Things to Do in Southwest China
The name ‘Erhai’ translates to ‘ear-shaped sea’ — the name giving to the 97-square-mile (250-square-kilometer) lake sandwiched between the town of Dali and the Cangshan Mountains in China’s Yunnan Province. It’s one of the seven biggest freshwater lakes in all of China and the seconds largest highland lake after Dianchi.
The local Bai people — one of China’s 56 recognized ethnic minority groups — have long used the waters of the lake for fishing using a rather unusual method. Fisherman train cormorants to catch fish (mostly carp) and return them to the fishing boat. Parks along the banks of the lake offer hiking and cycling opportunities, but most visitors choose to explore the lake by boat. These tours allow visitors to see cormorant fishing in action as well as visit some of the lake’s many islands and temples.
Travelers don’t have to venture out into nature to get an up close look at one of China’s top wildlife attractions. That’s because since 1955 Chongqing Zoo has been showcasing the country’s most rare and most beloved animals—like giant pandas and the South China Tiger—to visitors. This destination is stationed along the Yangtze River and serves as a hub for both research and conservation. It’s home to some 230 species and more than 4,000 animals.
In addition to natural landscapes, protected areas and animal exhibitions, families will find an amusement park, outdoor stage, restaurant and even a dry skating rink. The Chongqing Zoo is the perfect place to spend an afternoon—or even an entire day—getting a unique look at nature without ever leaving the city.
There are few images more iconic to southwestern China than that of the giant panda. Unfortunately, despite its status as a Chinese national treasure, the giant panda population has been whittled down to just 1,000 pandas due to mass human development over the last century.
As a response to this ecological crisis the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was opened in 1987 and began caring for six pandas rescued from the wild. During the 25 years since its founding the Chengdu Panda Base has employed some of the world’s leading giant panda researchers to manage an open air sanctuary where giant pandas can be bred and raised in an effort to eventually be reintroduced into wild populations.
Located only seven miles from downtown Chengdu, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is inarguably one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of southern China.
The 233-foot (71-meter) tall Grand Buddha in Leshan (also called the Leshan Giant Buddha) holds the record as both the tallest stone Buddha sculpture and one of the tallest sculptures anywhere in the world. Construction of the Buddha, carved out of the mountain, began in 713 when a Buddhist monk by the name of Hai Tong decided to carve the statue as a way to gain divine protection for local fisherman who were getting killed each year by violent river currents.
Ninety years of work went into the carving of the Grand Buddha, but the river rages on. After earning a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the statue has undergone extensive repairs, and today you can see it in much of its original glory with a day trip from Chengdu.
To see the statue from all angles, take the stone staircase down the statue's right side from the gift shop just behind his head. Once you've zigzagged your way down, you'll find a viewing platform at the statue's toe level.
Brilliant turquoise pools, quiet rivers, cascading waterfalls and mystical yellow rocks are just part of what makes Huanglong National Park, a UNESO World Heritage site, worth a visit.
Travelers love wandering the scenic passes that wind through incredible blue waters and the popular cable car offers impressive views of the landscape down below. Easy walking trails stretch over calcified rock and loop through dense forest, offering an up-close look at this unique and fragile ecosystem. Visitors warn that while the climb is easy, the air is thinner, so be prepared for a shift in altitude—and perhaps a little light-headedness that follows.
Commonly known as “People’s Park” this lively open green space in southwest Chengdu is full of exactly that: people playing cards, people doing tai chi, people dancing and people squawking karaoke into microphones. Simply put, People’s Park is a people watcher’s dream.
Famous for its popular teahouse where locals will often linger all day, the park also boasts a long lakeshore where visitors can hire a pedal boat to observe the action from a different vantage point. Open from dawn to the wee hours of the morning, the admission is free and the atmosphere is unique. On one visit you may be swept up by the energy of an impromptu dance session whereas on a separate day you could be sitting in bamboo chair drinking tea and be offered to have your ears cleaned by an elderly ear-cleaning vendor.
More Things to Do in Southwest China
At a user friendly height of only 1,290 meters (4,234 feet), Mount Qingcheng is one of the best day trekking options surrounding Chengdu. Due to its lush green surroundings, numerous waterfalls and 36 peaks which stretch towards the sky, Mount Qingcheng has historically been referred to as “the most peaceful and secluded mountain under heaven.” Located 64 kilometers (40 miles) outside of Chengdu, a trip to Qingcheng is frequently combined with a visit to the nearby Dujiangyan Irrigation System. The mountain is regarded as one of the most sacred in Taoism and has a history which dates back over 2,000 years - to the very founding of the religion. While the most popular route for ascending Mount Qingcheng is to take a short ferry across Yuecheng Lake and ride the cable car to within a 20 minute walk of the summit, this route bypasses a number of the temples which make this mountain famous.
When Chinese soldiers of the Qing Dynasty returned from war with Tibet in 1718, many of the soldiers and their families based themselves around Kuan-Zhai Lane in the Sichuan city of Chengdu. Though only 3 of the original 42 lanes remain from the period of military housing - Kuan, Zhai, and Jing - these three lanes collectively comprise an area of Chengdu now known to travelers as China’s Lane.
Although the name literally translates to “Wide-Narrow” Lane, both Kuan and Zhai lanes exist as narrow alleyways, with one being imperceptibly wider than the other. Along with the third lane, Jing, these three parallel alleyways are recognized as one of Chengdu’s three historic conservation districts. Ranking as one of the finest pedestrian thoroughfares in downtown Chengdu, Kuan-Zhai Lane offers a visually pleasing blend of traditional Sichuan architecture fused with modern Chengdu commerce.
