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.
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.
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. But chillies don’t simply blast the tastebuds, 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.
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; and smoked duck, a chilli-free cold dish, aromatic and juicy. 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, pork 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 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.
Surrounding the fertile confluence of the Yangzi and Min rivers 250km from Chengdu, where Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces meet, southeastern Sichuan has some intriguing attractions. The town of Zigong is a treat, with some well-preserved architecture, dinosaurs and salt mines, especially worth checking out during its Spring Festival lantern displays. Some 80km farther south, Yibin offers access to the aptly named Shunan Bamboo Sea; and, further eastwards towards Chongqing, you shouldn’t miss the carved gallery of comic-book-like Buddhist rock art at Dazu.
About 200km east of Chengdu and 100km west of Chongqing, sleepy Dazu town is the base for viewing some fifty thousand Tang- and Song-dynasty Buddhist cliff sculptures, which are carved into caves and overhangs in the surrounding lush green hills – most notably at Baoding Shan. What makes these carvings so special is not their scale – they cover very small areas compared with better-known sites at Luoyang or Dunhuang – but their quality, state of preservation, and variety of subject and style. Some are small, others huge, many are brightly painted and form comic-strip-like narratives, their characters portraying religious, moral and historical tales. While most are set fairly deeply into rockfaces or are protected by galleries, all can be viewed in natural light, and are connected by walkways and paths.
ZIGONG, a thriving industrial centre, has long been an important source of salt, tapped for thousands of years from artesian basins below the city. In the fourth century, the Sichuanese were sinking 300m-deep boreholes here using bamboo-fibre cables attached to massive stone bits; by the 1600s, bamboo buckets were drawing brine from wells bored almost 1km beneath Zigong, centuries before European technology (which borrowed Chinese techniques) could reach this deep. Natural gas, a by-product of drilling, was used from the second century to boil brine in evaporation tanks, and now also powers Zigong’s buses and taxis.
Southwest of Chengdu, fast-flowing rivers converge at Leshan, where more than a thousand years ago sculptors created a giant Buddha overlooking the waters, one of the world’s most imposing religious monuments. An hour away, Emei Shan rises to more than 3000m, its forested slopes rich in scenery and temples. As Sichuan’s most famous sights, the Buddha and Emei Shan have become tourist black holes thanks to easy access – don’t go near either during holidays, when crowds are so awful that the army is sometimes called in to sort out the chaos – but at other times they are well worth the effort.
If you’re on your way down south to Yunnan, you might also want to break your journey at Xichang, a Yi minority town with a backroad route to Lugu Lake, right on the Yunnanese border. Emei and Dafo are best reached on buses, but it’s easier to get to Xichang via the Chengdu–Emei Shan–Kunming rail line.
Some 160km southwest of Chengdu, Emei Shan’s thickly forested peaks and dozens of temples, all linked by exhausting flights of stone steps, have been pulling in pilgrims (and tourists) ever since the sixth-century visit of Bodhisattva Puxian and his six-tusked elephant, images of whom you’ll see everywhere. Religion aside, the pristine natural environment is a major draw, and changes markedly through the year – lush, green and wet in the summer; brilliant with reds and yellows in autumn; white, clear and very cold in winter.
You can see something of the mountain in a single day, but three would allow you to experience more of the forests, spend a night or two in a temple, and perhaps assault Emei’s sumit. It’s only worth climbing this high if the weather’s good, however: for a richer bag of views, temples, streams and vegetation, you won’t be disappointed with the lower paths.
An ascent of Emei Shan can be tackled via two main routes from Baoguo: the 60km, three-day long route; and the 40km, two-day short route. Most people knock 15km or so off these by catching buses from Baoguo to alternative starting points near Qingyin Ge (Wuxianggang bus stop) or Wannian Temple; leaving early enough, you could make it to the top in one day from either of these via the short route, descending the next day – though your legs will be like jelly afterwards. If you’re really pushed for time, you could get up and down in a single day by catching a minibus between Baoguo Temple and Jieyin Hall (Leidongping bus stop), located a cable-car ride (¥120 return) from the summit, but this way you’ll miss out on what makes Emei Shan such a special place.
