Journey To The Southwest: Reaching New Heights

Have you been in Dongguan so long that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a tourist? Presenting history, culture and aesthetic appeal, these southwest china attractions will reignite your passion for adventure.

Last winter, I embarked on my journey to Xi’an and Chengdu, the southwest of China. It’s simply breathtaking to hike Mount Hua, one of the Five Great Mountains of China, also known as the steepest mountain in China and one of the most dangerous hikes in the world; with a long history of religious significance in Taoism. It’s spiritually and emotionally fulfilling to visit the sacred Mount Emei, which sits at the western rim of the Sichuan Basin and the Leshan Giant Buddha. My trip was one for self-discovery and perseverance training. We indulged in the tasty Sichuan cuisine, amazed by the mystery and wonder of the Terracotta Warriors, and experienced the paradoxical ancient serenity that existed amongst the modernization process. Whichever way you look at it, discovering the southwestern part of China is most certainly fruitful.

Wood Sculpture of the house of Gao

Going back to the Ancient Capital
On December 23, 2017, I landed in Xi’an, the capital of Shanxi province, feeling the chill of the cold. Xi’an is known as one of China’s most ancient capitals, having been the capital for 13 dynasties in the last 1,000 years, with a total of 73 emperors having ruled here. The city still retains the same rectangular shape similar to Beijing, a magnificent symbol of the imperial power. Even now you can see it is a walled city, with old walls reaching 12m high and 18m wide.

The Bell Tower of Xi’an

Xi’an is the starting point of the Silk Road and also where the Terracotta Warriors were unearthed. It was known as Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty and the birthplace of the ancient Chinese civilization in the Yellow River Basin, still shining like a pearl throughout Chinese history from 221 BC since the Qin Dynasty was established.

The first impression of Xi’an is well-preserved traditional architectures surrounded by ancient walls and modern buildings. The Bell Tower is a giant ancient structure located in the center of a road, known as the biggest and most well-preserved bell tower in China. It was built in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty and has become one of the famous landmarks of Xi’an. From the Bell Tower, the four main streets respectively North-Street, East-Street, South-Street and West-Street, descend into the four points of the compass.

The Drum Tower of Xi’an

Nearby the Bell Tower is its counterpart, the Drum Tower. Going through this tower, you will see a multitude of visitors meandering through the Hui min jie (Muslim Quarter), a famous cuisine street. Famous Guanzhong cuisines like “rou jia mo” (a Chinese hamburger), “yang rou chuan” (lamb shashlik), “yang rou pao mo” (pita bread soaked in lamb soup), and “niu rou tang bao” (a steamed dumpling filled with minced beef and gravy) are the popular choices. With their renowned reputation, the famous dishes are sold at a relatively high price, and flavors can be a little strong. I sat down in a local music bar watching the Huayin Laoqiang opera, a local opera style with a history of several hundred years, earning its name for being quaint, tragic, vigorous and bold in music style. It is the earliest Chinese rock & roll.

Walking inside of the rectangular necropolis, you can see thousands of Terracotta Warriors comprising of different branches of the armed forces.

Terracotta Army of Xi’an

Witnessing The Warriors
The absolute must-see sight of Xi’an is the Army of Terracotta Warriors. The short trip is so worthwhile when seeing the Terracotta Warriors in Xianyang District, which remains a spectacular historical wonder. Walking inside of the rectangular necropolis, you can see thousands of Terracotta Warriors comprising of different branches of the armed forces, chariots, horses and even the weaponry. Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259BC-210BC), the first unifier of China, not only started to build the great wall, but also undertook the gigantic projects of the Terracotta Warriors. Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum sits one kilometer away. Tickets for this archaeological wonder are 100 RMB.

Terracotta Army of Xi’an

Feeling the Heartbeat in a Precipitous Mountain
After spending two days in Xi’an, I left for Mount Hua in Huayin City, Shanxi, one of the most favored tourist sites of China. As many of us grew up reading martial art novels and watching relevant films, we know that Mount Hua in Huayin City, Shanxi Province has long been commonly featured.

