Tag: Sichuan

Jiuzhaigou National Park

Of the 9 total Tibetan villages located inside the park boundaries, 7 of these are still active.  Because the park is now a nationally protected treasure these villages no longer practice agriculture but most of these villagers make their money off tourism in the park.

Sometimes referred to as the “Yellowstone National Park of China” Jiuzhaigou is one of the most beautiful national parks in all of China.  But please be aware that in 2016 the park hosted  5.14 million visitors and most of these are Chinese nationals.  June, July, August, and October Holiday (October 1-8) is especially the tourist high season and you can expect to encounter large crowds and long lines at the park in these times. As an American I feel these crowds take away from the natural wonder of the park and would try to avoid visiting the park in peak season times if at all possible.

The fall foliage in September and October is spectacular in the park,  with dramatic leaf colors of yellow, orange, and red, and we recommend visiting Jiuzhaigou in the off season between September 1 to May 15.

After recovering from an August 2017 earthquake the park is restored and tourism is alive and active in this region.

If you are looking to view the blue lakes, dramatic waterfalls, and pristine forests of Jiuzahigou you can view a sample tour here that travels from Xining to Chengdu:

Jiuzhaigou tour.

You can also contact us anytime at:    info@elevatedtrips.com

 

The History of Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou is full of history and whimsy across its 9 villages and its breathtaking alpine lakes. According to legend, a goddess accidentally dropped a mirror and the mirror immediately broke into 108 pieces, forming 108 colorful lakes across the park’s ecosystem.  108 also happens to be a holy number in Tibetan Buddism as there are 108 teachings of Buddha and each Tibetan prayer rosary contains 108 beads to help practitioners remember these teachings. Each scenic spot here has it’s own unique legends and we recommend spending some time with a translator to hear some of these amazing stories from local villagers inside the park.

There are nine villages dispersed over the alpine lakes.
Here is one of the nine villages

 

The Culture of Jiuzhaigou

Despite the high number of tourists that visit this park, the total population of the Tibetan villages in Jiuzhai Valley remains only at 1,000, with just over 110 families. While the valley was officially discovered by the government in 1972, the record of earliest human activities here dates back to the Yin-Shang Dynasty, somewhere in the period of  the 16th – 11th Century B.C. Before the 1960s, Tibetans in Jiuzhaigou lived a fully self-sufficient life and were almost completely cut off from the outside world. Then in the 1970s, Chinese loggers discovered these rich forests and the park was soon throttled into the national spotlight as a mystical Shangri-La and a place of impressive wonder.

The nine Tibetan Villages
The nine Tibetan Villages

Most Tibetans in Jiuzhaigou mainly believe in the animistic religion that predates Buddhism known as Bon or Bonpo.   Bon bears some similarities to Tibetan Buddhism but also separates itself from Buddhism as an official religion.  Most notably, Bon followers will walk around a monastery or a holy pilgrimage counter-clockwise, unlike Buddhist pilgrims who will always circumambulate a holy site in a clockwise direction.  Much of Tibetan Buddism actually incorporated the teachings of the original Buddha with the animistic practices of Bon and

Jiuzhaigou is one of the few areas on the Tibetan Plateau where this native form of Shamanism is still regularly practiced.

There are over 60 Benbo monasteries in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture.

There are over 60 Bonbo monasteries in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture and Jiuzhaigou is right in the heart of this uniquely religious area.

With religion deeply planted at the center of every Tibetan life, do not be surprised to find Tibetans practicing worship in the form of lighting butter lamps or hanging colorful prayer flags in auspicious locations to appease local deities and spread good karma.  Tibetans will often make a pilgrimage to important spiritual locations in the mountains and rivers and will throw up small square white pieces of paper that in Tibetan are called Lungta.  Lungta literally translates to “wind horse” and it is thought that these paper horses carry the prayers of those who throw them as they float on the wind across the landscape.  If you see Tibetans spreading these lungta at holy sites you will also hear them cry, “Victory to the gods!” in Tibetan as they whoop and holler and celebrate these beautiful places. Part of the attraction of Jiuzhaigou is not only the beautiful scenery but the idea that this culture has remained so faithful to these teachings and practices for so many centuries.

 

The Benbo and Tibetan Buddhists worship and make sacrifices to natural Gods.
The Bonbo and Tibetan Buddhists worship and make sacrifices to spirits of the water and the land.

You may also find vertical prayer poles in Jiuzhaigou. These colorful banners are called “Geda” in Tibetan which means the banner on the gate. These banners draw from a Mizong tradition from the central plains of China and are often seen dotting  road to Jiuzhaigou as a symbol of peace and prosperity.

The banners, clad in the 5 colors of the earth, can vary in length from  7 meters to 25 meters depending on the particular intention of the banner.  Some of these banners are used as prayers for the yearly barley harvest while other banners are for instruction on the teachings of the Buddha Sakyamuni.  But all the banners contain prayers which are thought to release prayers into the wind for the benefit of villagers who hoist them across the park .

 

It is a kind of reciting scriptures when the religious banners are affected by wind.

Another popular spiritual symbol you will find throughout the park is the Tibetan prayer wheel. Prayer wheels can be seen everywhere within the region. Some of these wheels are turned by water features like flowing rivers while others are turned by wind and still others (large and small alike) are turned by human hands.  These wheels contain many small pieces of paper containing scriptures and it is thought that by spinning the wheels prayers of compassion are released for all sentient beings.