Bring a torch in case you unexpectedly find yourself on a path after dark. Footwear needs to have a firm grip; in winter, when stone steps become dangerously icy, straw sandals and even iron cleats (sold for a few yuan and tied onto your soles) are an absolute necessity. Don’t forget warm clothing for the top, which is around 15°C cooler than the plains and so liable to be below freezing between October and April; lower paths are very humid during the summer. You’ll also want some protection against the near certainty of rain. A walking stick is handy for easing the pressure on thigh muscles during descent – a range is sold along the way – or for fending off aggressive monkeys (the macaques here have been known to go for people, particularly when food is present). Store any heavy gear at the bottom of the mountain, or in Chengdu if you’re contemplating a round trip.
If you need a guide, an excellent choice is Patrick Yang (0137 08131210, emeiguides.com), who speaks good English and often takes tour groups up Emei Shan. He also arranges local “culture tours” for about ¥100 per person, touring a kung-fu school, noodle factory and kindergarten, with lunch in a farmer’s house.
Set beside the wide convergence of the Qingyi, Min and Dadu rivers, 180km from Chengdu and 50km from Emei Shan, LESHAN is a dull, spread-out market town with a modern northern fringe and older riverside core, a transit point for visiting the Big Buddha, carved deep into a niche in the facing cliffs.
Impassive and gargantuan, the Big Buddha peers out from under half-lidded eyes, oblivious to the swarms of sightseers trying to photograph his bulk. In 713 AD the monk Haitong came up with the idea of carving the Buddha into the riverside’s red sandstone cliffs, using the rubble produced to fill in dangerous shoals below. The project took ninety years to complete and, once construction started, temples sprang up on the hills above the Buddha. At 71m tall, this is the world’s largest Buddhist sculpture – his ears are 7m long, his eyes 10m wide, and around six people at once can stand on his big toenail – though statistics can’t convey the initial sight of this squat icon, comfortably seated with his hands on his knees, looming over you.
Set on the western side of the Red Basin, CHENGDU is a determinedly modern city, full of construction sites, high-rise department stores and residential blocks. But it’s also a cheerful place: seasonal floral displays and ubiquitous ginkgo trees lend colour to its many excellent parks, and the population is also nicely laidback, enjoying its teahouse culture at every opportunity and unfazed by this being interpreted as laziness by other Chinese.
Chengdu was styled Brocade City in Han times, when the urban elite were buried in elegantly decorated tombs, and its silk travelled west along the caravan routes as far as imperial Rome. A refuge for the eighth-century Tang emperor Xuan Zong after his army mutinied over his infatuation with the beautiful concubine Yang Guifei, the city later became a printing centre, producing the world’s first paper money. Sacked by the Mongols in 1271, Chengdu recovered soon enough to impress Marco Polo with its busy artisans and handsome bridges, since when it has survived similar cycles of war and restoration to become a major industrial, educational and business centre. There are some downsides – the city’s traffic congestion and pollution can be atrocious – but on the whole it’s not hard to spend a couple of days here touring historical monuments, spiking your tastebuds on one of China’s most outstanding cuisines, and getting close-up views of locally bred pandas.
Chengdu’s surrounding attractions all make worthy day-trips from the capital, and most can be used as first stops on longer routes. Just to the northeast, the Sanxingdui Museum is stuffed with prehistoric bronzes, while unpretentious Qing architecture graces the picturesque market town of Huanglongxi southwest of Chengdu. Northwest, Dujiangyan sports a still-functional two-thousand-year-old irrigation scheme surrounded by wooded parkland, and nearby forested Qingcheng Shan is peppered with Taoist shrines.
HUANGLONGXI, 40km south of Chengdu, is a riverside village with a half-dozen Qing-dynasty streets, all narrow, flagstoned and sided in rickety wooden shops. Tourism aside – visitor numbers are frankly overwhelming at weekends or during holidays – it’s a pretty place to wander around for an hour and then have lunch or a cup of tea at one of the many riverside restaurants; it’s also popular with old ladies coming to pray for grandchildren to Guanyin, to whom all the village’s temples are dedicated.
