The Wonders of Western China

After six months when any travel outside of Shenzhen proved arduous, Jun and I took the opportunity of Chinese New Year and the relaxed policies to travel a bit more than normal. After much debate, we decided we would travel around the western provinces of China for the holiday. 

Day 1: Getting Ready

Because of the need to wait to see when I would be free from the university and with Jun’s work obligations, we bought our plane tickets a bit late during a major travel period. Because of that, Jun and I decided to take the train to Guangzhou and fly to Sichuan. The flight tickets were cheaper when train tickets and a hotel room were included. We both found it amenable as we got to try a new Cantonese restaurant in Guangzhou that had amazing food. We also walked around the older parts of Guangzhou to enjoy the lighted streets for the holiday.

Day 2: Jiuzhaigou

We left Guangzhou Baiyun airport early in the morning and first flew to Chengdu Tianfu Airport. Then we caught our connecting flight to Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport. As soon as we got off the plane we also experienced the winter weather as the temperatures were below freezing. Fortunately, our car was ready to pick us up and we were comfortably seated on our way to the hotel in the village of Daji. About an hour later we arrived and checked in.

The hotel upgraded our room. We had a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains. Jun and I decided to relax a bit before exploring the village around the hotel.

The village of Daji is quite small and empty during the winter months and for Chinese New Year. As we walked around it seemed like a ghost town as most everything was closed. We went further afield and visited the Daji Tibetan Buddhist temple and some of the other more historic buildings in the area.

Jun and I were getting cold and decided to find a place for dinner. Dinner was at a nice local hot pot place that warmed us and filled us up with scrumptious food. Afterward, we went back to the hotel to call it a day.

Day 3: Jiuzhaigou National Park

The next morning we got up early so we could get to Jiuzhaigou National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the national park is known for its colorful and clear lakes and ponds throughout the different areas of the park. There are several prominent waterfalls as well. During the winter months, many of the trails and areas in the higher elevations are closed to ensure visitors’ safety and protect the ecosystem. What we were able to see was quite amazing. 

The bus inside the park took us to all the park’s open areas. Jun and I enjoyed venturing around the park to see the different lakes, ponds, and waterfalls. There was quite a mix at the different elevations. Some of the lakes were just as clear as in any other season. Others were covered in ice and snow. 

In the late afternoon, Jun and I hiked through the areas of the park near the entrance. It was a nice way to end our trip as we got to meander through those different lakes, waterfalls, and rivers in this area at our pace.

Day 4: Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area

The next day we traveled south to visit Huanglong. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its travertine pools along the mountainous valley’s slopes. Our first views of the Huanglong Valley came after we exited the tunnel leading to this valley. We were mesmerized by the tall snow-covered pine trees and mountains. Jun and I felt like we had walked into a winter wonderland.

That feeling persisted for the rest of our time at Huanglong. The site is best viewed in other seasons as many of the pools were frozen and covered in snow. But the sight of the snow did create a wonderful sight for us. At the top of the scenic area where the Multi-Colored Pond is, the water there was still visible and it offered us a wonderful view of the valley. Also, at the height, there were fewer people so we were able to meander leisurely around the pond. 

On our descent, we saw more and more people as multiple tour groups arrived. Even though there were more people, it was still nice walking towards the northern mountains with the sunlight hitting them. That view amazed us as we left the site.

Day 5: Chengdu

On the fifth day of our trip, Jun and I traveled to Chengdu. After discussing things we decided we would next travel to Dunhuang in Gansu Province. To break things up and not have an entire day of traveling, we chose to stay in Chengdu overnight.

After settling in at the hotel when we arrived, we headed towards Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li to do some shopping. We needed a bit more winter wear for the colder weather of Gansu. After buying some sweaters, we next visited Kuanzhai Alley. The alleyways here were built during the Qing Dynasty and have been turned into a shopping and restaurant area. As we walked around the three alleyways, we enjoyed seeing the New Year decorations.

We also stumbled upon a pop-up exhibition called “Panda Go Home” being run by Panda Artparade. The exhibit was a fun reimagining of pandas personified as people. Jun and I quite enjoyed viewing the different artwork.

Soon, though, it got late and we were hungry. We decided to go to the Anshun Bridge area of the city to find a restaurant there. We ended up eating where we ate two years ago when we were last in Chengdu. 

