China Travel Guide
Sichuan & Chongqing
The province of Sichuan and the neighboring municipality of Chongqing cover 220,078 sq miles (570,000 sq km) and are home to almost 120 million people. This vast region can be divided into three distinct geographical zones. In the east is Chongqing, a municipality based around the heavily industrialized Chongqing city, with a rural strip running east along the Yangzi River and its famous Three Gorges. In the center lies the hugely fertile Red Basin, whose laid-back capital Chengdu sits surrounded by chequerboard fields and well-irrigated plains. The wealth generated by this fertile land helped sponsor the temples on Emei Shan’s forested slopes and the startling Buddhist sculptures at Dazu and Le Shan. In contrast, Northern and Western Sichuan are covered by the snow-capped foothills of the Himalayan range, rising well over 16,400 ft (5,000 m), a thinly settled region whose culture is predominantly Tibetan. Northwest of Chengdu is the Wolong Nature Preserve, home to the critically endangered giant panda, while to the far north is the beautiful alpine scenery around Songpan and Jiuzhai Gou.
Towns & Cities
Temples & Monasteries
Mountains, Grottoes & Caves
National Parks & Zoos
- Huanglong 15
- Jiuzhai Gou Tour 16
- Moxi Xiang & Hailuo Gou Glacier 18
- Panda Breeding Center 5
- Wolong Nature Reserve 13
- 106 miles (170 km) SW of Chongqing
- 3 Tanmu Lin Binguan, 0813 220 7313
Salt has been mined in Sichuan for at least 2,500 years, and for much of that time Zigong has been at the center of its production, luring traders from all over China. Brine is drawn from artesian wells beneath the city, along with natural gas used in the evaporation process. Chinese well-drilling techniques, mainly the use of bamboo cables and heavy iron drill-bits, were borrowed by the West during the 1850s, and later adapted for mining oil reserves. Until the 1960s, Zigong was full of bamboo pipelines and 328-ft (100-m) high wooden derricks. Even today one can visit some of these older mines and vintage architecture built to display the salt-merchants’ wealth.
The Zigong Salt Museum was built in 1736 as the Xiqing Guildhall, a meeting place for salt merchants from Shaanxi province. This lavish building features elaborate flying eaves, and a gilded, wood-carved interior based around a large galleried atrium, where plays were once performed. Exhibits cover the entire history of salt mining, from Han dynasty illustrations, to huge metal drill-bits and cutaways showing the drilling process. Other contemporary buildings of interest are two teahouses with charming antique interiors, where locals sit and chat. The most attractive of these is the 19th-century Wangye Miao, a smaller version of the Xiqing Guildhall, which perches castle-like on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Fuxi Jiang on Binjiang Lu. The other is a former City Storekeepers’ Guildhall on Zhonghua Road, whose carved entrance-way opens into a sloping, flagstoned courtyard surrounded by private wood-paneled booths.
The Xinhai Well, just east of the center, was easily the deepest in the world when drilling reached a depth of 3,285 ft (1,001 m) in 1835, producing a daily output of 494 cubic ft (14 cubic m) of brine and 300,175 cubic ft (8,500 cubic m) of natural gas. The 59-ft (18-m) high timber derrick, bamboo pipes, cables, and buffalo-powered winches used in the drilling and retrieving processes are on show, along with gas-powered evaporation pans used to refine salt, which is still produced and packed on site. Zigong’s other forms of subterranean wealth are its fossils, found at a major Jurassic site in the northeastern suburb of Dashanpu, that has now been roofed over as a Dinosaur Museum. In 1985, extensive excavations were carried out with British assistance, unearthing hundreds of skeletons, including the stegosaur-like Gigantspinosaurus sichuanensis, and the 30-ft (9-m) long, carnivorous Yangchuanosaurus hepingensis. Assembled skeletons are displayed in the main hall, along with partially excavated remains in the original diggings.