From the old village gate, take the left-hand lane, which is almost narrow enough to touch either side as you walk down the middle. You soon reach the 500m-long main street; turn left for two tiny nunneries (one on the left, the other at the end of the street beside a beribboned banyan tree), both containing brightly painted statues of Guanyin, Puxian and Wenshu. At the opposite end of town, larger Gulong Temple (古龙寺, gŭlóng sì; ¥5) is in a wobbly state of repair: one of the halls features a dog-headed guillotine for executing criminals, while another contains an unusually three-dimensional, fifty-armed Guanyin statue.
Sichuan opera – chuanxi – is a rustic variant on Beijing’s, based on everyday events and local legends. Most pieces are performed in Sichuanese, a rhythmic dialect well suited to theatre, which allows for humour and clever wordplay to shine through. As well as the usual bright costumes, stylized action and glass-cracking vocals, chuanxi has two specialities: fire-breathing and rapid face-changing, where the performers – apparently simply by turning around or waving their arms across their faces – completely change their make-up.
Today, chuanxi has gone into a decline as a form of popular entertainment, though there are several places around town to catch tourist-oriented variety shows featuring short opera scenes, fire-breathing and face-changing, comedy skits, puppetry, shadow-lantern play and storytelling. These are pretty enjoyable and you might even catch occasional full-length operas. Venues include Shufeng Yayun (蜀风雅韵, shŭfēng yăyùn) in the Cultural Park (enter off Qintai Lu); the Ming-style open-air stage at the end of Jin Li, near Wuhou Ci; and the downtown Jinjiang Theatre (锦江川戏馆, jǐnjiāng chuānxìguăn) in a lane north of Shangdong Jie. Seats cost ¥120–220, depending on the venue and row.
Teahouses 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; 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.
Based around a hilly, comma-shaped peninsula at the junction of the Yangzi and Jialing rivers, CHONGQING (重庆, chóngqìng) is southwestern China’s dynamo, its largest city both in scale and population. Formerly part of Sichuan province and now the heavily industrialized core of Chongqing Municipality, which stretches 300km east to the Hubei border, the city is also a busy port, whose location 2400km upstream from Shanghai at the gateway between eastern and southwestern China has given Chongqing an enviable commercial acumen. While it’s not such a bad spot to spend a day or two while arranging Yangzi River cruises, in many other respects the Mountain City (as locals refer to it) has little appeal. Overcrowded and fast-paced, the city is plagued by oppressive pollution, winter fogs and summer humidity. Nor is there much to illustrate Chongqing’s history – as China’s wartime capital, it was heavily bombed by the Japanese – though the nearby village of Ciqi Kou retains a glimmer of Qing times.
Chongqing has a long tradition as a place of defiance against hostile powers, despite being ceded as a nineteenth-century treaty port to Britain and Japan. From 1242, Song forces held Mongol invaders at bay for 36 years at nearby Hechuan, during the longest continuous campaign on Chinese soil, and it was to Chongqing that the Guomindang government withdrew in 1937, having been driven out of Nanjing by the Japanese. The US military also had a toehold here under General Stilwell, who worked alongside the Nationalists until falling out with Chiang Kai-shek in 1944. Though still showing a few wartime scars, since the 1990s Chongqing has boomed; now over two million people rub elbows on the peninsula, with five times that number in the ever-expanding mantle of suburbs and industrial developments spreading away from the river.
Chongqing is the departure point for the two-day cruise downriver through the Three Gorges to Yichang. There are two main cruise options, both of which run year-round: relatively inexpensive public ferries, which stop along the way to pick up passengers; and upmarket cruise ships, which only stop at tour sites. For prices from Chongqing to Yichang, along with practical information on buying both ferry and cruise-ship tickets.