Day 6: Dunhuang City

When we arrived in Dunhuang the first thing we experienced was the colder weather. In both Celsius and Fahrenheit, we were in the negative numbers. We were cold! When we got to the hotel and checked in, we put on our heavier winter clothes before we went out for lunch. As it was Chinese New Year and a smaller community, there were few places open. That made it easy to choose where to eat lunch. Where we ended up though was delicious.

After lunch, we went and walked around the city a bit. Dunhuang is located on an oasis in the Kumtag Desert and was an important stop on the Silk Road. On our walk, we visited the White Horse Pagoda. The pagoda was built to commemorate the white horse of the Buddhist monk Kumārajīva, Tianliu. Kumārajīva is known for carrying Buddhist scriptures from the Buddhist kingdom of Kucha in present-day Xinjiang to Dunhuang in China around 384 AD. 

From there we next walked to see the Shazhou Ancient City Relic Site. Shazhou is an older name for Dunhuang. The sites here include several protected earthen structures. They likely originated during the Tang Dynasty, which was a period that saw a series of conflicts for control of the city and surrounding area.

Day 7: Mogao Caves and Crescent Lake

Since 2007 I have wanted to visit Mogao Caves. They, however, are far afield from the other major tourist attractions in China. Jun was aware of my desire and he suggested that since we were already in western China, we should go and visit them. So we did!

Mogao Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site inscribed on the list because of the Buddhist artwork located in a system of caves. At the site, there are about 500 caves. The first caves were dug out around 366 AD. For nearly 1000 years, successive artists painted and carved what are considered some of the finest examples of Buddhist art in the world.

All visitors to the site are required to join an official tour group that the Dunhuang Research Academy manages as the official custodians of the site. Being an English-speaking foreigner, I was assigned to the English-speaking tour group. That meant that instead of the larger Chinese group, Jun and I were placed in a group with only two other tourists and our tour guide. Essentially we had a private tour of the site. In winter the tour includes 12 caves, during the other seasons they open fewer caves because of the number of tourists. One of the interesting things about the visited caves is that the tour guide selects which one they take tourists to see. This allows for each group to spend some time in the caves. There also are a few caves that everyone visits. Each cave is unique and has different levels of preservation. I was quite impressed with the detail and intricacies of the different art in the caves. To help preserve the artwork, photography is not permitted inside them. They, however, are allowed outside of them. After the tour, Jun and I walked a bit and saw some of the remaining artwork located outside of the caves.

From Mogao we went to visit the Mingsha Sand Dunes and Crescent Moon Spring. The spring is an oasis with a temple built around it. Over time the site has become quite touristy and has lost a bit of its authenticity. While we enjoyed walking up the dunes and visiting the temple and spring, there was a hollowness to it as it seemed more like a thing to do than a place to enjoy.

Day 8: Silk Road

Traveling west of Dunhuang, Jun and I had a day of exploring various sites along the historic Silk Road that surrounds the city. We first visited the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, which is a smaller, sister site to Mogao Caves. Many of the caves here have been lost over time, but about 40 remain extant. These caves date from the Northern Wei to the late Yuan and early Ming Dynasties, which roughly corresponds to the sixth to fourteenth centuries. These caves have distinct artwork and architectural designs from those at Mogao. Jun and I visited four of the caves with a Chinese tour group that the Dunhuang Research Academy ran. The grounds around the site were also nice and we got to see the partially frozen river. 

From the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, we next visited Yangguan Pass. Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty ordered the construction of this pass around 120 BC along the Silk Road. The Chinese used the pass as an outpost to monitor and protect the western territories that fell under Chinese rule. At the base of the site is a recreation of what the site would have looked like at the time. Within the site, though, there are the remains of a watchtower situated on one of the hills in the desert environment. We walked around the watchtower and some of the hills for a bit before going back to the recreated site.

From this pass, we next went to Yumen Pass. This site had better-preserved structures. Like Yangguan Pass, Yumen Pass was an important site along the Silk Road. During the Western Han Dynasty, Yumen and Yangguan were the last outposts within China before travelers went to what the Chinese called the Western Regions. At the site, there are three areas that the site custodians encouraged people to visit. The first was the Small Fangpan Castle, which is the remains of a home of a member of the garrison that would have been stationed at the pass. To the north of Small Fangpan Castle are the remains of the western portions of the Great Wall of China. Unlike the eastern sections of the Great Wall, these were not rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty and retained the original materials of sand, weed, straw, and wood. Also at the site is the Big Fangpan Castle. This castle was a quartermaster depot for the northwestern regions during the Western Han Dynasty. It was the oldest and largest depot along the northwestern frontier of ancient China.

