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Sichuan, China: A traveller’s guide

By Kelly Eng 23 March 2022

Header image courtesy of Ying Wu (via Unsplash)

Sichuan represents a paradise for spicy food lovers, but there’s more to the Chinese province than just mala hot pots. Here, otherworldly views of nature await you, as well as homes for giant pandas and Tibetan macaques. Just one trip to Sichuan and you will realise its rich Buddist flavours and local culture in every nook and corner. With so many things to explore, we have rounded up the best places to see and the best food to try in Sichuan.

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Photo: China Discovery
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Yading Nature Reserve (稻城亞丁)

Any traveller who has visited Yading Nature Reserve will empathise with the saying “Eyes in heaven, body in hell.” Indeed, with most of the attractions situated above an elevation of 3,500 metres, this national-level reserve takes quite a lot of willpower to hike. People nonetheless do what it takes to roam around the sublime mountains, and most even choose to do the extended trek to see the Milk Lake (牛奶海) and Five-Color Lake (五色海).

Multiple spots are worth admiring, and it is best to plan ahead and map out a strategic route to save time and, most importantly, energy. Starting at the Tourist Centre, purchase an entry package (¥190), which includes a ticket and a sightseeing bus service. During the 40-kilometre ride to Zhaguanbeng (扎灌崩), take the time to appreciate Yading’s ethereal terrace while mentally preparing for the long hike ahead.

Once you have gotten off the bus, the awe-inspiring blend of snowy mountains and crystal-clear creeks will lure you into an uphill path towards Chonggu Temple (冲谷寺). As more imposing sceneries emerge, head to either Pearl Lake (珍珠海) or Luorong Cattle Ranch (洛絨牛場) for further exploration. Natural sites appear differently depending on the weather, but on sunny days, the shimmering Pearl Lake mirrors the vast blue sky, painting a phenomenal panorama that will eradicate any exhaustion in travellers. 

If you decide to visit Luorong Cattle Ranch, take an electric vehicle from Chonggu Temple to save yourself a three-hour hike. Its surrounding grassland is supplemented by a surreal mix of white and orange summits, and you will find locals rearing horses and goats.

For Milk Lake and Five-Color Lake, we suggest you ride a horse instead of travelling four kilometres on foot, but this journey is not for the faint of heart. Remember to bring an oxygen canister as well, since you will need to hike the last kilometre on your own. While the road to the two azure lakes is steep and rocky, the scenery is utterly stunning. As you make your way through Yading Nature Reserve, make sure to pay attention to the three holy peaks resting at a far distance—Jambeyang (央迈勇), Chana Dorje (夏诺多吉), and Chenresig (仙乃日). 

Hiking Yading is challenging at best, so make sure to double-check the weather for promising views. July to October is the optimal time to visit, or you can arrive in April for the snow. Visitors usually spend up to three full days in Yading Nature Reserve, staying at hotels in Shangri-La Town (香格里拉镇). Online booking for entrance tickets is recommended.

Yading Nature Reserve, Daocheng County, Sichuan, China

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Photo: Zhang Zhihe (via Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding)
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Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (成都大熊猫繁育研究基地)

We all know that pandas play a significant role in Chinese culture, symbolising peace and friendship while their black and white fur represents yin-yang. When travelling around Chengdu (成都), Sichuan, it would be remiss not to swing by the biggest panda conservation in the world. Don’t be fooled by the location name, however—rather than simply being a research centre, it is actually a 247-acre territory of overlapping mountains with rivers, bamboo forests, caves, lawns, and more.

Founded in the 1980s, the base started with six starving and sick giant pandas, but with recent technological innovations, the number has now grown to over two hundred. You will find other endangered species here, including red pandas, swans, peacocks, and monkeys. Visiting the whole area would take at least three hours, and tourists are recommended to come early in the morning when the pandas are most active. You won’t have to worry about planning a route, because the park provides one for you with a map!

Begin your adventure at Swan Lake, where you can grab a quick breakfast at several snack stores while observing some leisurely swans. Next, as you follow the assigned path, there are many pandas rolling around, chewing bamboo, and climbing trees. At Moonlight Nursery House, mother bears cuddle with their babies as small as a puppy, while you will find pregnant pandas ready to give birth at Sunshine Nursery House

Enclosures are open all day for tourists to closely observe adult pandas, but the experience would be more fruitful if you arrive at feeding time, between 7.30 am 9.30 am. You will also encounter a red panda playground and some nursery homes, as well as a cinema to watch panda films. Remember to book tickets online in advance, and bring an extra battery to charge your phone as you will be taking many pictures—no flash allowed.

