The fertile valleys of northeastern Sichuan wind through hilly, heavily farmed countryside, terminating around 400km from Chengdu at severe escarpments marking the border with Shaanxi. Originally, the sole way through these ranges was provided by Shudao, the “Road to Sichuan” linking Chengdu with the former imperial capital Xi’an, along which culture and personalities flowed over the centuries. The region contains the hometowns of the great poet Li Bai and the country’s only empress; it was the escape route down which the Tang emperor Xuan Zong fled the An Lushan rebellion of 756 AD; while Shudao itself breaks out of the region through a sheer cleft in the ranges known as Jianmenguan, the Sword Pass. Shudao can also serve as the first stage in a journey to Jiuzhaigou; given the seemingly permanent roadworks under way on the Chengdu–Songpan highway, it’s sometimes the only viable route.
Well east from Shudao, a large grid of old streets at the pleasant riverside town of Langzhong is one of the few places in Sichuan where you can still see substantial areas of archaic architecture – a welcome refuge from the country’s frenzied demolition of its past.