The sword arced methodically, shining brightly in the morning light. People were all around, paying little attention as she swung the meter long blade on the sidewalk with unwavering concentration. This was not a show, this was just another day on the streets in China.
Sichuan Province is known around the world as China’s home for spicy cuisine. Couple that with the beautiful landscapes, vibrant culture and amazing historical relics in nearby Shaanxi Province, and we couldn’t miss these on our month in China. We visited these areas following our time in Guanxi and Yunnan Provinces.
Chengdu Itinerary – 2 Days
This behemoth of a city is located in Sichuan Province, home of the spiciest of Chinese cuisines but more famous for the globally adored Giant Panda center. With only a short time allotted to Chengdu, we were on a mission for hot pots and pandas.
A Chinese hot pot is a boiling broth used to cook various ingredients at the table. It may be packed with any number of flavoring ingredients including lemongrass, ginseng, huge piles of dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan pepper, an ingredient almost entirely absent from western cooking, numbs the mouth with a cool sourness creating a fire and ice sensation in the dish. It is a strange feeling, but a welcome relief from the heat.
Our next stop was the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. It is easy to see why giant pandas are loved around the world. Their playful nature and cuddly appearance kept the crowds fixated for hours. And they certainly draw in the crowds. Getting there early is a good idea for anyone opposed to sharing viewing space with thousands of adoring fans.
Pandas and peppers are great, but they were not our favorite thing to do in Chengdu, which was undoubtably the amazing Shu Feng Sichuan Opera. We watched several cultural performances during our time in China, but none compared to this awe inspiring show. Similar to a variety show, the performance includes music, dance, comedy and stunts including the crowd favorite face changers, who appear to magically change masks on stage. Before the one hour show, guests are welcome to visit the makeup room where actors are busy getting in to costume.
As with other areas we went in China, watching people in the park was one of the most satisfying things to do. We wandered the People’s Park where locals flock on a sunny day to practice kung fu, water paint, perform tennis racket aerobics and other fascinations. There is also a nice outdoor tea house in the park for relaxing.
Food – 4 out of 5
Culture – 3.5 out of 5
Scenery – 3 out of 5
Off Track – 1 out of 5
What to Do in Chengdu: Visit the giant pandas at the Giant Panda Center; Watch the Sichuan Opera; Walk around the People’s Park; Drink tea with locals; Try a Sichuan hot pot.
Emishan Itinerary – 2 Days
Emeishan (Mount Emei) is considered one of the most holy places in China. The 3,100 meter forested peaks have been a pilgrimage site for over 1,800 years. There are over 100 temples and monasteries hidden throughout the slopes and interestingly, many family burial sites. The fresh air environment is often prescribed by doctors for those ailing from certain conditions.
There are plenty of paved hiking trails ranging from light to strenuous, with optional bus and cable car routes providing shortcuts to various places on the mountain. While most tourists opt for a ride up and a hike down, some of the more devout monks making the pilgrimage to the top choose to walk up from the base over a period of several days.
The first afternoon, we took a bus and cable car combo to hike in the middle part of the mountain starting with a visit to Baoguo Monestary before embarking on a knee crushing downhill trek back to town. On the second day, we rode to the top to see one of the most striking Buddhist statues in Asia. This golden giant sits at the peak and stands out like, well, a humongous nine headed Buddha riding golden elephants. Once we managed to break our gaze away from this eye magnet, we absorbed the endless views of China in all directions.
Aside from the temples, views and jaw dropping golden statue, one would struggle not to notice the workers, many of them women, carrying bricks up the mountain in what may be one of the few examples of inefficiency left in China. With well over a billion people in the country, the government seems to have found a way to put them all to work. Many of these workers travel from Tibet to help build this holy site.
Food – 3 out of 5
Culture – 4 out of 5
Scenery – 4.5 out of 5
Off Track – 2.5 out of 5
What to Do in Emeishan: Hike the various parts of the mountain; Explore temples and monasteries; Visit the peak to see views and golden Buddha statue.
Xi’an Itinerary – 2 Days
We added a brief stop in Xi’an primarily to see the famed Terracotta Army, but didn’t struggle to find more to do with our short time. The warriors, commissioned by Emperor Qin prior to 200 BC, number as many as 8,000 and are said to have been created to protect the emperor in the afterlife. Each soldier has a unique facial expression with position and attire based on rank. After the creation of this army, they were hidden underground and the builders put to death to keep it secret. The site was not discovered until the 1970’s when farmers began digging a well. This is the same emperor credited with building the first version of the Great Wall.
While the Terracotta Warriors were impressive, our sunset bike ride along the old City Wall was astounding. The original wall, a relic of the Tang Dynasty from the seventh century, stretches nearly 14 kilometers around the old city center. Rental bikes are available on top of the wall which will take you on a scenic, albeit bumpy, ride around the rim. At sunset, the gatehouses come aglow under a sky flush with color, creating a truly magical setting.
If time permits, make sure to take a morning stroll through the impeccably well kept park outside of the southern portion of the City Wall. As with most public areas in China, locals congregate and do what they do best such as dance, sing, music and paint with water. During our stroll, we even encountered no less than two people practicing their sword craft. Imagine the reaction if that were to happen in Central Park.
With the few remaining minutes of our time in Xi’an, we packed in a performance at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House. Different than that in Chengdu, this show was mainly traditional music and dance. While enjoyable, it did not reach the level of the Sichuan Opera or the upcoming Beijing Acrobat Show.
Make sure take time to enjoy the food in Xi’an, which we liked even more than that in Sichuan. It is drool inspiring and packed with flavor. One restaurant which we particularly enjoyed was Three Sisters Dumplings inside the old city.
Food – 5 out of 5
Culture – 4 out of 5
Scenery – 3 out of 5
Off Track – 1 out of 5
What to Do in Xi’an: Visit the Terracotta Warriors; Bike around the old City Wall; See the Shaanxi Opera; Explore the south gate park outside the wall.
Are you dying to explore China? We spent a wonderful month seeing some of the most amazing places. If you are looking into flights, make sure to check out our favorite places in the country for some destination inspiration. And as always, feel free to contact us with any thoughts on our visit or logistics.
You can see other posts from our adventures in Asia including Non-Touristy Places in Cambodia, Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Reasons to Put Malaysia on Your Travel List, and the Most Memorable Things to Do in Laos. These are some of our favorite experiences! Also take a look at our Adventure Gallery where you can see our travel pictures from dozens of countries around the world.
Do you have an interest in long term travel? Check out our Planning Page where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.