The Customs of Jiuzhaigou

About five hundred years ago, the father of Jiuzhaigou migrated to here from Ngari, Tibet. Since that time until now, the Tibetan villagers have coexisted peacefully next to many diverse peoples including the local Qiang, Huis and Hans. Today, the original  Tibetan traditions are still a major part of village daily life, including  traditions in marriage, funeral arrangements, and clothing, and dance.   Seeing the colors and rhythms of  a Tibetan circle dance is definitely one of the highlights of the visit to Jiuzhaigou.

 

Lively Tap Dance
A Colorful Tibetan dance in a local square

Butter tea
Yak butter tea

Tibetans also still consume traditional  foods in Jiuzhaigou.  In particular you may get to sample some yak meat or freshly roasted lamb meat along with Tsampa, a powder made from barley flour and rolled into a playdough like ball and usually eaten for breakfast.  You may also get to sample homemade Tibetan barley wine, know as Qiang, or fresh yak yoghurt depending on the season.

We hope you enjoy your visit to Jiuzhaigou National Park!

Mala Tang (麻辣烫): Tasting Chinese Street Food

Malatang (simplified Chinese: 麻辣烫; traditional Chinese: 麻辣燙; pinyin: málàtàng; literally: “spicy numbing hot [soup]”), is a common type of Chinese street food that is especially popular in Beijing but can be found all over China. It originated in Sichuan Province, but the regional varieties differ mainly from the Sichuanese version in that the Sichuanese version is more similar to what in northern China would be described as hot pot.

Malatang is named after its key ingredient, mala sauce, which is flavored with a combination of Sichuan pepper (which represents the “ma” or the numbing flavor) and dried chili pepper (which represents the “la” or the spicy sauce) . The word málà is composed of the Chinese characters for “numbing” (麻) and “spicy (hot)” (辣), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce.

Malatang is said to originate from the Yangtze River near Sichuan. In ancient times, boating was a big industry and many people made a living by towing boats. Working under the damp and foggy weather made boat trackers feel very sick. And when they were hungry, they cooked herbs in a pot and put Sichuan pepper and ginger into the soup to eliminate dampness. Malatang was created, then vendors discovered the business opportunity, and spread it throughout China. And now it is becoming an international food sensation.

Unlike hot pot, which is made to order and shared only by diners at a private table, malatang originates from street food cooked in a communal pot. Diners can quickly pick their raw veggies and noodles and meats, and either eat on the spot or take away. In addition to largely being considered a street food in China, there have been many excellent chain restaurants that have sprung up in the last 10 years and these restaurants offer a great variety of sauces and ingredients (as you can see in the video above).

Skewers

Some malatang shops charge a flat rate per skewer and you can get as many skewers as you like, depending on how hungry you are. Typically a table with a big and flat saucepan is set up on the street, with a large number of ingredients in skewers being cooked in a mildly spicy broth. Customers sit around the table and pick out whatever they want to eat. Given the large number of ingredients available, normally not all ingredients are in the saucepan at the same time, and customers may suggest what is missing and should be added.

All skewers normally cost the same. In Beijing as of June 2012 they cost one RMB each (or about 1/6 of a US dollar). Customers keep the used wooden sticks by their plates, and when a customer finishes eating, the price to pay is determined by counting the number of empty sticks.

Self-service selection of ingredients at a malatang shop, with vegetables and noodles in the foreground and fish and meat in the back

 

A ready bowl of malatang soup

By weight

In the mid-2010s malatang shops became popular in North China, especially Beijing. In these shops the ingredients are usually displayed on shelves, and customers put their desired ingredients into a bowl, like choosing food from a buffet. Behind the counter the selected ingredients are cooked in a spicy delicious savory broth, usually at very high temperature for 3–4 minutes. Before serving, malatang is typically further seasoned with lots of garlic, black pepper, Sichuan pepper, chili pepper, sesame paste, and crushed peanuts (and these condiments can also be prepared in a separate side dish that makes for very enjoyable dipping ). The price is calculated based on the weight of the self-selected ingredients (just as you would weigh a frozen yoghurt and pay based on weight at the counter). In Beijing,  one person’s bowl might weigh half a kilogram usually costs between 15-20 RMB as of November 2015. And most malatang bowls outside of Beijing also cost around 15 RMB, making this a very affordable and interesting option for lunch or dinner. And- if you are feel like sharing, you and 1-2 other friends can lump all your ingredients in one huge communal bowl and can eat the same soup out of one pot.  That is what all the besties and couples in China do, anyway 🙂

 

Common ingredients

Here is the stuff you usually get to pick from in this “Choose Your Own Adventure” soup:

  • bean curd
  • beef (chunks)
  • dumplings
  • fish balls
  • lettuce
  • spinach
  • broccoli
  • other mixed greens (including cilantro, cabbage, and onions)
  • lotus root
  • all sorts of mushrooms
  • fresh and instant noodles
  • pork liver
  • pork lung
  • fresh seaweed
  • potato slices
  • quail eggs
  • Spam
  • Chinese yam
  • sheep intestines
  • numerous types of dried and frozen tofu (chunks, squares, balls, etc.)
  • various flat and long noodles made from potato and rice powder
  • nian gao rice cakes

 

So there you go!  I hope you get out into some local markets and try this amazing culinary delight!

