China’s Sichuan province is famed for its pandas – but there’s far more to it than that: find holy mountains, fiery food and a taster of traditional Tibet

China’s Sichuan province is famed for its pandas – but there’s far more to it than that: find holy mountains, fiery food and a taster of traditional Tibet

Like most people in Britain, my first encounter with China’s Sichuan province was in the local takeaway. Romanced by the exotic-sounding ‘Szechuan chicken’, I ignored the warning chilli peppers and ordered ‘number 33’. Over the years, 33 became a favourite. So it was with great excitement that I started my ten-day trip to Sichuan with a visit to one of China’s most renowned cooking schools, in provincial capital Chengdu.

Most foreign visitors come to this city for one thing only: along with Beijing’s Forbidden City and Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, Chengdu’s Panda Base is in almost everybody’s top three China ‘must-sees’. But I had been living in Beijing for over a year and a Chengdu-born friend had assured me that there was more to her hometown than the world’s most photogenic mammals.

Twice the size of the UK, there is more to Sichuan too. The north and west of the province are sparsely populated with perennially snow-covered peaks, alpine valleys and small Tibetan villages; for many travellers, this is a permit-free alternative to Tibet proper. By contrast, the eastern half is all classic China: the fairytale Buddhist and Taoist green mountains that inspired so many ink paintings, the metropolitan pleasures of Chengdu, and that fiery cuisine, which ranks as some of the tastiest in Asia.

At the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, I knew I was most definitely in the ‘China’ part of the province because, like the

rest of this country, it was so mind-blowingly populous. Each year, more than 8,000 students attend this university-like institution; on my way to a private lesson, I passed squadrons of them, all in matching green aprons and white chef hats.

In a demonstration kitchen, I watched as teacher Pei prepared the ingredients for gong bao ji ding – a piquant chicken dish. Above the metronomic thud of his chopping, he shared tips, such as: “Use old ginger; like people, it becomes more sophisticated with age.” Pei disappeared in a cloud of steam and the crackle of oil. Within minutes he’d rustled up one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever tasted.

Only when I tried to make it myself did I fully appreciate the skill I’d just witnessed. Using an intimidating cleaver as if it were a scalpel, Pei had filleted a chicken breast and dissected it into perfect cubes. It wasn’t just the precision, but the speed; wielding two woks at a time, Pei truly was a kung fu chef.

Pandas & prima donnas

While the kitchens here are some of the world’s most frenetic, Chengdu has long had a reputation as a centre of relaxation. Thanks to being founded on a fertile plain (back in 316BC), the city’s residents haven’t had to expend much energy tilling the soil. Instead, they’ve indulged in more leisurely pastimes – opera, street snacking and teahouses – which are still popular today. After the cooking class, my guide Zhang Zhulin whisked me off to Shufeng Yayun Teahouse to see an opera. Before the show, we watched the performers apply their thick white foundation and red lipstick. “I’ve been performing for three decades,” one told me. “During opera school, I’d practise from 6am until midnight.” I couldn’t decide if this was an example of the incredible Chinese work ethic or just the exaggerations of an old diva.

As I sat down, the usher filled my cup with jasmine tea from a brass pot with a metre-long spout, before actors in bright, multilayered costumes struck poses and sung to an erhu, a two-stringed fiddle. The songs were interspersed by stunts unique to Sichuan opera: slapstick routines, fire-breathing and the changing of face-masks in milliseconds, making it easy for someone unfamiliar with the language to follow.

We ended the evening on Jinli-Lu, a winding lane of teahouses and snack-stalls selling everything from dim sum to blackened baby birds (heads and all); I settled for a tofu stick with spicy plum sauce. This new ‘old’ street is tasteful and the crowds add atmosphere, but it’s clearly for tourists.

The locals, it transpired, filled the People’s Park where, the next day, Zhulin took me to a joint resembling a workman’s café. I could hear the rowdy clink of mahjong, and Zhulin taught me the rules – not unlike rummy, but played with domino-like tiles bearing Mandarin characters. The other customers blithely ignored my novice efforts.

Chengdu’s most chilled-out resident, however, was one of the four-year-old pandas at the city’s breeding centre. He was so laid-back he remained horizontal to eat his lunch. Being thoroughly unsentimental, I never thought I’d turn all mother hen here. How wrong I was. As I watched this prone cub stretch its arms out to grab bamboo, then flop back down with a huff of exertion, I couldn’t help but cluck.

I continued cooing around the rest of the Panda Base, admiring inches-long newborns snug in their incubators, and cubs and adults ambling around their pens. It’s for good reason that these black-and-white fur balls are Sichuan’s number-one attraction, but the province has a lot more to offer.

 Holy heights

Leaving behind Chengdu’s earthly pleasures, I headed south-west to the more spiritual offerings of central Sichuan. My first stop was Leshan, home to a Buddha statue so large that its nose alone is more than three times the size of a man. As we descended the stairs to his feet, I saw just how diverse a nation China is. There were the city-slickers clutching Nikons, older couples wearing Mao suits, countryside believers caressing prayer beads and even the occasional orange-clad monk.

I found myself surrounded by a similar entourage of pilgrims the next day, when I ascended 3,099m Mount Emei, one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains. On the way up, we passed tough-looking monkeys and people hawking mushrooms collected from the mountain. Zhulin advised me to avoid both.

