Isolated from the rest of China by a series of mountain ranges, Sichuan is the country’s third-most populous province. Most of its 87 million people are crowded into some of the world’s highest rural population densities in the flatlands of the Red Basin, south and east of the provincial capital, Chengdu.
The province has a long history. The two kingdoms of Shu and Ba have been dated back to the 9th century BC, and were part of present-day Sichuan under the first emperor of a united China, Qin Shi Huangdi. Around AD 1000, during the Northern Song dynasty, four districts were created to facilitate administration. They were called Chuan Xia Si Lu (four districts of Chuanxia), and were later abbreviated to the modern name Sichuan.
The heart of Sichuan is the fertile Red Basin, surrounded by mountains to the north, south, east and west, with a climate very favourable to agriculture: this is one of China’s major rice-growing areas, and the warm summers, mild winters and high humidity allow cultivation throughout the year. Even during the cold months of January and February, the markets are filled with fresh fruit and vegetables.
In complete contrast, the western half of Sichuan is wild and mountainous. The expansive forests are rich in fir and deciduous trees, and shelter rare wildlife including the giant panda. The mountain areas are home to 15 recognised ethnic groups, including a sizeable Tibetan population: much of western Sichuan lies within the traditional Tibetan lands of Kham.
Sichuan’s easygoing capital, Chengdu lies on the western edge of the Red Basin, roughly in the centre of the province. The city, which is more than 2,000 years old, has a population of around 3.5 million in the city proper, and around 10.5 million in greater Chengdu. In contrast to some other Chinese urban centres, and despite raging redevelopment, it has managed to preserve an atmosphere that evokes a sense of history. Read more about Chengdu…
Daoists began erecting temples around the mountain of Emei Shan in the 2nd century AD, but as Buddhism gained popularity from the 6th century onwards, the mountain became a sacred place of Buddhism. It has been a major pilgrimage centre for centuries, and although buses and cable cars now ascend the heights, the old-fashioned method of walking up is well worth the effort. Beautiful scenery abounds, and the protected forests shelter rare animal and bird species, as well as an abundance of butterflies.
There are minibuses covering the 7km (4 miles) between Emeishan town and the main access point to the mountain trail at Baoguo Si a 16th-century monastery. Steps lead all the way from Baoguo Si to the summit, although many people start the hike from Wannian Si, 500 metres (1,640ft) further up and accessible by cable car. Alternatively, buses wind up to Jieyin Dian, a pavilion at an altitude of 2,670 metres (8,760ft). From here the summit can be accessed by a cable car, or via a two-hour hike. Just below the summit is Jinding Si (Golden Peak Temple), with a 20-metre (66ft) bronze hall.
The peak of Emei Shan is a lofty 3,099 metres (10,167ft), and in favourable weather conditions a remarkable natural phenomenon can be experienced. If the sun is in the right position, an observer’s shadow is cast onto the clouds below the peak, and an aura of pastel rainbow colours forms around the silhouette (one can also see this phenomenon from an aeroplane above the clouds). Buddhist pilgrims interpret this as a special sign, and in the past, some would throw themselves from the peak into their shadow, imagining that this led directly to the longed-for nirvana.
If you want to experience the sunrise from the summit, you'll need to overnight on the mountain. For the purists, the only way is to stay at one of the many monasteries along the way. Arrive before 5pm, when it’s easier to get a bed in a separate room, rather than sleeping on the floor in the temple halls with many other hikers. A growing number of guesthouses on the slopes and on the Jinding summit provide a more comfortable alternative.
Most hikers choose to descend the mountain on a different route, while others take the easy option: bus or cable car up and hike back down.
Around 50km (30 miles) east of Emei Shan, the town of Leshan is famed for its colossal 71-metre (233-ft) seated statue of Buddha. Recently completed large-scale restoration work has done much to improve the appearance of the statue, which had suffered from centuries of erosion and, more recently, pollution.
The giant figure overlooks the confluence of two rivers, the Dadu He and Min He, and despite the simple artistic rendering, is astonishing in scale. Believing the effigy would protect boats on the river, the monk Haitong began work on the Herculean task in 713; it took 90 years to complete. Equipped with a sophisticated elaborate drainage system to combat weathering of the sandstone, dafo’s heights can be scaled along steps in the rock. There are several temples in the hills around, linked by paths through the woods.
The Wolong Nature Reserve (Wolong Ziran Baohuqu), a large sanctuary in the wild mountains west of Chengdu, is the best place to see giant pandas in their natural environment. It’s by no means always easy to catch sight of the shy creatures in the wild, but a group of about 20 are on view in a smaller enclosure. The setting is indeed lovely, and the wooded hills and hiking trails make the reserve a very worthwhile trip. The remote, pristine forests are a sanctuary for exotic wildlife such as snow leopards and golden monkeys, as well as pandas.
The reserve is deep in the mountains some 140km (85 miles) northwest of Chengdu, is three hours by bus from Dujiangyan, or four hours direct from Chengdu.
Northwestern Sichuan is a wild and mountainous region, and travelling the road that runs across its grassy plateaux and forested mountains to reach Gansu province is one of China's great travel experiences.
About 500km (300 miles) from Chengdu, Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve is a fantasy landscape of lush montane forests, grassy steppes, preternaturally clear blue lakes, rivers and waterfalls, all framed with high mountains and peaks covered with eternal snow.
Many travellers spend a few days horse-trekking in the hills around the town of Songpan. The town itself is nothing special (although its old stone gates remain), but the treks can be exhilarating, passing mountain lakes and waterfalls. Guides operate from Songpan, and finding them is no problem.
Continuing northwest towards Gansu province, on the route between Chengdu and Xiahe, is the remote village of Langmusi, with its population of Tibetans, Goloks and Hui Muslims as well as Han Chinese. Surrounded by dramatic grassy mountains, Langmusi has the feel of an untouched traditional Tibetan village, and is becoming popular with tourists. It's a wonderful area for hiking.
From Langmusi the rough roads continue across expansive grasslands to the beautiful Labrang Monastery at Xiahe in Gansu province.
15 Section 1, Renmin Zhong Lu
tel: Tel: (028) 8676 8999
This luxurious and highly impressive hotel offers the most outstanding service and facilities in town, with attractive rooms, three restaurants and an indoor pool.
23 Xinghui Xi Lu, Renjia Wan
tel: Tel: (028) 8322 2271
With its cheery decor and very helpful staff, Mix has become a popular choice for budget travellers in Chengdu. The rooms are well appointed and clean – almost bearing out the hostel’s claim that it has three-star standards at backpacker prices.
20 Erhuan Lu, Section 3
tel: (028) 8513 9999
Quite possibly the king of Chengdu’s hot-pot restaurants – though the name means ‘mother of the imperial city’ – this four-storey restaurant not only takes hotpot cuisine to a new level, it also has impeccable Chengdu-themed decor.
41 Qinghua Lu
Close to the northern entrance to Du Fu’s Cottage, Gongguan Cai translates as ‘official’s food’, and is a very well-respected place for quality Sichuan cuisine.
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