Xi’an is impressive, but Sichuan blows your mind away. The province shares cultural and religious ties with its next door neighbor, Tibet and is one of China’s most authentic regions. To get a grasp of the area, you need to visit its outstanding mountains, including two natural parks and its capital Chengdu. Outstanding scenery, adorable pandas and the Giant Buddha are sights that stay with you forever.
Huanglong Scenic Area
Flights from Xi’an land in the middle of the mountains. Be sure to ask for a window seat, the views from the plane are outstanding. We exit the terminal and realize there is a gorgeous national park on the way to our hotel, a couple of hours away. So with a little help from our friend Joe on vacation from Southern China we hired a taxi to take us to Huanglong Scenic Area.
The park is over 3000 meters high. Eitan suffers from altitude sickness, so I buy him a bottle of fresh air and the three of us hop on the cable car to reach the top. The atmosphere is magical: melting snow revealing terraces full of water. We can’t believe our eyes and are overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the place. A multicolored world surrounds us: black stones, white snow, green trees, pink cherries, and travertine terraces full of clear blue water, all under a clear blue sky.
In the middle of this majestic dream lie a couple of ancient Tibetan monasteries. The monasteries are pretty authentic, and in use today by local people. You get to see this wonderful multicolored flags crisscrossing stones and trees. There are shops selling traditional sweets, but nobody pushes you to buy anything, everyone smiles. I’m not religious, but I have to admit that the whole vibe soothes you.
Jiuzhaigou National Park
Exhausted but ecstatic we get to our hotel near the entrance of the Jiuzhaigou National Park and realize we are in the middle of natural heaven. The village is completely authentic with narrow streets and local restaurants and shops housed inside strange massive buildings. The Jiuzhaigou Valley is probably one of the most beautiful natural parks I’ve ever seen.
Once you enter the park, you take the bus all the way up and then walk down around dozens of lakes, rivers and waterfalls. The color of the water is unbelievable: it’s like another planet, thousands of blues! We were very lucky to go in early spring, so we walked some of the sections completely on our own.
We spent an entire day in town resting and then went a bit further off the beaten track for an extra day of nature. The Holiday Inn is set in front of the mountains, with fantastic views complete with a herd of Yak’s pasting in front of us. Beds here are soft and comfy and the food superb.
Giant Panda Research Base
One of the main reasons we wanted to visit Sichuan are the beautiful pandas. We humans did everything we could to bring them to the brink of extinction only to discover we actually love them. What a stupid animal we are! Nowadays centers like the Giant Panda Research Base in Chengdu are doing a great job rescuing these lovely creatures and helping them reproduce as much as possible.
The centre is a beautiful green oasis just outside of the city filled with plants, birds, swans and a beautiful lake. Pandas live in decent natural-alike conditions and are taken good care of. There are areas to see adult pandas and young ones. It’s hilarious to watch them eat bamboo shoots. They sit down on their behinds, grab their food and eat just like us! We got to see two youngsters playing, pushing each other around, while another one was up on a tree sleeping. They are fantastic climbers going up and down with grace. There are also cute small red pandas and colorful peacocks showing off and singing. No matter how many times you’ve seen them on TV or as cartoons, these lovely creatures melt your heart. You want to hug them and take them home!
Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital
We didn’t know what to expect from China’s megacities, so the fancy capital of Sichuan surprised us greatly. Our Sheraton Lido Hotel is perfect to enjoy the city. The hotel is within walking distance to the center and connected to the entire city by metro. We had a pretty cool view of the city’s futuristic skyline from our room but the one from the swimming pool was even better. We got a complimentary upgrade to a club room, which includes great breakfast, elegant ambiance and an exquisite late afternoon buffet. It’s great to be Happy Frog Travels, thanks Sheraton!
China’s futuristic skyline is the direct result of its impressive economic growth and social transformation. You can see entire typical mid 20th century residential neighborhoods being torn down. These are replaced by ultra modern skyscrapers. The contrast is shocking. It’s interesting to see how architectural design has evolved in recent years: those built ten years ago are much more basic than newer ones. The few remaining old blocks maintain their distinct character, with narrow streets packed with cars and motorbikes, and shops and restaurants occupying sidewalks. Chengdu has a lot of new modern commercial space, full of fancy shops from all over the world. However, public space has been provided for. Unlike Hanoi or Bangkok, there are sidewalks, streets and boulevards are pedestrian friendly, so people walk about enjoying their city.
Three pedestrian areas in particular are a shoppers and foodie’s paradise. Chunxi Road is a large modern area filled with skyscrapers and fancy shops. Kuanzhaixiangzi and Jinli offer a more traditional and intimate atmosphere. We went out for drinks in Kuanzhaixiangzi at night. The street is lined with fancy bars playing live music and packed with chic urbanite young Chinese. It’s good to take a couple of nice shirts when traveling; you can blend with the local in crowd and not be out of place. Next to Jinli there is a gorgeous park together with a charming temple perfect for an afternoon stroll.
Leshan Giant Buddha
To visit the World’s largest Buddha statue it’s better to take a fast train to Leshan and then a taxi. The whole journey lasts 1.5 hours. This was the first time we experienced the annoying side of massive tourism. The Giant Buddha together with the landscape and the views are pretty impressive, but the number of visitors is quite an issue. Massive tourism sucks!
While coming down the stairs directly overlooking the Giant Buddha we realize we could be stuck there for hours. What’s the point of seeing something you can’t enjoy? So we fight our way back to spend some time walking around the less visited yet beautiful green area. No complaints: we were able to contemplate the Giant Buddha from the upper platform, so we ended our Sichuan route with our hearts full.
Happy Frog Travels organizes personalized trips to China including Sichuan. Contact us HERE.