When we travelled in Yunnan I thought that the region was not very touristy, with a few areas almost unexplored.
We then planned a 10 days trip to Sichuan to cover mostly the top destinations and I now better understand what does mean unexplored.
Sichuan is a mountainous area located in the central part of China and bordering with Tibet. Access to this region is really challenging and difficult, even more since the very deadly earthquake in May 2008, with roads in some part of Sichuan still not rebuilt.
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Sichuan is maybe not that popular with Chinese tourism, due to the condition of the roads, and that’s why we definitely suggest a tour as soon as possible before the “modernization” will arrive
The mountain peaks in Sichuan are in the 6000 to 7000 meters range, more ancient than those of the nearby Himalayas, emerging from a foggy and wet climate that promotes the development of particularly thick vegetation.
A Chinese proverb says: “The path of Sichuan is harder than climbing to heaven (蜀道 难于上青天)”. A second famous saying (蜀 犬吠 日) refers to the constant rain in that province; the literal translation is: “In the land of Shu, the dog barks when the sun appears (the sun is like a stranger that the dog has never seen)”.
A guide to Sichuan, the breadbasket of China
Sichuan was historically known as the “breadbasket” of China.
Thanks to its climate and an efficient irrigation system, based on a thousand years of experience, Sichuan is one of the leading Chinese provinces in terms of agricultural production.
Obviously, you can find here the massively produced Sichuan pepper, the basic ingredient in the many types of Chinese cuisine.
Culinary Sichuan is famous for its spicy dishes, it is said in Chinese that it is a mala kitchen (麻辣, sesame and chilli). Get ready with your taste buds.
What are the most famous dishes?
Fondue and tofu Sichuan mapo.
Chengdu, capital of Sichuan
Most of the trips to Sichuan start from the capital, Chengdu.
Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan with about 15 million habitants. This is the starting point for your excursions in the Sichuan scenery.
The first settlement goes back to 4000 years ago (yes, four thousand), leading many historians to regard it as the oldest established city in the world.
Why visiting Chengdu
Chengdu is a city full of history with a phenomenal culinary tradition. This is where you will have one of the best and most popular food experience in China.
The Sichuan cuisine is well known worldwide and here we experienced the best of the best. There is a good reason why Chengdu is an officially recognised UNESCO City of Gastronomy 😀
Once the starting point of the southern Silk Road, Chengdu is a big place to discover.
It is the symbol of the economic development of China, a mix of ancestral culture and new technology.
You can walk around the new or the old part of the city, stopping from time to time at a tea house, a commonplace in the Chengdu tradition.
Plan a visit to the giant panda’s park, the symbol of China.
If you are after amazing, or unusual, architecture, place a visit to the very controversial New Century Global Centre, the largest building in the world. It is spread on 1.7 million square meters (170 hectares) of surface, about 4 times the size of the Vatican and 3 times the size of the Pentagon.
Unfortunately, the New Century Global Centre was in all the news also for a financial corruption scandal that brought a few politicians and the mayor of the city in jail.
Do you need another excuse for your visit?
That’s the aquatic centre inside the building, with an artificial beach of 5000 square meters and a setting sun on a giant screen. Where can you have a similar experience?
Danba Valley, from Tibet province to Sichuan
The Danba Valley, located in the western part of Sichuan, was part of the historic Tibet provinces.
Attached to Sichuan during the redrawing of the provinces by Mao, the Danba region has still a strong influence from the past Tibetan culture.
The local population is still a nomadic community that worship the gods of the sacred mountains of the region.
Here, the rural life persists to keep his Tibetan authenticity by establishing sustainable model villages. Even the 10 years of the Greater Western development policy, led by Beijing, did not alter the mountain environment.
That is in our opinion the top attraction of Sichuan, the authenticity of the local people and the link to the Tibetan past
Road and water infrastructure depict the landscape. The more we travel in this valley the more we understand the resistance of the inhabitants towards the changes imposed by the Modern China expansion.
It is always difficult for any government to find the balance between keeping the roots and moving forward and the Danba Valley is a clear example of this eternal dilemma.
The agricultural subsidies and decentralization policies try to control the minorities, however, thanks the local perseverance to keep the own tradition, we reckon there will be still plenty of time to experience an ancestral way of life in Sichuan, a way of life that does not want to change.
Jiaju, the ethnic village
The nearby village of Jiaju has been recognized by the Chinese National Geographic as one of the most beautiful villages in China.
The village is home to about 150 Tibetan families (Jiaju means one hundred families in the Tibetan language)
As soon as you arrive in Jiaju you will be surprised by the most famous attraction.
What is it?
The architecture of the local houses, with a unique style and aesthetic that take them apart from the rest of China.
The three colours painted on the house walls, doors and windows symbolize the local way of life: red for joy, white for happiness, both around the black, described as the demons.
The typical Jiaju houses are wood made, with a flat roof used to dry the grain crop, painted all around.
Some of them have been refurbished to the formal glory and they are now used to host the tourists of the valley.
Although Jiaju is clearly a top attraction in Sichuan, it has not over-developed. It is instead a major destination that has decided to develop as a sustainable village, based on autonomous energy, welcoming visitors in a framework of simple and authentic life.
