The southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan is a basin surrounded by mountains, with unchanged borders for over 500 years. The region is known for the famous Sichuan spice in its cuisine, giant panda sanctuaries and expansive green and blue mountain landscapes. To the western side of the province you will find a Tibetan plateau with local culture and language. It is here that on occasion, Tibetan protests have occurred in China, though the region itself is particularly safe, with the government largely focussing on Sichuan as a hub for growing its tourism.
There were many Chinese travelling from all over the country to Sichuan, to visit its beauteous scenery in peak time (July). As one of a few foreigners, particularly, as a British Indian woman from outside of China, I received a lot of attention from Chinese locals. Be prepared for people taking photos with/of you every day. You will hear the word ‘Laowai’ (‘foreigner’) being shouted at you often, though this is largely in a positive light with a smile and shouldn’t be taken as an insult, though it may seem that way.
In terms of language, Mandarin is spoken in the region, however, the dialect differs from standard Mandarin in its pronunciation. Be sure to take a translation app (google does not work there) or a phrasebook. English is not spoken in the region. Not knowing this or much Chinese, we flew to its centre, Chengdu, unaware that (even within its hostels, hotels, menus and especially its taxi drivers) not knowing the local language, would end up being our greatest challenge.
The city of Chengdu, the capital of the province, is a good base to get a taste of Sichuan life. It is here where it is the best time to try the infamous Sichuan pepper hot pot, visit teahouses, its ancient town Jinli Street, the Tibetan quarter and visit the Giant Panda Research Base. We booked a tour through our hostel which was a blessing in disguise, as our driver took us early to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding when the pandas were outside for feeding time between 8.30 and 10am. Those arriving after noon only caught a glimpse of one or two pandas, the rest being seen indoors, whilst we saw them outside, in their natural conservation surroundings. Walking around the greenery we caught Giant Pandas from birth in incubation, two year old cubs, youths playfully fightingand fully grown adults eating bamboo and bathing. The museum had an insight into its unique history with a portrait of pandas, leopards and tigers being trained and used by emperors in war, as well as panda diplomacy, the giving of giant pandas as diplomatic gifts to other countries.
From Chengdu, we travelled to Leshan to visit the Leshan Giant Buddha, a 71 metre statue of Buddha, carved into a cliff face during the Tang Dynasty. Be prepared to queue for up to two hours to see the UNESCO world heritage site. It is worth the wait. The vast towering vision of peaceful Buddha is particularly powerful from its feet with many lighting incense and kneeling on cushions in prayer. Walking around the grounds you will see gardens, carvings and temples with monks in learning and Buddhists lighting lamps in worship. A sentimental first experience into Buddhist China.
Initially staying in a hostel in its base town Baoguo, we planned a two day hike up Emei Shan, one of the four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China. This for me, was one of the most memorable experiences for reasons I could not imagine on starting. We began by taking a bus up to Wannian, hiking the first day to Buddhist temple Elephant Bathing Pool, and then hiking from there the second day to the Golden Summit. We underestimated the number of steep stairs you have to travel up. At times it feels like it does not end.
The mountain is known for its monkey ecological zone. These monkeys however, are particularly aggressive. We were given conflicting advice as to whether to shoo them with our bamboo sticks or hit the sticks on the ground to get them away. We never found out which one was correct. Having almost reached Elephant Bathing Pool, we were excited to hear that we were finally seeing monkeys. This was followed by a loud shriek and scream. A monkey in front of us had just attacked a Chinese woman, her arm covered in blood as she was led to the temple.
After the chaos of what we just saw, we finally reached Elephant Bathing Pool and booked a basic temple room for the night. We woke up in the morning to see our hallway invaded by thousands of moths, having to push our way through them to get out. The following hike was wet. It rained heavily the whole second day and despite the beautiful Golden Summit being covered in mist and fog, the trek was well work the view from the top.
