The Sichuan Province’s vibrant capital of Chengdu has much to see, but what’s also great about it is its close proximity to some wonderful sights. So, if you find yourself in Chengdu with a little more time on your hands, why not take a day trip out of the city?
1. Mount Emei
Anyone that knows Buddhism may already be aware of China’s 4 Sacred Mountains. The biggest of the group is none other than Éméi Shān (峨嵋山), or as many of us call it – Mount Emei; a verdant beauty that quite literally rises into the clouds.
Many visitors to Mount Emei are bound to stop or go through the village of Baoguo, which is nestled at the base of the mountain. The main drag of town (
Dare I say it almost has the feeling of an alpine resort?
Some great restaurants serving up delicious Sichuan food can be found dotted all along the main road, and one of them introduced me to a dish I’d never previously heard of, yet fell in love with immediately.
Doufu nao – or tofu brain – is a porridge-like potato starch concoction topped with fried beef, toasted peanuts, scrambled tofu, crispy bits of fried pastry and plenty of white pepper. On a cool, misty morning in the mountains it made for the most warming, nourishing breakfast.
A big part of me wanted to eat my way along the main street, but we had a 3099 m (10,167 ft) mountain to ascend!
The intrepid amongst us, or those with much more time on their hands, hike from Baoguo to the top of the mountain. The well-paved trail has dozens of temples, places to grab food and drinks and monasteries that offer a bed for the night.
For us, it was a drive most of the way to Lei Dong Ping bus station, a short walk and then a scenic ride on the Jinding Peak Cableway.
The top of Emei revealed very little as the cloud was so thick you could barely see 20 metres in front of you.
And then it began to clear.
The main attraction on Mount Emei would have to be Golden Summit which, at 3077 metres, is just shy of the mountain’s peak. A few temples sit here and there, but it’s the golden statue of Bodhisattva Puxian that stands out from the rest.
What a stunner!
When it comes to food, there’s actually a lot more available than I would have imagined. Along the trail leading to the Golden Summit are clusters of kiosks peddling rental jackets, loose leaf tea, dried herbs, spices and mushrooms, panda toys and plenty of hot food.
Yams, potatoes and corn roasting over charcoal, boiled tea eggs, spicy pork sausages, smoked pork and flaky discs of purple sweet potato zishubing (紫薯饼). Just a pity the smoked pork and sausage messed with my stomach for a couple of days after eating them. Despite that, they were delicious!
Oh, and watch out for the monkeys. They confidently strut out of the jungle and will blatantly swipe anything they can from you.
2. Leshan Giant Buddha.
From a sacred Buddhist mountain to the world’s largest seated statue of Buddha – at 71 metres tall – a trip to Leshan to witness this UNESCO listed marvel is a must.
Back in 713 AD a monk named Hai Tong had a thought after witnessing too many ships meeting their demise at the intersection of the Min and Dadu Rivers. His idea was to carve a giant Buddha from the cliff overlooking both rivers, as it would appease the angry river gods and make it safer for sailers.
Hai Tong died 70 years before his idea came to fruition, but one thing that did happen once Leshan’s Giant Buddha was carved from the cliff – those wild river currents were tamed. Just as Hai Tong had wanted.
So much stone fell into the river after it was carved that it altered the crazy currents. The ships were finally safe to travel thanks to a great idea, and a little bit of physics.
Most visitors to the Leshan Giant Buddha check it out during the day. That’s all great if you want to snail-trail behind hundreds of others as they make their way around and down to Buddha’s feet, but, come at dusk and it’s almost all yours.
Ok, you may not be able to schlepp down at dusk to the riverbank to see the view from below, or take a river cruise, but all the other paths are open – as are the pagodas and temples – sans the gaggle of tourists.
The entrance fee for Leshan Giant Buddha is ¥80 per person, with an additional ¥70 if you want to do the boat trip.
3. Dujiangyan Irrigation System & Scenic Area
Visiting a piece of ancient infrastructure may not be the most exciting thing to many people, including myself, but I’m glad we made it to the Dujiangyan Irrigation System and its stunning Scenic Area.
Inventiveness and skill are just two of the things the bright sparks had when deciding to implement irrigation and flood control on the Min River – the longest tributary of the Yangtze – back in 256 BC.
This ancient engineering marvel – some 60 km out of Chengdu – still provides water resources to more than 50 cities in Sichuan Province. It’s the world’s oldest and only-surviving irrigation system that doesn’t involve a dam.
Three parts make up the system
Yuzui – fish mouth levee which separates the river into a main and secondary stream.
Feishayan – a sand weir which channels excess water away.
BaoPingKou – a narrow opening in the secondary stream which channels drinking water to cities and towns in the Chengdu plains
Aside from the irrigation system, the Dujiangyan Scenic Area around it is a stunning mountainous landscape. It’s dotted with beautiful gardens and gorgeous structures like Fulong and Erwang Temples and the six-storey Yulei Pavilion. Head to the pavilion for incredible views up and down the river, over the mountains and Dujiangyan City.
