Sichuan Province travel guide
Emai Shan is one of the four holy Buddhist mountains in China (the others being Jiuhua Shan, Putuo Shan and Wutai Shan). It is a popular destination for Sichuan bound travellers, as well as locals - both tourists and pilgrims, though most of the first kind. If the weather permits, expect beautiful scenery of the lush mountains. Along the trails to the top (3099 m) there are monasteries, where it is possible to eat and sleep. It takes about two long days to walk to the top and one hard day down, but the journey can be extended or shortened as desired with use of the mountain buses and cable cars. Walking all the way is about 80 km return, so be prepared - also for monkey attacks.
When you come to Leshan and see the Giant Buddha, you do not doubt the fact that it is the tallest Buddha in the world. At 71 m tall he sits, carved out of the rock face where the Dadu river meets the Min river. The construction started 713 AD and it took more than 90 years to finish him. So if you come to Chengdu, swing by for a visit, for it is one of those sights that fully live up to their reputation. Just do not come on a holiday, where half of Chengdu seems to be out here.
Yihun Lhatso is a holy alpine lake located at 4010 m at the foot of the mountain Cholan Shan (6168 m). It is picture-perfect with a milky turquoise color with a gorgeous backdrop of rigged mountains crowned with snow. Along the shore, boulders have Tibetan mantras, like om pani padme um, carved into them and there are colorful prayer flags hanging down from the pine trees and even a stupa. The trail, used by yaks, on the east side of the lake will take you to the far end, where the views are even more breath taking - and it is not just because of the high altitude. This place is seriously pretty, and you will very likely have it all for yourself, beside the yaks.
This is where main China ends and the Tibetan Wild West begins. The town is beautifully located along a river at the bottom of a canyon with steep mountain sides. The town itself is not among the prettiest and it is hard to tell whether it is Chinese turned Tibetan, with a bit of Tibetan architecture thrown in for pleasing local tourists, or it was once a Tibetan town turned Chinese (the latter is the truth). It functions as a getaway point for both the northern and southern overland routes into the Tibetan province (TAR), which both can be broken off into great journeys of the Tibetan areas outside TAR, which are rich in Tibetan culture and do not need special travel permits.
The bus journey from Manigango to the Dega, close to the Tibetan border, must rank as one of the most beautiful road trips in the whole of China. Setting out from the small Tibetan wild west town of Manigango, you will first pass the serene mountain lake of Yilhun Lhatso at the foot of Chola Shan (6168 m) and neighbouring snow caped peaks, before slowly ascending the hairpin road to the mountain pass at 5050 m (though our altimeter showed only 4850 m). There are chances to sight both vultures and marmots – and the occasional overturned truck having gone over the edge and crashed down the mountainside. When reaching the pass, locals will (if they are not too carsick) throw colored prayer notes out of the bus windows. From here, the road descends into a beautiful narrow valley carved out by a still flowing river. You will pass by small Tibetan villages, Buddhist stupas and monasteries with prayer flags going in all directions, before arriving (hopefully) safely in Dege.
Normally, we don't do zoos here at GlobeSpots, but this is one of a kind (especially in China, where animal wellness concern is as rare as the Panda). They only do pandas here, where the Giant is the main attraction (the other one is the smaller and less famous Red Panda). The pandas are enclosed based on age and the younger ones are clearly the most active. In the nursery (officially named the Jungle Gym), it's possible in autumn to see the newly born and they are not just cute, but super cute. Throughout the garden, well-meant signs state odd slogans such as "Wildlife is not food". But it's all part of the Panda experience.
Serxu monastery (Serxu Gompa) lies 30 km outside the drab town of Serxu (Serxu Xian), in the most northwestern part of Sichuan. It is a big Tibetan monastery surrounded by rows of prayer wheels and a maze of adobe houses for the red cloaked monks, who count to more than a thousand. Across the river, a small cluster of dusty shops makes out the rest of the monastery town. Here, weather beaten Tibetans with gold teeth swag down the street (for there is only one street) in wide brim hats and homemade sunglasses. It is a fascinating place full of character and edge.
In Dege, the last town before Tibet province, lies the red-walled printing monastery Bakong. It is a sacred place where pilgrims supposedly circle the outer walls a thousand times. Inside, Tibetan scriptures are printed by hand and put to dry, as they have been done for centuries. The store rooms are filled from floor to ceiling with almost 300,000 engraved woodblocks with Tibetan texts. You can watch the printing process in the printing hall, where printers in almost trance turn out pages at an incredible speed. The majority of the Tibetan monasteries still get their textbooks from this printing monastery, and it is considered as one of the most important cultural center for Tibetans along with Potala Palads and Sakya monastery, both in Tibet.
Sky burial is a Tibetan custom for giving back the earthly remains after death, when the soul has left the body for reincarnation. The body is simply sliced open and offered to waiting vultures that rip the flesh from the bones within minutes. Afterwards, the bones, along with the skull and brain, are smashed to pieces with an axe and mixed with barley flour and again offered to the still waiting vultures. Besides being a mind blowing experience (and not for the faint hearted), it's also a very rare opportunity to get close to these monster birds of prey, some of them very rare (such as Black and Bearded vultures). Remember this is not a tourist attraction and an invitation should be obtained before attending. (The picture was taken with permission from the descendants).