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.
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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.
Ascending Emei Shan
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.
The Big Buddha
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.