Sometimes the city gets to you and you need an outlet. A place to escape and inhale cleaner air, listen to roosters and remember what it was like when all of China gawked at you.
Every Chinese city has a border that represents the end of city life and the beginning of country living, and it's important to know where that border is, when to cross it and what crossing it entails for you and your peace of mind. For most expats the countryside is the "real China," as in the unchanged landscape of nightsoil, straw hats and livestock that we in the West associated with China for years and years.
It feels good to visit this illusory "real China" after a few months in the fake engines of growth and concrete of Chinese cities. It makes reality seem far away again, and if we are honest with ourselves, then what we take for invigoration of spirit might also carry a bit of ego inflation along with it.
So, with no further pomp and nonsense, I give you Three Saints Village outside of Chengdu, the first of our Country Ho-Down profiles....
Once a village, always a village
San Sheng Xiang (Sān Shèng Xiāng, 三圣乡) was once a quiet tract of loamy soil and bamboo, dotted with small villages of Hakka, Han and halibut. That changed when China's entrepreneurial might was released into the wild by another Hakka, Deng Xiao Ping, the father of modern China. The farmers of San Sheng Xiang figured with all of this new freedom, they might as well look to see what the market actually wanted and then go and grow that.
The market turned out to be quite fickle, but eventually it settled down and decided that, aside from basic food, flowers were probably the best thing to grow. Chinese public spaces fluctuate between downright 4th World hideous to sublimely beautiful. The presence or absence of flowers goes a long way toward determining where along that scale a public space falls. Recently, government offices and private company headquarters have decorated their lawn space with small potted flowers, manicured bushes and, in some cases, large ornamental stones.
The classic Chinese garden is one of this culture's greatest gifts to man, and the garden is coming back with a vengeance as Chinese re-discover their roots.
For San Sheng Xiang, that means big business. The small collection of villages pounced upon this opportunity and began selling flowers to large and small clients alike. Massive operations with thousands and thousands of flowers sprang up with foreign and local investment and alongside these large operations, small flower markets catered to city folk out on the weekend looking for bargains on courtyard potted plants, fragrant blooms and other decorative plant life.
Over time, the flower markets expanded into the tea house and restaurant business, and as that flourished, the whole community began opening mahjong parlors, tea houses and B&Bs—known collectively as nongjiale (nóngjiālè, 农家乐)— to further exploit the new trends.
As soon as the villagers achieved some success, the government stepped in and gobbled it all up by investing time, money and labor into San Sheng Xiang in order to make the whole area... bigger, better, faster, more.
Today, San Sheng Xiang has become one of Chengdu's most popular weekend getaways: Chinese hippies run cafés and tea houses in the deeper regions of the village; local farmers have opened up their homes and kitchens to the city folk in exchange for ca$h money and the government has built up several "artist communities" to try and boost Chengdu's cultural output.
But it's still country as a chicken coop....
What to See
The major sights are the flowers in season. One of my fondest memories of San Sheng Xiang is the spring of 2008 when the pear orchard by my little country compound exploded in angelic white blossoms. Later that year, tiny yellow osmanthus filled the air with sweet freshness. When they fell off a few weeks later, it was just a short wait until the plum blossoms provided the sweet contrast to a landscape of dying lotus, black bare fruit trees and somber grey Sichuan skies....
San Sheng Xiang is divided loosely into three major areas:
Xingfu Meilin (Xìngfú Méilín, 幸福梅林) has the smallest crowds and largest plum blossom tracts. Their B&Bs are opulent and expensive, but worth it. A good place to go when you want to just sit back and have a nice quiet meal.
Hetang Yuese (Hétáng Yuèsè, 荷塘月色) is the most crowded and the most peasant. The huge lotus pond here is the greatest draw; in the summer this pond is one of the most beautiful places in the city. The B&Bs here are cheap and crowded, loud and active. Mahjong goes on all day and the food is straight out of the backyard. It's good stuff. There is also a massive plaza where the kids gather and take rides on electric cars and small ponies.
Hongsha Cun (Hóngshā Cūn, 红沙村) is where the hippies and city folk have set up their super-cool cafés and tea houses—half Sichuan, half Thailand-Europe. There are a lot of great bars here that have live music on the weekends, there are some artist studios, a drum school and several of the little restaurants here are herb friendly. Great place to meet Du veterans.
How to get there
San Sheng Xiang is 35 minutes southeast of the city. It is called Flower Town by some. The easiest way to get there is to learn how to pronounce the place-name and just tell a cabbie. The ride should cost RMB 35-40, depending on your jump-off point.
If you are looking to go to one of the three major sections, again, learning how to say it (or writing it down) and letting a cabbie know is the best way. All Chengdu cabbies know how to get there. Once there, you will probably end up lost in a maze of small streets lined with B&Bs and flower markets. If there is a specific location you are looking for, say the Orange Bar (Júzi, 橘子) in Hong Sha Cun, the Lotus Pond in Hetang Yuese or the major Flower Market (Huā Shìchǎng, 花市场) using the Chinese we have here will help you to ask around. Guards and ladies in orange line the streets all over San Sheng Xiang and they are very helpful.
Bus 56 leaves from the Shangri-la Hotel and stops at Sichuan Normal University and the main gates of all three of San Sheng Xiang's major sections.