City in China: Sichuan四川


There are two things of Sichuan often boiled down for first-time visitors: pandas and peppers. As China’s iconic animals amble through Sichuan’s bamboo forests and numbingly hot Sichuan pepper fuels one of the world’s spiciest cuisines are known to all.

What people don’t always know—but quickly find out—is how much more Sichuan has to offer. It’s one of China’s richest zones of biodiversity—over one-fifth of the nation’s rare plants and animals are to be found in Sichuan’s mountains, river valleys and forests.

It’s also a culturally diverse place, especially in its rugged western half, where Tibetan, Naxi, Qiang and Li ethnic minorities live amidst often stunning landscapes of wooded mountains and lakes.

“Sichuan” translates to “four rivers,” and its historical importance and present prosperity have much to do with the Yangzi (Yangtze) and its tributaries, especially in the fertile east, where the ancient capital of Chengdu presides over economic boom times. Subtropical lowlands boast rich soil that has always made eastern Sichuan an agricultural dynamo; now, the province is also an industrial powerhouse, doing more than its part to contribute to China’s overall breakneck growth.

So, come to see the pandas at the Giant Panda Research Base and to sample fiery hot pot, spicy kung pao chicken and dan dan noodles—then stay a while to visit some of China’s finest mountain landscapes, from the alpine splendor of Jiuzhaigou to the culturally iconic Emei Shan. Linger in Chengdu’s classic teahouses and visit the ancient colossus of the Buddhist world, Dafo, in Leshan. Finally, think about moving on downriver on the Yangzi toward the Three Gorges or heading to two of China’s other wilder regions, Tibet and Yunnan, lying to the west and south respectively. In the end, you’ll likely understand why the Chinese call Sichuan “the Heavenly Kingdom.”

No longer is access to Sichuan from the eastern Han Chinese heartlands “harder than the road to heaven,” as Tang era poet Li Bai put it, but the province retains the distinct cultural flavor that developed over centuries of relative remoteness from the power centers in Beijing, Nanjing and Xi’an. That’s not to say Sichuan hasn’t been an integral part of China’s history—on the contrary, this resource-rich land’s fertile river valleys and forests have long been a cherished prize for successive dynasties, starting with the Qin, whose conquest of “Heaven’s Granary” helped fuel its drive to overwhelm its powerful rivals in eastern China, ending the Warring States period and forging the unified China that has served as the template for all successive ruling powers.

Chengdu (Chéngdū, 成都) is a city that has managed to retain its easygoing Sichuan charm, despite many of its old wooden buildings and narrow streets having been replaced by glittering skyscrapers and shopping centers. Full of lush, green parks, lively temples, outdoor markets, bustling open-air restaurants and a maze of side streets, a tour of Chengdu makes for a unique and pleasurable China experience.

Far from the central powers of eastern China, rugged Sichuan has maintained its distinct culture. From Sichuan opera, with its distinctive “face changing” tricks, fire breathing and gritty humor, to mouthnumbing spicy food and the stunning natural beauty of the region (and its women, so they say), Chengdu is not to be missed. And of course, no visit to Chengdu is complete without going to see the pandas. Venture out of the city to the nearby mountains and drop in to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base where hordes of Sichuan’s famous bamboo-munching giant pandas live in a protected environment.

Sichuan cuisine is famous throughout the world for its tongue-numbing pepper, fiery chili and steamy hot pot, making the province’s capital a delicious place to be (those who don’t care for spicy fare shouldn’t worry—there are plenty of milder alternatives among Chengdu’s many restaurants). For a real taste of Sichuan culture however, follow the lead of the locals and head to a Chengdu teahouse. But don’t rush it—the idea’s not to grab a quick pick-me-up, but to unwind and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.

Chengdu experiences pleasant springs, hot and humid summers, cool autumns and temperate but damp winters averaging 5 ºC (41 ºF). July and August can be uncomfortable, with temperatures reaching 35 ºC (95 ºF). In the heat of the summer, many locals seek relief in weekend mountain retreats or venture out after sunset to do business, shop and eat. Summer also sees periods of heavy rain. The best time to visit Chengdu is between March and June or between September and November when it’s cooler and less rainy. One explanation for the locals’ love of hot and spicy food is that the chilies and pepper help the body cope with the damp climate.

四川Sì chuān: Sichuan
扬子江Yánɡzǐ jiānɡ: Yangzi River
成都Chénɡdōu: Chengdu
九寨沟Jiǔzhàiɡōu: Jiuzhaigou
峨眉山é méi shān: Emei Shan
天府之国Tiānfǔzhīɡuó the Heavenly Kingdom
难于上青天Nán yú shànɡ qīnɡ tiān: harder than the road to heaven
李白Lǐ bái: Li Bai(a poet of China)

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