 

Visiting the Pandas of Chengdu

 

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally “black and white cat-foot”) has a very cute name in  Chinese: 大熊猫; pinyin: dà xióng māo.  This literally means “Big bear cat”.  The giant panda is also known more commonly as the panda bear or simply panda, and is a bear native to south central China, particularly the lush bamboo forests of Sichuan Province.

It is easily recognized by the large, distinctive black patches around its eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. The name “giant panda” is sometimes used to distinguish it from the unrelated red panda. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the giant panda’s diet is over 99% bamboo. Giant pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents, or carrion. In captivity, they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food.

Here are 10 facts from WWF, the World Wildlife Foundation (whose logo is actually a giant panda) about these cuddly animals:

 

10. The first panda came to the United States in 1936—a cub to a zoo in Chicago. It took another 50 years before the States would see another.

9. A newborn panda cub is 1/900th the size of its mother and is comparable to the length of a stick of butter.

8. A panda’s paw has six digits—five fingers and an opposable pseudo-thumb (actually an enlarged wrist bone) it uses merely to hold bamboo while eating.

7. Of all the members of the bear family, only sloth bears have longer tails than pandas.

6. Pandas rely on spatial memory, not visual memory.

5. Female pandas ovulate once a year and are fertile for only two or three days.

4. The giant panda’s genome was sequenced in 2009, according to the journal Nature.

3. The WWF logo was inspired by Chi-Chi, a giant panda brought to the London Zoo in 1961, when WWF was being created. Says Sir Peter Scott, one of those founders and the man who sketched the first logo: “We wanted an animal that is beautiful, is endangered and one loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities. We also wanted an animal that had an impact in black and white to save money on printing costs.”

2. Historically speaking, pandas are one of the few animals whose parts have not been used in traditional Chinese medicine.

1. Approximately 99 percent of a panda’s diet—bamboo leaves and shoots—is void of much nutritional value. Its carnivore-adapted digestive system cannot digest cellulose well, thus it lives a low-energy, sedentary lifestyle but persists in eating some 60 species of bamboo. Pandas must eat upwards of 30 pounds of bamboo daily just to stay full.

 

Here are details on tickets and entry
Entrance tickets= 55 RMB/ adult
Kids under 120cm are free
Also the cost to ride the park’s golf cart shuttle is  an extra 10 RMB/ seat. The Panda Base is quite big and you will find yourself walking 5-10 km in a course of 3 hours to fully explore the entire site.  If you are traveling with young kids, have a disability, or are just short on time you might want to think about taking the shuttle as it will save you about 1 hour of walking.
Be aware that you are only allowed on 2 trips total for the shuttle (one out from the gate and one directly back to the entrance gate).
Generally, you buy the shuttle tickets right after the entrance to the park and the park shuttle takes you to the furthest point in the park.  From there you can get off and make your way slowly by foot back down to the entrance as you explore the various Panda exhibits.  At any point when you are ready to exit, you can jump back on the shuttle and it will take you directly back to the main entrance. Do not get back on the shuttle until you are ready to exit as the shuttle does not transport you from one exhibit to the next.
Park Hours:
9-6pm (Summer)
9-5pm (Winter)
(Check these hours)
There is a Bank of China ATM hidden to the right of the entrance. The park gate Accepts Wechat and Alipay and Chinese Yuan (or RMB).

The Best Snacks of Sichuan

Sichuan cuisine is a style of Chinese cuisine originating from Sichuan Province in Southwest China. If you are a newbie to this kind of food, Sichuan dishes will surprise you with their bold flavor and spiciness, mainly from the large use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the minty and slightly numbing flavor of the famous Sichuan pepper. Our advice is to be bold and give it a try.

In this article we will offer some insight on the most popular and delicious Sichuan snacks!

Liangfen ( 凉粉 )

Liangfen is a common but quite popular Sichuan snack which is served cold. In fact, the name Liangfen simply means “cold noodles”.  It is generally a white, almost translucent, thick starch jelly, made from mung bean starch, but it also can be made from pea or potato starch.

The starch is boiled with water resulting in a viscous paste that is spread on a pan in the form of a sheet and then cut into thick strips. The liangfen strips are then served cold in a bowl with sesame paste, soy sauce and chili oil, seasoned with pieces of carrot, chopped green onion, fresh coriander and crushed garlic. This snack although served cold will warm up your body due to its spiciness and rich flavor. It is really an amazing combination of hot and cold in one dish.

 

Suan La Fen ( 酸辣粉 )

Suan La Fen, aka “Hot and sour sweet potato noodles”, is a well known Sichuan street snack. The main ingredient behind this snack is the thick sweet potato noodles which are much chewier than common flour-based noodles or the instant noodles you may have eaten in college. These noodles are served in a warm stock of either pork bone or chicken bone and is seasoned with tones of pre-fried garlic in chili oil, vinegar, sesame oil, light soy sauce and the Chinese five spices powder. The topping varies from red braised beef, minced pork sauce, or red braised large intestines combined with chopped green onion, fried peanuts and pickled mustard. You can find this snack in almost every city in China, so just give it a go.

 

La Tiao ( 辣条)

La Tiao is one of the most popular snacks in China and it got its international fame in 2016 when this snack was haphazardly featured in a BBC documentary about Chinese New Year celebrations. Apparently the 2 commentators were eating this snack during the filming of the documentary and the audience picked up on this little detail in a big way! Now it is becoming an international sensation!  This snack consists of tofu skins fried in a mixture of water, soy sauce, fresh ginger, sugar, salt, Sichuan pepper, chili powder, myrcia and Chinese fennel species. The end result is similar to potato chips but much richer in taste and pretty spicy. Although very delicious, this snack is rich in gluten, so if you’re gluten sensitive you might want to stay away from this one.

