Sublime Sichuan

For the May holiday in China, the government scheduled five consecutive vacation days. Jun felt that since it coincided with the end of my school term it would be a good time for us to take a long vacation. We both took some extra days and extended our holiday time so we would have nine days off. At first, we wanted to visit Tibet. But the government hadn’t lifted the restrictions on foreigners traveling to Tibet. Jun then decided we would do the next best thing and visit the western areas of Sichuan which are culturally Tibetan. 

Day 1

The start of our trip began after I had attended the annual graduate student conference my university runs. I’m an online graduate student living in China, but my university is based in the United States. As a result, the conference ran from midnight to shortly before 6:00 in the morning. I was exhausted and got about two hours of sleep before we had to leave for the airport.

Those two hours must have been enough because I was able to make it through the day. When we got to the airport, we met with Jun’s cousin who we invited to join us on the trip to Sichuan. Last year when the pandemic hit, she found herself in Sichuan but was unable to do anything as everything closed when she got there, and she had to leave early before cities stopped allowing people to travel to and from places within the country. This opportunity was a chance for her and us to explore western Sichuan!

We first arrived in Chengdu and spent the night there before heading out to the western parts of the province. When we got to Chengdu we first checked in at our hotel and then ventured to Chunxi Road. We went and explored Taikoo Li, which is a shopping district built within older Chinese buildings. In the heart of the district is an old Buddhist monastery, Daci Temple. The grounds of the temple were gorgeous. It was verdant with so many different types of plants that it was a joy to walk around and explore this temple.

Soon it was getting late, and we were hungry. Jun picked a nearby Sichuan restaurant for dinner, Tianfu Zhanggui, that was a wonderful place for a meal. I enjoyed the donut-like snack.

After dinner, we walked around the area near Anshun Corridor Bridge. It was nice to walk this area at night. The first time I visited Chengdu I stayed near here, and it was fun to see what things changes and what things remained the same.

Day 2

Our day started early, which I was not happy about as I wanted to sleep in more. But I got up and went down with everyone else for a quick breakfast. Then it was back to our room to get our stuff and go back down to check out and meet our driver for the next week.

Jun hired a car and driver to take us around the western areas of Sichuan. He ended up being a tour guide as well who informed us of important things we needed to know. He was a great guy and an excellent driver.

Once we got everything loaded in the car, we were soon on our way to our first destination: Luding. This stop was a quick break from driving. Luding is known for its bridge, which is significant in the history of modern China. A significant battle was fought there during the Long March that helped secure this key crossing. Because of the holiday, the line to cross the bridge was long. We decided we would visit the adjacent temple and take a view of the bridge from up there. Jun and his cousin found it interesting because they had read about Luding Bridge and the battle there when they were in school. This information was all new for me.

We then got back in the car and drove to our main destination of the day: Hailuogou Glacier Forest Park. Located next to Moxi Town, the park is known for its glaciers and spectacular forests. It’s the only glacier forest park in China. It was amazing!

When we got there, we took a bus up the main area of the park. From there we hiked up to see the No. 1 Glacier. Then we hiked down the mountain to visit different areas of the park. Everywhere we went there was something new to see. Each area had its unique feel towards it. Jun mentioned it reminded him of a fantasy world. And some sections definitely had the feel of a storybook setting.

By the time we left we were amazed at all that we had seen. We were also very hungry. When we got back to Moxi, our driver took us to the hotel where we quickly checked in and then we went in search of food. We ended up having beef hot pot and some vegetables. For the first time, I ate ferns, which wasn’t bad. Nothing I would seek to order in the future, but still not bad.

Jun and I then went for a walk around the town before going back to the hotel. When we arrived back at the hotel, we were both soon out for the night.

Day 3

Early the next day we checked out of our hotel, got in the car, and went to a restaurant to get breakfast on the go. We were off to our next destinations: Tagong Grassland and Moshi Park. The drive took us through the mountains, and it was quite eerie up there as it was foggy and snowing. At one scenic area, Zheduoshan Snow Visiting Platform, there were so many people there that we decided to skip it and head on to the grasslands. The weather was so bad that it wasn’t worth it. Soon, though, the weather did clear up and we were treated to some magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.

