Tsoka Lake

Embedded deep within one of the remote mountain valleys of the Garzě Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Tsoka Lake appears like a small jewel embedded into the surrounding hillside. The lake itself only covers a surface area of around 3 square kilometres (1 sq. mi), but don’t let its small size fool you. As the old saying goes, big things often come in small packages! The name “tsoka” roughly translates to mean “the black water in the stone forest,” which is in reference to the lake’s characteristically dark waters and the surrounding snow-capped mountains that loom over it. As proof of the lake’s holy status, you’ll find numerous halls and buildings situated along its shores, which were all built in the traditional Tibetan style and together make up the Tsoka Monastery. 

The monastery itself dates back to the 14th century and is one of few monasteries that follows the teachings of two different sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Although the Gelug or “Yellow Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism continues to be by far the most popular, monks living in the Tsoka Monastery follow a combination of teachings from the Nyingma and Kagyu sects, which rank alongside the Gelug sect as two of the four most important sects of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, the Nyingma sect is widely considered to be the oldest, with a history that stretches all the way back to the 8th century!

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Yihun Lhatso

Resting at an altitude of a staggering 4,100 metres (13,500 ft.), Yihun Lhatso is a glacial alpine lake that shimmers like a sapphire embedded at the base of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. It can be found at the foot of Rongme Ngatra, which rises to a height of 6,168 metres (20,236 ft.) and is thus the tallest peak belonging to the Chola Mountains. Melted ice from the snowy cap of Rongme Ngatra makes its way down the steep mountainside until it eventually feeds into the lake, which is why the waters of the lake are breathtakingly pristine and crystal clear in appearance. If you are lucky, you may even spot herds of rare white-lipped deer grazing by its shore!

The lake received its name thanks to a rather sombre legend, which recounts the story of a Tibetan woman named Zhumu. Zhumu was the beloved concubine of a famous Tibetan folkloric figure named King Gesar, whose heroic deeds are the subject of The Epic of King Gesar. According to this legend, Zhumu decided to travel alone to the lake in order to contemplate its beauty, but she was so captivated by it that she couldn’t bring herself to leave. In the end, she was so drawn in that she began walking further and further into the lake, until she sunk beneath its azure waters. From then onward, the lake was known as Yihun Lhatso, which roughly translates to mean “the holy lake of the fallen heart” in reference to how Zhumu’s heart was taken in by its unparalleled beauty.

Alongside being a site of undeniably natural beauty, the lake is revered as a sacred place by the local Tibetan people. It is located within the Garzě Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan province, which once belonged to a region of the ancient Tibetan Empire known as Kham. The Tibetan people living in this region are culturally distinct from both the Tibetan people living in Tibet proper and those living in Qinghai province, so they are often referred to more specifically as Khampa Tibetans. For hundreds of years, these Khampa Tibetans have worshipped the lake as a holy place according to Tibetan Buddhism. Along the shore, you’ll find hundreds of boulders that have been carefully carved into what are known as mani stones.

Mani stones are any stone plates, rocks, or pebbles that have been inscribed with the six-syllabled Buddhist mantra known as “Om Mani Padme Hum.” They are often placed either on their own, in piles, or as part of walls and serve as a form of prayer or religious offering. As you wander along the shores of Yihun Lhatso, you will notice that many of boulders have been dredged from the lake or nearby streams and carved into mani stones, which blend seamlessly into the natural landscape and serve as a testament to this lake’s spiritual reputation. Alongside the carving of mani stones and the placing of multi-coloured prayer flags, many Tibetan monks and laypeople travel to the lake every year on religious pilgrimages. During these pilgrimages, they will take part in what’s known as a kora or pilgrimage circuit, where they walk around the entirety of the lake as a form of meditation and worship. Given the colossal size of natural sites like Yihun Lhatso, these pilgrimage circuits are huge undertakings and can take upwards of weeks or even months to complete! 

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The Tagong Monastery

In 641 AD, the Han Chinese Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) made the long journey to Tibet in order to marry Songtsän Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan Empire (618–842). Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty gave her a statue of Shakyamuni[1] Buddha as her dowry. That being said, this was no normal statue! It was a 1.5-metre (5 ft.) tall life-sized  depiction of the historical Buddha at the age of 12, which is known as the Jowo Shakyamuni or the Jowo Rinpoche. The statue was supposedly carved at the behest of the Buddha himself.

When the princess and her retinue were traveling past Tagong, something unexpected happened. The statue of the Jowo Shakyamuni refused to move! The princess interpreted this as  Buddha’s intention to stay there. There was one major problem with this, however. The statue was meant to be brought to Lhasa and presented to Songtsän Gampo!  The princess decided that the only solution would be to make a copy of the statue, which would be left at Tagong. Once the new statue had been completed, the original statue was finally able to be moved again and continued on its journey. Later on, Songtsän Gampo issued an order for 108 Buddhist temples to be built that would face the Tang Empire. The Tagong Monastery, which contains the copy of the Jowo Shakyamuni statue, was the 108th temple to be built. You can find the original statue in the Jokhang Temple of Lhasa.

