China Food Hiking Nature

Pandas, Hot Pot, and Himalayas: A Week in Sichuan

Last week, we took a one week break from classes to visit Sichuan (四川) province. Many of the Chinese students at our sister language school gush about the area and — upon telling them that we were headed there —  the list of recommendations flowed freely. It would be easy to spend a few weeks exploring Sichuan, and we only scratched the surface in our one week trip. Here were the highlights for our time in Sichuan.

Seeing Pandas

It’s hard to overstate the cuteness of pandas. Having the opportunity to see so many of them in one place is a deeply joyful experience. Most panda habitat is in Sichuan, and there are several breeding centers in the vicinity of Chengdu that give people the opportunity to observe these adorable creatures. We visited the most accessible one, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which is located on the outskirts of Chengdu. The Base hosts both Giant Pandas (who everyone comes to see) and Red Pandas (who you don’t know how much you want to see until you see them). 

A giant panda (大熊猫) out to steal your heart
Playful red pandas (小熊猫) feasting on bamboo

Pandas are most active in the morning and tend to slow down (i.e. fall asleep) by afternoon, so we arrived first thing in the morning, along with a large throng of people thinking the same way as us. We saw pandas eating breakfast, climbing trees, and playing together. We even (very briefly) saw newborn pandas in their incubators. Scroll through the Instagram post below to see some really cute video clips of giant pandas and red pandas.

Chengdu: Tea Lounging, Ear Cleaning, and Face-Changing

Even though we’ve already spent two months in China this year, Chengdu (成都) is actually one of the only “big” Chinese cities we have visited thus far. We were relieved to find that Chengdu lives up to its reputation as one of China’s most laid back cities! Even with a population of 11 million people, the city felt relaxed, organized, and welcoming. It has a rich culture, a fun atmosphere, and (surprise, surprise) great public transportation.

Chengdu life
The entire city is (rightfully) obsessed with pandas
Lake in People’s Park

“Tea culture” is an important part of the Chengdu lifestyle, and there are teahouses all over the city filled with people sipping on their tea very, very, very slowly while chatting or playing games with friends and family. We gladly joined them, soaking in the parks and street life over bottomless glasses of jasmine tea. 

Tea house near Wenshu monastery; Heming Teahouse in People’s Park

Jasmine green tea
Our primo lakeside spot for tea lounging in People’s Park at Heming Tea House

Tea time near Wenshu Monastery

Ear cleaning is a common tea time activity in Chengdu. Tarick took advantage of the opportunity!

Not the most intuitive combination of activities, but when in Rome!

The Sichuan opera is a famous cultural institution in Chengdu. It is most famous for “face-changing”, the art of changing a mask almost instantly during a quick movement of the head. The opera was entertaining, and the face-changing was indeed impressive. That said, we were a little disappointed at the overwhelming “production value” (involving a lot of lights and lasers), which in our opinion detracted from the quality of the performance. 

Face changing at the Sichuan opera
Sichuan opera

Suffering through Hot Pot (火锅)

One of the common questions we are asked in China, in restaurants and casual conversation alike, is “Can you eat spicy?” With pride, we have always answered with an enthusiastic and confident, “Yes! We love spicy!” That is, until we ate Sichuan hot pot (火锅, huǒguō) and had a deeply humbling experience in the realm of our spice confidence. On our first night in Chengdu, we asked for the most popular hot pot broth at a local restaurant. What arrived at our table was a boiling pool of magma, oozing with thousands of Sichuan peppercorns and hundreds of chiles.

Feeling confident and optimistic at the start

It was an hour before we surrendered, but we spent that whole hour learning to deeply respect the power of Sichuan spice, which starts with your mouth but reverberates through your whole body. The numbing “málà” (麻辣) spice, characteristic of Sichuan peppercorn, makes your tongue tingle, but lets up quickly enough that find yourself reaching for more. Next, the sweat begins to pour out of you, and you start blowing your nose profusely. Just as your sinuses clear out, a feeling as if you’ve had a couple beers sets in, making you feel woozy, and your vision becomes spotty. Next your motor skills begin to weaken, and you start knocking over and dropping things. You reach for the noodles, but realize it’s too late — they’ve already spent too much time bonding with the broth. You suffer and laugh until you can take it no more, before looking over to the tables surrounding you, filled with Chinese people joyously eating their hot pot without any issue. The next day, you wake up with a spice hangover, something that until this day you did not know existed. (We’ll spare you discussion of how our digestive systems fared in all this.)

Before
After

Hiking in Four Sisters Mountain National Park (四姑娘山)

Already missing the Himalayas, we knew that we wanted to visit the mountains of Sichuan during our trip. We had originally planned to visit the famous and popular Jiuzhaigou National Park, but it was closed due to a recent earthquake in the area. Researching other options, we decided to visit Four Sisters Mountain, a national park in the Trans-Himalayan range about 5 hours by bus from Chengdu. 

Happy to be back in the land of Tibetan prayer flags

Four Sisters Mountain consists of (you guessed it) four mountains, separated by three valleys, of which we had time to visit two. Each valley is a separate park with its own character. The park areas also serve as a panda sanctuary, but it’s rare to actually see a panda. We stayed in Rilong (日隆), a nice town near the park entrances, and took day trips to the different valleys.

Visiting during the summer, we saw our share of rain, which prevented us from seeing all of the famous peaks, but the weather didn’t stop us from appreciating the beauty of the parks. The tallest of the four mountains is pyramid-shaped Yāomèi Fēng at 6250 meters (20,500 feet), which we only saw twice, when it briefly peaked out from behind the clouds. 

Look quick, before it disappears again. Note the boardwalk, which lines much of the trails

The first day of our visit, we hiked through Haizi Valley (海子沟), the least developed of the three valleys. It may lack a road, but the park engineers made up for it with an impressively long boardwalk, which leads you up and through the valley for the first few kilometers. We enjoyed the hike, but it was a long trip for a day hike, and we were disappointed that we had to turn around before we could reach the more stunning lakes deep in the valley. If we knew better, we would have figured out a way to camp overnight in the Valley, because we could have seen a lot more that way.

Haizi Valley
Haizi Valley
Chorten covered in prayer flags
Tarick resting for a snack

The next day, we visited Shuangqiao Valley (双桥沟), the largest and most developed of the three valleys. There’s even a bus that takes you to all of the main landmarks, which most days we would have scoffed at, but — because it was pouring rain all day — we were more than happy to take advantage of. We were really impressed with Shuangqiao, and similarly, could have spent much longer exploring it. 

Happy to be on the bus instead of out in the rain
Shuangqiao Valley
Shuangqiao Valley
Shuangqiao Valley

Until we meet again, hot pot….

Freshly picked Sichuan peppercorns

5 comments

  1. Oh my. I love the woman dancing in the blue dress with flowers.

    Looks like you had some beautiful views on your hike, even if you had to turn around a little early!

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