Travel Sichuan Province, China: Tour from Chengdu to the ancient Salt Wells of Zigong
A journey to the south of the Sichuan Province, ChinaMap
Sichuan Travel information:
The Shenhai salt well of Zigong, Sichuan Province, China
The city of Zigong is situated on the bank of the idyllic Fuxi River in the south-east of Sichuan province in south-west China, only 305 meters above sea level. During the Ming and Qing dynasties Zigong grew, because of its underground salt deposits, into an important and rich trading town. On special salt ships the salt, taken along the waterways of the rivers Fuxi and Tuo, reached the Yangtze, from where the precious cargo was transported as far as Shanghai and Beijing.
The beginnings of salt mining in Zigong go back to the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220), when the first salt wells were drilled close to Zigong for Emperor Zhangdi (75 – 88 AD). In old China salt was seen as a source of energy for the body and its trading value was regarded as higher than that of gold. If we can believe the statements of Marco Polo, in old China salt was even compressed to make coins which could in turn be traded for gold.
On your journey to Zigong you visit the Shenhai salt well, where to this day salt is extracted by the old method, just as 100 years ago. In 1835 the salt well of Shenhai was the first ever shaft to reach the considerable depth of more than 1000 meters, which was an extraordinary achievement at that time.
You will also visit the informative museum on the history of salt mining in Zigong. The museum of of salt mining in Zigong is situated in an old guild house built by rich salt traders from Shaanxi province in 1736. Somewhat further east of the new town Zigong is found the place where the salt from the Shenhai salt well was loaded onto ships. The old town with the wonderful Tienshang Palace, a guild house built around 1950 by salt traders from Fujian, the Nanhua Palace from 1862, and the richly decorated temple of the Chen family, still today give an impression of the affluence and influence of the salt traders of that time.
Journey to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province
Chengdu, a metropolis of 8 million, is the capital of Sichuan province in south-west China. The area around Chengdu was settled more than 4,000 years ago. North-east of today’s Chengdu there is Sanxingdui, one of the most spectacular archeological sites in China. Sanxingdui has a history going back more than 3,000 years, and was at that time presumably the capital of a state with the name „Shu“. In 1986 during excavations many masks and bronze statues as well as valuable objects made of gold and jade came to light.
Chengdu has a sub-tropical monsoon climate; the winters are rather mild, the summers long and hot. It is mostly overcast and humid, and rain is not scarce. However, it can become very cold in winter at times, though the temperatures rarely go below freezing. On a journey to Chengdu in the winter months a warm jacket is an absolute must in your travel gear.
Chengdu has recently become something like the “trading capital” of south-west China. Many foreign firms have chosen Chengdu as their base of production. Several European countries have as well set up consulates in Chengdu, among them Switzerland, Germany, England, Australia and the US.
Because of its incredible dimensions with the glass skyscrapers, the Western chains of fast-food restaurants, and the countless modern shopping centers, Chengdu looks at first glance rather unattractive. The true charm of Chengdu opens up to the visitor only at second glance. On a sight-seeing tour of the city you still find the “old” Chengdu with its countless small colorful side streets with traditional flea markets and street markets, typical hairdressers and local restaurants which make up an exciting contrast to modern Chengdu.
The city of Chengdu is an ideal starting point for excursions to the national parks of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong, to Leshan, Emei Shan, western Sichuan, and Tibet.
The Giant Panda reservation in Chengdu
On a trip to Chengdu a visit to the panda reservation is a must. The panda reservation, supported by WWF, is situated at the northern edge of Chengdu and can be reached in about an hour’s drive from the city center. There you are offered the unique chance of observing at close quarters those rare endangered animals. The visit in the morning is especially worthwhile, when the panda bears are particularly active at their bamboo breakfast. Another good time is in winter when it is cooler in the park and things are somewhat more relaxed.
Panda bears spend their day mostly eating and sleeping. The large panda bear feeds almost exclusively on bamboo. Bamboo in the raw state contains high quantities of hydrogen cyanide glycoside. In a single animal that eats for up to 16 hours a day and polishes off between 20 and 30 kilos of bamboo, a considerable amount of that poison builds up. It seems that the panda can tolerate that quite well, but on the other hand it could be an explanation of its relative stolidity.
The giant panda is by nature solitary, but it has a very sensitive and highly developed sense of smell which it uses to avoid others of its species, and simultaneously to find females in spring for mating.
