Lush mountains enveloped in cloud, a riverside location and numerous locals that have never seen a Western face. This is the small town of Xialiang (下两镇), a relatively sleepy place clutching to the banks of a river – the Nanjiang (or Bahe) – which cuts a swathe through the north-eastern corner of China’s Sichuan Province.
As an outsider, there’d be little reason to come to this corner of China. A destination or place of interest it is not. If you were an intrepid traveller traversing this remote region of Sichuan, you’d speed through it without a second thought of staying in Xialiang. Not much to see and not much to do. I’ve even been told that I’m the third known Westerner to travel through here.
So, why did I come here?
My travel buddy and good friend Xian so happens to have been born in Xialiang, so we hung about and stayed in the house he grew up in, built by his late dad in 1990.
With a perched view over the town and surrounding hills, the earth wall house is surrounded by a huge variety of seasonal crops tended by Xian’s 70-year-old mum and local helpers.
Rows of corn, leek, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, beans and an arbour of grapes grow with walnut trees, chestnuts, loquat and pepper. Whenever the word pepper is used it only refers to one type – Sichuan pepper – and this was the first time I saw it growing on trees.
The surprisingly-large house is as rustic as they come. Concrete and compacted clay floors, aged wooden rafters, beautifully-textured earth walls and very few windows. There’s a chicken coop at the back, a “wet area” off the large kitchen and even two bathrooms.
Due to the town’s lack of restaurants and places to grab a bite in the evenings (there’s literally nothing open at night), dinners were cooked at home. Fresh pork from the market was transformed into a delicious stir-fry, home-smoked meat and sausages cooked up with bitter melon, and strips of pork lightly battered and deep-fried. True Sichuan home cooking.
It had to be served up with some home-grown and pickled garlic and beans – a condiment served in virtually all eateries throughout the region. Let’s not forget the rice wine, either.
And dessert – some semi-defrosted loquats saved from the last season. Perfect on a steamy summer night.
With the abundance of crops Xian’s mum produces year-round, much of it is sold, traded and some given away. One morning we loaded up a shoulder basket with fresh beans and rice and delivered it to Auntie #3 on the other side of town.
She happens to live in the “ancient” part of Xialiang; which is all that’s left of the original town. Modern Xialiang is an unplanned jumble of drab concrete buildings, whereas if you wander the single pedestrian street of the ancient precinct on its northwest riverbank, you’re met with a very different world.
Its pedestrian street is a far cry from the main road that cuts through Xialiang, which is riddled with psychotic truck drivers tooting horns as they scream through town avoiding the tolls on the adjacent motorway.
Old Xialiang is fascinating and beautiful, yet at the same time, it’s sad and dilapidated. This is an ancient town that hasn’t caught the attention of government restorative funds, as it’s historic buildings are quite literally crumbling to pieces.
The thriving place it once was has been reduced to a bunch of mainly elderly people living out the rest of their lives. Younger generations have moved on, either elsewhere in Xialiang or in much more prosperous Bazhong just half an hour down the highway.
Auntie #3 will probably see out her days in her house at the north end of the ancient town, a house that looks much like the ones you see here. Gifting her with fresh beans and rice was an honourable exercise and I’m beyond grateful for the experience.
So, what else is there to see in Xialiang?
Well, at the height of summer you can always take a dip in a waterhole. I’m not referring to the river that runs through town, mind you. You don’t want to be getting wet in that. Instead, follow a gravel road beneath the S2 Motorway viaduct and enjoy the serenity of icy water rushing through boulders at the edge of lush forest.
There is a small temple in the forest overlooking the town, but climbing the mountain in thick humidity simply wasn’t an option. I wasn’t coping with that Sichuan heat!
Dinners may have been enjoyed at home or in Bazhong, but breakfast was always had at the best noodle joint in town. Hong Gui Xiaochi heaves with locals fuelling up on stupendous bowls of beef noodles with boiled or fried egg and quite possibly the most divine steamed pork & ginger bao I’ve had the pleasure of shoving into my mouth.
The food is seriously impressive and all the locals couldn’t help but gawk as I – a 6″4 white guy – tucked into his noodles and bao with immense pleasure. They even seemed to approve of my chopstick skills!
There haven’t been many instances in my travels when I’ve been so off the beaten path where merely being seen causes so much intrigue. Somehow China takes the cake and continually did throughout my latest visit, especially here in Xialiang.
Xialiang’s food scene is a little sleepy, to say the least. The culture of hanging out in restaurants simply isn’t “a thing”. Of the few eateries in this small town, it seems you simply take a seat at an eatery, shove food into your mouth and leave. Unless, of course, you stop in at this pavement joint near the bridge and partake in a little spicy hot-pot action.
Or if you’re lucky, grab a few shaobing from the nearby vendor to snack on as you sniff out even more food. There are loads of varieties of this street snack, and the ones I tried in Xialiang are like flat, chewy and hollow bread puffs lined on the inside with dark brown sugar.
And then there’s guokui, a crisp-yet-chewy bread that’s much smaller than its northern cousin from Shaanxi Province.
This guokui stand rolls flat strips of dough and smears them with a toasted sesame paste, followed by a Sichuan pepper and ground pork paste. The strip is then rolled, flattened and baked in a coal oven. It’s akin to Malaysian roti, just packed with more flavour.
What more is there to do in Xialiang?
Well, if you’re there in the summer, join the locals each afternoon and stand on the bridge. Yes, the view is ok, but the attraction here is the cooling breeze that drifts down the river valley. It’s where they catch up on local gossip too, I’m sure.
Xialiang’s biggest attraction would have to be its market, held every three or four days. The whole town gears up for the event and puts on a show that fills sidewalks, alleys, riverfront terrace, stairs and building basements.
The main street has vendors with hot food to eat or take home, the stairs leading off the bridge sell clothing and footwear. Head down to the riverfront terrace and alleyways and you can buy household items like buckets, carry bags, cookware, storage items and clay pots.
Fresh produce can be found below the main street down some stairs, as well as in the basement of a building. Jointed chickens and ducks – or live ones – meat and plenty of offal.
You can grab freshly made dumpling wrappers and noodles, fresh, dried and smoked tofu, fresh and dried spices. It truly is a feast for the senses.
You can’t ignore the sweets, either. Crunchy pastry twists called donuts, or mahua, which are a perfect sweet snack as you explore the market. Or there are donuts that resemble those we’re used to seeing in Western countries, plus sesame balls filled with brown sugar, chewy jellies and sweet bean cakes.
So much to eat!
Xialiang market is held every 3rd, 6th and 9th day of the month, plus every other date that ends with a 3, 6 and 9. The best time to go is mid-morning, as it wraps up pretty quickly after midday.
Heading to Xialiang? Then why not Pin it for later?