Located in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province, near to the side of the Sichuan–Tibet road, the Tagong Monastery belongs to the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The term “tagong” means “the bodhisattva is glad” in the Tibetan language. The temple complex itself includes the Mahavira Hall or the Main Hall, the Jowo Shakyamuni Hall, the Dharmapāla[2] Hall, the Thousand-Hand Avalokiteśvara Hall,  three other lesser halls, the pagoda forest, and the dormitories of the monks. There are nearly 200 prayer wheels that can be found throughout the monastery as well. 

Like other monasteries, the Mahavira Hall within the Tagong Monastery is the place where monks learn Buddhist scripture and chant. The murals in this hall have been preserved in their original condition for over 300 years. Within these gorgeous murals, you will find images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, the “Five Venerable Supreme Masters” of the Sakya sect, and stories of famous Buddhist monks. 

As the name suggests, the Jowo Shakyamuni Hall houses the legendary statue of Jowo Shakyamuni, which is decorated with colourful gems. Within this hall, there is also a statue known as the Thousand-Hand Avalokiteśvara, which was also sculpted under the instruction of Princess Wencheng. Locals and pilgrims believe that this statue is so sacred that it has certain magical powers.

Another legendary sacred relic within this hall is the supposed footprint of Drogön Chogyal Phagpa, who was one of the “Five Venerable Supreme Masters” of the Sakya sect and the fifth Sakya Trizin [3]. He reputedly left this footprint when he visited the monastery sometime during the 13th century.

The Thousand-Hand Avalokiteśvara Hall is relatively new compared to the rest of the complex, as it was only built in 1997. It houses the tallest bronze statue of the Thousand-Hand Avalokiteśvara in the entire Tibetan area.

Behind the Tagong Monastery is the holy Mount Yala. This snow-capped peak shines under the cloudless blue skies of the plateau. For hundreds of years, numerous monks have traveled to the mountain and practiced their faith on the remote mountainsides. According to legend, there are warm springs dotted throughout the Mount Yala area that can clean any hopeful Buddhist monk of their impurities.

[1] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[2] A Dharmapāla is a type of wrathful god in Buddhism.

[3] Sakya Trizin is the traditional title of the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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The Huiyuan Monastery

At the beginning of the 18th century, Tibet was in turmoil as two powerful political groups became embroiled in the search for the next Dalai Lama. One group was led by a man named Lha-bzang Khan, who was the ruler of the Khoshut Khanate [1]. The leader of the opposing faction was known as Desi Sangye Gyatso and was widely regarded as the most powerful man in Tibet, particularly since he had been the regent of the 5th Dalai Lama. ON top of all of this internal political power, Desi Sangye Gyatso also had a good relationship with the Dzungar Khanate [2]. The conflict only ended because Desi Sangye Gyatso was murdered. It seems Lha-bzang Khan would not escape so lightly either, as the Dzungar Khanate invaded Tibet in 1717 and he was killed in the ensuing chaos.

The invasion  subsequently quashed by an expedition sent by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 AD), which was the ruling regime of China at the time. This Qing military expedition expelled the Dzungars from Tibet in 1720. In 1721, they enthroned Kelzang Gyatso as the seventh Dalai Lama in a ceremony at the Potala Palace.

In spite of this outward calm, however, secret dissent and popular discontent was increasing during the new Tibetan cabinet era. This eventually led to the assassination of the leader and chaos reigned once again. The new ruling leader, a man named Polhané Sönam Topgyé, decided to take revenge on those who were responsible for the assassination. In a shocking twist, it was believed that the father of the seventh Dalai Lama had been involved in planning the assassination!

From here onwards, the story seems to diverge, as there are two different versions of what may have happened next. The seventh Dalai Lama was either summoned to Beijing by the Qing government but was stopped in Litang by Polhané Sönam Topgyé, or he was ordered to go to Litang, which was his birth place. 

Regardless of the reasoning behind it, the seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso was sent to Litang, where the Huiyuan Monastery was built for him. Meanwhile, the 5th Panchen Lama was called to Lhasa by the Qing emperor Yongzheng in order to take control of certain areas within the ancient region of Tibet. From then on, the Panchen Lama’s power was used to balance out the power of the Dalai Lama. 

When you are standing in front of the Huiyuan Monastery, you may be surprised to find that such an isolated monastery with such a simple appearance is related to some of the most influential moments in Tibetan history. The Huiyuan Monastery belongs to the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism and, in terms of its architecture, it follows the typical Tibetan Buddhist monastery style. You may get the feeling that the Huiyuan Monastery is a simplified version of the Drepung Monastery, but it incorporates some royal architectural features.

