Sichuan, much more than a place to see pandas
I went on a trip to Sichuan to see the province just north of Yunnan, where I have lived for years. Western Sichuan (四川) not only borders Tibet, but is an area that formerly belonged to a region of Tibet until 1955 when it was annexed to Sichuan province.
Tourism is very scarce in that area and currently in many parts still retain their Tibetan roots so it gave us the opportunity to learn about a totally different culture. We wanted to see up close that magnificent essence, that transmits everything that is in connection with Tibet.
The province of Sichuan, with its capital in Chengdu, is characterized as the fourth most populated province in China (after Guangdong, Henan and Shandong). With approximately 85 million inhabitants, the Han majority, the Tibetan minority and the Yi minority are the most abundant in the area.
In China, Sichuan is known for its nature reserves where the giant panda breeds in captivity (Jiuzhaigou, Huanglong). It is also known for its spicy food and for the world’s tallest stone Buddha statue (71m) (Leshan). In addition, it is said that the women of Sichuan are the most beautiful in China.
Chinese vacations and migration
We had a week’s vacation. In China, October 1 is known as the National Day of the People’s Republic of China. It commemorates its founding on October 1, 1949 after the Communist party ruled by Mao Ze Dong prevailed over the Republican party in the civil war.
Chinese New Year (February) and Chinese National Day (October) are the two most important holidays in China. They are also the only two times of the year when a large part of the population can enjoy a week’s vacation. Many people take the opportunity to return home or travel, which is the most important temporary migration on the planet.
When traveling at this time of the year, one has to try to avoid the most touristy places to avoid 10-hour traffic jams or unbearable crowds. A Chinese acquaintance told me one day: “if you don’t travel during Chinese vacations you may regret it, but if you do, you may regret it even more“.
A route through Sichuan
Our route plan was to go from Kunming to Chengdu (853km) by train and from there pull west by van cab. Stopping first in Kangding (331km), then in Ganzi (Ganzizhen) (386km). Then head south, stopping at Litang (263km) and Xiangcheng (204km). Enter Yunnan from the north and reach Shangrila (200km). From there we would look for the most convenient transportation to return to Kunming (644km). TOTAL: 2863km approximately in one week.
The cab vans where we could fit the 6 of us (and sometimes someone else we met along the way) cost about 100rmb (15 euros) per head for each 8-9h trip. The price is quite high for China, but it was the fastest and most comfortable way to travel. And often, the only way to get where we wanted to go.
From Kunming (Yunnan) to Chengdu (Sichuan)
We left Kunming on Sunday at noon (29/09/2013) and arrived in Chengdu at 9 am the next day. We did not feel like being in the capital so we took a bus to Kangding.
The route Chengdu – Tibet by road has the “privilege” of entering the list of the 10 most dangerous in the world. We did part of it and we were not spared a couple of scares. You cannot travel at night because it is dangerous. So we spent the day driving through narrow and muddy roads, mountains, cliffs and rivers. We burned the hours chatting, trying to sleep or appreciating the scenery.
Trip to Sichuan: Kangding
Kangding, which as I mentioned before, belonged to Tibet until 1955 when it was integrated into the province of Sichuan, is a town located between mountains at 2560 meters above sea level and at the confluence of two rivers.
We arrived at night tired from the trip and stayed in the first hotel we found at the entrance of the city. The next morning we went for a walk. As soon as you take two steps around the city you have the feeling of having left China and being in a totally different country.
Some houses still preserve the particular Tibetan style. On the floor of the street markets, yak heads and horns are piled up. The rocks of the mountains surrounding the city are decorated with giant paintings of Buddhas. Tibetan scarves hang in the trees and dance in the cold mountain air.
On top of one of these mountains there is a Tibetan temple and a stupa. They are worth a visit. Throughout the climb you are accompanied by Tibetan flags that mark the way forward. It is said that these flags with the stamped image of Buddha and Tibetan sutras have the virtue of bringing good luck and happiness.
Trip to Sichuan: Ganzi (Garze)
At noon we took the cable car down and went straight to the next destination. Towards Ganzi we stopped a couple of times to rest in temples halfway or in villages in the middle of nowhere.
In one of them, a very nice family invited us to eat homemade yak yogurt. Curiously it reminded me of Greek yogurt. It was nice to share some time with the locals and appreciate their humility and gratitude even though we could hardly communicate because they spoke Tibetan.
After spending the night in Ganzi, in the morning, we went to a lake that was two hours away from the city. On the border with the Tibetan border, to Xin Lu Lake.
