Encircled by towering mountains, the Chinese province of Sichuan feels a world apart from the rest of the country with its own unique cuisine, artistic traditions and diverse flora and fauna. Since China’s economic liberalisation, Chengdu, Sichuan’s laidback capital, has burgeoned into the world’s only UNESCO City of Gastronomy while the province’s hinterland remains thoroughly traditional with picturesque Buddhist shrines, age-old teahouses and rare giant pandas waiting to be discovered. This Sichuan tour guide will help you explore the best of this remarkable province.
Get up close to the world’s most iconic animals at Chengdu’s Giant Panda Breeding Research Base
Located less than 20 kilometres from the buzzing city centre, Chengdu’s Giant Panda Breeding Research Base is the best place to see these elusive animals outside of a zoo. The lush enclosures are home to upwards of 100 giant pandas and a smaller number of lesser-known red pandas that are encouraged to breed by world's leading researchers. For an exclusive visit, travel during the months of March, April or May, which are euphemistically known as the ‘falling in love period’ for these gentle giants, or in the autumn where you may get to see the unbelievably cute newborns in the nursery area. Highly informative guided tours of the Research Base are available that reveal the lengths researchers go to encourage these creatures to procreate.
Sample China’s fieriest cuisine in the UNESCO City of Gastronomy
The world’s only UNESCO listed the City of Gastronomy is not Paris or Rome but Chengdu, whose cuisine is famed for its heavy use of deep red chilli peppers and tongue-numbing Sichuanese peppercorns. To sample the best of Sichuan’s food, take to the streets of Chengdu on a guided food tour where locals will take you to some of the city’s most renowned restaurants and street food stalls, including those on the iconic Jin Li Street. Make sure not to miss out on the region’s most traditional dishes, including mapo doufu, a mouth-watering mixture of rice curds, minced pork and sizzling chillies; hot and sour soup, which leaves visitors confounded with its unusual blend of flavours; and the literally translated ‘strange flavoured chicken’, a dish that packs more numbing peppercorns per mouthful than any other.
Explore Western Sichuan’s rich Buddhist heritage
Much like neighbouring Tibet, Sichuan’s history has been shaped by its geographical position at the confluence of the Buddhist and Confucian worlds. Dotted across Western Sichuan is a plethora of near-unrivalled Buddhist attractions, chief among them being the vast Larung Gar Academy that sits high in the sub-Himalayan peaks. Around 10,000 students study the central tenants of the Buddhist faith at Larung Gar and for the best experience make sure to catch one of the monk’s daily debating sessions or eat in the always buzzing outdoor canteen where you can mix with pilgrims from across the globe. Western Sichuan’s other premier Buddhist attraction is the UNESCO listed holy mountain of Emei Shan, which is home to a host of temples – some of which have been standing since the 1st century AD. For visitors who are not planning on travelling to Western Sichuan from Chengdu, the beguiling Tang Dynasty Baoguang Temple is home to one of the world’s tallest pagodas and offers a fascinating glimpse into Buddhist life within the city.
Get to grips with Sichuan’s ancient history
While today Sichuan lies on the threshold between China’s economically booming and densely populated east and the endless desert expanses of Qinghai and Xinjiang, in ancient times it was the epicentre of Chinese civilisation. To explore the region’s role as the cradle of modern China, head to Chengdu’s enthralling Jinsha Site Museum, which is built around an archaeological site of world importance that was discovered in 2001. The site and accompanying museum reveal much about the ancient Shu Kingdom, which existed 3000 years ago and competed with rival dynasties to rule all of China. Further beyond the city is the equally fascinating Sanxingdui Museum, which showcases the finds from a nearby Shu Kingdom archaeological dig that some academics believe has greater cultural significance than the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an. For the best experience at both sites, book a guided tour that will reveal more about the painstaking process of unearthing these world-class ancient artefacts.
Hike amongst the peaks of Jiuzhaigou National Park and Daocheng Yading
Thanks to its geographical position far to the west of China’s main population centres, much of Sichuan remains remarkably unspoiled. To experience the best nature has to offer in the province head to the UNESCO listed Jiuzhaigou National Park, which is famed for its turquoise coloured mineral-rich lakes, deciduous forests that turn shades of copper, amber and maroon in the autumn, awe-inspiring waterfalls and colourful Tibetan villages. As the park is becoming ever more popular, the best way to escape the crowds is to hike in the Zharu Valley ecotourism zone, which is believed to contain nearly 50% of all plant species that exist in China. If you are looking for something more adrenaline pumping that the rolling hills of Jiuzhaigou then head for Daocheng Yading, which sites high in the sub-Himalayan peaks of Western Sichuan and contains three of Buddhism’s holiest mountains. For the best experience, make sure to give yourself time to acclimatise to the high altitude and visit the breathtaking Buddhist temples in the area, including the Gonggar Langjiling Monastery.
Visit Chongqing, the world’s most futuristic metropolis
With a population pushing 30 million, Chongqing is by many metrics the largest city on earth. While the city was carved off the Sichuan province in the 1990s to become one of China’s four cities directly controlled by the central government, it retains many of the cultural traditions of its former province, including the use of numbing peppercorns in warming huoguo (hotpots). Set on the Yangzi River, the city is a sprawling metropolis where much of the ancient feel has given way to LED-lit towering skyscrapers and jaw-dropping infrastructure projects. In short, if you want to see how China is transforming itself into the powerhouse of the world, a visit to Chongqing is essential.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has travelled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has a real passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses: Mapo Doufu: https://flic.kr/p/8Ctwkq (Craig Dugas, CC BY 2.0), Baoguang Temple: https://flic.kr/p/SvN7Dk (Azchael, CC BY-NC 2.0), Jinsha Bronze statue: https://flic.kr/p/nfiw5B (Gary Todd, Public domain), Daocheng Yading: https://flic.kr/p/26no8SV (CC BY-ND 2.0), Chongqing: https://flic.kr/p/dN3hJK (Michael Gwyther-Jones, CC BY 2.0)