The ancient Shu road to Chengdu

Posted on 2019-12-10

The "Roads to Shu" are a system of mountain roads linking the Chinese provinces of Sichuan (Shu) and Shaanxi (Wei), built and maintained since the 4th century BC. The roads were famously hard, best described by the great eighth century Chinese poet Li Bai, who wrote in his poem <Hard Roads to Shu>: "Ah! it's fearsome -- oh! it's high! The Road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing to the sky". We followed one of the main Shu roads between Hanzhong and Chengdu, called the Jinniu Road (金牛古道), translated as the "Golden Ox Road". Today, the road is definitely easier than in ancient times, especially if you take the expressway that flies straight through the valley on elevated roads and in tunnels. For us on the G108, it was still several long days with plenty of climb.

Steep gorge on the way up to Wuding Pass (五丁关) between Mianxian and Ningqiang

Steep gorge on the way up to Wuding Pass (五丁关) between Mianxian and Ningqiang

The expressway flying across the landscape between Ningqiang and Guangyuan

The expressway flying across the landscape between Ningqiang and Guangyuan

On the way from Mianxian to Jianmenguan, we passed by all sorts of interesting AAAA attractions, both natural (caves and gorges) as well as cultural (temples and grottoes), a reflection of the difficult terrain and historical importance of the road. We skipped all these sights though, as they were not too different from what we had seen before or planned to see later, so we didn't want to expend the time and budget on them. We also encountered several major road works (upgrading, rerouting, etc.) that were not yet on our maps, causing unexpected detours and delays. As we got closer to Guangyuan, the road gradually became busier, so we were pleasantly surprised and grateful to find a bicycle path starting near Chaotian that ran all the way into Guangyuan city, more than 20km away.

Along the Chaotian Jialing Greenway, that runs mostly below the expressway along the Jialing River from Chaotian to Guangyuan

Along the Chaotian Jialing Greenway, that runs mostly below the expressway along the Jialing River from Chaotian to Guangyuan

From Guangyuan, we continued along the G108 until Jiange, after which we turned off the main road onto a smaller road through a beautiful valley leading up to Jianmenguan. Jianmenguan is probably the most iconic spot along the Jinniu Road: a pass through a narrow gorge that played an important role both in legends and in factual history. During the Three Kingdoms period, when the Han dynasty fell apart into three rivalling kingdoms, Jianmenguan was on the border between the Wei state in the north and the Shu state in the south, and was the site of various famous historical battles. Due to the narrow river gorge, passable only via plank roads precariously attached to the cliff faces, and with a gate tower built in the middle, it was said that one single man could defend the pass against an army of 10,000. The original plank roads were destroyed when modern roads were built across the pass, so all we can see today are a replica of the gate tower, and relatively new plank roads built for touristic purposes on the massive cliff face that dominates the area. Nevertheless, it was really interesting to learn about the history here and walk on a variety of plank roads through the impressive landscape. We tried to see as much as possible and walked around the massive site for about 7-8 hours until we were extremely tired.

Jianmenguan pavilion, in the middle of the pass, with steep cliffs rising up on both sides

Jianmenguan pavilion, in the middle of the pass, with steep cliffs rising up on both sides

In the Yixiantian (一线天) Gap in the Jianmenguan Scenic Area

In the Yixiantian (一线天) Gap in the Jianmenguan Scenic Area

Walking along the Xiannu Bridge, actually a narrow walkway near the top of the steep cliff, in the Jianmenguan Scenic Area

Walking along the Xiannu Bridge, actually a narrow walkway near the top of the steep cliff, in the Jianmenguan Scenic Area

Gallery roads of the Tiantixia Path in the Jianmenguan Scenic Area

Gallery roads of the Tiantixia Path in the Jianmenguan Scenic Area

From Jianmenguan, it was another two days through the mountains to the next major city, Mianyang, so we stayed overnight in a small town guesthouse about halfway there. The guesthouse had apparently never hosted foreigners before, and when they started to fill in the online registration form with our details... we don't know what happened, but the phone rang and we had to go to the local police station. The lone officer there didn't know what to do with us and called for reinforcements, who arrived shortly after with flashing lights, but none of them had ever registered a foreigner before either. They sent photos of our passports around on WeChat asking for help, and finally found a handbook with the procedure (complete with screenshots) somewhere. Handbook in hand, one officer then accompanied us back to the hotel, and finally succeeded to fill in the form there, after a long time. That said, we cause registration chaos in many other hotels too, just that most hotel staff manage to eventually figure it out themselves (with a few phone calls or extra people) without us being dragged to the police. That said though, we have seen the form and it's really not so complicated...

