Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Southwest China
‘Erhai’ (Lake Er) is a 97-square-mile (250-square-kilometer) lake sandwiched between the town of Dali and the Cangshan Mountains in China’s Yunnan Province. Erhai is one of the seven biggest freshwater lakes in all of China and the second largest highland lake after Dianchi.
The local Bai people — one of China’s 56 recognized ethnic minority groups — have long used the waters of the lake for fishing using a rather unusual method. Fisherman train cormorants to catch fish (mostly carp) and return them to the fishing boat. Parks along the banks of the lake offer hiking and cycling opportunities, but most visitors choose to explore the lake by boat. These tours allow visitors to see cormorant fishing in action as well as visit some of the lake’s many islands and temples.
Since 2005 this impressive museum, formally known as the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum, has been providing both locals and visitors unprecedented access to scientific research, history, cultural heritage and educational resources related to the Three Gorges region near the Yangtze River. Well-curated exhibits showcase traditional arts like painting, calligraphy and porcelain. Ancient coins and sculpture from the Han Dynasty, as well as traditional costumes and artifacts from southwest China are also proudly displayed. The multi-level museum offers visitors historical context of the region with exhibits that tell the story of World War II, the war against Japan and the plight of more than 1 million people forced out of their homes for the construction of a new dam. Visitors who seek a deeper understanding of the culture, geography and history of Chongqing will find the Three Gorges Museum extraordinary.
China’s Dujiangyan Panda Base focuses on rehabilitation, disease prevention, and public education for the conservation of the endangered giant panda, one of the rarest species in the world. Tour the panda hospital, enclosures, and educational center for the opportunity to spot dozens of pandas munching on bamboo and playing.
At 10,167 feet (3,099 meters), Mt. Emei is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes over 70 temples, monasteries, and attractions, culminating in the Golden Summit, where visitors can take in the giant Puxian Buddha and stunning mountain views.
Originally built in 256 BC, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System is the world’s oldest non-dam irrigation facility. A marvel of engineering, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dujiangyan uses the natural topography of the region, as well as hydrological features of the river, to irrigate 1.65 million acres (668,700 hectares) of farmland.
Located inside Chengdu Cultural Park, Shufen Yayun Teahouse (Shufeng Yayun) has been hosting Sichuan Opera performances for over 100 years. It’s one of the city’s most popular venues for this art form, which involves an exciting mix of music, dancing, acrobatics, martial arts, hand shadows, puppet play, comedic theater, sword play, and costume changes (face changing).
Stretching for 1,148 feet (350 meters), just east of Wuhou Temple, Jinli Ancient Street is one of the oldest shopping streets in Chengdu, dating back to the Three Kingdoms period. Restored in 2004, this historical lane paved with green flagstone still teems with shops, restaurants, and food stalls in traditional architecture.
Travelers don’t have to venture out into nature to get an up close look at one of China’s top wildlife attractions. That’s because since 1955 Chongqing Zoo has been showcasing the country’s most rare and most beloved animals—like giant pandas and the South China Tiger—to visitors. This destination is stationed along the Yangtze River and serves as a hub for both research and conservation. It’s home to some 230 species and more than 4,000 animals.
In addition to natural landscapes, protected areas and animal exhibitions, families will find an amusement park, outdoor stage, restaurant and even a dry skating rink. The Chongqing Zoo is the perfect place to spend an afternoon—or even an entire day—getting a unique look at nature without ever leaving the city.
Regarded as the birthplace of Taoism, and one of its most sacred mountains, Mt. Qingcheng (Qingcheng Shan) has a history dating back 2,000 years. Surrounded by peaks and lush forests, Mt. Qingcheng offers a peaceful escape from the big city of Chengdu, and there are plenty of temples, historical sites, and cultural relics for visitors to enjoy.
