Sichuan

 

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The vast inland province of Sichuan in southwest China is shaped like a deep dish, with a lowland river plain wedged within a serrated rim of towering mountains. To the west the foothills of the Himalayas jut skywards in snowy chains, and to the north the deep-brown folds of the Longmen range separate Sichuan from the neighbouring province of Shaanxi. To the east, the turbulent Yangzi and its tributaries flow between the deep cuts of mountain ranges which sweep from north to south.

Sichuan, which means ‘four rivers’, is named after the four tributaries of the Yangzi: the Jialing, Minjiang, Tuojiang and Wujiang. The rivers run in deep gorges through sparsely inhabited upland regions, before they reach the rich soils of the alluvial plains at the centre of the province.

The most remote mountainous regions of Sichuan are populated by minority peoples. In the far west of the province, for example, there are large communities of Tibetans, and in the south, the Yi congregate around Liangshan. Perhaps these are the most attractive regions for the foreign visitor to explore. But there are more accessible and equally attractive destinations in Sichuan, such as the Buddhist caves of Dazu, the holy mountain of Emeishan, and the ethereally beautiful highland reserves of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong. Of the province’s major cities, visitors are most likely to visit Chengdu, the capital, and Chongqing, which in fact became independent from Sichuan when it was created a municipality in March 1997, before steaming east down the Yangzi.







Chengdu  
Chengdu may be a large, modern city, but its ways are more those of the countryside than the town. Life is taken at an easy pace, teahouses are always full, and market stalls overflow with an abundance of farm produce brought in from the surrounding villages. The city centre is softened by trees shading the pavements and wide boulevards. The old city hugs the Jin River in a tangled pattern of lanes overhung by two-storey frame houses painted a dusky red.

The city was once among the most splendid in China, with its own grand city walls (pulled down in 1949) and Vice-Regal Palace, destroyed in the 1960s. Today enormous changes to Chengdu’s downtown overwhelm the remains of its past history, and with these new developments much of its former charm.

In the rural western suburbs of Chengdu stands Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage. Du Fu (712–770) was a Tang poet who lived in Chengdu for a brief but productive period during which he wrote more than 200 poems. During the later Song Dynasty, a thatched cottage shrine was built in memory of the original cottage, which he described in the poem ‘My thatched cottage is wrecked by the autumn wind’. The present buildings date from 1500 and 1811, when major restorations were undertaken. In the front hall are two wooden screens, one of which has a biography of the poet carved out in Chinese characters. In the shrine itself stand clay figurines of Du Fu, which date from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The garden walks around the shrine are lovely, and many different types of bamboo have been planted to shade the paths. There is a lively teahouse in the grounds.

Set in the southern suburbs of the city are a series of halls called the Zhuge Liang Memorial Halls. They commemorate the great military strategist Zhuge Liang, who was adviser to the King of Shu in the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). The halls were first built in the fourth century, but the present buildings date from 1672. On display are three bronze drums, believed to have been used by the armies of Shu under Zhuge Liang.

Wenshu Yuan, also known as the Manjusri Temple, is located south of the railway station. The temple is dedicated to the God of Wisdom or, by his Sanskrit name, Manjusri. On the way to the entrance, you will walk down a narrow lane flanked by stalls selling all that is necessary for worshipping in the temple—‘hell money’ for burnt offerings, candles, firecrackers and so on. Wenshu Yuan is the headquarters of the Chan (Zen) Buddhist sect in Sichuan.

Finally, the Precious Light Monastery (Baoguang Si) is worth a visit. It was founded in the Han dynasty and houses a fine collection of Buddhist treasures as well as modern paintings. Its 1,000-year-old Sheli Pagoda is a beautiful structure which is Chengdu’s own version of a leaning tower—its top eight storeys tilt slightly to one side. A craft market held outside the monastery walls is popular with both local and foreign visitors.
 



The Road to Tibet

 
 
 
Public Security Bureau regulations concerning the openness of the the road to foreigners notwithstanding, the overland route to Tibet passes through hostile terrain making it a most difficult journey. The route west of Chengdu has been gradually opened to foreign tourist travel and it is now possible to travel overland from Chengdu west to Kangding, Batang, Litang, Derong and south into Yunnan province to Deqin and Zhongdian. Travel to Lhasa through eastern
Tibet is possible but special application must be made. Road conditions are variable at best and accommodation is rustic but the magnificent landscapes and traditional lifestyle of the Khampa Tibetans make this a memorable journey.

On the first day’s travel west escaping from the masses and humidity of the Sichuan Basin, buses reach Ya’an. The country to the west is wild and steeped with the history of the Red Army’s passage through the region in summer, 1935 on their Long March. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek came to Ya’an thinking he was finally going to wipe out Mao’s Red Army. At the very least he expected to prevent them crossing the torrent of the Dadu River at the town of Luding, an action which might have forced them to perish in remote western parts.

Miraculously, Mao’s forces captured ‘the Fixed Bridge of Lu’, named after the engineer who built it in 1701 for the Kangxi Emperor. Nationalists defending Luding Bridge had removed its wooden planks, leaving only bare chains, but miraculous heroism won the day. Mao’s forces escaped through northern Sichuan, evading the Nationalists completely by crossing high mountains and an uninhabited grassland plateau, before making their way towards northern Shaanxi to establish a new revolutionary base area.

Kangding, in the the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, is the next town west of Luding; it has remained Tibetan in character, despite recent influxes of Chinese settlers. Kangding is famous for being a historic trading town that marked the border between the Chinese and Tibetan worlds.

At Xinduqiao, the highway divides into two sections. The northern part goes through Ganzi, Maniganggo and the Chola Mountains, to Dege and Qamdo. The southern section goes via Batang. Both roads offer views from the high passes over the folded mountain mass of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Dege, on the northern run, is well worth a visit, since it has a traditional Buddhist printing press, where sutras are printed by hand from wood blocks. Also on the northern route is Qamdo, the largest town in eastern Tibet. The men of Qamdo have a reputation for being fierce warriors and hunters, who in earlier times made their living from banditry.

 




Minorities

 
 
 
Fourteen different minority groups live in Sichuan: the Tibetans, Yi, Miao, Qiang, Hui, Tujia, Bouyei, Naxi, Bai, Zhuang, Dai, Mongolian, Manchu and Lisu. Their communities are predominantly in the remote mountainous regions of the north, west and southwest of Sichuan, although several of these minorities can be found in other Chinese provinces as well. Many of their districts are being opened up by local authorities in order to attract foreign travellers and bring greater prosperity to the minorities. Of special interest are the Qiang people, who live in Maowen County, north of Chengdu. The Qiang are known for their small castle-like dwellings, which were built on hilltops. The castles are no longer inhabited, but they were made with such fine craftsmanship that they are still standing after several hundred years. Their women are skilled at needlework. To this day, they retain their distinctive dress of brilliant-coloured robes and cloth turbans decorated with tassels.