The monastery is located in the county of Daofu within the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The entire complex covers a colossal area of around 83 acres and contains more than one thousand rooms. According to a typical monastery’s layout, the main structures are the Buddha Hall, the studying area for the monks, and the monks’ dormitories. Alongside these main structures, the Huiyuan monastery has something extra special, the steles pavilion, which is home to five steles that date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The 7th Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso lived within the Huiyuan Monastery for seven years. In 1735, the Yongzheng Emperor sent his own brother, Prince Guo, to help Kelzang Gyatso return to Lhasa. During his time at the monastery, Prince Guo wrote a long poem that described the local life and culture, which was made into a stele. However, it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). 

The significance of the Huiyuan Monastery didn’t end up when Kelzang Gyatso left. Over one hundred years later, fate would shine on the monastery yet again, as the 11th Dalai Lama Khedrup Gyatso was born near the Huiyuan Monastery. In response to this fortuitous event, the Qing court bestowed an honour known as the “Nine Dragons and Nine Lions” on  the monastery. “Nine Dragons” refers to the Qing court, while “Nine Lions” represents the Kashag [3]of Tibet. Visitors can find the “Nine Dragons and Nine Lions” on the wall outside of the main hall.

During its long and venerable history, the Huiyuan Monastery was supported directly by the royal family of the Qing Dynasty. The buildings and Buddhist art in the monastery, however, were tragically damaged during the Cultural Revolution. In 1982, the government provided grants to the complex so that they could be repaired. 

Every year, from the 1st to the 7th of June according to the Tibetan Calendar, a prayer ceremony and other religious activities are held in the Huiyuan Temple. Collectively, these festivities are known as the Mask Dance Festival. 

On the first day, the monks who inhabit the temple will dance in gorgeously decorative dress, but without their iconic masks. The next day is dedicated entirely to the prayer ceremony, where worshippers pray for blessings and a brighter future. On the third day, the local people and monks will burn incense and make sacrifices to the gods in the hopes that their homes will be protected from future disasters. On the fourth day, the monks don their traditional dress again, along with their iconic masks, and perform the mask dance, which is known as the Cham Dance. From the 5th through to the final 7th day, there are horse racing events and other folk activities.

1) The Khoshut Khanate was a kingdom located on Tibetan Plateau, which ruled the area from 1642 to 1717.

2) The Dzungar Khanate (1634-1755) was an Inner Asian khanate ruled by the Oirat Mongolians.

3) The Kashag was the governing council of Tibet from 1721 right through until the 1950s.

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Sichuan Opera

There are numerous differences between Western and Chinese opera, the most notable of which is that Western opera tends to follow one long plotline, while Chinese opera is usually made up of several separate components, including circus-like stunts, short dramas, and story-telling portions. This difference is never more obvious than in Sichuan opera, which thrives on its magnificent spectacles and outrageous comedic skits to keep the audience wholly entertained. Employing expert clowns, illusionists, and acrobats, it’s a performance art that represents a true feast for the eyes!

This style of opera originated from Sichuan province sometime during the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is actually comprised of five other, much older styles of opera. These five styles are known as Gaoqiang, Kunqiang, Huqing voice, Tanxi, and Dengdiao or Lantern theatre. Some of them date all the way back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) and represent some of the oldest styles of opera in China. As their popularity began to wane, a revival movement was begun during the early 20th century. In 1912, a reformer named Kang Zhilin established the Sanqing or “Three Celebrations” Company, which came to be known as one of the most prominent opera troupes in China.

It was Kang who combined these five historic styles to form traditional Sichuan opera. Many of the trademark physical movements and tropes of this style were masterminded by Kang himself. Over time, the style not only absorbed features from the other styles, but started to incorporate elements of the province’s local languages, customs, and folk songs. In this way, it is inextricably linked to Sichuan and its heart will always remain in the provincial capital of Chengdu.

Nowadays Sichuan opera is said to boast over 3,000 stories, most of which date back to the Three Kingdoms Period, the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Many of them are comedies and the style itself is renowned for its vivacity, good humour, and breath-taking stunts. The singing is usually in a higher pitch than Beijing opera and is also known for being less constrained. Unlike more dramatic styles of Chinese opera, the face paint is subtle and typically limited to the colours black, red, white, and grey. It’s missing the archetypal jing or villain character, so normally an evil character is simply indicated by a small patch of white paint in the middle of the face.

While the traditional formula for the opera is quite systematic, it is punctuated by lively acts of face-changing, beard-changing, fire-spitting, rolling light, and puppetry. The art of face-changing is unique to Chinese opera and has been a closely guarded secret for centuries. It is said the practice originated when ancient people would paint their faces to scare away wild animals, but has since been perfected into a performance art of the highest order. The act involves one performer changing their face mask within the blink of an eye, with masters of the art switching between a staggering 10 masks in less than 20 seconds!

No one knows exactly how it is done, as the secret is only passed down among theatre families, but there are roughly three methods: the wiping mask, the blowing mask, and the pulling mask. During the wiping mask routine, the actor hides cosmetic paint in his eyebrows or sideburns. At the opportune moment, he will turn away from the audience and swiftly wipe the paint into a pattern on his face. Similarly, the blowing mask routine involves the actor holding a box of powdered cosmetics and blowing on it. Since the actor will have oiled his face beforehand, the powder will naturally fly up and adhere to his face.