Public ferries are crowded and noisy, with berths starting at first class – a small and functional double cabin with bathroom – and descending in varying permutations through triples and quads with shared toilets, to a bed in sixteen-person cabins. Timing is important: try to avoid leaving Chongqing between 10am and noon, as you’ll hit the first gorge too early and the third too late to see much. Not all ferries pull in at all ports, and schedules can change en route to compensate for delays, so it’s possible that you’ll miss some key sights. At each stop, departure times are announced in Chinese. Meals (buy tickets from the mid-deck office) are cheap, basic and only available for a short time at 7am, 10am and 6pm, though there’s plenty available onshore at stops. Bring snacks and, in winter, warm clothing. Many tourists complain of unhelpful or plain useless tour guides, and of being harassed by ferry staff to buy expensive on-board tickets for observation decks when access is, in fact, free or much cheaper than advertised.
Alternatively, you could travel in style on a cruise ship. These vessels verge on five-star luxury, with comfortable cabins, glassed-in observation decks, games rooms and real restaurants. They’re usually booked out by tour parties during peak season, though at other times you can often wrangle discounts and get a berth at short notice.
Some 8km northeast of central Chengdu, the excellent Giant Panda Breeding Research Base offers close-up views of both giant and arboreal red pandas. Perhaps uniquely for China, this zoo is a genuinely pleasant place to visit, well laid out with a decent amount of information in English, and even spacious enclosures for the animals, who are fed truckloads of fresh bamboo by concerned staff. If you feel flush, several hostels and travel agencies offer the chance to be a “volunteer keeper” for the day (¥700) – basically a worthy-sounding way of paying to hand-feed a few of the inhabitants. Try to get here early, as the pandas slump into a stupor around 10am after munching their way through piles of bamboo.
Two animals share the name panda: the giant panda, black-eyed symbol of endangered species worldwide; and the unrelated, raccoon-like red panda, to which the Nepalese name “panda” was originally applied in the West. The Chinese call the giant panda da xiongmao, meaning “big bear-cat”.
News of giant pandas first reached Europe in the nineteenth century through the French zoologist and traveller Père Armand David, who came across a skin in China in 1869. They are decidedly odd creatures, bearlike, endowed with a carnivore’s teeth and a digestive tract poorly adapted to their largely vegetarian diet. Though once widespread in southwestern China, they’ve probably never been very common, and today their endangered status is a result of human encroachment combined with the vagaries of their preferred food – fountain bamboo – which periodically flowers and dies off over huge areas, leaving the animals to make do with lesser shrubs and carrion, or starve. Half of Sichuan’s panda habitat was lost to logging between 1974 and 1989, which, coupled with the results of a bamboo flowering during the 1980s, reduced the total wild population to just over a thousand animals, scattered through reserves in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou.
Sichuan’s western half, sprawling towards Gansu, Yunnan and Tibet, is in every respect an exciting place to travel. The countryside couldn’t be farther from the Chengdu plains, with the western highlands forming some of China’s most imposing scenery – broad grasslands grazed by yaks and horses, ravens tumbling over snowbound gullies and passes, and unforgettable views of mountain ranges rising up against crisp blue skies.
How you explore western Sichuan will depend on your long-term travel plans. If you’re heading north out of the province to Gansu, you first want to aim for the walled town of Songpan, horse-trekking centre and base for excursions to the nearby scenic reserves of Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou. Beyond Songpan, the road continues north via the monastery town of Langmusi, and so over into Gansu province.
Sichuan’s immense far west is accessed from the administrative capital Kangding – itself worth a stopover for easy access to the nearby scenery, or as a springboard north to pretty Danba. Alternatively, you can either weave northwest to Tibet via the monastery towns of Ganzi and Dêgê, with a faith-inducing mountain pass and Dêgê’s Scripture Printing Hall as the pick of the sights along the way; or head due west to the high-altitude monastic seat of Litang, from where you can continue down into Yunnan.
