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, chòngqìng) 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: a densely populated eastern plain, and a mountainous west, emphatically remote.
In the east, 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 of Zigong and Yibin. Elsewhere, visitors have the opportunity of joining pilgrims on Emei Shan in a hike up the holy mountain’s forested slopes, or of sailing down the Yangzi from Chongqing, industrial powerhouse and terminus of 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 Dafo, 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; this is a wild, thinly populated land of snowcapped peaks, where yaks roam the treeline and roads negotiate hair-raising gradients as they cross ridges or follow deep river valleys. Occupied but untamed by Han China, the west has its appeal in 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.
Getting around all this is fairly straightforward, though those heading westwards need to prepare for unpredictably long and uncomfortable journeys. Rail lines are restricted by geography and most people use the train only for travel beyond regional borders; the most useful routes are the high-speed Chengdu–Chongqing link, and the Xi’an–Kunming line, which runs southwest from Chengdu via Emei Shan and Xichang. As for the weather, 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, which amalgamated during the Shang era (1600–1100 BC). Numerous sites across the region suggest the Ba-Shu was a slave society 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.Read More
The Sichuanese have a reputation for being particularly garrulous, best experienced at one of the province’s many teahouses. These hold much the same place in Sichuanese life as a local bar or pub does in the West; some are formal establishments with illuminated signs spelling out chadian, chaguan or dachadian (all meaning “teahouse”); others are just a humble spread of bamboo or plastic chairs in the corner of a park, a temple or indeed any available public space. Whatever the establishment, just sit down to have a waiter come over and ask you what sort of tea you’d like – the standard jasmine-scented variety costs around ¥5 a cup, up to ¥40 or more for a really fine brew. Most are served in the three-piece Sichuanese gaiwancha, a squat, handleless cup with lid and saucer. Refills are unlimited – either the waiter will give you a top-up on passing your table, or you’ll be left with a flask of boiling water. In a country where it’s usually difficult to find somewhere to relax in public, teahouses are very welcome: idlers can spend the whole day chatting, playing mahjong, reading or just staring into space, without anyone interrupting – except cruising masseurs and ear-wax removers.
Dominating the southwestern China cooking school, Sichuanese cooking is noted for its heavy use of chilli, which locals explain as a result of climate – according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, chillies dispel “wet” illnesses caused by Sichuan’s seasonally damp or humid weather. You’ll also find that chillies don’t simply blast the taste buds, they stimulate them as well, and flavours here are far more complex than they might appear at the initial, eye-watering, mouthful.
Sichuan cuisine’s defining taste is described as mala – “numb and hot” – created by the potent mix of chillies and huajiao (Sichuan pepper), with its soapy perfume and mouth-tingling afterbuzz. One classic mala dish is mapo doufu, bean curd and minced pork; others include strange-flavoured chicken (dressed with sesame paste, soy sauce, sugar and green onions mixed in with the chillies and huajiao), and the innocently named boiled beef slices, which actually packs more chillies per spoonful than almost any other Sichuanese dish.
A cooking technique unique to Sichuan is dry-frying, which involves deep frying to dehydrate the ingredients, followed by sautéeing in a sweet-salty sauce until the liquid has evaporated. Dry-fried pork shreds, where the slivers of pork end up dark, chewy and aromatic, is a classic example using meat; a vegetarian counterpart is dry-fried green beans, salty and rich with garlic.
Other more general dishes include hot and sour soup, flavoured with pepper and vinegar; double-cooked pork, where a piece of fatty meat is boiled, sliced thinly and then stir-fried with green chillies; fish-flavoured pork (whose “seafood” sauce is made from vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, ginger and sesame oil); gongbao chicken, the local version of stir-fried chicken and peanuts; smoked duck, a chilli-free cold dish, aromatic and juicy; and crackling rice, where a meat soup is poured over a sizzling bed of deep-fried rice crusts. There’s also a great number of Sichuanese snacks – xiaochi – which some restaurants specialize in: green beans with ginger, pork with puréed garlic, cucumber with chilli-oil and sesame seeds, dandan mian (“carry-pole” noodles, named for the way in which street vendors used to carry them around), tiger-skin peppers, scorched then fried with salt and dark vinegar, five-spiced meat steamed in ground rice (served in the bamboo steamer), and a huge variety of sweet and savoury dumplings.
One Chongqing speciality now found all over Sichuan (and China) is huoguo (hotpot), a social dish eaten everywhere from streetside canteens to specialist restaurants. You get plates or skewers of meat, boiled eggs or vegetables, cooked – by you at the table – in a bubbling pot of stock liberally laced with chillies and cardamom pods. You then season the cooked food in oil spiced with MSG, salt and chilli powder. The effect is powerful, and during a cold winter you may well find that hotpots fast become your favourite food.