Ringed by mountains that, according to the Tang poet Li Bai, made the journey here “harder than the road to heaven”, Sichuan (四川, sìchuān) and Chongqing (重庆, chóngqìng) stretch for more than 1000km across China’s southwest. Administratively divided in 1997, when Chongqing was carved off the eastern end of Sichuan province, the region has long played the renegade, differing from the rest of China in everything from food to politics and inaccessible enough both to ignore central authority and to provide sanctuary for those fleeing it. Recent divisions aside, Sichuan and Chongqing share a common history, and the area splits more convincingly into very different geographic halves. The more gentle of the two lies east, where peaks surround one of the country’s most densely settled areas, the fertile Red Basin, whose subtropical climate and rich soil conspire to produce endless green fields turning out three harvests a year.
This bounty has created an air of easy affluence in Chengdu, Sichuan’s relaxed capital, and the southern river towns such as Zigong. Elsewhere, visitors have the opportunity to join pilgrims on Emei Shan in a hike up the holy mountain’s forested slopes, or to cruise down the Yangzi from Chongqing, industrial powerhouse and jumping-off point for one of the world’s great river journeys. You’ll also find that the influence of Buddhism has literally become part of the landscape, most notably at Leshan, where a giant Buddha sculpted into riverside cliffs provides one of the most evocative images of China; and farther east at Dazu, whose wooded hillsides conceal a marvellous procession of stone carvings.
In contrast, western Sichuan is dominated by densely buckled ranges overflowing from the heights of Tibet: a wild, thinly populated land of snowcapped peaks, where yaks roam the tree line and roads negotiate hair-raising gradients as they cross ridges or follow deep river valleys. The west’s appeal is its Tibetan heritage – clearly visible in the many important monasteries – and raw, rugged alpine scenery. Travelling north towards Gansu takes you through ethnic Hui and Qiang heartlands past the vivid blue lakes and medieval battlements at Songpan and Jiuzhaigou, with the tranquil village of Langmusi the most remote of targets, right on the provincial border. Due west of Chengdu, the real wilds begin beyond Kangding, with the monastery towns of Dêgê and Litang the pick of destinations – not forgetting an exciting back-road route to Yunnan.
Travelling around Sichuan is fairly straightforward, but those heading westwards need to prepare for unpredictably long and uncomfortable journeys. The most useful rail routes are the high-speed Chengdu–Chongqing link, and the Xi’an–Kunming line, which runs southwest from Chengdu via Emei Shan and Xichang. Expect hot, humid summers and cold winters, with the north and west frequently buried under snow for three months of the year.
In prehistoric times, what is now eastern Sichuan and Chongqing was divided into the eastern Ba and western Shu kingdoms, slave societies with highly developed metalworking skills and bizarre aesthetics. Agricultural innovations at the end of the third century BC opened up eastern Sichuan to intensive farming, and when the Qin armies stormed through, they found an economic base that financed their unification of China in 221 BC – as did Genghis Khan’s forces almost 1500 years later. In between, the area became the Three Kingdoms state of Shu – a name by which Sichuan is still sometimes known – and later twice provided refuge for deposed emperors.
Otherwise too distant to play a central role in China’s history, the region leapt to prominence in 1911, when government interference in local rail industries sparked the nationwide rebellions that toppled the Qing empire. The next four decades saw rival warlords fighting for control, though some stability came when the Nationalist government made Chongqing their capital after the Japanese invaded China in 1937. The province suffered badly during the Cultural Revolution – Jung Chang’s autobiography, Wild Swans, gives a first-hand account of the vicious arbitrariness of the times in Sichuan. Typically, it was the first province to reject Maoist ideals, when the Sichuan governor, Zhao Ziyang, allowed farmers to sell produce on the free market, spearheading the reforms of his fellow native Sichuanese, Deng Xiaoping. So effective were these reforms that by the 1990s Sichuan was competing vigorously with the east-coast economy, a situation for which Chongqing – the already heavily industrialized gateway river port between Sichuan and eastern China – claimed a large part of the credit; Chongqing’s economic weight secured separate administrative status for the city and its surrounds. Meanwhile, development continues across the region, bringing all the problems of runaway growth: appalling industrial pollution, ecological devastation and an unbelievable scale of urban reconstruction.