Though larger towns throughout the west have to a certain extent been settled by Han and Hui (Muslims) – the latter spread between their major populations in adjoining provinces – historically the region was not part of Sichuan at all but was known as Kham, a set of small states which spilled into the fringes of Qinghai and Yunnan. The Tibetans who live here, the Khampas, speak their own dialect, and see themselves as distinct from Tibetans further west – it wasn’t until the seventeenth century, during the aggressive rule of the Fifth Dalai Lama, that monasteries here were forcibly converted to the dominant Gelugpa sect and the people brought under Lhasa’s thumb. The Khampas retain their tough, independent reputation today, and culturally the region remains emphatically Tibetan, containing not only some of the country’s most important lamaseries, but also an overwhelmingly Tibetan population – indeed, statistically a far greater percentage than in Tibet proper. For details on Tibetan food, language and religious thought, see the relevant sections at the start of Chapter 14.
Eight hours from Ganzi via the crossroads town of Manigange (马尼干戈, mănígàngē) and the scary, 5500m-high Chola Shan mountain pass, DÊGÊ initially appears to be no more than a small cluster of ageing concrete buildings squeezed into a narrow gorge. Dêgê was, however, once the most powerful Kham state, and the only one to resist the seventeenth-century Mongol invasion – hence the absence of Gelugpa-sect monasteries in the region.
Around 100km northeast of Songpan, the perpetually snow-clad Min Shan range encloses Jiuzhaigou – “Nine Stockades Valley” – named after it was settled by Tibetans several hundred years ago. The reserve forms a Y-shaped series of valleys clothed in thick alpine forests and strung with hundreds of impossibly toned blue lakes – said to be the scattered shards of a mirror belonging to the Tibetan goddess Semo. Jiuzhaigou’s landscape looks spectacular in the autumn when the gold and red leaves contrast brilliantly with the water, or at the onset of winter in early December, when everything is dusted by snow.
Despite its remote location, Jiuzhaigou is the target of intense tourism – packages are offered by every travel agent in Sichuan – so don’t come here expecting a quiet commune with nature, as the park clocks up over a million visitors annually. The best you can do is to get in when the gates open at 7am and try to stay one step ahead of the hordes.
If you’re fairly fit and want to escape Jiuzhaigou’s tourist overload, it’s possible to organize three-day treks through the otherwise inaccessible Zharu Valley with Jiuzhaigou’s eco-tourism department (¥1580, including entry fees, guides, food and all camping gear; 0837 7739753, jiuzhai.com); the route circuits 4500m-high Zhayi Zhaga mountain.
KANGDING, 250km from Chengdu at the gateway to Sichuan’s far west, is a crowded, expanding collection of artless modern white-tiled blocks packed along the fast-flowing Zheduo River. Visually this is a very Chinese town, but the deep gorge that Kangding is set in is overlooked by chortens and the frosted peaks of Daxue Shan (the Great Snowy Mountains), and, whatever the maps might say, this is where Tibet really begins.
The town is the capital of huge Ganzi prefecture and bus schedules mean that a stopover here is likely, but with a couple of temples to check out and huge, communal evening dancing in the central square, it’s not the worst of fates. In addition, Kangding is a stepping stone for day-trips to the Hailuogou Glacier Park, which descends Gongga Shan, western China’s highest peak.
Just off the Songpan–Hezuo highway, 90km from Zöigê, you’ll find the scruffy, single-street village of LANGMUSI, whose surrounding forests, mountain scenery and lamaseries give an easy taster of Tibet.
Langmusi’s two small eighteenth-century lamaseries (¥30) sit at the western end of the village. Walk up the main street and bear right over a bridge, and the road leads uphill to Saizu Gompa, whose main hall’s walls are covered in pictures of meditating Buddhas and where you might see monks debating in the courtyard outside. For Gaerdi Gompa, bear left along the main road and then aim for the temple buildings in the back lanes; this is the larger complex with several sizeable, tin-roofed halls, but seems almost totally deserted.
For food, there are plenty of places to grab a simple meal, or you can just hang out at the A-Lang teahouse across from the post office on Shangye Jie.