The pulling mask routine, however, is by far the most popular and the most complicated. The masks are delicately painted beforehand on silk fabric, which is cut, attached to a silk thread, and lightly pasted to the face. Each one is gently laid on top of the other and the silk threads are hidden somewhere within the actor’s costume. With a sharp flick of his cloak, the actor is able to pull away each mask one by one, although the exact method is still a tantalising mystery. In short, we may never know what secrets are hidden behind the mask!

The different coloured masks are used to represent the actor’s characteristics and function to tell a simple story, much like a one-man monologue. For example, red represents someone who is steadfast, black signifies the character is righteous, green or blue symbolises that they are strong or violent, and white implies the person is treacherous. This veritable rainbow of traits is the ideal way for the performer to reflect their character’s hidden feelings without speaking, since the face-changing act contains no dialogue whatsoever. In some simplified versions of the act, the performer will simply pull on his beard and have it change colour from black to grey to white, in order to show displeasure or confusion.

In many cases, face-changing is combined with the fire-spitting act to add an extra dimension of complexity. While fire-spitting is not uncommon in performances throughout the world, actors in Sichuan opera are capable of spitting a fire column that is up to 2 metres (6.6 ft.) in height! In a similarly fiery display, the act known as rolling light involves the actor performing a series of complicated acrobatic moves while balancing a bowl of fire on is head.

The character is typically a clown and the set-up is normally that of a woman angry with her husband. For example, one skit involves a married couple arguing about the husband’s gambling. Throughout the course of the argument, the wife demands that the husband perform a series of increasingly difficult tasks while balancing the bowl on his head. Other highlights include the stick puppet and shadow puppet shows, which usually revolve around traditional Chinese mythology and folktales. With so much on offer, Sichuan opera is certainly one of the most diverse forms of Chinese opera and has something to suit everyone’s tastes!

Mount Emei

Mount Emei, or “Delicate Eyebrow Mountain”, is so-named because its two major peaks face one another and supposedly resemble the lofty brows of a classical Chinese beauty. The name itself may raise a few eyebrows, but Mount Emei’s unparalleled natural beauty is sure to win the admiration of even the most sceptical tourist! It is classed as one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Chinese Buddhism and its cultural significance, coupled with its spectacular scenery, meant it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, along with the nearby Leshan Giant Buddha. Reaching a staggering elevation of 3,099 metres (10,167 ft.) at its peak, it is the tallest of the Four Sacred Mountains.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the slopes of Mount Emei may have been settled as early as 10,000 years ago, although the first temple wasn’t built there until the 1st century AD. Originally it was a Taoist retreat, but sometime around the 3rd century it became known as a sacred Buddhist mountain and was the first place in China where a Buddhist temple was built. It is traditionally believed to be the bodhimaṇḍa, or place of enlightenment, of the bodhisattva[1] Samantabhadra, known in Chinese as “Puxian”. For over 2,000 years, this misty mountain has been regarded as a special and intensely holy place.

As time went on, numerous temples and other religious buildings were erected across the mountain’s vast expanse. Nowadays it boasts over 30 temples, ten of which are of particular historical note. However, it seems Mount Emei might be directly facing some serious competition! On a hillside opposite the mountain, the Leshan Giant Buddha looms over the confluence the Minjiang, Dadu, and Qingyi rivers. At a colossal 71 metres (233 ft.) in height, it is the tallest pre-modern statue in the world and is nearly twice the size of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil!

This Buddha may be big, but it’s not quite big enough to completely overshadow its mountainous neighbour. Blanketed in a diverse range of vegetation, from subtropical to subalpine forests, Mount Emei is undoubtedly a feast for the eyes. Some of its trees are over 1,000 years old, matched in age only by its ancient temples. These temples blend seamlessly into their natural surroundings, demonstrating the perfect marriage between man and nature. The most famous of these are Baoguo Temple, Wannian Temple, Qingyin Pavilion, and the Golden Summit.

Baoguo Temple was built during the 16th century, and is widely regarded as the centre of Buddhist activities on the mountain. It is perhaps most famous for the engraved stone slab that hangs above its gate, on which its name was written by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). However, other major highlights of the temple include its serene gardens, library of sutras[2], and decorative porcelain statue of Buddha.

Unfortunately this statue somewhat pales in comparison to the 7.85 metre-high (26 ft.) bronze statue of Samantabhadra  riding  an elephant that can be found in Wannian Temple, which weighs a stunning 62 tons. In a bizarre twist of fate, it actually weighs over 8 times as much as an actual African elephant! It was commissioned on imperial order during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), although the temple itself was founded sometime during the 4th century. To this day, no one knows exactly how such a hefty statue was transported up the mountain.

Located in the middle section of the mountain, Qingyin Pavilion is a complex of pavilions, towers, and platforms that date from the 6th century onwards. It is crisscrossed by the rushing Black Dragon River and White Dragon River, so-named because their waters are dark green and ivory white respectively. The complex’s architecture is particularly breath-taking, but tragically not enough to make Qingyin Pavilion the mountain’s star attraction. That accolade is solely reserved for the Golden Summit.