We then drove through Xinduqiao where we would spend the night. We stopped there for lunch before going to Tagong Grassland.

When we got there, we walked around a bit and saw the expense of the area. While it was late spring, the grasses are more prominent in the summer. Our view was quite limited, and we stayed there only a short while.

Our next stop, though, was wonderful. Moshi Park is mainly known for its stone forest. The rock formations in the park developed due to the geologic movements and weathering known for this part of China. They were quite amazing to walk around. In some places when you walked through the formations it felt as if you were in an alien landscape. We all enjoyed our visit.

Soon, though, it was time to go check-in at our hotel for the night and find dinner. The hotel Jun chose was quite nice with really friendly staff. The restaurant he initially chose was, however, troublesome. When we got there, they didn’t have any seats and when we tried to find out how long we would have to wait they never responded. We decided it wasn’t worth it to wait and went and had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. That ended up being a great idea as dinner was wonderful. They had a mapo tofu that was delicious with a unique flavoring I hadn’t had before. It was a nice way to end the day.

Soon, we went back to our rooms and called it a day.

Day 4

After breakfast and checking out, we were soon on our way to Litang.

When we got to Litang we first had lunch there before going to walk around the Old Town area. One thing we noticed about the Old Town was how well preserved the buildings were. The other thing that struck me was how much the architecture reminded me of the American Southwest with adobe-like structures. The first place we went when we were there was a temple sacred in the life of the seventh Dalai Lama. This region is culturally Tibetan and part of the Gelukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhists. The walk around the Old Town was beautiful with the different buildings and sights to see.

Soon, though, we were off to the main sight of Litang: Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery. One of the most sacred temples in Buddhism, the third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, founded the monastery in 1580 on the site of an older monastery. The current monastery is a reconstructed building due to events in the 20th century. The interiors of the buildings are amazing and intricate. The sheer size of the rooms was cavernous.

Once we had walked around the temple, we then went up a hill to overlook the temple and the town. At the top of the hill were prayer flags. The views were amazing, and it was nice walking around the prayer flags and experience the calming effects of being in an out-of-the-way place.

Soon, though, we found ourselves back in the car and off to Xianggelila (Shangri-la). While driving we stopped within Haizi Mountain Nature Reserve to see Rabbit Mountain and a glacial lake. Both places were spectacular, but the elevation was making it hard to take in enough oxygen. We were now well above 4,500 meters above sea level and it was affecting us. My head hurt if I exerted myself too much. I was glad when we were able to travel down into the valley where Xianggelila is located.

The night ended with us in Xianggelila. We first bought some provisions and oxygen for our next day when we would visit Yading Nature Reserve. Then we went to the hotel where we checked in and had a simple meal at the hotel restaurant before calling it a night.

Day 5

The entire day had us visiting Yading Nature Reserve. The reserve is on the Tibetan Plateau and is a sacred location for Buddhists. The fifth Dalai Lama sanctified the mountain peaks; as a result, it is now a pilgrimage site with monasteries and stupas located in the surrounding mountains and valleys.

We were lucky that we were there after the official holiday period ended. Jun showed me pictures from two days before our visit and it was full of people. When we were there, we had to only wait a few minutes to catch the bus from the entrance to Chonggu Temple. From there we then took a battery tram to Luorong where we started the hike upwards. The hike took us up to an elevation of 4,700 meters above sea level.

We took it slow and first went to Milk Lake and then Five Color Lake. The journey was amazing. We were stunned by the views at every turn. Throughout the day we would get pelted with snow that lasted a few minutes and then would stop as the sun came out. By the time we reached back down in the valley in Luorong, the sun was back and there were a lot of animals grazing and wandering around.

We were tired by late afternoon and decided to head back to the hotel and have dinner. We ended up eating at a fish hotpot restaurant. While the food was good it wasn’t necessarily my favorite meal. Afterward, we went back to the hotel to relax and rest our weary bodies.    

Day 6

After the exhausting day we had, today was more relaxing as we were starting the end of our trip and the journey back to Chengdu.

