Shangli Ancient Village // This is Sichuan, China

Visiting Shangli Ancient Village in Sichuan Province

Shangli has been through a lot, but you wouldn’t know it from the peaceful feeling you get while walking its lanes. It’s one of 10 Chinese ancient villages in Sichuan province, but unlike its counterparts the village has been able to keep its authentic charm.

Shangli Ancient Village - A Special Place in Sichuan

How to get to Shangli Ancient Village

You’ll have to come via Ya’an – a 2 hour bus ride from Chengdu, leaving from Xinnanmen Bus Station fairly frequently, costing about 50RMB, and taking about 2 hours to reach Ya’an. From there, it’s around a 30 minute ride to Shangli. Minibuses stop in front of the Ya’an tourist bus station. When we were there, construction made things a bit maddening. We soon found out that the humongous line-up was to catch a ride to the nearby Bifeng Panda Base. The line-up we wanted was much less intimidating. Look for a small covered hut with a lady at a desk. She’ll point you to where you should be waiting. Just tell her Shangli (shang-lee).

As mini-vans roll up, watch for the symbols 上里. This bird perch and giant-headed man doing the splits means Shangli. While we waited, we noticed that organization seemed to be on maternity leave or something. When a van finally arrived, there was a mad rush to get in and we quickly realized taking a mini-bus to Shangli was a sport. Some tips from me: barrel your way in, don’t feel bad about it, don’t let yourself get frustrated. The minibuses will be packed full, but you’ll get a seat and it’s not a long trip. The cost was around 6 RMB – to be paid to the driver when everyone else starts handing money towards the front. You’ll be dropped off on the main road. Across the street and across a bridge, is the ancient town.

There are also some private vehicles that will take you there from the same bus station, but they will ask for more money (around $5 a head), and they don’t seem to be any better, other than the fact that you don’t have to wait in line (if there is one).

Shangli Ancient Village Sichuan, China
Shangli looking all fairytale-like.

If you could have visited the village just 4 years ago, you would have found a much different place. It was still considered an ancient village, but the markings of time were more obvious. It wasn’t until April 2013, when a nearby earthquake shook the shit out of Shangli, that the town started getting the makeover treatment. The end result was a newer look, but not necessarily a faux one.

There’s a strange balance between ancient and fake-cient. You want to feel like you’ve traveled back in time, but it needs to have a certain wear-down. If it’s too new, it feels fake. Second-hand-shopping hipsters know what I’m talking about.

You also don’t want it to feel hokey, like one of those Old West villages where everyone dresses up in stupid hats and pretends not to know what HBO’s Deadwood is.

Personally, I think Shangli pulls this off rather well. We actually went during a Chinese holiday and even then we didn’t find it too crowded. It’s a beautiful place to relax, but you’ll enjoy it even more if you know some of its history.

Some Shangli History

You’re probably aware of the Tea-Horse Road – the network of paths that were used to trade tea for horses back in the early 1900s. The trails started in Yunnan province, where tea was first grown, and went all the way to Tibet, then down to Bengal (Bangladesh/India). Shangli was one of the last stops before entering into the mostly wild terrain. It was a starting point for a lot of porters that carried 60-90 kilograms of tea on their backs. From there, they walked all the way to Kangding before they could stop for supplies.

In 1935, Shangli suddenly found itself bustling with Red Army soldiers, who literally left their mark on the village. Along Shangli’s river, there are multiple stone tablets that have Chinese characters engraved on them. They read things like: Save Yourself, Save the Country. This is graffiti that was left behind by the Red Army. At that time, the Communist Party had been forced to retreat from the Kuomintang army. The evasion lasted two years and involved several literal twists and turns. In the end, the army had marched 12,500 kilometers (according to Mao Zedong). It was an amazing feat, dubbed the Long March, and it’s still used as a reminder to China’s citizens that anything can be accomplished.

Shangli ancient village red army carvings
The Red Army’s carvings. “Save Yourself”

There are other attractions in the village: a bamboo water mill, a pagoda, 8 stone bridges (including the high-arching erxian bridge), a traditional Han courtyard, and a short hike that take you around a small lake. The area is so small, about a half a kilometer, that you’ll likely come across the attractions as you wander around.

Food in Shangli Ancient Village

You’ll also wander past a few restaurants frying up hunks of pork belly. This is for a local specialty called dà ròu miàn or big pork noodle. It’s pretty much a normal pork noodle soup with one exception. The noodles are wide, fat, and made fresh on site. If you don’t like fatty pork (Sara and I seem to be the only westerners that do), you can get it with beef. We tried both… fatty pork FTW!

Coffee is always difficult to find in China, but there is a cafe in Shangli that looks pretty nice from outside the locked doors. It was closed when we were there, but it did actually look like a great place to hangout. It’s on a corner, down the street that runs into the main square.

Hotels and Guesthouses: Where to stay in Shangli Ancient Village

Of course, the infamous Chinese tourist buses make their way to the historical town, stopping for a couple hours before heading back to Chengdu or Ya’an, but if you stay overnight in one of the many guesthouses, you’ll find that the town quiets down around sunset. It’s easy to find accommodations in Shangli. You’ll likely be approached by someone while you’re walking around. Most guesthouses double as restaurants, tea houses, or shops.

We stayed right across the pedestrian path from the river. Our balcony was small in area but the views it offered were large. It cost us 100 RMB for the night. The room was nothing more than a bed with an on-suite squat toilet bathroom, but it was clean and comfortable. You can see it in the video. There are some hotel-like places as well, but I feel like they lack charm, and some are on the outskirts of the village. At any rate, you can check them out on Ctrips here.

Guesthouses in Shangli Ancient VIllage
Guesthouses along the river.

If you find yourself tired of walking, or if you feel like you’ve seen everything, grab a seat at a tea house. You’ll be served up a cup of herbs and given a large thermos of hot water to top up with. Hours will go by. You’ll start to see China the way you thought it was going to be – the pre-modernization China, the one that you see in movies.

Then, someone will ask to take a selfie with you.

It’s hard to escape modern China, but Shangli Ancient Village gets you pretty close.