Zigong Salt Museum
Mining salt in Sichuan
An essential part of imperial tax since the Western Han era, salt was extracted from salt-water pools on the coasts. In Sichuan, however, mining from briny grounds (using an ingenious method that far pre-dated Western techniques), was cheaper than importing heavily taxed salt from the coast. With deep drilling and the installation of bamboo pipes in the 11th century, production peaked. Entrepreneurs opened up mines and workers flocked to the area, leading a bureaucracy alarmed at the tax losses to ban deep drilling – although they were soon opened again. By the 17th century, the Sichuanese had devised a method of capturing the natural gas that escapes from briny deposits to fuel their stoves.
Baoding Shan, Dazu
The hills around Dazu are riddled with caves and grottoes decorated with more than 50,000 carvings dating as far back as the Tang dynasty in the 7th century. The best collection of statuary with the finest craftsmanship and richest content can be found at Baoding Shan; the monk Zhao Zhifeng oversaw the work between 1179 and 1245. The bulk of these carvings decorate thirty separate niches carved into the soft limestone walls of a 28-ft (8-m) high, horseshoe-shaped gully known as Dafo Wan (Big Buddha Bend) after the large sculpture of the reclining Sakyamuni Buddha.
Other carvings worth noting at Baoding Shan are the pastoral scenes of buffalo herding in Cave 5, a whole tableau of activity that stands as a beautiful allegory of the search for enlightenment. The Cat and Mouse between Caves 3 and 4 is a light-hearted carving with a wonderfully naturalistic cat looking up at a mouse climbing a bamboo stalk. The Dazu grottoes are more secular and real to life than other grottoes – that is to say, they relate the abstract Buddhist doctrines through the lives of ordinary people. The realistic carvings include not only the statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas, but also monarchs, ministers, military officers, officials, monks, the rich, and even the poor.
In December 1999, the site was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Bei Shan, situated just over a mile (2 km) north of Dazu, was originally a military camp whose carvings were commissioned by the general Wei Junjing in AD 892. The caves are somewhat dark and few sculptures stand out. The most outstanding sculpture is in Cave 136 which houses a Wheel of Life carving, Puxian the patron Saint of Emei Shan, and the androgynous Sun and Moon Guanyin.
There are 30 caves in total so be sure to allow enough time to explore the site fully.
Carvings of Dazu
Combining elements from Confucianism, Daoism, and Indian Tantric Buddhism, the carvings at Baoding Shan, Dazu are a unique example of the harmonious synthesis of these philosophies and religions. Though most are religious in theme, the carvings vary greatly in style. A few are naturalistic depictions of daily life, but most of them are monumental and even surreal, with fanged guardian gods and serene Buddhas at the point of Enlightenment surrounded by cartoon-like details of Buddhist parables. The main colors used are reds, blues, and greens.
1000-armed Guanyin (8)
In fact it has 1007 gilded arms that seem to flicker like flames from the central figure of Guanyin, each palm holding a different symbol of the bodhisattva.
|Parental Care (15)
This expression of the Confucian theme of the duty of parental love at this Buddhist site is an illustration of how religious philosophies could co-exist during the Tang dynasty.
|Enlightenment Buddha (29)
The centerpiece of Baoding Shan’s only true cave, this represents the reward of perfecting the self through cycles of reincarnation.
|Buddhist Hell (20)
Buddha and bodhisattvas gaze down at drunken sinners, while animal-headed demons mutilate others on Knife Mountain and in Knee-chopping Hall.
|Stone Lion (28)
The lion is assigned to Wenshu, the incarnation of Wisdom in Buddhist teaching. Here, this twice life-sized statue guards the entrance to the Cave of Full Enlightenment.
|The Three Sages (4)
Three serene figures sit in eternal contemplation of life, the infinite, and everything. The Chinese characters declare the site as Baoding Shan.
|Reclining Buddha (11)
This 50-ft (15-m) long Buddha lies on his side, his stylized face making the life-like busts of officials and donors arranged in front appear even more striking. The adjacent Nine-dragon Spring refers to the legend of Buddha being washed at birth by dragons.
|Wheel of Tran-migration (3)
A giant, toothy demon holds a segmented disc depicting the possible states of reincarnation, from Buddhahood down to animals and ghosts.
|Dao Sages (24)
These ancient figures of wise old man appear to be representatives of Daoist philosophy.