While driving we stopped at a new forest in Daocheng and walked around the area. Human-planted, the forest had a planned look to it. Still, though, it was nice to walk around the trees. From there we next went to Zunsheng Talin, a pagoda that marks the entrance to Daocheng. It’s quite impressive in size. When we were there, pilgrims were walking around the pagoda spinning the prayer wheels.

From there we went to Litang to have lunch at this cozy restaurant. They, too, had a nice mapo tofu. Unlike the hotel in Xinduqiao, this version was spicy! The meal was great. The chef at one point came out of the kitchen, looked at me, and shouted foreigner in a happy tone. Quite random.

Then it was off to Xinduqiao. When we got there, we decided to see the sunset from one of the mountains in the area. The first one we wanted to visit, however, was closed. We next went to a mountain closer to town. We first climbed up there and the views were amazing. You could all the way to see Hailuogou Glacier Forest Park. While Jun and his cousin went up the mountain a bit, I spotted a temple. I told them I was going to visit it and would catch up to them. The little temple was surrounded by prayer flags. I had to walk over and under them to get to the temple. When I got there was a rustic quality to the temple. I was the only one there and it was quite serene to have the place to myself. I then went back to where Jun and his cousin were to enjoy the sunset before we left.

We stayed at the same hotel as our first visit and decided to have dinner there as well. Again, the food was amazing. After dinner, we decided to walk to the central part of town. When we got there, we noticed there were many places preparing barbecue. The food smelled great, but we were so full from dinner that we passed on getting anything.

As we walked back to the hotel, we enjoyed being able to look up and see the stars. There was a section of the road without any lights, and you could see different constellations. It was a great way to end the night.

Day 7

Our day started with us driving through the mountains on our way back to Chengdu. While in the mountains we stopped at Zheduoshan Snow Visiting Platform. Unlike the last time we passed through, there were noticeably a lot fewer people here and the weather was amazing. The sun was out, and the sky was a cerulean blue. I was amazed by the views from the top near the prayer flags. We were lucky we decided to wait and visit when we did.

Then we drove to Bifeng Valley Scenic Area. Within this area, there is a panda base we wanted to visit. We were fortunate to arrive at the park during the pandas’ lunchtime. All the pandas we encountered were energetic and full of life. One little panda was so happy that he was striking poses and moving around with pep. While smaller than the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, the Bifeng Panda Base had a more natural element to it with it being in the mountains. Both are great in their unique ways.

After visiting the pandas we then walked through the gorge. Another fantastical place, we encountered waterfalls and greenery that could have been the embodiment of a Tolkienesque world. The walk also helped us acclimate to the warmer weather after having spent the last few days up on the Tibetan Plateau.

After our visit to Bifeng, we were on our way back to Chengdu for the night. By the time we were at the hotel, I was exhausted. Jun and his cousin went to have dinner with one of her friends. I, however, decided to stay in for the night and relax.

Day 8

This way the day we returned to Shenzhen. First, though, we went a visited Qingyang Palace, a Taoist temple, and Culture Park in the morning. The grounds of the temple were extensive and verdant with different plants. It was nice and calming to walk around the temple.

From there we visited Culture Park which surrounds the temple. There we stopped at a teahouse to relax and enjoy the rest of the morning. The tea was great and the views around the teahouse quite serene.

From there we went to Chunxi Road to have lunch at Chen’s Mapo Tofu. The food there was wonderful. After lunch, we took a taxi first to the hotel to get our things and checkout and then to the airport. Everything went smoothly and we soon found ourselves back in Shenzhen. Jun and I said goodbye to his cousin and went home.

Our trip was great. While it wasn’t Tibet as we originally planned, we did get to experience Tibetan culture. The sights, food, and people we encountered were amazing. Our trip ended up as a wonderful escape from the routine. 

A Chengdu Weekend

Taking a vacation because your frequent flyer miles are about to expire is not the worse of reasons to take a vacation. In mid-October, Jun received a message that he needed to use his miles or lose a significant amount of them. After discussing the merits of where we could go given the number of miles we had, we decided to take a weekend trip to Chengdu.

Day 1

Our trip started with both us leaving from work and proceeding straight to the airport. When we got there we went through security and had dinner at Wagas before our flight departed. The flight went smoothly and we soon found ourselves in a taxi heading to the Holiday Inn in central Chengdu.