The Golden Summit rests at an elevation of 3,077 metres (10,095 ft.) and its name is derived from the small bronze temple at its peak. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, there is also a 48-metre (157 ft.) tall bronze statue of Samantabhadra near the temple, which weighs over 600 tons! While this may not be the mountain’s actual summit, it’s the ideal place to soak in the scenery and experience the Four Great Spectacles of Mount Emei: the sunrise, the sea of clouds, the rays of Buddha, and the sacred lamps. While the sunrise and the sea of clouds are reasonably self-explanatory, the last two natural phenomena are unique features of Mount Emei.

The rays of Buddha occur about 14 times every year and can only be seen when the area is thick with clouds. If you look out into the clouds at the right moment, the refracting light will make it appear as though your shadow is surrounded by a circle of colourful light, much like a rainbow. Similarly, on some dark nights at the summit after it has been raining, you might see flashing lights in the mountain valleys, providing there is no moon in the sky. These fabulous illuminations have been nicknamed the sacred lamps. However, even without these flashing lights, a trip to Mount Emei is sure to dazzle you!

[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

Sichuan Cuisine

Sichuan Cuisine

Of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, Sichuan cuisine is arguably the most popular. Thanks to its liberal use of fiery chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, most people immediately characterise it by its unparalleled levels of spiciness, but there’s so much more to it than that. As an old local saying goes: “one dish, one flavour; one hundred dishes, one hundred flavours”. Although many of the most famous Sichuanese dishes are spicy, the cuisine itself is renowned for its numbing, sour, salty, tender, umami, and sweet flavours, which are typically intermingled to create a symphony of taste.

In fact, Sichuan cuisine didn’t even acquire its most notorious ingredient, the red chilli, until about 400 years ago. According to historical records, during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), the region roughly known as modern-day Sichuan province was famed for its sweet food. During the Jin Dynasty (265-420), pungent dishes that were rich in ginger, garlic, onions, mustard greens, and spring onions became more popular. It was only during the 16th century, when Portuguese sailors finally introduced chillies from South America into China, that Sichuan cuisine developed into the spicy sensation we know today.

Since hot chillies are believed to open up the pores and drive out internal dampness, they became particularly popular in Sichuan province, which suffers from high humidity in summer and rainy or overcast weather throughout the year. The cuisine’s other signature ingredient, the Sichuan peppercorn, adds a unique lemony tang to each dish and creates a tingly, numbing sensation in the mouth. Unlike other famous regional cuisines, which were conventionally reserved for the upper class and wealthier members of society, Sichuan cuisine was eaten by nobles and peasants alike. So, if you want to truly live like the common people, be sure to try a few of these signature dishes!

Twice-Cooked Pork (回锅肉)

Twice-Cooked PorkTwice-Cooked Pork is so-named because the dish’s main ingredient, the sumptuous pork belly, is simmered, left to rest, and then stir-fried. In short, this is a dish so nice they cooked it twice! In order to make it, the pork belly steak is first simmered whole in water with a mixture of spices, such as ginger, star anise, cloves, and salt. The meat is then refrigerated to firm it up before it is delicately cut into thin slices.

These slices are stir-fried in a wok with a plethora of vegetables, such as white cabbage, bell peppers, onions, and spring onions, along with an aromatic sauce made from Shaoxing rice wine, soy sauce, ginger, sugar, and doubanjiang or broad bean chilli paste. Much like Tea-Smoked Duck, this dish is mild rather than spicy and harkens back to Sichuan’s ancient past, as it was popular in the region as far back as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Nowadays this dish is a staple throughout homes in the province, and is rich with home-cooked flavours that offer an authentic taste of Sichuan.

Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐)

Mapo TofuWe’re heading out of the frying pan and into the fire with this notoriously spicy dish! Mapo Tofu, which literally translates to mean “Pockmarked Granny Tofu”, is one of Sichuan’s hottest signature dishes and was supposedly so-named because it was created by a famously pockmarked old woman whose name has been tragically lost in the annals of time. Cubes of silken tofu are suspended in a bright red sauce made from red chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, chilli oil, garlic, Shaoxing rice wine, and broad bean chilli paste, along with pork mince, water chestnuts, onions, wood-ear mushrooms, and a variety of other vegetables.

As one of the most popular and simplest dishes in the Sichuan canon, it is surprisingly easy to find both inside and outside of China. That being said, you’ll have to go to the source if you want to experience authentic, fiery Mapo Tofu. While it is undeniably spicy, it offers up a smorgasbord of flavours and has been described by chefs as numbing, fresh, tender, soft, aromatic, and even flaky. With so much going on, you’re sure to feel tongue-tied after trying this diverse dish!