This is the difference with many other Chinese top attractions, in Jiaju you feel part of the local life.
The inhabitants understand that tourism can actually safeguard their village, and they have developed this new economy integrating the visitors in their own Tibetan minority, being part of them instead that purely working for them.
Are you wondering where can you capture the best landscape of the village?
Walk on one of the house roofs. This is also an ideal spot to take pictures of the valley. Ask the owner first LOL
Suopo, the kingdom of the thousand towers
Has Suopo really one thousand towers?
Probably not as many, however, the remaining ones are clearly a top attraction, which is still a secret to most of the Chinese mainstream tourism.
There may be many reasons Suopo is still a “secret” destination. Distance and challenging roads are absolutely a factor however we want to believe again in the sustainable village growth system.
As Jiaju, Suopo has been trying to preserve the authenticity of the place attracting tourists interested to visit the towers and experience the mythological stories behind it.
Do not expect security measures to climb the towers. Expect instead authenticity from the local people as well as from the infrastructure of the tower, still as they used to be.
This is what fascinate and intrigue most of us because they have withstood the great earthquake that devastated part of Sichuan in 2008.
These towers are made of stones and soil, structurally sound wood beams, they have an average height of 60 meters and you can enjoy from the top a unique view of the Suopo valley.
Of the thousand recorded towers, half of them remains now and their ages are still controversial.
These towers are outstanding features of shaped star architecture, they can reach up to 13 different angles.
Can you visit the towers?
Yes, you can.
There are many real and mythological stories about these towers. It is said that the towers were used as warehouses where valuable goods were stored in the top levels.
Other stories say that they were used in case of siege and, considering they are still there after the 2008 earthquake, they were clearly built to resist incursions and attacks.
Walk around the village and you will most likely encounter one or more locals offering you access to a tower for a modest fee. Take the opportunity to shoot some outstanding photo of the village from the top.
Dangling, a remote village in the lost valley.
Is it true that the remotest villages and communities are the most interesting ones? We think so.
Once you are far away from the big cities you start feeling and seeing how the local communities actually live, and once you climb mountains and you explore remote valleys you start experiencing the original life of the local communities, never really involved in the progress of the country.
In the top places to see in Sichuan add this secret village called Dangling, the lost village.
Dangling is located in the Danba County, in the Sichuan Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
How to reach Dangling
This is not an easy and comfortable trip, be ready for four hours of the bumpy road from Danba; and once you start questioning why you decided to start this journey, here it is Dangling, the lost village in the bottom of a huge valley.
Magnificent snow-capped peaks, mountain lakes, outdoor hot-springs in the primeval forests, grasslands, rare flora and fauna and the humble welcoming spirit of the Tibetan people.
Harsh access, very undeveloped, ecosystem buildings in the middle of the breathtaking snowy mountains, alpine lakes, hot springs, yak pasture and virgin forests.
Dangling, the destination for the adventure travellers
Dangling is the ideal destination for the adventure travellers in search of wild nature, where the human progress seems never arrived and, even better, never stopped.
The mountain range that surrounds the Dangling Valley is composed of 28 snow-capped peaks with an altitude of over 5000 meters each.
The main peak, the sacred mountain of Xiaqiangla, is still revered by the local Tibetan population.
The Tibetan minority, that has long since set in this valley, often welcomes the visitor in their own home.
When you walk in the village, you soon realize how the ecotourism is the survival engine of the Tibetan families.
They develop and refurbish the houses with stones and wood from the nearby forest. All they offer to feed comes from their land. No packaged food. Ecotourism makes here absolutely sense.
Hot-springs of Dangling
If you made it to Dangling you deserve to have a bath at the local hot springs. Do not think anything fancy, expect the real thing.
They are located in two areas, the first one at Benmu (‘fire bath‘ in Tibetan), rich in sulphur. The other site is at Kabu (‘grassland bath‘), surrounded obviously by grassland.
The two springs are approximately 4 kilometres south of the Dangling village, the water level is the same all year round and the water close to the source can reach up to 75 degrees Celsius.
In winter, the enjoyment only gets better as you take the pleasure of bathing in the warm spring water meanwhile you indulge in the winter scenery covered with snow.
Trekking around Dangling
The 4 hours hiking in the high lake is one of the most beautiful and panoramic trekking from Dangling.
The climb of this mountain takes you through yaks and horses pastures where you can meet the local Tibetan herders.
Is there any lodge to eat and/or sleep?
There are few houses in the valley, some in the middle of the grassland, a perfect stop for a meal or a night in the mountains.
The beauty of the lake surrounded by the natural amphitheatre of glaciers and eternal snow is unfortunately spoiled by some abandoned garbage here and there.
Whenever a country rapidly moves towards the consumerism, the population tends to be unaware of the consequence of leftover rubbish.
A plastic bag does not dissolve in nature as well as the vegetables or fruit skin does. China has still some work to do in order to sensitize people towards respecting nature, a problem that can have vast consequences in future
Before leaving this dream valley, make a fire in an abandoned shepherds hut and spend the night there. Look up and admire the beauty of the sky so close and so far from the modernisation.