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, 1375 Xiongmao Boulevard, Chenghua District, Chengdu, Sichuan, China, 610016 | (+86) 28 8351 0033

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Jiuzhai Valley National Park (九寨沟风景名胜区)

One can spend three full days in this wonderland full of majestic waterfalls, glittering lakes, and snow-capped peaks. For centuries, Jiuzhai Valley was home to various Tibetan and Qiang people, and seven of the nine Tibetan villages continue to reside here today.

Travellers can visit Heye (荷叶寨), Shuzheng (树正寨), and Zechawa (则查洼寨) to explore stores selling local handicrafts and traditional snacks. Since the area of the park consists of three main valleys and is exceptionally big, here’s how to enhance your experience there.

Start your day at 8 am and make your first stop at the Rize Valley (日则沟), home to the Pearl Shoal Waterfall (珍珠滩瀑布). In the morning time, mist lingers above the turquoise Mirror Lake (镜海), creating a poetic and ephemeral atmosphere. If you arrive later, the afternoon breeze will have driven the mist away and the scenery may not be as visually aesthetic. 

Along the way, enjoy the spectacular view of Five Flower Lake (五花海), also known as the sacred gem of Jiuzhai Valley. Although it is 16 feet deep, you can easily spot the lakebed while the colour of the water varies from cyan to jade to amber. If you are taking the bus up the mountains, remember to sit on the left side for better views.

You can then take the vehicle from Nuorilang (诺日朗) into Zechawa Valley (则查洼沟) and arrive at the exquisite Five-Colored Lake (五彩池), which dazzles in multiple hues under the sunlight. Before sightseeing through Shuzheng Valley (树正沟), have lunch at Nuorilang Restaurant and take the bus down to Rhinoceros Lake (犀牛海)—this lake is the largest one in the valley, where the sky meets water in enchanting harmony. 

On your way back to the tourist centre, spend some time appreciating the beauty of Double-Dragon Lake (双龙海), Reed Lake (芦苇海), and Spark Lake (火花海) as well. Keep in mind that the sightseeing bus does not stop at certain attractions, so make sure you check the routes before hopping on. For the best time to visit Jiuzhai Valley National Park, plan your trip during the autumn season in September and October.

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Sertar (色达)

A sea of red houses isolated from the bustling city is not the most common tourist attraction in Sichuan. However, the rich Buddist culture and its unique terrace structure make Sertar well worth a visit. Hop on a bus from Chengdu Chadianzi Bus Station in the morning and you will arrive at the destination before sunset. Remember to pack some snacks with you for the eight-hour ride! Sertar comprises 17 towns and 66 villages, and Larung Gar, the biggest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world, takes up residence here.

You can explore the Buddhist school and listen to classes for free, and learn about their culture and history through observing the monks’ daily routines. Visitors will have the opportunity to watch the Sky Burial, too, which is hosted from 1 pm to 3 pm every day. However, this ceremony may be quite disturbing for some people, so make sure you understand what goes on before joining in the spectating.

Whether it is sunrise or sunset, or simply the home lights glowing like stars and lanterns during nighttime, Sertar is breathtaking every moment of the day. Visiting during winter would also be a different experience, but it is equally eye-opening and sophisticated.

Photo: China Discovery
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Mount Emei (峨眉山)

As the highest sacred mountain in China, Mount Emei is an enlightening place full of rich Buddhist flavours. With its long history, Mount Emei has always been a prominent fixture to ancient Chinese people. For example, 5,000 years ago, the Emperor Xuanyuan (轩辕黄帝) had visited Mount Emei twice to practice and learn Taoism. It is impossible to tour all four scenic regions in one full day, so we suggest you stay at a nearby hotel for two or three days. Imagine the mount in the shape of an eyebrow, and tourists would travel uphill until reaching the peak situated 3,079 metres above sea level, the Golden Summit (金顶).

Mount Emei offers several sightseeing routes, and if you want to walk all the way up to the peak, it will take at least 10 hours. For a simple two-day guide, begin at the Baoguo Temple Passenger Transportation Centre (报国寺游客中心) and take the tour bus to Leidongping (雷洞坪) and spend a night at the hotel there. You will find multiple restaurants and many Tibetan macaques hanging around. Although Mount Emei is a tourist attraction, the food and beverages are sold at wallet-friendly prices. It is best to hike with bags as light as possible!