|Filial Duty (17)
A Confucian theme of honoring parents for the sacrifices they make for their children illustrates the flexible nature of Chinese belief at this predominantly Buddhist site.
an opera performance
Sung in the Sichuanese dialect, this 300-year-old tradition is immensely popular. Lacking the formality of Beijing Opera, but filled with wit and dynamism, the Sichuan style portrays local legends, while its high-pitched singing is accompanied by percussion and wind instruments. Acrobatics are a major part of the performance. Bianlian, the Sichuanese trick of face-changing, allows each actor to portray many characters; with a swift move of the hand, makeup is added, or a layer of mask removed. Sichuan Opera is usually performed in small, casual theaters, even teahouses. In Chengdu, tickets are available at Jinjiang Theater on Xianliong Jie and Shudu Theater down Yushuang Lu. Many tour operators run excursions to theaters, giving an explanation of the plot and a fascinating glimpse backstage. Please click here to read more information about Sichuan Opera.
- 12 miles (19 km) NE of Chengdu
- 028 839 72247
- or taxi
- 8am–5pm daily
A place of worship since the Han dynasty, Baoguang Si owes its current name and reputation to the Tang emperor Xizong, who took refuge here in AD 881, during a rebellion. He called the temple Baoguang, or Shining Treasure, after he saw a light underneath a wooden pagoda in the temple, which was supposedly emanating from the buried holy relics. The pagoda, which he ordered to be rebuilt in stone, still stands as the 13-story, 98-ft (30-m) high Sheli Ta, just inside the entrance. Its top, however, broke off during an earthquake. The temple has well-tended gardens planted with ginkgos, besides a dozen or more halls filled with holy relics, including a room dedicated to the Tsongkhapa sect of Tibetan lamaism, and a stone stele carved with Buddha images from AD 540. Baoguang Si’s biggest draw is its Qing-era Luohan Hall, where 518 brightly painted, life-sized sculptures of Buddhist saints are joined by 59 Buddhas and Bodhidarma – the Indian founder of Zen Buddhism – along with a huge phoenix statue. Among the statues are the emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, with their distinctive beards, boots, and capes. Also within the compound is a little vegetarian restaurant.
- 15 miles (24 km) N of Chengdu in Guanghan
- 0838 565 1526
- from Chengdu to Guanghan
- 8:30am–5pm daily
In the 1980s archeologists began excavating at Sanxingdui, where farmers had been finding ancient pieces since 1929. They unexpectedly uncovered traces of an ancient city, over 3,000 years old, tentatively believed to have been the capital of the Ba-Shu culture. Numerous sacrificial pits were found containing an extraordinary trove of bronze, gold, and jade artifacts. Key pieces in the museum include a 7-ft (2-m) high bronze figure with huge, coiled hands, a giant “spirit tree” hung with mystical animals, and several leering, 3-ft (1-m) wide masks whose eyes protrude on stalks. Also on display are smaller, finely detailed pieces, along with accounts of the excavations. Highly individual in style, though evoking the contemporary Shang bronzes of eastern China, the Sanxingdui artifacts reveal a very high degree of craftsmanship. The finds perhaps challenge the popular theory that China evolved from a single culture living by the Yellow River.
Rising to 10,167 feet (3,099 m), Emei Shan has been considered holy by both Daoists and Buddhists since the Eastern Han dynasty. Many of the temples nestled on the mountain’s lush slopes are dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence, Puxian, who is said to have ascended the mountain during the 6th century atop a six-tusked elephant. Emei Shan is also a storehouse of botanic diversity, with over 3,200 plant species found on the mountain – 10 per cent of China’s total. Many can be seen in monastery gardens, including the white-petalled handkerchief tree; the ginkgo, which is extinct in the wild; and the straight-trunked nanmu, a favored wood for temple pillars. The most visible of Emei’s animals are the aggressive monkeys, who pester hikers for handouts – keep food packed away.
- 89 miles (143 km) SW of Chengdu
- near Baoguo Si, 0833 552 0444
- to Emei Town
- from Chengdu or Le Shan to Emei Town or Baoguo; Emei Town to Baoguo (20 min)
Exploring Emei Shan
It takes about three days to climb and descend Emei Shan; basic accommodations and food are available at numerous temples. Pack rain gear and wear stout footwear as the flagstone paths can be slippery, particularly from October to April when hawkers sell straw soles and metal crampons to attach to boots. Warm clothing is essential at the summit year round.