My experience in this beautiful land, still anchored to the old way of living, was crowned by an earthquake that made me feel the depth of my body as well as the power and the beauty of nature.
Tagong – The gateway to Tibet
Tagong is a small town in the Tibetan prefecture of Ganzi. It is located halfway between Kangding and Litang at an altitude of 3700m.
It is known for its scenic grasslands and the local Tibetan Buddhist culture. When you arrive in the Tagong area you are immediately taken by the small village’s charm and you feel something is sacred in the air.
This is definitely one of the top places to see in Sichuan, an area you don’t want to miss.
A long time ago, the Weng Cheng Chinese princess was on a trip to marry the emperor in Lhasa and she took with her the Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha statue as a gift.
When on the road to Lhasa, the princess crossed this Sichuan area and, according to the legend, the statue wanted to stop in Tagong.
The princess decided to make a copy of the statue and she left it here, Lhagang Monastery was born. Built around this lamasery, Tagong is the spiritual town announcing the Tibet’s kingdom.
Why coming to the Tagong area
Coming in the western Sichuan grassland means experiencing the culture and the Tibetan nomad life.
Once you arrive in Tagong, prepare yourself to horse trekking for several days. That will bring you in the mountains, near waterfalls and into the nomad huts to drink yak milk tea and sleep by the fire.
This is an opportunity to live a really amazing experience. If riding a horse is not your thing, you will be very limited with your transfers.
Here you find only real family business, not touristy business! You can also make a nice walk in the grassland to reach the Jiagunong village, authentic place of Buddhist pilgrimage.
The Jinlong Gompa Buddhist college
Leaving Lhakhang monastery you follow the Yala peak direction, another magnificent sacred mountain of Buddhism above 5700 meters, to reach the Jinlong Gompa Buddhist college.
Located in the middle of grassland, the monastery school brings together the young aspiring monks of the region.
We loved to share our time there with the monks. Curiosity was apparent for both them and us; it ended up in an awesome snowballing battle.
Once visiting the lamasery and its incredible wood architecture, have a walk up in the roof, you will be rewarded by a unique grassland panorama.
Locates next to lamasery’s college, there is the wonderful Serkyi Gyelgo hermitage.
Created by a Buddhist monk who lived several years in a cave as a hermit, this complex is built of thousands of tiles where Tibetan mantras are engraved.
The Tashi nunnery is also established around the hermitage, you will cross it coming from the Jinlong Gompa monastery.
It’s a worship stop for many pilgrims that go around the hermitage by turning the prayer mills. Around the hermitage building, made of plate tiles, you will find the artisans offering their colourful works.
You can decide to spend some time here, stay in this very authentic village and even follow Buddhist classes, another way to experience the Tibetan life.
Hundreds of white and pink prayer flags are sitting above the village, on the hillside.
On this same hillside, there is also an area reserved for sky burials or funerals. Here parts of the dead body are left to feed the birds, mostly vultures.
The nomad and religious Tibetan life are full of surprises.
Any person you meet will leave you something to think. Inspiration and spiritual enrichment in a magnificent landscape, between mountains and grassland.
Coming to Tagong is a life experience that will stay always with you.
Sichuan Travel & Photography Tips
- Don’t forget that the Sichuan region is huge and some road have been destroyed so every journey can take lots of time. (organize your trip in advance, don’t waste your precious time without a list of top places to see in Sichuan)
- You are in the Tibetan region and not all adults speak mandarin. Sometimes it’s easier to speak to a child if you have minimal knowledge of Mandarin
- All the buses arrive in Danba (the main city) but we advise you to visit more than Danba, at least Jiaju and Suopo.
- In these ethnic villages, you should negotiate a price which includes room and food (they usually provide real homemade fresh food from the garden, amazing )
- Best spots for a village photo: the rooftop in Jiaju and the top of the towers in Suopo
- Wait for the sunrise or sunset and go for an excursion around the local hills for the best view of the villages. Well worth the climb
- Travel to the Dangling valleys in October and November, the area will be covered by a colourful forest at that time but it is, of course, the time of the year with more tourists
- Once in Danba negotiate with the taxi driver a return trip and not just a single way. Once deep in the mountains, it will be much harder to negotiate!
- Take ear plugs if you are a light sleeper: Tibetan music starts at 4am and it keeps going the all day… (like Indian mantra)
- Plan to stay a few days in the Tagong area and make some horse trekking with the Tibetan families.
- Climb the hill above Tagong and contemplate the area, just take your time, you will never forget
- Enjoy the Tibetan food, easy to say for any culture however this one has a special taste!
What did we miss in our Sichuan Travel Itinerary?
In 10-15 days it is impossible to cover the top destinations. We built a Sichuan travel itinerary that covered the most interesting things.
We were interested in the first contact with the Tibetan culture and we definitely had it.
We had unfortunately to cut two top destinations: Mount Emei with Leshan Giant Buddha and Jiuzhaigou, a national park in the north of the province.
With a longer trip, we would definitely include both.
This post was written in collaboration with Remi Lesueur, our China expert