China’s Sichuan province has been very much in the news, but unfortunately, not because of its tourism attractions. In May 2008 the Wenchuan earthquake hit the region with devastating effect (the epicenter was roughly 50 miles northwest of capital city of Chengdu). Thousands were killed, but since then recovery, rehabilitation and humanitarian efforts have been immense, with aid coming from all over the world. The Chinese government forecasts complete reconstruction by 2010, but many of the region’s attractions are already back online. For updates, call the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China at 202-338-6688 or visit www.china-embassy.org.
In the end, the earthquake is expected to only marginally slow the growth of tourism to China. With American visitor arrivals totaling 1.7 million as recently as 2006, a sharp 9.95 percent increase over the previous year, Summer Olympics in Beijing surely will intensify the upsurge. In addition, forecasters expect 70 million to attend Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010 (March 1-Oct. 31).
Visitors arriving in China for a visit to Sichuan will get a memorable first impression from Beijing’s Capital International Airport, where the new Terminal 3, the world’s biggest such facility, features a dragon-shaped design conceived by celebrity architect Sir Norman Foster. The two-mile-long terminal opened in March 2008 as a timely prelude to the Olympics. It features five rail-connected, double-level concourses housing 84 shops, 32 restaurants and cafes, 437 moving walkways, five banks and even a children’s recreation area. Overall, the terminal’s facilities and services have a capacity of 53 million passengers annually.
Beijing and Shanghai continue as China’s main city attractions, but there’s much more to see and experience in the vast geographic expanse that makes up the rest of the country. Deep inside the national heartland, Sichuan province offers an intriguing array of attractions that can capture the interest of the most demanding travelers. Reaching the capital city, Chengdu, entails a 1,047-mile westward journey from Beijing, best accomplished on an Air China flight that takes roughly two and a half hours. Air China also flies U.S.-Beijing nonstops from New York-JFK, Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as Vancouver.
Most travelers to the Sichuan region need to rely upon itineraries organized by knowledgeable companies. Prominent among those is UCEA Tourism Association (646-253-5063, www.ucea-usa.org). UCEA offers an introductory program in sprawling Chengdu (population 11.2 million), a boomtown sprouting office towers and mammoth apartment blocks, with ongoing construction projects indicating much more to come.
Deluxe “name brand” hotels are plentiful. UCEA’s tour groups stay at the south side’s Century City mega-development in an upscale, 780-room Holiday Inn that opened in 2007. Other hotel options include the Sofitel Wanda, which stands alongside the Funan River. Closer to downtown, near Tianfu Square, travelers can choose the Kempinski or the riverside Shangri-La, which is the city’s priciest property.
A more tranquilly situated, upscale resort is the 749-room Yufu Hot Springs Hotel in southwest suburban Wenjiang. Complementing its sophisticated health spa and therapy-treatment amenities, the Australian-French-designed property opens on to an island-dotted lagoon surrounded by pools, gardens and teakwood sun decks. If you prefer affordability to five-star perks, try the three-star Shu Han Hotel, which features a central location virtually alongside the sixth-century Wuhou Three Kingdoms Memorial Temple, just a few blocks southwest of Tianfu Square. There is a tea house on-site.
Chengdu itself, an impressively clean and green city, functions as the hub of regional tourism, with major attractions there and in outlying districts.
Chengdu is a center of traditional arts and crafts. For example, cloth workers at the Shu Brocade & Embroidery Museum demonstrate a craft dating back from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC). On the bustling west side of the city, the Jinsha Relic Site Museum showcases 2001’s startling archeological discovery – a collection of bronze, jade, ivory and gold artifacts fashioned 3,000 years ago.
One of the Chengdu’s most famous attractions, however, is located just a short distance north of the city in the bamboo groves of the Wolong ecological park. There you can find about 50 rare giant pandas that stroll, climb, feast on bamboo shoots, lazily goof around, snooze and reproduce in a unique breeding and research base that surrounds Swan Lake. The pandas attract roughly a half-million animal-watchers annually.
Back in inner-city Chengdu, government-funded developers are restoring a jam-packed 2,000-year-old neighborhood. Tile-roofed dwellings wrapped around intimate courtyards will soon become stores, restaurants, tea houses, cafes and trendy bars. Among several of the laid-back budget accommodations options is the Dragon Town Guest House.