 

Niu Rou Gan ( 牛肉干 )

This is a very traditional snack that is commonly given as a gift amongst Chinese people. If you are wondering what souvenir to bring your father or uncle – look no further! Niu Rou Gan explained in simple words is a spicy dry beef jerky, however there is more to it. This is so much more than just Jack Links jerky! The beef meat undergoes a three step process: boiling, stir-frying, and drying. During the first two steps the meat will be treated with diverse spices like Sichuan pepper, bay leaves, anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds, cardamom, sesame seeds, chili and many more. Therefore, when slowly chewing on this snack you can slowly taste the full spectrum of flavors derived from the spices. This one is especially good if you can manage to find it made from yak meat!  The yak meat is a little richer than cow in taste and usually is 100% grass fed straight from the high open plains of the Tibetan Plateau!

 

Baozi (包子)

 

The world knows this as a steamed bun, but China knows this as Baozi. This snack- often eaten as a breakfast staple by most local Chinese- is a simple but delicious bread-like bun, filled with meat or vegetables and then steamed, usually in a wooden wicker basket. The meat baozi is usually filled with a mixture of ground pork and sliced pork belly, as the extra fat ensures that the filling remains mouthwatering and juicy. The vegetarian baozi on the other hand is filled with various combinations of mixed savoy cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and rice all seasoned with soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, salt and sugar. In the end, every one has their own favorite baozi, as there is a wide selection of it.

Personally, I could eat carrot and potato baozi all day long!

Danba

Danba used to be an important stop on the Tea and Horse Caravan that traded Chinese tea for Tibetan salt and horses.  One look at the surrounding terrain and it is not hard to imagine that it must have been a grueling journey to get here with 200 pound backpacks full of tea leaves over the treacherous mountain passes. Even today, to reach Danba you have to travel through almost 100 km of nearly continuous interlinked tunnels that penetrate through the steep cliffs that protect the area. As you pass through these concrete tunnels, remember the coulies who had no shoes on their feet and had to walk the very craggy mountains that you now are driving under. 

Danba county varies greatly in altitude, from peaks that are as high as 5,820 meters to river valleys as low as 1,700 meters. The Big Jinchuan and Small Jinchuan Rivers meet here, marking the beginning of the Dadu River.

The county’s landscape varies a great deal and can change quickly in vertical relief, from the high-altitude snow-capped mountains to the low altitude grasslands and valleys.

Danba is the hometown of Jiarong Tibetans, a small subgroup of Tibetans who are known for residing in the lowest part of the entire Tibetan Plateau.  Because of the relatively low altitude (at 1,893 meters/ 6,211 feet) this is a very isolated and fertile valley.  While many other Tibetans often struggle to eek out a living by herding yaks on the unforgiving, windswept grasslands and alpine tundra at 4,000 meters, the Jiarong Tibetans have the benefit of some of the richest (and warmest) cropland available in all of western China. It is not uncommon to see piles of corn or basketfuls of Sichuan peppercorn adorning the large 4 story stone houses that Danba is so famous for.

Usually distributed along the southern mountain slopes and facing the sun for optimal solar radiation,  the whitewashed homes consist of three or four stories, all made of local stone.  Each of these large castle-like homes houses an extended family and is surprising in its elaborate architecture. The exterior walls of the top floors are usually painted yellow, black, or dark red and  are decorated with the patterns of the heavens and other religious designs. The ground floor is usually used for feeding and bedding livestock, while the upper floors contain the hearth and heart of the home: the kitchen, storeroom, living room, and scripture hall. On the 4 corners of the roof there are 4 white turrets which are used to offer sacrifices  to the local deities thought to govern the nearby hills, trees, rivers and fields. Prayer flags hanging around the houses ripple in the wind, adding more charm and color to the already ripe green and yellow fields of the region.

Outside the handcrafted homes, orchards of apples, pears, peaches and pomegranates adorn the outer pastures of the valley. In the hillside fields villagers plant crops such as highland barley, rapeseed, corn, and potatoes and these crops enjoy a much longer growing season that almost any other part of the Tibetan Plateau.

Claimed as the “most beautiful ethnic village in China” by Chinese National Geographic The Danba Valley is actually divided into several small villages.  While there are a few luxury hotels in the area, most tourists find themselves cozying up in the stone castle-homes of the friendly Jiarong Tibetans for a delightful homestay experience, sometimes even complete with Yak Butter Tea and an ethnic Jiarong dance. The principal villages that you are likely to encounter as a tourist include: Zhonglu 中路, Jiaju 甲居, and Sopo 梭坡. There are entrance fees in each of these places although many times if you get there after 6:00pm you will find the ticket collectors have gone home for the night. Of the three villages, Sopo 梭坡 has the greatest number of watchtowers although Jiaju and Zhonglu certainly see the greatest numbers of visitors.