After 5 months of pregnancy the panda female gives birth to one or two young. If the female has two babies at the same time, generally she looks after only one of them and abandons the other. The baby pandas are blind at birth and weigh only about 142 grams. Basically a baby panda is born white; the characteristic black and white coloring develops later on.
According to estimates there are only about 1,500 pandas still living in the wild.
Journey to the Giant Buddha of Leshan, Sichuan Province
From Chengdu you reach the Giant Buddha of Leshan in a little under 2 hours by car. At 71 meters high that colossal Buddha statue is regarded as the largest Buddhist sculpture in the world, and in 1996 it was placed along with Mount Emei on UNESCO’s world heritage list. The shoulders of the Great Buddha of Leshan measure 28 meters, the head is 15 meters high and 10 meters broad, the ears with the extended lobes are 7 meters long, 1021 snail-shaped hair knots cover the head. On the large toe of the Great Buddha of Leshan a table for four would easily find space.
The work was taken up by the monk Haitong in 713 AD, and it took more than 90 years until the figure had been carved out of the red sandstone cliffs. The monk Haitong worked on the assumption that by building the statue he could conciliate the river gods and so ship travel on the rivers that flow together there, the Min, Dadu, and Qingyi, would be made safer.
However, the construction of the Great Buddha of Leshan did not always proceed smoothly. Political unrest was the greatest challenge to the monk Haitong and placed his life’s work in danger. According to legend Haitong was so convinced of his project that he is said to have gouged out his own eyes to persuade the king’s councilors to finance the project.
The monk Haitong did not live to see the completion of the Great Buddha of Leshan. When he died the money needed for the construction dried up and the work was temporarily stopped. Not until 40 years later was a financier found and the work was continued by his disciples. In 803 the Great Buddha of Leshan was completed.
In fact the rapids and currents so dangerous for shipping did disappear; but that presumably is to be attributed to the amount of rubble dumped into the river rather than the favor of the river gods.
You will visit Dafo Park, from where one gets a good impression about the incredible dimensions of the Leshan Budda. As well, you will take a short boat trip on Min River. From the boat you have the best view of the whole Buddha.
Travel from Leshan to the Buddhist grottos of Anyue: the Pilu grottos near Shiyang, Sichuan
The wonderful grottos of Pilu originate mainly from the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), during the heyday of Buddhism in the region. Over 465 statues and 14 steles were chiseled out of the rock by Buddhist monks.
Very impressive is the grotto with the shrine of Liu Benzun (852-907), which is worked out in great detail and enables a good insight into life during the late Tang dynasty. And after 1,200 years the original colors are still visible.
Liu Benzun is regarded as the first “patriarch of esoteric Buddhism”.
According to tradition Liu Benzun lived an ascetic lifestyle and did penance by mutilating himself. In the upper section of the niche Liu Benzun is presented performing the “10 acts of mutilation” in very accurate detail.
A rare and exquisite piece of stonemasonry from the northern Song dynasty can be marveled at in another grotto of Anyue: a wonderful statue of Avalokiteshvara sitting in a violet vault.
That representation of the goddess of universal compassion has already been described as the “Venus of the East”.
The grottos of Bamiao, Sichuan province
The Buddhist grottos of Bamiao are situated 170 km east of Chengdu and about 40 km north of the city of Anyue in Sichuan province. From Chengdu the travel time is about 3 hours. The stone works of Bamiao began in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) and continued into the period of the five dynasties or of the ten empires.
The period between the downfall of the Tang dynasty (907) to the establishment of the Song dynasty in 960 was marked by political upheaval. Within a very short time five dynasties followed each other, but they could hold on to power for only a short time. Only when the Song took over between 960 and 978 peace and prosperity returned to south China. At that time work on the Bamiao grottos was resumed.
The easily surveyed layout of Bamiao consists of 139 individual grottos and niches with over 1,600 Buddhist statues in all shapes and sizes. What is remarkable is that with most of those figures the original colors can be made out after 1,200 years. The main attraction of Bamiao is the gigantic lying Buddha.
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Day 1: ARRIVAL IN CHENGDU, CAPITAL OF SICHUAN PROVINCE
Arrival in Chengdu. You are picked up and transferred to your hotel.
