Article by Malcolm Peak
Our trip to Hancheng began on a warm Friday afternoon in May. Anna had booked 3 tickets on the slow train, leaving from the main Xi’an Railway Station just outside the north of the City Wall. She had invited my wife Millie and me to join her. So onto the train we got and off we went, slowly heading East. Our ultimate destination was Hancheng, a small city about 200km northeast of Xi’an. It is famous in China as the birth place of Si Ma Qian, the first person to write a history of China.
The train was old and a bit rickety, but the trip there was comfortable and picturesque. We saw large fields of wheat being harvested orchards of apricots and other stone fruits, as well as other ground crops, not always readily recognisable. Although the line is straight, the train was quite slow, slowing to a mere crawl in places. Towards the end of the trip, the line meets a small mountain range and there is a long tunnel, as well as various viaducts and shorter tunnels. We gazed down from one viaduct on a large building with a lake beside it and what looked like an Olympic-sized swimming pool. A school, we guessed. We chatted with the person opposite us, a woman named Xiao Yan, who’s originally from Hancheng but now lives and works in Xi’an. She told us of local delicacies and local attractions. She even invited us to join her at her mum’s for lunch the next day (which we had to politely decline). We asked her about the hotel we planned to stay in. She diplomatically said it was ok, but from her reaction we guessed it perhaps wasn’t so good.
On arrival at Hancheng, our host Cathleen greeted us. We were whisked off to the old town, down the hill about a kilometer away. Hancheng’s old town is still being developed but has a network of small cobblestoned streets and ancient architecture, complete with restaurants, shops and other attractions, all tastefully done.
After a quick look around we took refuge at Cathleen’s tea shop where we sat down and enjoyed a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. White tea, with various “steeps”. It’s amazing how the taste changes as the tea leaves get their repeat pourings.
As night fell Cathleen piled us into a taxi. She had changed the plans–we were no longer staying in the hotel we’d originally booked, but a brand new 5-star one out of town. Twenty minutes later we arrived, to find that the hotel was in fact the “school” we’d seen from the viaduct. It is named Sunjoy Hotspring Hotel and you can feel the luxury as soon as you enter the lobby (complete with polished granite floors and impressive artwork). The bedrooms are spacious and well equipped. There are landscaped grounds, a lake and pools outside. No expense spared, it seems, to make the hotel guests feel comfortable and satisfied.
We ate a late dinner at the restaurant and then decided to check out the hot springs. These can be visited separately from the hotel but are free if staying in the hotel. After changing we were given towels and slippers and led to a private outdoor pool, tastefully lit and very well landscaped. We soaked away for an hour or so. The pools are heated from natural thermal water but somehow do not have the characteristic sulphur smell I’m used to from such pools elsewhere. Superb, especially I guess if the weather’s a little cold. After changing from our wet swimwear we retired for the night.
The following morning began with an exploration of the artificial lake and its little island, complete with boardwalks and bridges to get there. Some of the hotel workers asked for photos with us—it appears the hotel is so new and this part of Shaanxi so unknown that waiguoren are rare. After breakfast it was time to head back to town. Another tea tasting followed at Cathleen’s tea shop. This time black tea, or as the Chinese call it “hong cha” which is actually translated “red tea”. This turned out to be my favourite. Then we were off to see the Confucian Temple Museum. This is a complex of old buildings, some over a thousand years old. For many years it was a Confucius School. There’s a pretty bridge that only “scholars” can cross (as we are all teachers, we felt qualified). There are various display buildings, large stone tablets with inscriptions, and finally a library at the end of it. We spent a good hour there (free admission).
The restaurants are mainly congregated down a side road in the middle part of the old town. We took our seats on a balcony seating area and ordered lunch from three different restaurants. This didn’t seem to worry the owners, and soon we were eating delicious noodles, dumplings and kebabs. We admired the local architecture while interacting with some children at the next table.
After lunch we checked out a local boutique hotel with only eight bedrooms. This was complete with fish ponds and modern construction done in ancient Chinese style. It also is brand new and we got the impression that the locals are gearing up for something big, hoping their town will become a famous tourist spot in a short time. Certainly the infrastructure seems to indicate that, as do the locals’ friendliness and eagerness to please.
Lastly, we went back to Cathleen’s tea house for one final tea tasting, this time wulong cha (oolong tea). This one included a complementary dress-up, as we tried on various period costumes for a brief but fun photo session. Despite the fun we were having, the last train back to Xi’an wouldn’t wait for us.
Our “weekend” in Hancheng was a mere 24 hours, really, but highly enjoyable nevertheless. We experienced so much in one day and felt we’d really only scratched the surface of what Hancheng has to offer. It left us thirsting for more, and we look forward to a return trip.