The entrance fee into the Dujiangyan Scenic Area is ¥90 per person. The site is vast and requires some walking, but there is a sight-seeing tram that can help with some of that. Single trips cost ¥10 and round-trips cost ¥15.
4. Qingcheng Mountain.
Translating to “Green City”, Qingcheng sure does live up to its name. A dense forest of trees and bamboo cover its rugged slopes, making it the most perfect setting for one of China’s premier UNESCO sites – where Taoism was born.
There are actually two mountains with the same name – Qingcheng (Front) Mountain and Qingcheng (Back) Mountain. The more popular one is Qingcheng (Front) Mountain due to its numerous Taoist temples and pagodas, but if avid hiking and nature is more your thing, do the Back mountain.
Qingcheng Mountain stands 1260 metres high, and while it isn’t enormous, it would take some time to hike up it. Thanks to the Chinese government and a piece of Austrian machinery, a highspeed cablecar can take you three quarters of the way in 5 minutes.
Many of the existing temples and shrines we see on the mountain today are modern reconstructions built a few decades ago, thanks to many devastating and fatal
Qingcheng Mountain is a wonderful place to visit, and as any other iconic place in China, it’s overrun with package tourists. Thousands of them. Looking past the mass of humans may be a struggle to some, but the numbers diminish the higher you go up the mountain. It seems the average Chinese local isn’t all that fond of hiking uphill, so once you get past the several major shrines on Qingcheng, the numbers thin out.
Case in point with Laojun Pavilion. The trail leading up to it was a pleasure. A little strenuous in high humidity, but none of those noisy gaggles of people ruining the peace and serenity of the mountain.
The entrance fee for Qingcheng (Front) Mountain is ¥80 per person. The cable car is ¥35 for a single trip or ¥60 return.
5. Huang Long Xi Ancient Town.
Merely 40 km from the centre of Chengdu is one of the country’s Top 10 riverside ancient towns – Huang Long Xi.
This historic site has 1700 years of history along its 7 cobbled streets and 9 alleys, and wandering about them is a fascinating experience. Beautiful stilted Western Sichuan-style houses line the pedestrian-only streets, with a few old temples found on Zheng Street.
Upon entering from the north side, a flowing stream makes its way through town adjacent to a busy pedestrian thoroughfare lined with tourist shops and snack vendors. The stream is clearly a reconstruction of one that may have been there in the past, and it’s shallow enough for all kids to kick off their footwear and go wild in the water.
Crossing into the older part of town past the water mills is a much more pleasant experience. While all the families and their kids get wet in the stream, the south part of town has room to move with far less people.
One thing you can’t ignore is all the food vendors. You’ll see all your usual Sichuan specialities like skewered meats, seafood and even scorpions and huge millipedes.
You can watch Dragon’s beard cotton candy (lóng xū táng 龙须糖) being made by hand before buying it, or sink your teeth into fried sesame sticky sweet rice balls (táng yóu guǒzi 糖油果子)
Then there’s shangxin liang fen 傷心涼粉, which translates to “sad jelly noodles”. They’re made using mung bean or potato starch and topped with garlic, pickles, coriander or spring onion, nuts and other spices.
Why so sad?
Well, that’s due to the fiery Sichuan chilli oil that’s added; leaving your tastebuds brokenhearted and shedding tears. Others say that whatever emotional distress you may be harbouring before eating the noodles will be flushed out. This one seriously blew my head off!
I couldn’t help but sample the wares from this guy. His variety of fried edibles caught my attention as we explored the streets – fried mung bean cakes, fried peanut cakes (油炸花生饼) and garlic chive cakes.
Many of them are known as “copper spoon cakes 铜勺饼” from the way they’re cooked. The batter is poured into a flat, shallow ladle and lowered into the hot oil. Once it lifts from the ladle it finishes cooking in no time. Oily, but delicious!
Stumbling upon Simu Cafe came at the most perfect time. Weary legs, in desperate need of caffeine and some air-conditioning were all taken care of at this retro-style joint.
This is the kind of place you can settle onto the sofa with a borrowed book, watch a movie or Chinese game show, sip on local booze or grab a bite. Cat lovers can also indulge at Simu Cafe and make friends with one of their seven felines, strutting about choosing whether they give you attention, or not.
Aside from all the street food vendors, there are many restaurants in Huang Long Xi Ancient Town. Snacking on food here and there wasn’t enough, so we plonked ourselves upstairs at Hengsheng Restaurant overlooking the Fu He River.
A couple of shots of delicious plum rice wine set the mood before a spread of mapo tofu (18), rabbit with dried chillies (55), chicken kidneys with celery & black fungus (30) and beautiful steamed goji leaves. It may not have been the best meal I’d eaten in China, but its riverside setting made it all the better.
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