The fertile river valleys of northeastern Sichuan wind through awkwardly hilly, heavily farmed countryside, all abruptly terminated around 400km from Chengdu by 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 features in The Three Kingdoms lore; contains the hometowns of Li Bai, one of China’s greatest poets, and the country’s only empress, Wu Zetian; and was the escape route down which the Tang emperor Xuan Zong fled the An Lushan rebellion of 756 AD. A Song-dynasty wooden structure and some death-defying martial monks survive at Doutuan Shan, while Shudao itself breaks out of the region through a sheer cleft in the ranges known as Jianmenguan, the Sword Pass.
The towns of primary interest along Shudao are Jiangyou and Guangyuan, the latter just 60km short of the Shaanxi border. Both are on the Chengdu–Xi’an rail line, and also on a fast expressway – you can get to Guangyuan in around four hours – covered by buses from Chengdu’s Zhaojue Si station. Shudao can also serve as the first stage in a journey to Jiuzhaigou; given the seemingly permanent roadworks underway 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 urban Qing-dynasty architecture – a welcome refuge from the country’s frenzied demolition of its past. Fast buses to Langzhong from Chengdu depart Beimen station, northeast of the centre on the first ring road; you can also get here direct from Chongqing and Guangyuan.