Day 2: SICHUAN TRAVEL: CHENGDU CITY TOUR
In the morning you first visit the giant panda reserve which is a little outside of Chengdu. In the morning the panda bears are particularly active, and you have the chance to observe them having their bamboo breakfast.
Trip to Baoguang monastery, which is in a northern part of Chengdu. The origins of the monastery go back to the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220). During the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), when Buddhism was starting to spread in China, the Baoguang monastery gained in importance and became a Buddhist center in the region.
Travel back to Chengdu.
After that you go for a walk through the picturesque Kuangxiangzi Street, a small and ancient street with many handicraft and souvenir shops that were restored in 2008.
Day 3: TRAVEL FROM CHENGDU TO LESHAN GIANT BUDDHA AND ON TO EMEI SHAN (EMEI MOUNTAIN)
Trip to the Giant Buddha of Leshan. At 71 meters high this colossal and impressive statue of Buddha is regarded as the world’s biggest Buddhist sculpture.
For over 90 years this construction was chiseled out of a rock wall in the 8th century!
You visit Dafo Park, from which the incredible dimensions of Dafo – that’s the Chinese name -- can be seen in their impressiveness. After lunch you take a short boat trip on Min River. From the ship you have the best view of the whole Buddha.
Following that is a further trip to Baoguo, the starting point for Mount Emei.
Overnight stay in Baoguo.
Day 4: TRAVEL TO EMEI MOUNTAIN, SICHUAN PROVINCE
Since the time of the “Middle Kingdom” in the 6th century Mount Emei is regarded as one of the four most important Buddhist mountains in China. Mount Emei, popularly described as “the mountain of the great light” (Da Guang Ming Shan), was placed on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites in 1996.
You travel by park bus to Leidongping. From there a short, simple walk takes you to Jieyindian, from where you go on the modern cable car to the peak of Mount Emei (Jinding). You visit the Huazang Temple on the peak.
After that you can either walk or take the cable car down to the bus station at Wannien. From there you go by cable car up to the well known Wannien Temple. After that you hike in about 2 hours through marvelous pine forests down to the bus station at Wuxianggang. From there the park bus takes you back to the park entrance. Overnight accommodation at Baoguo.
Day 5: SICHUAN TRAVEL FROM MOUNT EMEI TO ZIGONG SALT WELLS
Drive to Zigong. En route you make a break in Xianshi. The village of Xianshi is situated on the bank of Fuxi River and has a history of salt mining going back about 1,400 years. During the Qing Dynasty the idyllic village was an important trading post and harbor town, where the mined salt was weighed, cleaned, traded, and finally loaded onto ships. Walking tour around the idyllic village. Continue to Zigong.
The city of Zigong is situated in the far south of Sichuan province, in the Sichuan basin only just 305 meters above sea level. Especially during the Ming and Qing dynasties Zigong, because of its underground salt deposits, grew into an important and rich trading town.
You visit the Shenhai “salt well”, where salt is mined till today by an old method used 100 years ago. In 1835 the salt well of Shenhai was the first ever shaft to reach the considerable depth of more than 1000 meters, which was an extraordinary achievement at that time. You visit the museum on the history of salt mining in Zigong. Overnight accommodation is at Zigong.
Day 6: ZIGONG – ANYUE – SHIYANG PILU CAVES
Travel through the beautiful landscape of Sichuan Province to Anyue and further on to the Pilu caves near Shiyang. The wonderful grottos of Pilu originate mainly from the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), during the heyday of Buddhism in the region.
Very impressive is the grotto with the shrine of Liu Benzun (852-907) which is worked out in great detail and gives a good insight into life during the late Tang dynasty.
Liu Benzun is regarded as the first “patriarch of esoteric Buddhism”. Legend has it that Liu Benzun lived an ascetic lifestyle and did penance by maiming himself.
You make an extended round tour of the grottos before starting the trip to Anyue. Overnight stay in Anyue.
Day 7: TRAVEL FROM ANYUE TO BAMIAO GROTTOS AND BACK TO CHENGDU, SICHUAN
Travel north to Bamiao. Those unique Buddhist stone sculptures originated between the 9th and 11th centuries during the later Tang and the Song dynasty.
This magical place consists of 139 grottos which together contain over 1,600 Buddhist statues. The core piece is the 23 meter long lying Buddha. The 1,200 year old Buddha, who looks quite contented, is the biggest Buddha lying on its left side in all of China.
Return trip to Chengdu.