Check-in went smoothly and we went up to our room ready for bed. Our room was nice and we even had complimentary fruit and desserts. Such a small gesture was quite welcomed. It was too late to eat anything and we decided to take a quick shower and then go to bed.

Day 2

Waking up I went straight to a piece of cake and ate it. Then I took my shower. Priorities… After we were both ready for the day, we went down to have breakfast. It was a simple affair, but the cook-to-order noodles were nice.

From the hotel, we walked north towards Wenshu Temple, one of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. With the changing foliage, the grounds were a mix of gold and green. It was quite a popular place with people of all ages. There were even children painting the changing landscape. Jun and I enjoyed walking around and just being in a state of calm. As we were walking, temple volunteers handed out flower tea to the guests. The tea was a mix of at least three different flowers and had a nice sweet taste.

After walking around the temple and the surrounding streets, Jun and I rode the metro to visit Wuhouci Temple, which commemorates the Three Kingdom Period’s minister Zhuge Liang. The temple is quite simple, but the gardens are impressive and beautiful. There are red walls that separate the temple’s different areas; in combination with the bamboo shooting out from behind them, a surreal feel is created.

Next to the relative quiet of the temple, is the bustling Jinli Ancient Street. People engulfed this reconstructed area looking for souvenirs and food of all kinds. Jun and I walked around for a bit to see if there was anything we wanted to eat there, but we soon decided that it was too crowded and decided to go somewhere else.

We ended up going to Chen’s Mapo Tofu, which claims to have been open since 1862. It is the place in Chengdu to enjoy authentic mapo doufu. Jun and I enjoyed the food here. They have a way of preparing the food with a blend of familiar and new flavors and textures. Just thinking of the food ushers in happy memories.

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Having eaten a lot, Jun and I needed to go for a walk. Fortunately, Huanhuaxi Park was nearby. We leisurely strolled through the different areas of the park and ended up at Du Fu Thatched Cottage. Built to commemorate the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, the gardens and buildings at this site serve as a glimpse into Chengdu’s past. At first, I thought I hadn’t visited this area before, but then as we walked around the park I started to remember different aspects of the site from when my friend Jessica and I visited the place in 2014.

By then it was late afternoon and Jun and I were templed out. We decided that we would go shopping around Chunxi Road. I wanted to buy the Swatch destination watch for the city. It’s quite a nice watch with a panda face and mahjong tiles on the strap. Once we did that Jun and I went to Costa for some Christmas drinks and rested until dinner.

 

Since we were in Chengdu, we decided to have hot pot at one of the many restaurants there. Sadly, because we ate so much at lunch, we weren’t that hungry and only ordered a little for our hot pot. It was still quite good, but extremely spicy. My stomach disagreed with what I ate for the next three days!

After dinner, we walked backed to the hotel and called it a day.

Day 3

We had an early start to the day in order to get to the Chengdu Research Base on Giant Panda Breeding. We quickly had breakfast and asked for a late check-out before getting into a cab and venturing towards the research base.

Once there we spent hours watching the pandas. They were so cute and lively in the morning. Although some were still sleeping. Many, though, were eating. We even peeped into the nursery to see a recently born panda cub. While I had visited the research base before, Jun was experiencing the place for the first time. We really enjoyed seeing the pandas actively engage with the world around them.

Soon, though, we needed to leave and get back to the hotel to check-out. Once we had finished everything at the hotel, Jun and I walked to a nearby market so he could buy rabbit meat for his cousin. Apparently, Chengdu is known for rabbit meat.

Then, we went off towards the New Century Global Center. It holds the record as the largest building in the world in terms of floor area. We went there to have lunch and to look for an article of clothing for our upcoming trip to Finland. We had a nice lunch, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.

Finally, we hailed a cab and went to the airport for our flight back to Shenzhen. Everything at the airport went smoothly and we were soon airborne and venturing back home.

The trip to Chengdu was quite lovely and a nice respite from work and Shenzhen. It was fortunate that Jun’s miles were about to expire. It gave us the perfect excuse to have a wonderful weekend.

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