The landscape was surrounded by mountains, Tibetan houses, Buddhist temples and nomad tents. The horsemen rode in their Tibetan attire with machetes hanging from their waists. They rode their yaks in the middle of the road as if everything else was not with them. That no longer looked like another country, it looked like another era.
But in spite of everything, it was even better to arrive at the lake. The lake is at an altitude of 3000m. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and in the background you can see the Himalayas. After all the hours we had spent in the car just to get there, we realized that it had been worth it. Just us, the lake and the Himalayas in the background keeping us company. Unfortunately, when it started to get dark, we had to leave, not without promising to come back someday.
Trip to Sichuan: Litang
On the fourth day we headed south to Litang. Another place from which we expected a lot. Birthplace of several Dalai Lama and at 4000m altitude, it is one of the highest cities in the world.
Historically it is a point of conflict between Chinese and Tibetans. So much so that the presence of Chinese military police is quite high because of the continuing tension between the two and to prevent revolts in favor of Tibetan independence.
Litang, more than astonishing for its beauty, astonishes for its identity. For being authentic, for being as it is. As if they had abandoned that city and its people to their fate and had been stuck in time. Without luxury hotels or tourist stores. With old apartments, dirty sidewalks and humble villagers strolling through the streets rolling the prayer mill while praying aloud.
Visiting the Litang Temple
To the north of the small town there is a temple full of children studying Buddhism. Aside from how beautiful it is, one of the most beautiful views we found was climbing the mountain that follows the temple.
We all went up together. Halfway up we could see the temple, the city and the snow-capped mountains in harmony. We stayed for a while marveling at the views and catching our breath.
Suddenly we noticed that a friend, maddened by so much snow and so much nature, without saying anything, had continued climbing the mountain. On top of that, another friend was following him in the distance. As usual, curiosity overcame tiredness and I started to follow them too. At first I made some sprint to try to catch them but it was impossible. Between the snow and the altitude at which we were 10m of sprint seemed 100.
I spent a long time walking alone surrounded by snow and without being able to see them in the distance. Finally, after 20-30 minutes, I distinguished two figures sitting next to some stones piled up and surrounded by Tibetan flags (possibly a Tibetan tomb).
From there we could no longer see the city, only snow, everything was white. We spent a long time throwing snowballs at each other as if we were 10 years old again. Later, our burned faces reminded us that it was time to descend and join our friends.
Xiangcheng (Sichuan) – Shangrila (Yunnan)
Although we had not stopped at any time, it was already Friday and time was running out. We left the same afternoon for Xiangcheng and arrived at night after dawn. Then, we slept in the street for 4 hours until we took the first bus to Shangrila (Yunnan) that left at 6 in the morning. We said goodbye to Sichuan and returned to Yunnan province.
Saturday noon, exhausted and smelly, we were finally in Shangrila. After finding a hotel and taking a nice hot shower we went for a walk around the old part of town.
Originally the name of the city was Zhongdian but in 2001 it was decided to change the name to encourage tourism. Nowadays Shangrila is one of the areas with more Chinese tourism in China. The name Shangrila comes from the novel The Lost Horizon by James Hilton. In that book, it describes a hidden mystical and utopian Himalayan paradise where its people live apart from the world in harmony and happiness.
Unfortunately we did not have much time to properly explore Shangrila. We missed its surroundings which they say is the best part but at least we saw the old part which still had an air of belonging more to Tibet than to China.
However, from what little I saw, Shangrila was quite disappointing because of how touristy it was. Everything had been converted into gift stores or mountain clothing stores, restaurants or hotels for tourists. In my opinion, they had spoiled much of its charm. A charm that, for example, we did find in Litang.
Trip from Dali to Kunming (Yunnan)
The next day, as all train and bus tickets to Kunming were sold out we had to take a bus from Shangrila to Dali. Then, from Dali, to find a cab to take us to Kunming.
What should have been a two-hour trip turned out to be a 10-hour trip because of traffic and traffic jams. China was back to normal and with it all the Chinese were returning to the big city. When I finally arrived home the experience of a week felt like a month. The trip was pretty crazy. Mostly because of the short time we had for all the miles we did.
Doing it in two weeks would have been ideal. But without a doubt, I can say that this trip to Sichuan through the Tibetan part has been one of the most rewarding, surprising and fun trips of my life. Sichuan and a small part of Tibet are now forever in my heart.
If you want to do a trip to Sichuan, similar to the one we did but with driver and guide, contact us to organize it. If you are planning to go to China you can take a look at my list of Tips for a trip to China.
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Wherever you go it becomes a part of you in some way.
– Anita Desai –