Having come down the mountain back to Baoguo by bus, we unwinded with a visit to the local Hot Springs, open until around midnight, resting our muscles in the steamy natural waters. A much needed evening after the tiring hike.
Shunan Bamboo Sea
Travelling to more Southern Sichuan, we were curious to see the bamboo forests of Shunan Bamboo Sea, known for shooting many infamous film fight scenes, including House of Flying Daggers. The ecological bamboo sea has many sites including waterfalls, temples and forests, its landscapes largely being used as imagery in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Ceremonies. We were particularly lucky to go on a monsoon day with light rainfall and fog meaning the bamboo forests seemed mystical. Without many people, the fog meant we were often all alone to climb Dragon Temple’s spiral staircases and see temples perching on the cliff side with intricate stone carvings, even being able to stop for street food of potatoes with Sichuan pepper. Sichuan pepper is particularly unique in its ability to numb and tingle your tongue.
The historic road in Dujiangyan town has many Chinese visitors. It is an intricately built ancient town on the Minjiang River. It is here where we had the most authentic Sichuan food with chilli, had tea along the riverbanks and met the most friendly group of Chinese locals offering to spend the evening with us, having drinks and showing us around.
We had a bizarre hotel on the outskirts of historic road, one in which we did not see a single person, but could hear karaoke playing until four in the morning and cards for call-girls were slipped under our door every night by someone unknown.
The following day, we visited Qingcheng Shan, one of the ancient cradles of Taoism in China; a mountain with many Taoist and Buddhist temples. On advice from locals, we visited the back route of the mountain, hiking through the green forests, rivers and waterfalls.
Heading north from Dujiangyan travelling by bus through the mountains, we were entering the Tibetan region of Sichuan. Songpan is a town filled with Amdo Tibetan culture. It is also here you may find the minority Muslim Chinese community in a colourfully small mosque. Scaling the town walls, you get beautiful views of the town in a basin of mountains. We hired horses for a one day horse trek, giving us some of our most scenic mountain landscapes to a empty Tibetan town where we were fed delicious thick Tibetan noodles. Speaking with some local women, I was asked my age and if I was single, and was told at 24, in their village, I would be married with children. Here, the temple roofs were covered in gold and temples were painted with vibrant colour and Tibetan prayer wheels. The horse trek back to Songpan led to my horse riding me into a tree and throwing me off onto the rocks so it could drink water from a stream. Lucky for me, I only received a few bruises and cuts leading to the hostel owner Emma giving me some of her dad’s Yunnan herbal medicine. Emma was a particularly helpful contact to have, as she knew the area really well.
A bit sore from Songpan, we took a bus to Jiuzhaigou, to a Tibetan homestay with the sweetest of hosts, Zhuo Ma. She let us into her home with a hug in open arms, into a quiet village in the mountains. The perfect day to rest in her seated garden with a book and recover my leg in the sunshine alongside her many animals: chickens, rooster, cat and dogs. Delicious Tibetan food for breakfast, lunch and dinner were all homemade from vegetables in her own back garden including honey from her own bees. All this food was served in her characterful lounge with wood burning stove serving smoky Tibetan tea and her Tibetan wine made with barley; a place I would thoroughly recommend staying at as it was the perfect final resting place.
Our final site to visit was the wondrous Jiuzhaigou National Park. The nature reserve was particularly busy with expansive queues to enter, as it was peak time (July) when all the lakes were filled, and the scenery was at its most beautiful. Travelling to the top by bus and following the paths down, you are met with the most surreal turquoise blue and green lakes and waterfalls in the Minshan mountains. It is known to be a stunning natural phenomena shaped by its glacial and tectonic activity. Towards the end of the day, we were able to find quieter lakes nearer the entrance where we could fully enjoy the end of our trip with the natural wonder of the landscapes.
Sichuan province was a truly vast, diverse and picturesque region of China where I would gladly be lost in translation again and again.
Food – 1.5
People – 1
Ambience – 2
Sights & Activities – 2
X-Factor – 2
Total – 8.5