A lot of peoples’ first thoughts towards China go to megacities like Hong Kong or Peking. They picture big crowds alit by the glimmer of neon, a buzzing economy, a faster and harder pace; Piles of concrete, big malls, tiny houses, colourful commercials, and… well chop sticks? And of course this is China, a vibrant place full of extremes and contestations, of stories, that might seem unfamiliar to many – a buzzing place full of chop sticks, while others love their forks.

(Traditional Sichuan set up)

But it also is so much more than that: a giant country with a rich culture, formed by millions of people, during over 5000 of years. A fascinating place, that has seen so much, a place full of hard-working, hearty people and abundant, diverse nature in which wild rivers and foggy mountains meet lush valleys and leafy fields. And as almost 20% of all of us on this beautiful planet are Chinese a place totally worth checking out if you wanna learn more about our world and how it works. As I am still on that mission (a lifetime task!) and had never been to China, I was very curious, when being asked to explore Sichuan with Chinas’ German tourism board.

(Leshan)

(Sacrifices at Emei Shan)

(Sacrifices in a temple)

(Girl in Jiaju)

And it honestly turned out to be quite an exciting experience.

What I got was a little roundtrip through this Southwestern province, famous for its rivers, nature, culture, food and… giant pandas. We started and ended the trip in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital and made it all the way into the mountains to the Danba valley, exploring different areas, sights and cities, like Dujiangyan and Leshan en route. And while Sichuan might not be the first area you think of visiting, when being a China rookie like me it ended up being a pretty good choice as it helped me to experience a wide array of things to learn and explore about this huge country.

(Danba valley)

(En route to Dujiangyan)

(Furry friend at Jiaju)

So here’s why you should give traveling Sichuan a try:

1. Hearty people

As the province of Sichuan has been shaped by a long and eventful history and is well connected with the rest of the country through the famous Yangtze river and an array of smaller rivers, it has been a cradle of different indigenous civilizations. People traveled via the rivers throughout the different eras and dynasties to form the exciting mix of people Sichuan’s are these days, originating from the Shus, Bas, Tibetans, other smaller tribes and different parts of the country. And while mixing different cultures, religious beliefs and world-views is not always easy, it is a precious experience to see all those different faces and listen to the diverse array of stories from people living in between extreme modernism and a sturdy connection with the ancient and the rich history.

(Woman in traditionally clothes, selling cherries at Danba valley)

And even though the language barrier surely is a thing we always were able to somehow get in touch with each other and have a lot of fun!

(Making friends)

2. Stunning nature

Sichuan is famous for its beautiful nature and consists of two very distinct parts. The eastern part of the province, lying within Sichuan basin is very fertile, known for its rivers and abundance of water. This is where most of the food grows. The western Sichuan is more dry and much rougher, it consists of numerous mountains forming the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Both regions are stunning and worth a visit, especially when passing through and seeing the nature around you change. There are several national parks, worth visiting, depending on the area you are planning to visit, the Jiuzhaigou Natural Reserve, close to Zhangzha town which unfortunately has bee partly destroyed through a recent earth quake, but is rebuilt and can still be visited.

(Frauke at Wolong National Nature Reserve)

(Giant, wild butterflies)

3. Hot hot Food

Do you call yourself a foodie and are not afraid to go for the unknown? You have to go to Sichuan! Famous for its abundant and spicy cuisine this region is full of culinary surprises and a wide array of fresh, local produce. As the land is very fruitful, the temperatures mild and the humidity and amount of rain high (yup!), there’s a lot of stuff growing here, with the famous Sichuan pepper, leading its way. My favourite dish definitely was the quite prominent Sichuan hot pot, were the whole table gathers around a big pot of spicy, well-seasoned broth to boil fish, meat, vegetables or tofu in it. A fun way to gather and enjoy!

(Hot pot in Chengdu)

(Tibetan Lunch break)

(Traditional, fermented hot sauce in the making at Sichuan Cuisine Museum )

And while I have to admit that some dishes might be a bit challenging for many peoples’ taste buds and eating habits and it was not always easy to communicate being a vegan, I was fascinated by the huge joy that eating brings to Sichuan people.