Mount Hua Entrance of Shanxi

Just like Master Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, Chinese swordsmen learn the martial art to help the weak and be chivalrous. The famous Chinese novelist Jin Yong described the Mount Hua Clan as one of the powerful leading groups in the martial world. It is also the location where martial arts practitioners go to improve their martial arts prowess and fight to become the best.

Referred to as the “root of Chinese civilization,” Mount Hua has many beautiful legends. There are over 200 natural and cultural scenic sites, involving many prominent figures dating back to history. For climbers, the first stop will be Yuquan Taoist Temple, which is the holy tranquil land for Taoist mainstream Quanzhen sect.

Numerous precipitous cliffs and steep gorges are a perilous feast to those excitement-seeking mountaineers.

In the old time, Mount Hua’s severe geography made it very difficult to develop. It has only one route starting from?Hua Shan Yu (Hua Shan Gorge) which developed during 3rd to 4th century A.D. Now, although Mount Hua has two cable car lines, it would still be advisable for visitors to climb the mountain on foot because almost all the natural sites must be seen this way. Mount Hua stands 2154 meters above sea level and it would take more than six hours to reach the North Peak, the lowest peak among the five peaks, and three hours further to reach the highest point, the South Peak. Since it’s a whole day trip, it is advisable to pack enough food and water to avoid the high prices of goods there. There are positive advantages to traveling in winter, as the weather is so clear that you’re able to appreciate the scenery without the inconvenience of rain or mist.

Mount Hua

Mount Hua is a unique mountain in China. Unlike most mountains which consist of limestone, this one consists of a huge body of granite and was formed 100 million years ago. It extends 15 kilometers from east to west and 10 kilometers from south to north. Numerous precipitous cliffs and steep gorges are a perilous feast to those excitement-seeking mountaineers. Climbing is not only a manual labor but also a test to one’s persistence. Mount Hua has received so many eulogies from many poets and writers, such as the Tang Dynasty’s genius Li Bai. Even a careless glimpse can allow you to appreciate the inscriptions and calligraphy art pieces on cliff faces, which will give you more insight into Chinese literature.

The hike is known for its steep trails. For instance, when I passed the renowned Qian Chi Zhuang (thousand-foot stairs), climbing a very narrow crevasse between two huge rocks, I felt my body leaning at a 70-degree angle. The stairs consist of over 370 steps, winning it the name “thousand-feet stairs.” Climbers have to proceed with the help of iron chains on both sides of the rock walls.

Seeing Mount Hua’s daunting features is unforgettable, but what’s more mind-boggling is to see how humans can conquer its harsh nature. You can trek the cultural site with the protection of circular tunnels. You can see Taoist temples and buildings weathered through centuries of wind and snow. You can sit in a pavilion on the cliff of the East Peak to appreciate glorious sunrises and sunsets. The mountain is an embodiment of humanity’s courage, fortitude and spirituality. By the way, I stayed on the West Peak’s Hotel for one night. There was no natural water except that carried by the mountain workers. Therefore, we weren’t allowed to take a shower due to the preciousness of water.

The Sunrise at Mount Hua

Above The Abyss
Taoists visit Mount Hua to seek eternity. On the South Peak, Yuan Dynasty’s He Zhizhen built Changkong Plank Road (长空栈道) seven centuries ago, a stomach-churning one-foot-wide path comprising three narrow wooden boards affixed to the cliff, in place for meditation and seeking immortality–or simply for adrenaline junkies. It is Mount Hua’s most dangerous trail and one of the most famous sites. Seeing the plunging ravines, I was not brave enough to try it. I stood up watching climbers go down to experience the breathtaking view wearing safety belts and walking step by step.

Chess Pavilion

Another famous culture site is the Chess Pavilion on the East Peak. Taoist sage Chen Tuan (871-989), founder of Mount Hua’s Taoist religion, was said to have a chess game with the Zhao Kuangyin, who later became the founding emperor of Song Dynasty (960-1279). He beat Zhao with the game, and won the bet on Mount Hua if he became the emperor. Zhao laughed about that because at that time he was just a nobody. But finally, Chen Tuan won this bet after Zhao took the throne. That could be one of the biggest and best bets ever.

