of buildings form a backdrop to a nightly light show along the riverbank and in the commercial shopping district.
During the day it’s business as usual, just like any city, with residents buzzing about working, shopping or simply hanging out. The choice of restaurants is immense, and thanks to being in the Sichuan Province, you’re pretty much guaranteed a delicious meal wherever you choose to dine.
My travel buddy Xian invited a couple of his friends, who live in Bazhong, to partake in a feast at Joy Family Local Food Restaurant on pedestrianised Xinshi Street.
Ordering seven dishes was beyond enough, but this is the Chinese way. Steamed pork (35), fried shrimp with dried chilli (68), rooster with baby bamboo, cucumber & chilli, smoked pork with shaved bamboo & sichuan pepper (38), chicken organs with peppers (38), sautéed sweet potato leaves (18) and salty eggplant with dried fish & chilli.
My favourite? That eggplant!
All of that rich food coupled with very hot weather called for a cooling bing fen (
Down the road from the Jiangbei Bus Terminal is a strip of eateries that are frequented by people visiting the Bazhong District People’s Hospital across the road. It’s one of these eateries that we dropped into for a more modest three dishes, including my beloved braised eggplant.
The restaurant itself is nothing to look at, but decor means nothing when the food is exceptional. From the heavenly braised eggplant – which the Sichuan Province excels at – to an incredible twice-cooked pork with potato, peppers, cumin and Sichuan pepper. Even the pork liver & kidney with bamboo, chilli and pickled pepper was delicious if you like that kind of thing.
Three dishes with rice was merely ¥68.
Our final culinary stop in Bazhong was Xiao Niu, or Baby Cow Restaurant. This relative newcomer has built a loyal clientele in no time, and I’ve been told it’s one of the best places in town, if not the province.
The speciality here is the hotpot, and its star ingredients are none other than calf and donkey meat.
Just as we did at Joy Family Local Food Restaurant for lunch, we met up with our eating posse for some boozy hotpot action. Rather than opting for the highly-spiced hotpot, we went with one where we could appreciate every ingredient without the slap of chilli.
A bunch of sides were ordered to accompany the simmering cauldron – strands of spiced tofu, fresh greens and plenty of sliced meats. The stars, however, were the hunks of raw calf and donkey meat you momentarily dunked into the pot until meltingly tender. Simply take the meat from the hotpot, lay it onto your plate, slice it and press it into the spicy seasoning. Divine.
Enyang Ancient Town.
About ten minutes drive from the heart of Bazhong is Enyang Ancient Town, a precinct that simply cannot be missed when visiting the area. Enyang was once the most prosperous town along the ancient Micang Road and is made up 17 old streets and 589 buildings within its 82,220 sqm space.
Construction of the town began during the six-year reign of Emperor Wu of Liang (464–549) of the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period.
Its location on the junction of two rivers made it a prosperous hub for trade, distribution and transport for the mountains and northeastern Sichuan.
During the Ming and Qing Dynasty Enyang thrived with thousands of travelling merchants, 150 small companies, numerous hotels and tea houses, salt merchants and over 100 eateries and roadhouses.
It’s said that thousands of lamps lit up the river, but with so many boats filling its docks, only sails could be seen. This was one happening place.
The modern Enyang of today forges ahead with planned streets and apartment complexes rapidly replacing forest and farmland. The ancient town is engulfed by urban development and commercialism, yet most of it is preserved and very visitor-friendly.
Unlike other more visited ancient towns, Enyang is quiet and desolate. Locals still live and work in the precinct, there are stores, a few eateries and even a hotel.
During the 1930s the Red Army set up pre-command headquarters in the area, and many sites can be found in the ancient town. Detailed plaques mark all of the significant buildings – in Chinese and English – so wandering its flagstone streets is fascinating and educational.
I loved the more human side to the ancient town, with locals sitting about socialising, playing cards, cooking and laying snake beans and sliced oranges in the sun to dry.
Down by the river is a lovely teahouse, which was the perfect spot for us to relax beneath big old banyan trees. The humidity was absolutely killer, but the teahouse operators were onto that. As we slumped in the lounge chairs sipping our honeysuckle tea, nibbling on smoked sunflower seeds, batons of dried tofu and sweet potato cracker, we fanned ourselves with some rather dainty hand-woven grass fans.
Enyang Ancient Town is one place definitely worth spending a couple of hours in.
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