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Always wanted to go to Shibanxi but deterred by the ridiculous cost of an escorted group tour and hesitant to go it alone? Here below in plain, simple language is how to do it. Please don't think that just because I have a Chinese wife it's easy for me, remember that I speak no Chinese, I came here independently before I met Yuehong and in fact brought her here for her own first visit in 2004 when it was nothing like as easy as it is now. In any case, she is as much a 'foreigner' in Sichuan as I am - few of the population speak much Mandarin Chinese and like me she frequently has to smile and use body language to communicate. If you need a little encouragement to take the plunge, please feel free to send us an email, despite many rumours to the contrary, I am actually a remarkably friendly sort of guy.
Like the infamous Lonely Planet Guides, we are not paid to make our recommendations, the amount of money involved would be small and much better kept in those businesses who adhere to our standards. Now read on and use this official company map to help you get started:
For your visit, if you can, avoid weekends, extended Chinese and Japanese holidays, not to mention advertised gricing tours.
Assuming an arrival in Chengdu, your first port of call will be the bus station at Shiyang on the southern edge of the city. From here, there are buses to Qianwei every hour or so for CNY 52, the 180km journey takes about 3 hours. Walk back north about 500m from your arrival point to the local bus station where you can board a bus to Shixi (CNY 4 - allegedly every 15 minutes from 07.00) to enter 'old China'..... Alternatively, you can save at least half an hour by taking the regular passenger ferry (CNY 1) some way before Qianwei - the slipway to the vehicle ferry is obvious and the small ferry starts about 50 metres upstream to the right and there are (green) buses from the other side which run every 15 minutes or so.
Now the local expressways are sorted it's a no brainer to take a metered taxi the short distance to Shiyang from the airport. If you are a hair shirt masochist, then one of the better kept secrets at the airport is that there is actually a bus 804 from nearby directly to Shiyang - from the old terminal (500 metres east, turn right leaving the new terminal, and now used for Sichuan internal flights) go straight ahead out of the airport, the bus comes from a side road on the right after about 500 metres. Going in the reverse direction, it's much easier, the bus leaves from the south-east corner of Shiyang bus station - but make sure you don't get on a 804B which follows a slightly different route!
If you are stupid enough to choose to stay in Qianwei, then you will need a very early start which means either missing photographing the first train of the day or a long, long walk to above the reversal at Mifeng from where the loco will be smokebox first. Getting closer to the action you can stay in Yuejin where there is a proper company guest house on the fourth and fifth floor of the orange building near the station (it has a supermarket on the ground floor. We haven't stayed here yet, but we did pop in to look at it and were a bit disappointed. Even though it is just 2 years old it looks 10, no doubt it would do the business but the ambience is zero. The walk in rate is CNY 100, but they quickly offered to discount this to CNY 80. There are plenty of cheap restaurants here, but their quality is variable, also an internet cafe.
Staying in Bagou is definitely the best option and there are several guest houses here. For us the 'Tian Ya Lu Guan' continues to be our 'best buy', it's just south of the main square behind the community room (C on the map). The rooms are clean, the prices are very sensible/competitive and it has Asian toilets, warm shower and a free washing machine. By 2009, three of the rooms had been modernised to include 'en suite facilities' these even have free internet access - you'll need a laptop with an ethernet card of course. I know several readers of this website have also stayed here and their presence has made this very popular with local tourists without any sign of it becoming spoiled.
If you don't have your own laptop then you'll have to ask politely to use their own computer to access the internet.
Definitely not recommended is the 'Family Guest House' just below the station even though I have used it in the past; 'Granny' here is one of the most obnoxious Chinese individuals I have had the misfortune to meet, an opinion widely shared by other visitors and most of the inhabitants of Bagou. I was not surprised to hear it said that one of her sons-in-law is involved with the local Mafia. In comparison, her accommodation is inferior and overpriced and the only warm welcome is for your open wallet.
While there are few eating places which could fairly be described as restaurants, this small place in the opposite corner of the public gardens approaching from the station (D on the map) has consistently served us everything from a simple meal to a banquet at a fair price on all our recent visits. To help future independent travellers to order their meals here we sent the family a set of pictures of some of their specialty dishes. Be brave and take their recommendations on the first night of your stay as they don't carry a large stock of fresh food. Thereafter, order in the morning for your evening meal. We have told them and other establishments mentioned (with a smile) that if we get any reports of overcharging we will remove our recommendation from this site!
Next door to the restaurant, our friends in the Tian Ya run a small stall selling cooked chicken and duck at bargain prices. According to size, expect to pay between CNY 20 and 30 for a whole bird, a delicious lunch when cut up - they will sell you a half if that is too much. There is plenty of fruit according to season and other snacks available in the market nearby and the local shops.
A quiet alternative to staying in Bagou is Mifeng, where the local paramedic/pharmacist Mr. Chen has developed his premises to include an upper floor which serves as a hostel. The rooms are clean and well maintained, there is a warm shower and Asian toilet, for which a suitable 'throne attachment' is available. His wife cooks for visitors and a written English/Chinese menu has been provided by my good friend/guide, Mike Ma. Best of all, despite increasing numbers of visitors the prices remain reasonable (expect to pay about CNY 50 a night per person including dinner and a simple breakfast), we stayed here for several nights in 2007 and are happy to recommend it to other visitors.