Water-Cooked Fish (水煮鱼)

Water-Cooked FishShuizhu or “water-cooking” is a popular method employed in Sichuan cuisine, and is primarily used to retain the sumptuous moistness of meat. While Water-Cooked Beef is the more common dish, Water-Cooked Fish offers up slices of fresh white fish that absorb the multifarious flavours of the sauce and simply melt in the mouth. The flesh of the fish is first rubbed in starch and a little salt before being poached in water for about 30 seconds, just enough time to remove the rawness while still preserving the meat’s natural tenderness.

Once it has been poached, the meat is placed in a serving dish with a hearty helping of boiled vegetables, such as bean sprouts, white cabbage, and mushrooms. Dried chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, chopped garlic, and broad bean chilli paste are then sprinkled over the meat. Finally, vegetable oil is heated in a wok until it is nearly smoking before being poured over the meat and vegetables. The result is a veritable volcano of hot and tangy flavours, which are perfectly complemented by the soft texture of the fish.

Fish-Fragrant Eggplant (鱼香茄子)

Fish-Fragrant EggplantBefore you start to think there’s something fishy going on, think again! The term yuxiang or “fish-fragrance” refers to a particularly kind of sauce that originates from Sichuan cuisine. The sauce itself doesn’t actually contain any seafood and doesn’t even really smell of fish. The name is instead derived from the fact that many of the seasonings in the sauce were based on ingredients traditionally used to cook fish.

The famed sauce is made by sautéing a basic mixture of garlic, spring onions, and ginger, which is further enhanced by adding sugar, salt, doubanjiang or broad bean chilli paste, pickled red chillies, and soy sauce. These ingredients are fried in oil until they become fragrant. Water, starch, sugar, and vinegar are then added to thicken the sauce before it is ladled over chunky slices of braised eggplant. The soft texture of the eggplant means it absorbs the sauce beautifully, making for a mildly spicy dish that glances off the tongue.


Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries

While the southwestern province of Sichuan may be celebrated for its spicy cuisine, renowned for its dynamic style of opera, and heralded as a region of unparalleled natural beauty, it is most well-known as the home of China’s cuddliest inhabitant: the giant panda. In order to protect these gentle giants, the country has taken great pains to establish a number of nature reserves and conservation centres, the most famous of which are located in the area surrounding Sichuan’s Qionglai and Jiajin Mountains. A selection of seven such nature reserves and nine scenic parks were collectively labelled a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 under the title “Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries”.

Altogether they cover a total area of 9,245 square kilometres (3,570 sq. mi), house over 30% of the world’s giant panda population, and represent the largest contiguous panda habitat in the world. Yet China’s beloved bear isn’t the only thing these reserves are protecting! The site acts as a refuge for a number of endangered species, including the red panda, the snow leopard, the clouded leopard, Thorold’s deer, and the Sichuan takin. Not only that but, outside of the tropical rainforests, it represents one of the botanically richest sites in the world, with over 5,000 species of plant populating its expanse. Many of these plant species play a vital role in traditional Chinese medicine and are critically endangered.

This incredible biodiversity is thanks to a delicate mixture of the site’s large altitudinal range, climate, and wide variety of soil types. From snow-capped peaks and dense forests to rippling rivers and lush alpine meadows, its diversity and scenic beauty is unmatched. The panda may not be known for its survival skills, but evidently it has great taste in real estate! The seven nature reserves make up the bulk of the site and are known respectively as Wolong National Nature Reserve, Fengtongzhai Nature Reserve, Mount Siguniang Nature Reserve, Laba River Nature Reserve, Anzihe Nature Reserve, Heishui River Nature Reserve, Jintang-Kongyu Nature Reserve, and Caopo Nature Reserve.

Wolong National Nature Reserve is undoubtedly the most popular and, in spite of suffering serious damage during a major earthquake in 2008, it still attracts over 100,000 visitors every year. The reserve itself was established as early as 1963 and is situated in the Qionglai Mountains region. Over 150 giant pandas call this reserve home, of which sixty-seven are captive and reside in the China Conservation and Research Centre.

Unfortunately, many environmentalists are concerned that the popularity of Wolong and the other nature reserves is actually proving to be detrimental to the conservation of the giant panda. Roads, hotels, restaurants, and shops have been built in the surrounding areas to cater to the sudden influx of tourists, and this has caused irreparable damage to the panda’s natural habitat. So, if you’re planning on visiting one of Sichuan’s magnificent nature reserves, be sure to travel responsibly and help preserve these precious gems for future generations.


Jiuzhaigou, the Valley of the Nine Fortified Villages, is a place as ethereal as its name suggests. This national park stretches over 720 square kilometres (278 sq. mi) of raw nature nestled deep within northern Sichuan province. As part of the Min Mountains, this reserve is renowned for its snow-capped peaks, dense forests, thundering waterfalls, and richly coloured lakes. Its superlative scenic beauty and unparalleled biodiversity meant it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1997. In short, this unearthly paradise earned more accolades in five years than most people get in their lifetime!