Tea houses are indeed plentiful throughout Chengdu and its vicinity. A large one, Shu Feng Ya Yun on Qintai Road, offers classical Sichuan-Chinese folk-opera performances -- seven-part variety shows mixing old-fashioned pageantry, martial arts, ensemble singing and gong-and-drum music with puppetry, acrobatics, a versatile trumpet solo, mystical bits of mask-and-magic and various specialty acts. Lounging on wicker chairs, audiences sip quangdong brew while enjoying the evening’s entertainment.
Chengdu’s hotpot restaurants keep old Sichuanese culinary traditions alive and cooking. The waitstaff plunks meat, fish, leaf vegetables and peppers into tabletop pots of flame-heated, bubbling-boiling broth. That’s the routine at the especially well-known Qin Shah Zhai dining emporium (resembling a temple), as well as at two restaurants -- Wen Xing and Da Rong He -- in the north-side Jinniu cultural district.
Reachable after an hour’s drive west from Chengdu, Dujiangyan thrives on tourism, thanks mainly to an irrigation and flood-control system masterminded in 256 BC by Li Bing. Best viewed from a lofty Erwang Temple pavilion, Li’s colossal engineering feat diverts water from inlets, spillways and deep-dug canals into the swirling Ming River, slowing its current, reducing silt buildup to control its flow past dikes, effectively keeping the western Chengdu Plain furtile during all seasons.
Attired in period costumes, waving banners and summoned by clanging gongs, a cast-of-hundreds river-festival troupe re-enacts the accomplishment. The climax comes when the bamboo-caged flood barriers are broken to release the Ming’s water. Celebrations coincide with each year’s Chinese memorial-day tradition of sweeping ancestors’ tombs.
Other reasons for Dujiangyan’s popularity as a tourism destination include some of its architectural attractions. Standing tall and wide as an imposing entryway to statue-lined Lidui Park, the flamboyant Nanqiao Bridge survives intact as a 1,300-year-old landmark. For comparable visual impact, the South Bridge, dating back from the 13th-century Yuan dynasty, dazzles onlookers with its upturned eaves and gaudy splashes of paintings and calligraphy on every carved timber. Over on craggy Qing Cheng Mountain, a super-scenic nature reserve and national park loom above Tai-an Ancient Town while waterfalls tumble past Taoist temples nestled in the woods.
The nearby Jianchuan Museum Cluster provides a change of mood and tempo. Open-air plazas and 10 special-interest pavilions chronicle various aspects of 20th-century Chinese history. For instance, the museum features exhibits on the 1936-1945 Sino-Japanese War (China’s War of Resistance), which preceded World War II and ensured the renown of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek. Another exhibit recalls the wartime exploits of Gen. Claire Chennault’s 1st American Volunteer Group, otherwise known as the Flying Tigers.
Not to be missed is the Red Age Living Necessities Hall, recalling Chairman Mao’s pair of tumultuous socio-economic campaigns: the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The high walls are covered with framed, mint-condition posters with Mao-style propaganda graphics at their idealistic best.
Another nearby attraction is Leshan’s giant Buddha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Sculpted out of cliff southwest of Chengdu that is located above the confluence of three rivers, this 233-foot Buddha was inspired by a superstitious monk named Haitong in 713 A.D. Steep cliffside stairways and narrow lookout ledges allow visitors to get head-to-toe close-up views.
Yet another major regional attraction is Emeishan’s Sacred Mountain. This 10,103-foot promontory, UNESCO-listed as of 2006, crystalizes Buddhist spirituality and ceremony in a celestially tranquil setting, one of the supremely enthralling panoramas in all of southwest Asia. On the distant western horizon, you can see snow-capped Himalayan peaks poking above cloud cover. Visitors can ride the Wannian Cableway, which soars over monasteries, ravines, scampering macaque monkeys, springtime peach blossoms and terraced rows of tea-tree plantations. After disembarking, they can climb successive flights of 2,380 stone steps to Mount Emei’s summit. Temples located on top are dwarfed by the Puxian Golden Buddha. Shimmering in sunshine and loaded with allegory, the 10-faced, 10-crowned idol sits on a pack of four gilded elephants.
From pandas to Buddhist monuments, the area around Chengdu has a plethora of attractions to keep you occupied. For more information, visit www.cnto.org.--Tom Bross