At the top, I admired the evergreen peaks poking out of the clouds and warmed myself with green tea, before climbing the last set of stairs to the golden statue of the bodhisattva Puxian riding his six-tusked elephant. At his back hung the vertical face of the mountain – Suicide Cliff. Here, clouds warmed at lower altitudes rushed upwards. I tried to imagine how someone could throw themselves into this white abyss. Zhulin broke my morbid imaginings, by shouting out: “We are immortals now!” It certainly felt like we were on the steps of heaven.

 A taste of Tibet

There were loftier landscapes still in the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northern Sichuan, where the elevation rarely drops below 2,500m. To get there, I flew into Jiuzhaigou airport, a small runway cut between the mountains. I was met by guide Sonam Richen and as we drove to the town of Songpan – stopping occasionally to allow stocky Tibetan ponies to cross the road – Sonam shared his story. One of five siblings, he studied in a lama monastery and later learned Mandarin but didn’t have enough money to go on to high school, so returned home to tend yaks. A chance encounter with a Taiwanese tourist left him with some English textbooks; now he is one of the area’s few English-speaking Tibetan guides.

“When I was a little boy, the buildings here were poor,” explained Sonam as we strolled through the town. “All we had was one temple.” Today Songpan’s main street is lined with new shops selling souvenirs and camping gear. Although the fronts resemble traditional Tibetan architecture, the skeletons of the buildings are concrete.

“It’s not safe,” scoffed Sonam, thinking of the 2008 earthquake that killed more than 68,000 locals, many of whom were crushed under poorly constructed buildings. “Most of the traditional Tibetan homes didn’t collapse,” claimed Sonam. “They were made of wood; more simple, more natural, more giving.”

 I’ll get me goat…

I travelled with Sonam to a relative’s house, on a two-hour horseback ride through rolling hills. A party of giggling piglets welcomed us to the village, a cluster of spacious, timber-beamed houses, typical of the region; all were turreted with red, vertical darchor prayer flags. Sonam’s cousin’s father-in-law’s house was slightly bigger than the rest – he was the village chief. A faded poster of Mao remained plastered above the entrance. Inside, in pride of place, was a picture of the Potala Palace – an indication, perhaps, of where their allegiances really lay.

With the men out working the fields, I was greeted by the women of the family who were dressed in long, black wrap-around skirts, with their hair braided and adorned with opaque amber. They invited me to join them in making baozi (steamed buns with meat filling). I fetched mince from a pantry where yak shanks hung drying like ham in an Italian deli, then tried to make my baozi as perfectly round as theirs. In the end, my lesson was disrupted by a cry from outside: “The goats are loose!” We spent 30 minutes rounding up the escapees. Dinner followed shortly after: our baozi, dried yak meat and tsampa (barley powder) balls glued together with tea and yak butter. This hearty fare soon sent me to sleep.

I awoke the next morning to the sound of farmyard animals and Buddhist prayers emanating from a nearby monastery. The mother-in-law led me into their shrine room and indicated that I should fill seven cups with water and light seven butter lamps. That day, apparently, was an auspicious one. After breakfast, we strolled to the village shrine to place an offering of barley in the smoking stupa and turn the prayer wheels. We paused to enjoy the sunshine on a meadow, then tossed colourful prayer papers into the wind.

 Wondrous watercolours

Huanglong National Park was not short on colours. Here a series of travertine pools terraced down a valley for over 3.6km, the water glinting so turquoise it seemed photoshopped. Behind stood forested hills decked out in their autumn finery and, higher still, white-dusted peaks. It was dramatic, but a mere prelude to the next day.

Take a wallchart of blues and greens: cyan, teal, aquamarine, olive… all these shades and more were represented in the 118 mineral lakes, rivers and waterfalls of Jiuzhaigou NP. The park takes its name – meaning ‘Nine Villages Gully’ – from the Tibetan dwellings that once lined this valley. For centuries it was left alone, unknown outside the area. ‘Discovered’ in the 1970s, it became a national park and earned Unesco status. Improved transport links, huge ad campaigns and a boom in the number of middle-class Chinese who can afford travel, has driven visitor numbers up to 2.5 million a year.

Most of the domestic tourists seemed on a mission to see as many of Jiuzhaigou’s ‘scenic attractions’ as possible, allowing themselves only enough time at each to take a photo before reboarding one of the tourist buses that whip around the park. The Chinese language has even invented a metaphor for this: zou ma guan hua – literally, to glance at the flowers while rushing past on horseback.

However, although we encountered many of these ‘horse-riders’ in Jiuzhaigou, we found isolation by simply walking to the other side of the sights. For example, at Long Lake – the park’s biggest and highest – we found the entrance crowded. But strolling just 100m to the right we were alone, except for a couple taking wedding photos.

Some of Jiuzhaigou’s better-known attractions, such as the 320m-wide Nuorilang Falls, can’t be missed, but where possible we chose the lesser-visited sites. Tiger Lake had an equally magical reflective quality to Mirror Lake, but was surrounded by half the admirers.

Looking out over the water, I remembered something Zhulin had said at Leshan: “I can’t understand most Chinese tourists – they don’t come here to travel but to compete with time.” Most Westerners seem to take that approach too when they come to Sichuan.

I smiled, thinking how glad I was that I had chosen to linger.

First appeared in Wanderlust on March 1, 2012.