The park is located approximately 913 kilometres (567 mi) from the provincial capital of Chengdu, and is so-named for the nine villages that run along the length of its main valleys. Only seven of the nine remain populated today, and are known as Heye, Shuzheng, Zechawa, Rexi, Jianpan, Panya, and Yana. They are home to both the Tibetan and Qiang ethnic minorities, who have inhabited the region for centuries and consider many of the scenic spots in the park to be holy.

Within their rich tapestry of folklore, many fascinating legends surround the mountains, woods, and pools that can be found throughout the park. According to one such Tibetan legend, the warlord god Dage was madly in love with the goddess Wunosemo, and so presented her with a beautiful magic mirror as a gift. However, one day, a jealous devil caused the goddess to drop the mirror to earth, where it shattered to form the 114 shimmering lakes that are considered the highlight of Jiuzhaigou.

Scientifically speaking, much of the park’s gullies and mountains were formed thanks to tectonic activity between the Qinghai-Tibet Plate and the Yangtze Plate, since it lies along the plates’ major fault-lines. It is constituted of three main valleys, Shuzheng, Rize, and Zechawa, which are arranged in a formation that resembles the letter Y. Its expanse is populated by a number of endangered animal species, including the giant panda, the golden snub-nosed monkey, Thorold’s deer, and the Duke of Bedford’s vole. Although you’re unlikely to come face-to-face with a bashful panda, you’re sure to spot one of the park’s 140 native bird species, as the area is a haven for bird-watching.

Jiuzhaigou’s fowls may be fair, but they’re nothing compared to the park’s star attractions: the blue, green, and turquoise-coloured lakes that are dotted throughout its valleys. Many of them were originally formed by glacial activity, but then dammed by falling rocks. Some of them have a high concentration of calcium carbonate, which results in them being so crystal clear that their bottoms are visible even at high depths. Their rich colouring and unmatched transparency make them undoubtedly some of the most breath-taking bodies of water in the world.

The Film ‘Hero’

It is recommended to visit the park during autumn, when the pools are at their most translucent and perfectly reflect the rich golden hues of the autumnal foliage. Rize Valley is said to contain the widest variety of sites, and so is typically visited first. The Primeval Forest, a stretch of ancient woodland that has been preserved for centuries, offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains, while you may recognise Arrow Bamboo Lake as the set of the martial arts epic Hero.

Pearl Shoal is the source of the magnificent Pearl Shoal Falls, which are said to look like a string of pearls cascading down the mountainside. Cyan-hued Panda Lake is reputedly the place where local pandas come to drink and empties out via the Panda Falls into Five Flower Lake, Rize Valley’s star attraction, which is so piercingly clear that you can still see the ancient trunks of fallen trees floating in its turquoise waters.

Second on the itinerary is usually Zechawa Valley, which is approximately the same length but rises to a higher altitude. It boasts the crescent-shaped Long Lake, the highest, largest, and deepest lake in Jiuzhaigou. According to local folklore, a monster supposedly haunts its depths, so be sure to keep an eye out when standing by its banks! The valley’s mythical status doesn’t end there, as its shimmering Five-Colour Pond was rumoured to be the place where the goddess Wunosemo would wash her hair.

Not to be outdone, Shuzheng Valley possesses a number of legendary sites, although their origin stories are slightly less magical. For example, the largest lake in the valley, Rhinoceros Lake, was reputedly so-named because a Tibetan monk was once riding his rhinoceros through the valley when he became so entranced by the area’s beautiful scenery that he accidentally rode his rhinoceros directly into the lake! Perhaps he was distracted by the glorious Nuorilang Falls, the widest highland waterfall in China and one of the icons of Jiuzhaigou.

However, if you want to really connect with the spirituality of Jiuzhaigou, you’ll need to visit Zharu Valley, which branches off to the southeast of Shuzheng Valley. Its main hike follows the pilgrimage path of the local Tibetan Buddhists, who circumnavigate the sacred Zha Yi Zha Ga Mountain as part of a religious ritual. The hike offers stunning panoramic views of the natural scenery, a chance to learn more about Jiuzhaigou’s unique biodiversity, and an insight into its fascinating local culture.

Sichuan Local Snacks

The cuisine of Sichuan province is notoriously spicy, so be prepared for some sumptuously sizzling snacks! As one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, this style is celebrated throughout China, and is widely available both inside and outside of the country. While it’s well-known for its liberal use of fiery chillies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, it employs a wide variety of ingredients to imbue each of its dishes and snacks with a unique flavour. Fermented and preserved goods add a smack of sourness, sugar brings a touch of sweetness, well-salt from Zigong gives a salty tang, and mashed garlic injects a pungent punch to every dish.

There is an old local saying in Sichuan which goes: “one dish, one flavour; one hundred dishes, one hundred flavours”. It’s a cuisine celebrated for its boundless variety, from blazing heat to aromatic freshness. These flavours are rarely used alone, but are instead intermingled perfectly to form a taste sensation that is unlike anything you may have ever experienced. The real joy of Sichuan cuisine is that no two dishes taste alike, and every meal represents a new culinary adventure!

