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Sichuan (Sìchuān)

Directly to Yunnan’s north is Sichuan province.  Like Yunnan, Sichuan is famed for its diversity of peoples and landscapes.  The western part of the province is not only largely populated by Tibetan people but it also shares Tibet’s mountainous and austere landscape.  Much of the rest of Sichuan is full of lush bamboo forests, endangered wildlife important historical sites.  In total, Sichuan is home to an astounding six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  If there ever were a province that could contend with Yunnan for recognition as the best province in China to visit it would be Sichuan. Luckily, the proximity of Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu to Kunming makes it easy to take a trip to Sichuan for a week or even just a weekend.
Chengdu (chéng dū)

Sichuan’s capital city of Chengdu is known for both its laid back atmosphere and the intense flavor of its local cuisine.  While, like many cities, in China Chengdu has undergone a rapid transformation in the last few decades, the city still has much of its old charm.  In small side streets, parks and open-air markets you will still see local Sichuanese spending their days sipping tea and playing Mahjong and cards with their friends and family.  When the night comes many of Chengdu’s locals take part in the all together different tradition of enjoying Sichuan’s fiery cuisine, one of China’s four great culinary traditions.  As the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu is the epicenter of this school of cooking and thus the best place to enjoy the province’s most famed dishes such as hotpot, tea smoked duck and twice cooked pork. 

Chengdu is the largest transportation hub in southwestern China.  Chengdu Shuangliu Airport is the forth-largest airport in China and has flights to all major cities including Kunming.  Flights between Kunmingand Chengdu are very cheap (typically around $50 each way).  Another easy way of getting to Chengdu is by train.  A high-speed rail line between the two cities that will make the journey take just 4 hours is currently under construction.

Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries (Sìchuān Dàxióngmāo Qīxīdì)

Within a few hours bus ride from Chengdu you can see what is perhaps China’s most famous symbol: the giant panda. Sichuan’s thick bamboo forests make it the perfect habitat for the panda and in the last few decades the Chinese have stepped up their conservation efforts by creating a massive area known as the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries. This preserve contains seven wildlife sanctuaries and nine scenic parks. No trip to Sichuan is complete without seeing the pandas in their last natural habitat. 
The Sichuan Panda Sanctuaries can be reached by bus from Chengdu. The journey takes a couple of hours and costs less than $20.

Mount Emei(Éméi Shān)

In coffee table books on China, the image of majestic bamboo covered peaks with mist flowing all around them is quite common. Just a few hours south of Chengdu is Mount Emei, one of China’s greatest examples of this distinctly Chinese kind of mountain scenery. In addition to being beautiful, Mount Emei is also full of history as one of China’s 4 sacred Buddhist mountains. It was on Mount Emei’s slopes that the first Buddhist temple in China is believed to have been built on sometime in the 1st century AD. For hundreds of years Buddhist pilgrims climbed to Emei’s 10,000 foot summit. While hiking up trails is still an option, one can also take a ride in a cable car to ease the journey. You can even make the journey being carried by people in a sedan chair like Chinese emperors did centuries ago! 

Mount Emei can be reached from Chengdu by train or bus. It is only a few hours away from the city. In a couple of years the Chengdu-Kunming rail line will pass through Mount Emei and shorten the trip from Chengdu to just 30 minutes.

Leshan Giant Buddha (Lèshān Dàfó)

Near Emei Shan is another one of China’s most important Buddhist icons and pilgrimage sites. One of the main reasons for the Leshan Giant Buddha’s iconic status is how massive it is; at 233 feet tall it is the largest stone Buddha statue in the world. While its mass is what is most notable to visitors, its lengthy history and the story of its construction are just as impressive. During the height of the Tang dynasty in 713 AD, a monk by the name of Haithong lobbied the emperor Xuan Zong to carve a massive Buddha statue to overlook the confluence of three rivers and protect boaters passing by. When funding was cut off a few years later, Haithong carved out his own eyes to show his dedication to the project. Due to his perseverance and the work of his disciples, the statue was completed in 803 AD. Today, the Leshan Giant Buddha is just as impressive as it was over a thousand years ago. Its proximity to Chengdu and Mount Emei make it a perfect stop on a tour around Sichuan. 
You can take a bus from Kunming to Emeishan and Leshan Giant Buddha. Bus service is good in this stretch because of the Chengdu-Kunming national highway. You can also take a car from Chengdu to Leshan. Visit the Leshan Giant Buddha, the biggest carvings in the world. Then drive to Mt. Emei, visit the Baoguo Temple and the Wannian Temple.
Jiuzhai Valley (Jiǔzhàigōu)

To the north of Chengdu is Jiuzhai Valley, one of China’s most renowned nature preserves and ecotourism centers. Throughout the reserve there are crystal-clear mountain lakes and flowing waterfalls as well as well as two of China’s most fascinating animal species, the giant panda and the golden snub-nosed monkey. This setting has made Jiuzhai Valley a favorite spot for visitors keen on hiking and camping in the mountains. If you have had enough of China’s bustling cities and want to spend some time in a beautiful and quiet place, Jiuzhai Valley is just what you are looking for. 

Situated 330 km north of Chengdu, Jiuzhaigou was declared a world natural heritage site by UNESCO. It is a world of clear and colorful lakes as well as waterfalls of stunning beauty. Flights from Chengdu to Jiuhuang airport take just an hour and get you within a short taxi ride from Jiuzhaigou.
Western Sichuan and the Gateway to Tibet

To the west of Chengdu are a number of mountain tow ns that are predominantly populated by Tibetans. Like Northwestern Yunnan, this region of Sichuan province is part of the historical region of the Tibetan kingdom known as Kham. The road west from Chengdu is one of the most dramatic in all of China due to its scenery and massive changes in elevation. The first important town you get to is Luding, famous among the Chinese for being the site of a major battle during the Long March that took place on a chain bridge. 

Past Luding is Kangding, a small city in a high valley that is divided in two by a rushing river whose relaxing sound can be heard all around the city. Kangding’s cool mountain weather and vibrant outdoor markets with local handicrafts, clothing and fresh produce make it a perfect place to spend a few days away from Chengdu’s heat. Further west from Kangding is the town of Litang, a predominantly Tibetan town at the amazingly high elevation of over 13000 feet (4000 meters). Taking the bus to Litang is like going to an entirely different world. In almost every way imaginable Litang is a Tibetan city. The austere landscape and fortress-like stone buildings give this away as you make the descent into the town from the mountains above. 

While most travelers approach Litang from the East, you can also take a bus directly from Yunnan’s Shangri-la that goes north through valleys and over Himalayan foothills before emerging in Litang on the Tibetan plateau. Litang is perhaps most famous for being the birth place of the 7th and 10th Dalai Llamas and for its annual festival where local men exhibit their horse riding skills on the plains surrounding the town. A trip to Litang and Western Sichuan is perhaps the best way to get a feel for Tibet because you don’t need any special permits and can more easily avoid the throngs of tourists that Lhasa and the rest of the Tibetan Autonomous Region regularly attract. 

The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is one of the world's highest and roughest roads. Buses are available from Chengdu to these regions. The 2140-kilometer southern route from this highway branches off from the main road west of Chengdu past Luding and Kangding. Additionally, you can reach Litang directly from Yunnan. Overnight busses start from Shangri-La and scale massive peaks before arriving in Litang.

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