Jiaju Tibetan Village and Zhonglu Tibetan Village

Lying in the north of Danba, Jiaju Tibetan Village in Niexia town stands out from all the other villages. It is about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the county town and occupies an area of 1,200 acres (486 hectares), with more than 140 families residing here. Generally speaking, a house is owned and occupied  by one just one extended family. Some houses have a more convenient location right in the center of the village while others are farther away from the village gossip and activity. Stepping into the Tibetan homes, you will find yourself in a world of wonder. The walls, beds, and cabinets are all adorned with delightful patterns such as lotuses, trees, rivers, mountains, and lamas in various bright colors,. 

You can spend the whole day wandering around the village and exploring the marvelous interior of local Tibetan homes with beautiful stone and wood work. The entrance fee was 50 RMB as of August 2016, however if you come after 6pm, nobody will be there to charge. There are plenty of houses to sleep in across the village as most villagers are accustomed to housing visitors and showing them local hospitality.  Accommodation prices vary from 40 – 100 RMB per night per person, and homestays may include a freshly cooked local dinner.

Aside from Jiaju Tibetan Village, the Tibetan houses in Zhonglu Town and Badi Town are very famous too. The narrow winding road from Jiaju brings you further into the mountains to Zhonglu, less visited than Jiaju, but equally beautiful. The Zhonglu village is surrounded by forest, so if you are looking for a relaxed nature walk you may find this interesting. 

Both Jiaju and Zhonglu are are authentic and traditional Tibetan villages where you can still find locals picking Sichuan peppercorns in their hand woven baskets or up in a tree picking the fruit from their pear trees.  Jiaju Village is more popular for tourists because it has more houses, while Zhonglu is more secluded and fewer travelers go there.

Suopo Stone Watchtowers (Diaolou)

Suopo has in total 84 watchtowers, the largest concentration in the area, and as such is the best place to see Danba watchtowers. One can view the plethora of towers from across the road or can walk through the village for a closer look. The history of these stone towers dates back to around 2000 years ago. Local Jiarong Tibetans claim that these towers were constructed mainly as a result of battles their ancestors had in defending their local lands and wealth.  Although apparently the towers have also been used as spiritual high places to exorcise unwanted demons and spirits from harassing the Danba Valley. 

Dangling

Located 68 km northwest to the town of Danba, Dangling is a gallery of natural alpine lakes, forest, hot springs, grassland and a perfect hiking destination in Sichuan. Thankfully, it is still a relatively undeveloped and untouched place in Tibetan area of northwest Sichuan. Over 24 mountains here hover over 5,000 meters and many of these still remain unclimbed and unexplored even in 2018.

Whether you go for the nature, the culture, or the architecture, a trip to Danba is surely going to be a trip of a life time and is certainly worth 2-3 days of your travel itinerary.

Ten things to know before visiting Chengdu

Here are 10 interesting things for you to think about when planning your trip to Chengdu…

  1. Visit the home of the Giant Panda.

Chengdu is probably most famous for being the home of one of China’s great treasures, the magnificent giant pandas. This creature’s name in Chinese is XiongMao 熊猫 and that literally means “Bear Cat”.   Both Chinese and foreign tourists flock to the panda centers of Chengdu to view these unique creatures in their natural humid bamboo habitat. While pandas are technically considered omnivores, and do occasionally eat small animals and fish, bamboo makes up 99% of their diet.  Every day a single panda may gnaw lazily on bamboo for up to 12 hours and may eat as much as 12kg of the plant in that time.

The panda is an internationally recognized icon of China and is strictly protected by the Chinese government. The research being done to ensure pandas continue to flourish in China is led by top researchers in Chengdu. The entire country rejoices when news of a new panda cub’s birth is announced. They are very proud of the creatures and the work being done to protect them. Sadly, these beautiful bears are endangered, and it’s estimated that only around 1,000 giant pandas remain in the wild today. That’s why we need to do all we can to protect them!

For those with an interest in conservation and preservation efforts, the panda research centers offer informative programs and viewing opportunities that allow the public access to the efforts to save the giant panda. Some of the top places to interact with this preservation include: the Panda Breeding and Research Center, the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, and the Dujiangyan Panda Base.

2. Chengdu offers amazing museums

Chengdu offers many historical and cultural museums for those with an interest in Chinese history and development. Some of the best museums to visit are the:

Sanxingdui Archeological Site and Museum in Guanghan

Go back in time 1000’s of years as you venture 40 km northeast  of Chengdu to the the Sanxingdui Archeological Site, offering a trove of  artifacts that date back as far back as the Bronze Age.  Exhibitions in this museum date as far as 5000 years, with a wide range of relics such as bronze masks, jade articles, and some interesting gold pieces. It is the largest museum in southwest China, with a vast array of precious relics that reflect it’s name as “the origin of the Yangtze River civilization”.

In 1986 two major sacrificial pits were unearthed that stirred academic attention around the world. Archeologists realized that the relics found at these pits and subsequent discoveries were the remains of a previously unknown city and civilization that existed during the Shang Dynasty period (1600–1046 BC).

Wenchuan Earthquake Museum

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake, aka the “Great Wenchuan Earthquake” occurred at 2:28pm on May 12, 2008.  Measuring a 8.0 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake’s epicenter was located 80 kilometres (50 mi) west/northwest of Chengdu.

 

The earthquake was also felt in nearby countries and as far away as both Beijing and Shanghai—1,500 km (930 mi) and 1,700 km (1,060 mi) away respectively—where office buildings swayed with the tremors of the earthquake. Strong aftershocks, some exceeding a 6 on the Richter Scale,  continued to hit the area up to several months after the main quake, causing further casualties and damage.