I will never forget the moment I told the waiter of a restaurant we visited, how much I liked the hot sauce and the chef himself immediately made its way out of the kitchen to personally gift me an old marmalade glass full of his homemade hot sauce and take a bunch of photos with us. His smile was priceless. Probably my photo is up at some Danba valleys restaurants’ wall now with a caption such as “The European girl, that ate 5 spoons of hot sauce.

And I could not say, I’m not proud…

PS: If you want to dive deep into the art of Sichuan cooking you might wanna check out the Sichuan Cuisine Museum

4. Chengdu’s secret charm

While Chengdu might look like any other grey capital, this town is packing a punch! Well-known for being a bit more casual than Hong Kong, Shanghai or Peking Chengdu is not lacking the fun a tad and has been on the rise as a (not so secret anymore) destination for younger people and artists as the new place to be for a few years now.

Offering its visitors and inhabitants the big city life with all its culture, great restaurants, crazy parties and blossoming industry, while still being a bit more affordable and relaxed, this town is the perfect soft start into your life as a tourist in China and a great basis for your Sichuan discovery. Make sure to reserve some days for its exploration, have some tea in the people’s Park Renmin Gongyuan, visit the big market and check out all the amazing, contemporary art.

Find some more great tips here and enjoy. I guess I gotta go back for more…

5. Pandas (!!!)

Saying that Sichuan’s’ people love their Pandas would be understated – they are actually crazy about them. There’s probably no item in this whole world that you would not be able to buy in some kind of panda shape when visiting Sichuan province. And while you might think that it’s a bit excessive or criticize some kind of panda diplomatics, happening around the world, those furry creatures are just darn adorable and you can’t help but want a panda to hug you good night everyday, once you saw one in real life.

To do so (seeing one, no good night hugs, sorry!) check out the Wolong National Nature Reserve, a breeding station for wild, giant pandas, who unfortunately have trouble sustaining themselves in wild life. From Chengdu you can get there with the Metro Line 2 all the way to Chadianzi Station. From there take the bus to Xiaojin County or Wolong city and get off at Wolong. The bus ride will take around 3 hours and cost you 21 RMB (3,18 USD). The entrance fee for the reserve is 15 (2,27 USD) RMB

Plus all the panda merch you might feel like buying after being infiltrated with the pandas’ unheard-of cuteness…

6. A rich culture

Sichuan is a special place with a rich culture and even though a lot of ancient relicts got lost or were destroyed it’s still easy to reminisce about the old times in one of the many museums, cultural monuments or replicas. One of my favourites was the World Cultural Heritage water irrigation system in Dujiangyan, the only surviving no-dam irrigation system in the world and quite a scientific and constructural masterpiece. It is over 2200 years old and designed to automatically control the water flow of the rivers from the mountains into the low-lying areas, which is crucial for a rainy area like Sichuan. It’s still perfectly doing its job and therefore really deserves some admiration, if you ask me. Strolling over all the dreamy bridges, gazing at the foggy mountains also isn’t a bad thing. When visiting the irrigation system make sure to also check out the town of Dujiangyan, a moody and quite charming place.

(water irrigation system in Dujiangyan)

Another place that really fascinated me was the big Buddha statue in Leshan around 130 km South of Chengdu. Getting there from Chengdu is quite easy, you can simply take the Chengdu-Leshan-Emeishan Intercity high-speed train. After the worlds’ biggest Buddha statue in Afghanistan unfortunately got destroyed the one in Leshan is the biggest of the world – an impressive, red figure, nestled into lush greenery, peacefully watching over the muddy water and all the tiny tourists, passing by on their boats to take photos – not to be missed.

(Big Buddha, Leshan)

7. Stunning temples and sacred mountains

Something similarily impressive are the numerous temples and holy places you can find in Sichuan province, all as similar but diverse as the people themselves. Take your chance and have a stroll through some of them.