You would not want to miss the sunrise at the peak when golden rays paint the mist and meadows into blended strokes of pinks and oranges. The only way to admire such art, however, is to wake up at 4.30 am and hike to Jieyin Palace (接引殿) for the cableway before arriving at Golden Summit. Afterwards, head back to Leidongping and explore Mount Emei for the rest of the day. Keep in mind that hiking Mount Emei amidst the rain is a hassle because most areas get quite slippery, not to mention that the views would pale in comparison to the ones on sunny days. We would recommend to always check the weather before going.

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Chuanzhusi Town (川主寺镇)

If you are already at Jiuzhaigou or Huanglong National Park (黄龙), consider spending a half-day or a night in Chuanzhusi Town. Dating back to 1270, this settlement only had temples for religious practices, but it soon became a colony for several minority groups. Unlike many old towns, Chuanzhusi is not at all commercialised due to the flexible flow of tourists. You will get the chance to try authentic Tibetan foods, visit ancient architecture and temples, and watch traditional music and dance shows.

From July to September, travellers can enjoy a vibrant field of lavender blooming in tranquillity just two kilometres away from the Jiuhuang Airport (九黄机场). Hiking uphill for a few consecutive days can be exhausting and spending time in this leisurely town is the best way to refuel both your mind and body.

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Sichuan food

Sichuan’s famous mala seasoning is known the world over and has the ability to numb your senses. Here’s a list of dishes to try when in Sichuan, and the best places to find them.

Mala tang (麻辣烫)

Mala tang is similar to hot pot, except all foods are served on skewers. You cook them in a pot of boiling red broth and eat them stick by stick. A traditional street snack that originated from Sichuan, its ingredients usually include sausages, tofu, beef, duck tongue, tripes, mushroom, and more. One of the most reputable mala tang restaurants is Niu Hua Ba Po (牛华八婆).

Niu Hua Ba Po, 1/F, Oriental Times Mall, Shuijin Street, Hejiang Pavilion, Jinjiang District, Chengdu, Sichuan | (+86) 28 8550 8559

Mala hot pot (麻辣火锅)

Of course, we cannot miss out on Sichuan’s famous mala hotpot. Enjoy spoonfuls of fiery food in a bustling and vibrant environment. Visit Fu Momo (符尛尛旺子老火锅) and be prepared to leave with a numb tongue but satisfied stomach.

Fu Momo, Kuanzhai Alley, Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan | (+86) 28 8889 8899

Ice jelly (冰粉)

What’s better than revelling in a bowl of icy dessert after a spicy hot pot feast? Bingfen, also known as ice jelly, is an appetising snack in China, topped with grass jelly, fruits, raisins, peanuts, and more. You can consider it a healthier replacement for ice cream. Find them at Chuan Mei (串妹花式冰粉) and take some pictures at the photogenic restaurant as well.

Chuan Mei, 51 Dong Da Jie Duan, Hejiangting, Jinjiang District, Chengdu, Sichuan | (+81) 28 8360 4563

Benben chicken (钵钵鸡)

Another Sichuan street snack that is almost the same as mala tang is the benben chicken. Skewers are first boiled in red broth, but they are later rinsed with cold water and dipped in seasoned sauce before being served to customers. You can find benben chicken everywhere in Sichuan being sold from street stalls, and it’s quite hard to go wrong with this dish!

Mapo tofu (麻辣豆腐)

Eating rice with tofu drizzled in a thin yet aromatic mala sauce is amazing. Mapo tofu is also a popular dish from Sichuan, made by stir-frying diced tofu, minced pork, and mala sauce. Chen Mapo Tofu (陈麻婆豆腐) serves an authentic version, and rightly so—it’s a restaurant that has been established for over two hundred years.

Chen Mapo Tofu, 10 Qing Hua Lu, Cao Tang Can Yin Yu Le Quan, Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan | (+81) 28 8731 5047

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Kelly Eng

Writer

From dipping hot Cheetos in birthday cake ice cream to scuba-diving despite being ocean-phobic, Kelly loves exploring new and weird things with her family and friends. While her talents are eating and napping, she enjoys dancing, writing, and socialising as well. As an advocate of pineapple pizzas and durian tofu pudding, Kelly is also a passionate fan of K-pop, romance fiction, and sea otters.

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