Over 69,000 people lost their lives in the quake, including 68,636 in Sichuan province. 374,176 people were reported injured, with 18,222 listed as missing as of July 2008.  The earthquake left about 4.8 million people homeless, though the number could be as high as 11 million.  This has been rated the 21st deadliest earthquake of all time.

The Wenchuan Earthquake museum preserves this event and details the relief work after the earthquake and holds a monument to the earthquake victims  The museum also models the Wenchuan earthquake site, offering audio, visual, and tactile  simulations to help visitors understand the size and feel of the earthquake.

3. Chengdu locals speak a different dialect of Mandarin.

In many parts of China, the local dialect differs from “Putonghua” or standard Mandarin. Provincial dialects are often difficult to understand and differentiate between, even for native speakers. In the Sichuan province this dialect is known as Sichuanese or “Sichuan Hua”. 

Notoriously, “Sichuan Hua” tends to blur the stronger “SH” sound into simply the hissing of an “Ssss”.  Classically many visitors find it hard to barter about price because the “Shi” of the number ten ends up sounding a whole lot like the “Si” of the number four. But not to worry – most vendors carry calculators so that helps bridge the divide as you negotiate and haggle 🙂

4. The food is some of the best (and spiciest) in China!

Have you ever been to Chinese restaurant in the west and seen a menu listing “Szechuan Beef” or “Szechuan Chicken”?  That is an variant spelling of Sichuan and indicates that these dishes have made it all the way around world, albeit a little changed for the western palate. If you ask anyone in China where to find the spiciest food, they will tell you its in Sichuan Province. Chengdu is famous for its spicy hot pot and many other mouth tingling dishes. This is because of the world famous Sichuan peppercorn  that is grown in the region. The spice gives a numbing feeling to all the dishes it is used in, which is a great favorite with the Chinese palate. It may take some getting used to at first, but the spicy food of Chengdu is a regional cuisine not to be missed. 

5. Sichuan opera is a classical Chinese art form.

Chengdu is an excellent place to witness a performance of a traditional Sichuan Opera. Sichuan Opera is like the precursor for today’s rioting Cirque Du Soleil performances with features including acrobatics, fire spitting, and illusionists. Among some of the greatest illusions are the magical “face changing” acts which are a a celebrated tradition and part of one of the oldest regional opera cultures. This unique performance is practiced almost exclusively in Sichuan and the best masters of the art can be seen in Chengdu. 

6.The Leshan Giant Buddha and other marvels

Many of the ancient sites around Chengdu reflect the influence of Buddhism, as well as the agricultural history of the region.

In particular, the Leshan Giant Buddha, or  乐山大佛, is a huge statue which is carved into the stone on the side of Mount Lingyun. The stone sculpture faces Mount Emei, with the rivers flowing below its feet. It is the largest and tallest stone Buddha statue in the world and it is by far the tallest ancient statue in the world. The Giant Buddha is about 71 meters high and 24 meters wide. Just the feet alone have an 8.5 meter wide instep, an area large enough to accommodate 100 people. The big toe itself is large enough to accommodate a dinner table.

The statue depicts a seated Maitreya Buddha with his hands resting on his knees. The Maitreya is thought to be the future Buddha, who will appear to preach the dharma (teachings of Buddha) when the teachings of Gautama Buddha have long been forgotten. The construction began in 713 AD during the Tang Dynasty and was completed in 803 AD.

As the platforms inside the scenic spot are steep and narrow and can get quite congested with tourists, taking a boat on the adjacent river may provide a better way for tourists who are not good at climbing to view the fullness of this huge Buddha. Taking a boat to look up at the Giant Buddha is highly recommended in peak tourist season (July-October).

Several drainage passages are hidden in the Buddha’s hair, collar, chest, and in the holes in the back of his ears and chest,  and these prevent the Buddha from serious erosion and weathering under the heavy Sichuan rains. The buddha has been carefully maintained on a regular basis throughout his 1,200-year history, however moss does grow on the statue.But for something this old, it is really remarkably preserved. 

If you are looking to better understand Buddhism and historical architecture inside the city limits, you may also want to check out, the Wenshu Monastery, the Wu Hou Temple, the Dufu Thatched Cottage, and the Jinli Old Walking Street.

7. Chengdu is a regional migration magnet.

Chengdu is the second largest city in the western half of China (after Chongqing) and one of the cities in China with the most potential for international investment. Many international and large national companies operate in Chengdu, which draws a large population of young working people both internationally and locally. 

The city is vibrant with the spirit and the spice of its economy. Old meets new on its busy streets as some of the oldest tradition and meals can be eaten and observed alongside modern developments and state of the art research. Chengdu provides a unique view into the fascinating leap China has made into being a global power. If you want to see a unique blend of old and new China, Chengdu is one excellent place to start.

8. Chengdu has the biggest building in the world!

The New Century Global Center is about twice the size of both the previous mall record holder in Dubai and the biggest mall in Guangdong called the New South China Mall. It is designed to be a self-contained town.

The center is a mall on steroids and is 18 stories high and a colossal 1.5 million square meters (16 million square feet) in area. Built in 2013, it contains a water park, IMAX theater, and 2 hotels with 1,000 rooms, as well as many, many high end stores.