- The summit
- Wannian Si
- Qingyin Ge
Jin Ding Si
The terrace in front of this temple is a favorite spot for watching the sunrise, cloud seas, and other atmospheric phenomena.
One of the most important temples on Emei, Baoguo Si contains a massive bronze bell. Cast during the Ming dynasty, it is rung with a large swinging tree trunk and is said to be audible for 10 miles (16 km).
Emei’s three main peaks are the crests of an undulating ridge, with a sheer drop of over 3,000 feet (1,000 m) on the front face.
- 31 miles (50 km) SW of Chengdu
Consisting of just seven narrow lanes on a quiet riverbank surrounded by fields, the delightfully dated village of Huanglong Xi served as one of the sets in the martial-arts romance, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Most of its timber-framed, stone buildings date from the Ming or Qing eras. Of its three temples, Gulong Si is the largest, with a few slightly shabby halls and a low entrance guarded by two stone lions, above which is a theater stage used during temple fairs. At the other end of the village, Nanwu Chaoxi Si is a tiny nunnery with a painted stone carving of the dragon spirit Nanwu in human form, with red hair and a mustache. Zhenjiang Si is mostly closed to the public, but does have a pleasant, relaxed riverfront teahouse.
- 43 miles (70 km) NW of Chengdu
- to Dujiangyan then taxi
As its name “Green City Mountain” suggests, this renowned Daoist retreat is beautifully forested. Its two separate sections are dotted with Daoist temples linked by stone paths, ideal for rambling. The front face is reached from the main entrance in town, while the wilder rear face, with steeper gradients and narrower paths, lies 9 miles (15 km) farther west. Jianfu Gong, outside the entrance, is the best-preserved shrine. The main temple on the mountain’s front face lies halfway up at Tianshi Dong. Ming-dynasty panels decorate its main hall, where the Han-era Daoist master Zhang Daolin once taught. Situated on the 4,134-ft (1,260-m) summit, two hours on foot and accessible by cable car, Shangqing Gong was first built in the 4th century AD and houses a tearoom. From here, it is a short climb to the Laojun Pavilion. On the lower slopes of the peak’s rear face, the huge Tai’an Temple is surrounded by fortress-like walls.
- 37 miles (60 km) NW of Chengdu
- from Xi Men Station, Chengdu
- 8am–5pm daily
- for Irrigation Scheme Area
The vast town of Dujiangyan is primarily known for the Dujia-ngyan Irrigation Scheme, built in 256 BC by the Sichuanese governor Li Bing. He organized the building of an artificial island to tame and divide the flood-prone Min Jiang into two channels which could be regulated and tapped to provide a steady flow for crop irrigation. Li Bing’s project is still fully functional and was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, but it was affected by the construction of Zipingpu Dam, 9 miles (15 km) north. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the dam cracked causing extensive damage to the town. Some scientists have suggested that building work at the dam may have triggered the earthquake. Erwang Miao (Two Kings Temple) collapsed and is being rebuilt.
Wolong Nature Reserve
- 93 miles (150 km) NW of Chengdu
China’s first serious attempt to protect the giant panda and its habitat, the Wolong Reserve was founded in 1963, enclosing about 775 sq miles (2,000 sq km) of snowy mountains and forests along the 6,560-ft (2,000-m) Qionglai range. The reserve’s headquarters are at Wolong town, a knot of buildings that includes a research base and a panda breeding center. However, the center suffered considerable damage during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with deaths of several staff members and at least one giant panda. At present, 50 of the 63 resident pandas are at Bifengia Panda Base, about 75 miles (120 km) away, although construction has begun on a new center.
Wolong’s two hiking trails, at Yingxiong and Yinchang Canyons, are meant strictly for competent hikers. Ask for local advice on conditions, and consider hiring a guide. Although visitors may not see any pandas – rare even on these trails – they may get acquainted with the pandas’ habitat, besides seeing some of Wolong’s 280-odd resident bird species.