When Qin Dynasty traders started selling baldachin cloth on Jinli Street in 220 B.C. they set in motion a chain of events which would turn Jinli into the busiest commercial hub in the city of Chengdu. Known as “The First Street of the Shu Kingdom” for its commercial activity during the “Three Kingdoms Period” (221-263), the boulevard now known as Jinli Ancient Street was recently restored in 2004 in an effort to return it to its former glory.
Running for 382 yards just east of the Wuhou Memorial Temple, the green flagstone of Jinli Ancient Street weaves a pedestrian thoroughfare teeming with local Chengdu merchants and traditional Sichuan architecture. In a nod to the lengthy history of the boulevard many shopkeepers and street merchants continue to dress in a traditional Sichuan style in an effort to fuse the modern elements of Chengdu with ancient Sichuan custom and design.
Despite being constructed in 256 BC, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System continues to serve residents of the fertile Chengdu Plain. A marvel of ancient engineering, the irrigation system was built in response to destructive springtime flood waters. It was commissioned by Governor Li Bing who began work on the project to divide the river into more manageable streams so as to not breach the riverbanks. Once separated, the diverted water was to be funneled through the nearby Mt. Yulei en route to irrigating the surrounding fields and plains. Needing to blast through the mountainside in an age before gunpowder, Li Bing and his son employed a system where the heating and cooling of stones would crack an eventual path through the mountain. After four years of heavy construction the miraculous project was completed, and in doing so, created the world’s oldest no-dam irrigation system. In 2000 the Dujiangyan Irrigation System was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Located in the Chengdu Culture Park, the Shufeng YaYun Teahouse was once a gathering place for famous Sichuan operatic actors. Now, it is one of the hot spots for visitors to Chengdu and holds the China Sichuan Opera Unique Skills Performance each evening. This helps preserve and share traditional Sichuan arts while providing a glimpse into the past as one of the most popular Sichuan Opera theaters in the area.
Don’t be misled by the term "opera" in relation to the performance that takes place here; instead, it’s more of a variety show of traditional Sichuan exhibitions like puppetry, dancing, singing, music, hand shadows, comedic theater and the culmination: face changing. The performances take place in an open-air theater, and light snacks are served. Knowledge of Mandarin is not necessary, as there is a translator at the show.
Dujiangyan Panda Base is situated near Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province. It’s the world’s only center dedicated to giant panda care, disease prevention, and research. The giant panda is one of the rarest animal species in the world, with a population of less than 2,000. They only inhabit the major mountain ranges in the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces of China and are recognized as a special-class protected species under the country’s Wildlife Protective Law.
The Dujiangyan Panda Base is home to 170 of these much-respected national treasures. It’s a huge, sprawling site covering more than 500 square-meters and divided into separate zones dedicated to six different area of research and care. These include: rescue and quarantine, disease prevention and control, recovery and training, education, vegetation, and service.
China is known for its tea, which comes straight from Mengding Mountain. Considered the birthplace of the world's tea culture, as well as being home to the earliest plantations, Mengding Mountain is located on the Tibetan Plateau in northwest Sichuan Province.
More than 2,000 years ago, Wu Lizhen, "the ancestor of tea planting" began to plant domesticated wild tea in the area due to its suitable altitude, soil and climate. The tea from this region, Mengshan tea, has been regarded as a magic bullet for curing diseases and has garnered the appellation, "Holy Tea.” Because of its unique flavor and favorable characteristics, great poets from the Tang, Song, Ming and Qang dynasties wrote verses describing the virtues of the tea; thus, the Mengshan tea culture was formed. Also of interest in the area are the Tiangai Temple, the Imperial Tea Garden, the Celestial Ladder and the Tea History Museum.
Set in northern Sichuan Province, Jiuzhaigou Valley is regarded by many Chinese as a place akin to being heaven on Earth. One of China’s most famous National Parks, Jiuzhaigou Valley is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site where giant pandas (albeit only about 20) still roam the forested hillsides. A remote wilderness set on the steps of the Tibetan Himalayan Plateau, Jiuzhaigou Valley is a 278 square mile (720 square kilometer) wonderland of turquoise lakes, cascading waterfalls and snowcapped mountain peaks which form the southern edge of the Minshan mountain range.
Jiuzhaigou Valley is literally translated as “Nine Village Valley,” of the nine Tibetan villages from which the park derives its name, and seven are still inhabited and accessible to park visitors and trekkers. With a population numbering little more than 1,000 inhabitants, the simple villages of Jiuzhaigou are an alluring and mystical complement to the pristine panoramas and scenery.
At 3,117 meters (10,226 feet) tall, Mount Emei is the highest of China’s four sacred mountains of Buddhism. Buddhist monks have made pilgrimages to the temples and monasteries of Emei Shan for nearly 1,800 years. As a nod to the religious and cultural importance of Emei Shan, in 1996 UNESCO opted to name the entire mountain as one of its World Heritage sites. Though a cable car now carries most visitors to the lofty summit, those wanting to commune with the mountain can trek the same pilgrim trails as those from centuries past. For a rewarding cultural experience it’s also possible to punctuate the journey with an overnight stay in a monastery. While a two-day trek to the summit to catch the Sichuan sunset is a favorite activity among local trekkers, all visitors must walk through the forests of wild monkeys who have become accustomed to human handouts. Consider bringing a stick.
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