Forest landscape on the way down from Jianmenguan

Forest landscape on the way down from Jianmenguan

The next day, after one of our most intense days of cycling (99km and lots of climb), we finally reached the city of Mianyang, where we had a Warmshowers host (quite possibly our only one in China) waiting for us with new tyres that we had ordered online and shipped to her in advance. Our tyres were quite worn out after more than 16,000km of cycling, so we took advantage of Taobao's 11.11 Shopping Festival to buy some new ones. We stayed in Mianyang for two full days to clean and maintain our bicycles, get haircuts, sort our photos, etc. We also tried to refresh our typhoid vaccination there, but later found out that this vaccine is just not available in China, even though typhoid is endemic in the country.

With Linlin, our Warmshowers host in Mianyang

With Linlin, our Warmshowers host in Mianyang

From Mianyang on, we entered the Sichuan basin, a lowland and relatively flat area surrounded by mountains on all sides. With much higher population density than the areas we had been through before, it was a long and busy road to the north of Chengdu, where we stayed in a hotel right next to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. This is where the Giant Panda and its very distant relative, the Red Panda, are bred, and can be visited by tourists like in a zoo. Both species have become very rare in the wild, and are considered vulnerable and endangered respectively. We read that the Giant Pandas become very lazy after around 11am and spend most of the afternoon sleeping, so we went early and spent most of our time watching them indulge in their bamboo breakfast. Through a lot of research and experience, the breeding centre manages to produce a few new panda cubs every year, and they are just too cute!

Panda eating at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Panda eating at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Baby panda being too cute at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Baby panda being too cute at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Red pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Red pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

After visiting the pandas, we moved to the south of Chengdu, where we couchsurfed in "Friends House", a small English school run by a local couple who also host weekly English meetups, one of which we joined. It was cool to suddenly meet so many locals who spoke good English, a rare experience in China. We also cycled around the city, which, with bike lanes everywhere and many cyclists on the road, is said to be very bicycle friendly. However, with motorbikes sharing the lanes and no-rules driving everywhere, we found the busy city traffic to be way too stressful nonetheless.

Hotpot in Chengdu - too hot to handle!

Hotpot in Chengdu - too hot to handle!

Kuanzhai Alley (宽窄巷子), or "Wide and Narrow Alley", three parallel lanes in Chengdu dating from the Qing dynasty with buildings reconstructed in old style. Full of teahouses, snack shops, and Sichuan opera places, the area is popular with locals and tourists alike and was packed like sardines when we visited on a Saturday!

Kuanzhai Alley (宽窄巷子), or "Wide and Narrow Alley", three parallel lanes in Chengdu dating from the Qing dynasty with buildings reconstructed in old style. Full of teahouses, snack shops, and Sichuan opera places, the area is popular with locals and tourists alike and was packed like sardines when we visited on a Saturday!

Getting one's ears cleaned on Kuanzhai Alley (宽窄巷子), or "Wide and Narrow Alley", three parallel lanes in Chengdu dating from the Qing dynasty with buildings reconstructed in old style

Getting one's ears cleaned on Kuanzhai Alley (宽窄巷子), or "Wide and Narrow Alley", three parallel lanes in Chengdu dating from the Qing dynasty with buildings reconstructed in old style

After a rainy day spent indoors, mostly updating this blog again, we took a high-speed train to Leshan for a day trip to see the largest stone Buddha statue in the world. Carved into the cliff at the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers, the Buddha was originally built (between 713 and 803 AD) to help calm the turbulent waters here that plagued shipping vessels as they travelled down the river. Apparently, the treacherous currents did subside after the Buddha was built, although this may be because so much stone was removed from the cliff and deposited into the river during construction that it actually altered the currents. At a height of 71m, the Buddha is an impressive sight, and by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

Leshan Giant Buddha, carved into the cliff face at the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers, across from the city of Leshan. The statue, depicting a seated Maitreya Buddha, was built between AD 713 and AD 803, during the Tang Dynasty. At 71m tall, it is the largest stone Buddha statue in the world.

Leshan Giant Buddha, carved into the cliff face at the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers, across from the city of Leshan. The statue, depicting a seated Maitreya Buddha, was built between AD 713 and AD 803, during the Tang Dynasty. At 71m tall, it is the largest stone Buddha statue in the world.

Back in Chengdu, we loaded our bicycles onto a bus to Luzhou, at the southeastern edge of the Sichuan basin, as we preferred not to spend our limited visa days cycling through this dense and busy area.

Our bus to Luzhou, a sign of things to come...

Our bus to Luzhou, a sign of things to come...