The Chess Pavilion

Besides, the pavilion is ideal for you to see the sunrise at Mount Hua. In summer, many people still climb at nighttime, in order to reach the East Peak by dawn. But if you want to arrive at the Chess Pavilion, you need to wear a safety belt to make your way down, passing through the Somersault Cliff (鹞子翻身), the second most dangerously thrilling cliff after Changkong Plank Road. I tried this one with the company of a Shanghai man named Alan Lan. It was quite terrifying because upon going down, it was very difficult–luckily my companion helped me down to the bottom.

On To The City
Chengdu, its name the same as the famous song Chengdu by singer Zhao Lei, is a fascinating city, especially for the pandas and spicy food. But last August its pearl tourist site Jiu Zhaigou was largely destroyed by an earthquake of magnitude 7.0, meaning the tourism has been severely affected since then. Due to this the price of local tourist agents are much cheaper than before.

Sichuan Hot Pot

Chengdu was referred to as the land of abundance (天府之国) for its fertility on the plains of the Red Basin in China’s Sichuan Province. Surrounding Chengdu high mountains lead to Tibet under a harsh climate. Chengdu gathers the essence of various local snacks. And as a city of migration, it also collects all favors throughout the whole country. It’s no wonder Sichuan cuisine is one of the four major cooking styles in China. Big fans visit here to satiate their appetites. Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi (宽窄巷子) and Tianfu Square (天府广场) are nice places to taste the sophisticated Sichuan flavors. Double-cooked pork (回锅肉), Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐) and sliced beef and ox tongue (夫妻肺片)are not to be missed.

Lovely Panda

Back To The Top
Also, many people will enjoy seeing the lovely pandas in Chengdu Panda Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. When seeing those endearing creatures chomping on bamboo, I was filled up with pure love and joy, it was a beautiful sight. The best time to visit is between 8 am and 10 am because you can watch the pandas being fed at this time.

But as a mountaineer who has been to the Qomolangma Camp and climbed up Mount Hua, I still would opt for Mount Emei, another famous mountain of China that is 180 kilometers away from Chengdu. Unlike Mount Hua’s intimidating features, Mount Emei is a green mountain surrounded with clouds and waterfalls, standing at?3,099 meters above sea level, a sacred mountain for Buddhism. Since climbing it requires around one day, it would be a better choice to take a one-hour bus to the half way point.

The bodhisattva Samantabhadra (普贤菩萨)

On the half hill, I took a cable car up to the Golden Peak. As snow began to wrap up the forest, it was apparent that it became dangerous to walk on the ice. There were plenty of devout believers burning incense and worshipping the Buddha. Mount Emei is traditionally regarded as the dwelling palace of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra (普贤菩萨). On the summit, you can see a giant golden Samantabhadra’s statue with ten Buddha heads, indicating he is knowing to all sides.

The best time to visit is between 8 am and 10 am because you can watch the pandas being fed at this time.

The awe-inspiring Huazang Temple on the summit, was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1640) but was destroyed in a raging fire in the 1970s. It was a heavy strike on the culture and history of Emei. Since 2003, the summit has been restored. In the summer, people would stay at the summit to appreciate the spectacular view of the golden Buddhist’s sunglow.

Leshan Giant Buddha

A Mammoth Sculpture
30 kilometers away from Mount Emei, is the Leshan Giant Buddha. This 1200-year-old giant Buddha sits at the height of an impressive 71m, carved from a cliff, looking down three rivers joining at his front. The shoulders span 28m, and each big toe measures at 8.5m long. I waited in line for three hours to go and see the colossal sight. It was like a skyscraper. Inside the body of the sculpture is a water-drainage system to prevent weathering.

At the year of 713 A.D., the Buddha was built by a Haitong Monk to ease the drought and protect the boats. Legend says that the officials blackmailed Haitong once he had collected some money. Haitong used a knife to cut his eyes out to give to the officials before they were intimidated by his courage and left. The project was completed 90 years after Haitong’s death. Subsequently the river became calm and safe and the local people thanked the Buddha for his blessings.

After 12 centuries, the Buddha structure was severely eroded by rain and air. However, many people still visit the fascinating vision, in appreciation of the history and mystery behind the epic structure.

Photo by Huang Qimu & Ye Huitao