When being in the Leshan area I can only recommend hiking up the sacred mount Emei, one of the most important and largest of the 4 sacred mountains of buddhism in China. This over 3000 meters high, foggy beauty is an important place of pilgrimage for people from all over China, awaiting you with a myriad of different shrines and temples. The air smells like incense and humidity and you can’t deny that there is something special going on here.

(Gorgeous Emei Shan)

Apart from the special mood up there the mountain also is home to a crowd of wild monkeys – really clever guys, who will quickly steal your newly bought soda pop if you don’t hold on tight. Be aware!

(Monkeys at Emei Shan)

If you are in Chengdu you might want to visit the Wenshu temple, a well-visited but still peaceful place, easy to get to from almost everywhere in the city. It’s open from early in the morning 6 am until dawn at 9 pm and free of charge.

When visiting the temples make sure to stay respectful and be aware that those places are very special and dear to many people, going there, seeking silence and peace.

8. Public Parks

Something that we found in almost every city and village we visited was a love for gathering in public parks. And I really liked it, it’s crazy, colourful, diverse and a real community effort, relocating peoples everyday lifes’ outdoors.

The parks are where all kinds of people meet during the day to gather, sprightly old ladies doing aerobics, small kids, dancing in puffy dresses, friends and families sitting down to chat over a cup (bucket) full of tea and roasted pumpkin seeds…

The parks even function as some kind of analogue tinder, where desperate singles (or their parents) are putting up pieces of paper with the lonely hearts’ hard facts and phone number. I mean… why not?

9. Exciting Contrasts

As mentioned earlier Sichuan is full of contrasts and to me that is a big pro, as I think that those places are the most exciting and authentic ones. Sichuan is where ultimate kitsch means minimalist buddhist temples and a desperate yarning for the new is mingling with a (new-found) pride towards the old. And while this sometimes may be a bit exhausting it is also extremely fascinating to watch and those memories and observations will be taken home and kept forever.


10. The colourful Danba valley

One of my favourite stops on our journey was the Danba valley, a unique and fruitful place, surrounded by massive mountains. The valleys are home to a bunch of Tibetan villages, such as Jiaju. The architecture of the houses, towers and citadels is extraordinary: hand-built, primed with whitewash and painted in the traditional colours yellow, black and dark red with important religious symbols like the sun, the moon, stars and different animals everywhere. The famous prayer flags, promoting peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom are contrasting strongly with the moody skies and you can only gaze at all the picture-perfect sceneries and approve, that you are standing within some of the most beautiful villages all over China. I also really fell for the traditional clothes, still worn by many and elaborately crafted with hours of fine embroidery.

(Julia at Danba valley)

(Buying walnuts in Danba valley)

As the Danba valley is extremely fertile it used to be an important stop on the tea caravan that traded Chinese tea for Tibetan salt, horses and produce and still grows most of the food, consumed by the families living there itself. Think walnuts, cherries, pomegranates, apples, pears .. all the tasty stuff!

Getting to the Danba valley still is a bit of a journey and you can only imagine how it must have felt to climb the narrow roads on a horse and with bags of salt. Nowadays you either go with an organized tour and a bus or take the bus from Chengdu Chadianzi Bus Station all the way to Danba County. Be prepared to traverse a lot of narrow tunnels. The buses normally leave twice a day (06:30 am and 07:35 am) and cost around 108 RMB (16 USD). Getting from Chengdu to the valleys will take you around 8 hours, so bring a good book and your favourite tunes. I promise you that the journey will be worth it!

Fancy a visit to Sichuan now? Here are some things you should know before traveling to China. Make sure to carefully plan your trip as a lot of things need some planning ahead when in China. A helpful site for booking trains etc. is C Trip, You Who of you wants to go or has been? Curious to hear about your experiences!

Disclaimer: For this trip I was invited by the Fremdenverkehrsamt China. However and as always all opinions are my own. Thank You for the good times!

All images © Tabea Mathern