9. You should visit in the fall

While visiting Chengdu is popular amongst local Chinese tourists from June to August, Chengdu summers can be both hot and crowded. The temperatures in Chengdu often resemble the spice of its food — sweltering hot! Visiting Chengdu from September- November ensures that you avoid the sweltering summers, gloomy winters, and the rainy season from spring to summer. Fall provides cool temperatures and easier transportation for visitors looking to see the most Chengdu has to offer. (Just avoid the October Holiday from October 1-7!)

10. Awesome hiking opportunities

Four Sisters Mountain

Mount SiGuNiang is also known as the Four Sisters Mountain Range.  Here there are 4 distinct peaks and the highest of these is Peak 4 (aka YaoMei) at 6,250 meters. You can start the hike at RiLong village which is  about 240 km away from downtown Chengdu and this trip takes about 7-8 hours to drive.   The most accessible peak of the Four Sisters is Peak 1, known as DaFeng Peak at 5025 meters. DaFeng peak is considered the easiest peak among the peak to summit as it requires no technical experience.  Peak 2 (ErFeng Peak) at 5276 meters  is a bit more challenging as it involves some basic mountaineering and some technical climbing equipment. Peak 3 and Peak 4 are longer trips and require a higher level of mountaineering. Trips to summit Peak 1 can usually be accomplished in 8 days with  3-4 days of trekking and 2 days of round trip driving. 

Gonga Shan

An 8 hour drive from Chengdu, Kangding is like a sort of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with quick access into the impressive mountains all around it. Just a short 30 minute walk up the hills of Kangding will yield spectacular views of the neighboring alpine peaks. Outdoor activity opportunities abound with particular focus on hiking and mountain biking. And just a short 30 minute drive from Kangding is the trekking trailhead to Minya Konka, or Gonga Shan, Sichuan’s tallest beastly mountain, standing at a staggering 7,556m, and is consequently of huge spiritual importance to Tibetans.

Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU) is located 20km (12 mi) outside of the Chengdu city center and is one of the main air hubs in China, recently ranked 4th in passenger volume. It serves flights to/from most major cities in China, many smaller cities within Sichuan, and some international destinations including Amsterdam, Bangkok, Denpasar, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Kathmandu, Paris, Melbourne, Sydney, Moscow, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, San Francisco, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, and Tokyo.  And there are new international routes being added quite often.

Langmusi (郎木寺) – Taktsang Lhamo (སྟག་ཚང་ལྷ་མོ་)

Langmusi, at 3,345 meters in elevation, is a town that is known for it’s rich Buddhist culture and it’s amazing scenery, tucked away in the crags of 5000 meter mountains. It would be very easy to spend at least 2-3 days here in this quaint wonderland.

Kirti and Serti Monastery

The two main temples in Langmusi are the Kirti Monastery, located on the southern Sichuan side, and the Serti Monastery, located on the northern Gansu side of town. Serti is certainly the more lavish of the two monasteries as it receives some of its funding by the Chinese government, and the monastery in turn supports China’s appointed Buddhist spiritual leaders. Serti, the cleaner and more prestigious of the towns’ two monasteries, shines under the high altitude sun with brilliant golden roofs and is often undergoing major renovations and expansion upgrades.

Kirti Monastery, on the other hand, receives no funding from the government. Consequently, Kirti maintains an older, more organic feel as it’s temples are made wood, mud, aluminum, and cement. The roofs lack the loud colors and glam that adorn the Serti Monastery. Most of the Kirti side is comprised of the slightly tattered but humble living quarters of all the monks who reside there. But, while being a bit more toned down than neighboring Serti Monastery, I’ve found that most of the Tibetan pilgrims that walk and prostrate for months when traveling to Langmusi all go to Kirti, not Serti. In fact, most of the major gatherings of lamas and monks happen at Kirti despite its more rustic character.

Regardless of personality, both monasteries are certainly worth a visit and it is a fantastic experience to walk alongside the pilgrims who have come from 100’s of miles all around the grasslands to land and worship in Langmusi.

 

Hiking and Horse Trekking in Langmusi

Namo Gorge and Huagai god Mountain

Walking through Kirti Gompa and up the valley, you will reach the start of Namo Gorge. You have to pay 30Y at the entrance to the monastery, which gets you access to the monastery itself and the gorge, but it is possible to bypass this if you walk up the road to the right of the ticket office, up and over the hill and down to the start of the gorge.

Once past the ticket gate, there is a wide open field where you might happen to stumble upon young monks playing soccer or relaxing in the grass reading a book. This is the just outside the walls of the Kirti Monastery and as such is the “playground” for the 100’s of monks that reside there. Moving past this area as you follow the river upstream you quickly enter a narrow gorge. Just on the right of this gorge is a statue of a tiger wrapped in Cata scarves and is a small cave, known as a home to local mountain spirits. The cave is no bigger than a modest size apartment but there is a small hole in the backside of the cave where you may find that local Tibetan nomads are trying to wiggle in and out of. Legend has

Once you pass the cave, you will walk alongside the White Dragon River for about 10 minutes until you eventually come to the spring that the river emerges out of. From this point continue up the dirt trail another 20 minutes to another gorgeous open grass valley. This is about as far as most tourists get, so if you continue in the canyon to your right up the fork, you will virtually have the whole gorge to yourself. It is possible to walk for a considerable distance into the gorge and mountains beyond, being surrounded by amazing scenery and peace and quiet. Eventually the trail (if you keep just staying right ) will take you along the side of some brush and over the top of a tableland known as “Huagai god Mountain”. From this view among the sharp rocks of the peak at 4,200 meters you get an excellent view of both Langmusi town and the wide open grasslands.