Founded as a Ming-dynasty garrison post to guard a 8,200-ft (2,500-m) mountain pass, Songpan is an administrative center and busy marketplace for nearby Tibetan, Qiang, and Hui communities. It derives its ancient character from the surviving original cross-shaped street plan with high stone walls and its north, south, and east gates. Walled-in courtyards in front of the South Gate were once the “customs area” for searching caravans coming into town. Min Jiang, bisecting Songpan’s center, is crossed by the covered Gusong Qiao, the Ancient Pine Bridge whose two-tiered roof is decorated with carved animals. Songpan’s two large mosques, one in the center of town and the other along the river outside the north gate, resemble standard Chinese temples except in their use of green and yellow paint and the Arabic script over their doors. Shops sell beaten copper pots, turquoise jewelry, sheepskin coats, yak butter, and wind-dried yak meat. Just outside the north gate, two tour companies organize overnight guided horse treks to nearby villages. Sleeping arrangements are out in the open air or in tents and food is basic. Trekkers should have the itinerary and fees agreed, in writing, before setting off to avoid argument.
- 40 miles (65 km) W of Songpan
- from Chengdu or Songpan
- Huanglong Temple Fair (Jul/Aug)
Huanglong is a 5-mile (7.5-km) long valley, 9,845 ft (3,000 m) above sea level in the foothills of the snowcapped Min mountain range. Deposited minerals from the river descending the valley have created 12 terraced pools and calcified cascades, whose yellow rocks give Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) its name. Of the four nearly-ruined temples, the Huanglong Temple, at the valley’s upper end, has a statue of Huanglong’s patron saint, and hosts an annual temple fair featuring a horse race.
by two gateways
- 143 miles (230 km) W of Chengdu
The small market town of Luding is surrounded by mountains above the banks of Dadu Jiang. The 328-ft (100-m) Luding Chain Bridge over the Dadu, comprising 13 iron chains spanned by wooden planks, was built in 1705 to improve transportation through the region. The Luding Chain Bridge became a national icon in May 1935 due to an incident during the Long March. The Nationalist forces had removed the bridge’s planks to trap the Red Army on the south side of the river, but “22 Heroes” clambered along the chains and managed to capture a Nationalist camp on the opposite side. The bridge is flanked on either side by gateways, while a museum on the river’s far side exhibits contemporary photos.
Moxi Xiang & Hailuo Gou Glacier
The tiny town of Moxi Xiang, with its large Qiang population, is a staging post for trekking up the adjacent Hailou Gou (Conch Valley) to the Hailou Gou Glacier, whose tongue, at 12,205 ft (3,720 m), makes it the lowest and most accessible glacier in Asia. Moxi’s wooden church sheltered the Red Army in 1935, before they attempted crossing the passes over Daxue Shan – Great Snow Mountain – during which a third of the army died (see The Long March). The glacier descends the southeastern side of Sichuan’s highest peak, the 24,790-ft (7,556-m) Gongga Shan. The three-day return trek passes rhododendron forests before reaching the glacier’s snout, blackened by debris. Its upper reaches comprise tumbled blocks of blue-green ice, while a hot spring mixes with icy glacial streams to provide pools for bathing.
descending the southeastern slopes of
Lying between China and Tibet, Kangding is a bustling trading depot situated in a valley on the Zhepuo River. During the Qing era, the town developed on the tea trade between Tibet and China and was the place where porters would exchange bricks of tea for Tibetan goods such as wool and copperware. Ethnically, the region is inhabited largely by the Khampa, a Tibetan people whose heavy turquoise jewelry, forward manners, and habit of carrying knives match their reputation for toughness. The central Anjue Lamasery is a focus for the Khampa community. The town also has a handful of Qiang, Hui, and Han Chinese. To the southeast, Paoma Shan (Horse Race Mountain) is the venue for the Walking Around the Mountain festival, which takes place in the 4th calendar month of the Chinese year, and where the Khampa demonstrate their equestrian skills during horse races. Heading west from Kangding, it is 311 miles (500 km) to the fringes of Tibet, with a worthwhile stop at Dege town and its Scripture Printing Lamasery.