Dan Dan Noodles (担担面)

dan-dan-noodlesSwimming in chilli oil and teeming with delicious toppings, Dan Dan Noodles are the ultimate icon of street food in Sichuan province. The name refers to a type of carrying pole known as a dan dan, which vendors would use to carry their ingredients. One basket would contain the noodles and the other the sauce, which would be deftly combined anytime a passer-by fancied a taste of this cheap snack. These street vendors played such a significant role in the dish’s popularity that it eventually came to be known as Dan Dan Noodles or “Noodles Carried on a Pole”.

Unlike other noodle dishes, the seasoning for Dan Dan Noodles is normally placed at the bottom of the bowl and then stirred into the noodles. The sauce is made up of preserved vegetables, chilli oil, dried chillies, soy sauce, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, minced pork, and spring onions, which makes for a rich blend of spicy, sour, and pungent flavours. The noodles are ladled on top of this fragrant mix, but it’s usually up to the customer to blend them together thoroughly. After all, you’ve got to do some of the work yourself!

Bang Bang Chicken (棒棒鸡)

bang-bang-chickenOften referred to as Bon Bon Chicken, this flavourful poultry dish is popular throughout China. Don’t worry, this chicken is not armed and dangerous! The name derives from the banging sound that is produced when the meat is being tenderised with a rolling pin. According to local legend, sometime during towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), there was a dedicated chef living in a remote area near the city of Ya’an. His favourite practice was to experiment with new ingredients and flavours. After studying and practising the art of soup-making for many years, he finally invented a recipe for the perfect chicken broth.

However, back in those times, chicken was a luxury and was usually only served during festivals. Fortunately, the chef came up with an effective solution: cut the whole chicken into thin slices and then sell it slice by slice! His chicken slices soon became extremely popular throughout the province, but this led to another problem. The chef couldn’t cut the chicken up evenly with a kitchen knife, and his customers would often complain if their slices were too small. In the end, the answer was to beat the chicken into pieces, which also helped the broth to infuse into the meat.

Nowadays, Bang Bang Chicken is normally served with a light salad. The chicken is first boiled in a large pot, along with slices of fresh ginger. Once the chicken is thoroughly cooked, the pot is removed from the heat and the chicken is left to soak in its own broth. Finally the chicken is beaten with a rolling pin and shredded into small pieces before being smothered in a tangy sauce made from Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, black vinegar, sugar, chilli oil, salt, and chopped spring onions. This fiery mixture is perfectly complemented by cool slices of cucumber and juicy tomato.

Tea-Smoked Duck (樟茶鸭)

tea-smoked-duckTea-Smoked Duck is an example of a traditional Sichuan dish that existed long before chillies became popularised in the region. It is typically eaten at banquets or during festivals, since it is infamously complicated to prepare. The duck is first marinated for several hours with a rub made from crushed Sichuan peppercorns, rice wine, ginger, garlic, and salt, much of which is liberally applied inside the cavity of the duck. Sometimes tea leaves and camphor leaves are added to this rub to give it an aromatic kick.

After it has been left to marinate, the duck is quickly blanched in boiling hot water to tighten the skin, and then air-dried. This ensures that its skin will turn wonderfully crisp when cooked. Once the duck is completely dry, it is smoked over a wok full of black tea leaves, camphor twigs, and camphor leaves for approximately 15 minutes. In order to ensure the meat is deliciously moist and thoroughly cooked, it is then steamed for a further 10 minutes before being deep-fried until the skin turns a crispy golden brown. With its subtle aromas, sour tang, crunchy skin, and tender meat, this dish is sure to be everyone’s cup of tea!

Husband and Wife Lung Slices (夫妻肺片)

husband-and-wife-lung-slicesBefore you panic, no married couples were harmed in the making of this dish! Much like Bang Bang Chicken, the unusual name derives from an equally unusual local anecdote. During the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was a common sight to see vendors on the streets of Chengdu selling cold slices of offal, since it was one of the most inexpensive cuts of meat. Its low cost meant the snack quickly became popular amongst rickshaw pullers and poor students. However, during the 1930s, this simple dish would soon be revolutionised!

A man named Guo Zhaohua and his wife, Zhang Tianzheng, were very particular about the way they prepared their beef offal slices, and often experimented with new ingredients. This set their beef slices apart from other street vendors in the city, and soon their business started booming. That being said, with great power comes even greater annoyances! Because they were so well-known, mischievous children in the city would often stick paper notes to their back that would read “fuqi feipian” or “married couple’s lung slices”. Eventually, this phrase became so commonplace that it was adopted as the dish’s official name.

Oddly enough, the dish itself is rarely made from lung slices. Normally thin slices of cooked beef tongue or tripe are used instead, and are served in a vinaigrette-like sauce made from spiced broth, chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns, roasted peanuts, chopped garlic, and chopped spring onions. This sauce is just thin enough to coat the papery slices of offal perfectly without overwhelming their natural flavour, providing an appetizer that tastes fresh, spicy, crunchy, and mouth-wateringly moreish.