The hiking in this gorge can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 8 hours. There is really enough here for any level of adventure seeker!

Red Rocks hike

Walking in the other direction from the village – towards the main road – one encounters an interesting sandstone formation or mesa whose top is accessible. To access this, just look up to the Red Rock formations immediately outside of town, and walk a street about 1km out into the open pastures at the bottom of the mountain. From here wind up through an old sheep trail to get on top of the red rock cliffs. The hike up from town is about 2-3 hours and the Prayer flags here on the top are around 3,700 meters. There is a great view looking back on the Gansu side of Langmusi town and this makes for a great half day hike and an excellent picnic ground.

Horse Trekking

One of the town’s must-do activities is the horse trekking. Langmusi offers anything from 1 to 3 day horse treks where you can stay with real Tibetan nomads in their tents. The guides on all their trips are professional and experienced. Liyi, the owner at the horse trekking place speaks excellent English and is a great resource for any questions or tips about Langmusi. They also do biking trips and bike rentals. You can go to the grasslands by yourself with the bike or organize an amazing two-day homestay bike trip directly through them. They also own the Black Tent Cafe across the street – which is highly recommended for a little coffee, cake, or for their smoothies.

Sky Burial

Please beware that the information below might be disturbing to some. A sky burial is where the deceased Buddhist is hauled up a mountain, adorned in prayer wrappings, and left to be taken by the birds. After the birds do most of the work, the body is chopped up and burned. For many Tibetans, a sky burial is an entirely natural and beautiful way to go (and is often considered as a last act of compassion in giving one’s body to nature). I tend to agree and would much rather have a sky burial than be put in some box in field of other boxes. That said, visiting a sky burial site not long after a burial is quite an experience.

If you walk up past the left side of Serti Monastery, you’ll eventually come to a clearing near a hilltop (ask any local around Serti and he or she can point you in the right direction). The clearing has two boxes of axes and knives, prayer flags, and a pile of ashes. Once the birds are basically done with the main job, the remains are burned. However, not everything makes it into the fire, which means the site is literally littered with skulls, hip bones, and other various bits and pieces. We’d come only days after a burial, so some of the bones even had flesh and skin still on them.

I know it sounds gross, but if you’re curious about this sort of thing, I’d say this is a must see, as chances to experience this sort of thing don’t come around too often.

 

Langmusi in General

Langmusi is a sleepy village in a remote breathtaking location predominantly inhabited by a colorful mix of Hui Muslims and Amdo Tibetans. It is said that the provincial borderline runs through the middle of town with Sertri Gompa in Gansu and Kirti Gompa located in Sichuan. The power struggles between the two Gompa may have been the reason for the border location. Both temples have distinct styles making both well worth the visit alone. The surrounding mountains give off a very much alpine flair reminiscent of rural Austria or Bavaria and perfect for hiking and horse trekking.

While there are continually construction projects in all seasons (as in virtually every Chinese town, down to the tiniest backwater), much of the money that tourists bring in appears to be going to renovating and improving Tibetan temples and meeting places, or into local businesses catering to the seeker of Tibetan culture.
At this point [October 2015], the village has developed a budget-friendly backpacker vibe, not unlike Shaaxi village in Yunnan province. Yet, even in high season [the height of the October holiday, and after the swarming hordes of Jiuzhaigou], tourists are relatively few, and this is very much an active religious community with many monks and initiates to be seen walking the roads and playing behind the major monastery. The monks and students are not shy, happy to have a chat in Chinese and to a lesser extent English, and deeply appreciative of even the most basic Tibetan greetings (‘tashi delek’ means “Hello”). The majority of the visitors to this town are Han Chinese, and few if any make the effort to learn any Tibetan phrases.

 

Getting there

There is only one bus every day from Xiahe direct to Langmusi leaving at around 7:40 a.m. (Dec 2014) from the Xiahe Bus Station. 72Y.

If you miss this bus, or if you can’t get tickets, you can take any early morning bus to Hezuo (1 hour from Xiahe) and then take one of the Hezuo(合作)buses to Langmusi. There are a couple buses from Hezuo to Langmusi each day. There definitely is one leaving at 10:20AM.
When you get to Hezuo, you will need to take a taxi across town to the South Bus Station (Nan Zhan – 南站) where the buses leave for Langmusi.

If you were thinking of hiring a car to take you directly from Xiahe to Langmusi, be ready to pay a lot of money. It will cost you at least ¥350 to hire a car for the trip. The bus is only ¥ 71 per person. If you do end up taking a taxi, be sure to ask to take the “scenic route.” The road is a little bumpier than the new highway, and a takes a little longer, but you pass beautiful grasslands, mountains, and tibetan villages along the way.
There are also direct buses to Zoige (Ruo’ergai) in northern Sichuan. There is currently no direct bus to Songpan but the situation may change, as a new highway was completed in 2007.

You can also catch a bus in Jiuzhaigou to Langmusi. There are multiple buses leaving every morning between 7am and 8am. The bus will let you off on the main road outside of Langmusi, not actually driving into town, leaving you with a 1+ km walk, or there will be cars around to get you into town (for a few yuan).
To get out of town up towards Xiahe, there is only one afternoon direct bus a day. You can get morning buses to Hezuo, then a cab to the West Bus Station, then catch a bus to Xiahe. There are many buses to Xiahe each day.