Luocheng ( the ultimate teahouse town)
Location: Sichuan Province, China, in the vicinity of Leshan (2-3 hours)
The ancient town of Luocheng is a gem for those looking for traditional teahouse culture. Luocheng is renowned for its boat architecture: the two sides of its main street narrow down at both ends and widen gradually towards the middle, thus creating the oval shape of a boat.
Straddling the street and forming, as it were, the prow to complete the boat- like appearance of the town, stands a beautifully restored theatre. It is covered in traditional grey tiles and flamboyantly decorated with historic scenes and smiling Buddhas.
However, the absolute highlight of Luocheng is the swell of teahouses lining the main street, sheltered by the overhanging wooden porticos of the buildings. Overlooking this sea of bamboo tables and chairs, occupied by querulous old men in faded Mao jackets, arguing over heated games of cards or Mah-jong, while smoking small stubby pipes carved out of roots, visitors can truly imagine themselves in a time warp.
Joining the regulars over a cup of tea, you can really get an impression of what village life must have been like in the old days. The whole place still oozes authenticity and atmosphere; two elements that are often lacking in many of China’s more popular historical places. In fact, with the exception of the stray backpacker, you are unlikely to meet many fellow-travellers while exploring the streets of this sleepy town. Luocheng is as yet firmly off the tour group circuit.
How long this tranquillity will last, depends on whether access to the village will be improved. For the moment, it takes over 3 hours to cover the 60 kilometres that separate Luocheng from Leshan; of those, the first twenty seven are on a motorway.
After that, it is a bone shattering up and down bounce, along what must be one of the worst roads in China (it has probably improved by now), through some very pretty rural countryside. Leshan itself, by the way, has a fantastic teahouse in one of the old watchtowers by the river.
On the way back from Luocheng, you can hop off the bus and have a look at the villages around Wu Tong Qiao, or the ‘Five Bridges’, about half way between Leshan and Loucheng. The river scenery is pretty around here and plenty of authentic tea drinking can be done in open-air teahouses, in the shade of gnarled ancient trees.
Luocheng: Bus leave regularly for Luocheng from Leshan’s Lian Xin bus station; to get there, take bus number 1 from the centre or a taxi (10 Yuan). It takes about 3 hours, as the last part of the journey is on a bumpy unpaved road (might have improved). The return bus took a different route on a better road. If you decide to jump off at Wu Tong Qiao and want to return to Leshan, you can flag down any Leshan-bound bus from the junction by the motorway. To get to Leshan from Chengdu, there are regular buses from Chengdu’s Xinnanmen bus station next to the Traffic Hotel, throughout the day.