Finally, the last place we visited was Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark. The site is home to some unique rock formations surrounded by black sand. These rock formations developed over a period of 700,000 years. Because of their remote location, visitors are required to take the site bus or a private site jeep. When we went, we ended up being the only ones on the bus and were able to roam at our pace. That was nice. And because of winter, we could also take a picture on a road in the desert.

Day 9: Travel

Jun and I decided to extend our trip by a few days and visit Chongqing. Getting there from Dunhuang took some time, though. Early in the afternoon, we flew from Dunhuang to Lanzhou for a brief stopover. Then from Lanzhou, we flew to Chengdu Tianfu Airport. From the airport, we took a taxi to Jianyang South Railway Station. After waiting for a bit, we were on the high-speed train that took us to Chongqing West Railway Station. And from there we took a Didi car to the hotel in Lianglukou. By the time we got to our room, Jun and I were ready for bed.

Day 10: Old Chongqing

The first thing we did this day was a bit silly; we went and saw the Liziba metro station. The station’s built as part of a residential structure, and you can see trains go in and out of the building. Jun and I noticed that it was near our hotel and decided to start the day by walking toward it to take some pictures.

Afterward, we walked up through some of the alleyways to visit Testbed 2 Arts Center and Eling Park. Both were busy due to the holidays, so we walked through them before going to our next destination.

After a bit of lunch, Jun and I went to some of the more historic neighborhoods in Chongqing. The first one we visited was Shancheng Alley. The 1.5-kilometer street goes from the river up towards a hill where a part of the old city wall was located and now where the Ran’ai Huangye Park is. Along the narrow alley are buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties that have been renovated in the last decade.

From Shancheng Alley we went to the nearby Shibati Old Street. This place was one of the busiest places we visited during the trip. It wasn’t too bad, but Jun and I sought to find a quieter place outside of the mad rush of people. After visiting an old war bunker museum, we soon found ourselves in a quieter area that allowed us to collect ourselves before moving on to Baixiang Street.

Baixiang Street had been historically a prosperous street in Chongqing, which is now being restored. We were able to walk around and see some of the structures that were built in a mix of Chinese and European architectural styles. From here you can see some of the other sites in the city and walk towards them, such as the aerial tram. This street was the last one before we went for a walk along the Yangtze River. 

Chongqing at night is quite beautiful, and Jun and I enjoyed walking along the Yangtze to see them. We also ended our walk along the river near a hot pot restaurant that left us joyful after a long day of walking.

Day 11: Dazu

Since the last time we stayed in Chongqing for a few days, I had been curious about the Dazu Rock Carvings UNESCO World Heritage Site in the greater Chongqing region. During that visit, we didn’t have the time to visit the site. This time, though, Jun made sure we were able to explore the site.

Early on this morning, we took a hired car to the Dazu District of Chongqing. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw them. I knew they are considered some of the finest examples of rock art in the world. They also are unique because the rock carvings depicted aspects of Chinese Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist beliefs in one place. Four sites comprise Dazu, and we visited two of them: Boadingshan and Beishan.

The first place we visited was Boadingshan. When we got to the site we boarded the bus to visit the rock carvings. To get to them you walk through several temples and a museum. The first time you see them is after you walk up a flight of steps. When I saw the rock carving above me, I was left breathless. They are magnificent! The carvings at Boadingshan were created during the 12th and 13th centuries along a u-shaped valley. They stretch for roughly 500 meters around this valley. The different rock carvings depict themes from Tantric Buddhism and secular life. They are perhaps one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

The second place we visited was Beishan. Located a few kilometers to the southwest of Boadingshan, Beishan is much smaller. The rock carvings here stretch for about 300 meters and are much more weathered as they were exposed to the elements due to how they were situated along the mountain. There are two groups of rock carvings and sculptures at Beishan; they were created from the 9th to the 12th centuries. These rock carvings also depict Tantric Buddhist themes, but some carvings and scriptures depict Taoist themes as well. I found Beishan to be an interesting mix of cave art like those at Mogao and the carvings from Boadingshan. Jun and I enjoyed walking and viewing them, especially as there were few people to interrupt us.

Day 12: End

The trip ended for us on this day. We flew back to Shenzhen and started getting ready to go back to our everyday routine. The trip had been amazing. We got to see some amazing places, eat delicious foods, and generally enjoyed experiencing what these places in Western China had to offer.

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.