For food, there are several simple Muslim and Chinese restaurants along the main street, though foreigners tend to gravitate towards Leisha’s.
There’s immense hiking potential up to ridges and peaks above Langmusi, but make sure you’re equipped for dogs and changeable weather. To arrange longer guided hikes or horse-trekking, contact Langmusi Tibetan Horse Trekking (t 1389 3991541, w langmusi.net), near the bus stop, a very organized operation whose one- to four-day trips take in nomad camps and mountain scenery – the website has current schedules and costs, currently around ¥220 per person per day.
LITANG, 300km west of Kangding, is a lively, gruff place with a large Tibetan population and an obvious Han presence in its businesses, army barracks, and expanding spread of concrete-and-tile architecture. Wild West comparisons are inevitable: you’ll have to get used to sharing the pavement with livestock, and watching monks and dreadlocked Khampa toughs tearing around the windy, dusty streets on motorbikes. Litang is also inescapably high – at 4014m above sea level, it actually beats Lhasa by over 300m – so don’t be surprised if you find even gentle slopes strangely exhausting. As usual, the main distraction here is people-watching: the shops are packed with Tibetans bargaining for temple accessories, solar-power systems for tents and practical paraphernalia for daily use, while Muslim smiths are busy in workshops along the main street, turning out the town’s renowned knives and jewellery.
Litang’s week-long horse festival kicks off each year in late July/early August on the plains outside town. Horsemen from all over Kham descend to compete, decking their stocky steeds in bells and brightly decorated bridles and saddles. As well as the four daily races, the festival features amazing demonstrations of horsemanship, including acrobatics, plucking silk scarves off the ground, and shooting (guns and bows) – all performed at full tilt. In between, you’ll see plenty of dancing, both religious (the dancers wearing grotesque wooden masks) and for fun, with both men and women gorgeously dressed in heavily embroidered long-sleeved smocks. The exact date varies each year: contact the Potala Inn or Summer Youth Hostel before you arrive, for confirmation.
SONGPAN, 320km north of Chengdu, was founded in Qing times as a garrison town straddling both the Min River and the main road to Gansu. Strategically, it guards the neck of a valley, built up against a stony ridge to the west and surrounded on the remaining three sides by 8m-high stone walls. These have been partially restored, and you can walk between the north and east gates and above the south gate. Though increasingly touristed, Songpan’s shops, stocked with handmade woollen blankets, fur-lined jackets, ornate knives, saddles, stirrups, bridles and all sorts of jewellery, cater to local Tibetans and Qiang, another mountain-dwelling minority. In spring, Songpan – along with every town in western Sichuan – becomes a marketplace for bizarre caterpillar fungus (虫草, chóngcăo); for more on this strange trade.
The reason to stop in Songpan is to spend a few days horse-trekking through the surrounding hills, which harbour hot springs and waterfalls, grassland plateaus and permanently icy mountains. Shunjiang Horse Treks (0837 17231161 or 0139 09043513), on the main road between the bus station and the north gate, charge ¥220 a person per day, including everything except entry fees to reserves. Accommodation is in tents, and the guides are generally attentive, though may not speak much English. Prepare for extreme cold and tasteless food; some groups have bought and slaughtered a goat (¥400) to bolster rations. Note that the friendly veneer of the company’s staff disappears rapidly if they’re presented with a complaint, so be sure to agree beforehand on exactly what your money is buying.
Among the draws of many towns in western Sichuan are their Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, most of which belong to the yellow-hat Gelugpa sect. Monasteries form huge medieval-looking complexes sprawling over hillsides, with a central core of large, red-walled, gold-roofed temples surrounded by a maze of smaller buildings housing monks and staff. Monasteries are usually free to enter; if there are no signs to the contrary, assume that photography is forbidden inside temples. Monks are generally friendly, encouraging you to explore, steering you firmly away from closed areas, and sometimes offering food and accommodation – though don’t take these for granted. Most importantly, remember to orbit clockwise around both individual temples and the complex as a whole (the only exception to this rule being at the region’s few Bon temples).