It's fitting that an ancient form of opera and magic called biànliǎn (face-changing) originated here, for Sichuan (四川, Sìchuān) is a land of many guises. Capital Chengdu shows a modern face, but just beyond its ring roads you'll find a more traditional landscape of mist-shrouded, sacred mountains, and a countryside scattered with ancient villages and cliffs of carved Buddhas.
Central Sichuan is also home to the giant panda, the most famous face in China. In the south, expect a veil of history and a muted beauty that sees far fewer travellers than the rest of the region.
To the north the visage changes again into a fairyland of alpine valleys and blue-green lakes. Sichuan’s Tibetan side appears as you venture west. This is Kham, one of the former Tibetan prefectures: a vast landscape of plateau grasslands and glacial mountains where Tibetan culture still thrives and you’re certain to have your most magical experiences.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Sichuan.
The raw mountain beauty and sparkling lakes of Jiuzhaigou National Park was, for many, a highlight of China. However, in August 2017 a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Jiuzhaigou, affecting the parks infrastructure. At the time of research the park was closed to independent travellers while renovation work takes place. Check with hostel staff in Chengdu as to whether the park has reopened before venturing up here.
One of the oldest, most important and certainly most visibly impressive monastery complexes in Kham, the remote Dzongsar Monastery sits on a sharp ridge above the main village of the Dzongsar Valley. The monastery was originally founded in 746 by a Bönpo lama, but has been much reconstructed since and, considering its importance, is quite a small structure, though it's none the less magical for it.
On a quiet bend of the Dzin-Chu River in the remote grasslands of Garzi Prefecture, this massive Nyingma (Red Hat) community of nuns and monks living in improvised housing under the shadows of magnificent golden-roofed temples has always been one of the most arresting sights in Sichuan.
The magnificent Yading Nature Reserve, 140km south of Daocheng, centres around three sacred snowcapped mountains, a holy trinity encircled by forested valleys, crystal-clear rivers and glacier-fed lakes. These are, quite simply, some of the most stunning landscapes you'll ever see. There are opportunities to hike, ride and camp here.
Le Shan’s serene, 1200-year-old Grand Buddha sits in repose, carved from a cliff face overlooking the confluence of three busy rivers: the Dadu, Min and Qingyi. The Buddhist monk Haitong conceived the project in AD 713, hoping that Buddha would protect the boats and calm the lethal currents.
This fascinating 1729 printing press houses an ongoing printing operation that still uses traditional woodblock printing methods and maintains more than 290,000 scripture plates, an astonishing 70% of Tibet’s literary heritage. It's the biggest and most important of three such printing presses (the others are in Lhasa and Gansu). It's more than just a mere printing house though; this is a religious and pilgrimage site, and throughout the day and early evening scores of pilgrims circumambulate the outside of the building.
Of all the Buddhist sights in western Sichuan, there is none as striking as Larung Gar. The future of Tibetan Buddhism is contained here in this school, one of the largest of its kind in the world, cradled in a valley some 170km northeast of Ganzi.
One of Chengdu’s most popular attractions, this panda park 18km north of the city centre is the easiest way to glimpse Sichuan’s most famous residents. Don't, however, make the mistake of thinking you'll be seeing wild pandas. They are kept in large enclosures and have a dedicated team of scientists and keepers tending to their every need. As well as living, breathing pandas, there are some fascinating panda information centres and museums explaining panda conservation and husbandry.
Covered in lush, dripping forests, the sacred mountain of Qingcheng Shan has been a Taoist spiritual centre for more than 2000 years. Its beautiful trails are lined with ginkgo, plum and palm, and there are caves, pavilions and centuries-old wooden temples to explore.