Dating back nearly 2,000 years, the Wuhou Memorial Temple (Temple of Marquis Wu) in a southern suburb of Chengdu is steeped in history and lore. The site is meant to honor Liu Bei, emperor of the Shu Kingdom, as well as his much revered military strategist Zhuge Liang (later Marquis Wu)—two immensely popular figures in Chinese history.
More Things to Do in Southwest China
At the foot of the Haba Snow Mountains, the White Water Terraces (Baishuitai) is an otherworldly landscape of crystallized limestone terraces. One of the most popular day trips from Shangri-La, the scenic White Water Terraces is also an important cultural site, as it's the birthplace of the Dongba culture of the Naxi minority group.
The former residence of General Joseph Stilwell was converted into a popular museum, the Stilwell Museum (Shidiwei Bowuguan) in 1991. Travelers can explore the three-story home of this one-time commander-in-chief of the American Army in the China Burma India Theater and learn about his life, conquests and death while wandering the 1940s-style halls. The museum offers visitors access to meeting rooms, bedrooms, and a basement where hundreds of artifacts are on display. A private courtyard with a large statue of Stilwell and an engraved message written by Franklin Delano Roosevelt that is translated into both English and Chinese, is a popular stop for visitors.
Travelers say in addition to a bit of history and a slice of Stilwell life, the museum grounds look out over some of the best views in the city. After touring the home and combing through the museum halls, be sure to look out at the spectacular landscapes.
One of the most picturesque towns in the vicinity of Dali, as well as one of the best places to see traditional Bai architecture, is the town of Xizhou. Formerly a military stronghold of the Nanzhou Kingdom, Xizhou began to flourish during the first half of the twentieth century when a group of over 100 wealthy nationalist families relocated there, calling themselves the Xizhou Chamber of Commerce.
While much of Dali’s traditional Bai architecture has been “updated” to suit the tastes of modern Chinese travelers, Xizhou remains relatively untouched — it’s home to the largest collection of Bai residential houses in China, over a hundred of which are considered registered cultural relics.
Most visitors come to Xizhou on a day trip from Dali, but those who choose to stay overnight can sleep in a Bai-style courtyard home, as several have been converted into guest houses.
Famous for its colorful azalea flowers, Cangshan Mountain rises over the city of Dali and the shores of Lake Erhai beyond. Visitors can either hike or take a cable car up the mountain, where a paved road leads down past various points of interest. From Zhonghe Temple at the top of the cable car, various hiking trails branch out into the surrounding forests toward smaller temples, pools, waterfalls and scenic areas.
Cangshan Mountain is also a famous producer of a variety of marble called Cangshan Stone, recognizable by the unique patterns in the smooth rock. Local artists carve the marble into animals, people or natural scenes — popular souvenirs available on the mountain or in shops in Dali Old Town.
Sandwiched between Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake sits one of China’s most spectacular ancient cities, Dali. Dating back to the late fourteenth century, Dali got its start as a gateway to the Silk Road from Southwest China. Today, Dali Old Town (Dali Ancient City) — navigable on foot — is ringed by a 25-foot (7.5-meter) stone wall with grand gates facing in each direction. Within those walls, traditional Bai ethnic minority architecture now house shops, cafes and guest houses.
Fuxing Road, the busiest street through Dali Old Town, links the South and North Gates and is a popular spot for buying souvenirs. The upper portion of Huguo Road, nicknamed ‘Foreigner Street,’ is lined with Chinese and Western restaurants, art galleries, antique shops and small boutiques.
Standing 233 feet (71 meters) tall, the Leshan Giant Buddha(Da Fo), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, holds the record as the largest Buddha sculpture in the world. A Buddhist monk—hoping to earn divine protection for the local fishermen—carved the massive statue into a cliff, starting in 713. Ninety years later, the carving was finished.
Located in central Chengdu, Renmin Park (People’s Park) offers a glimpse into the day-to-day life of local residents who come here to relax, exercise, play games like mah-jongg or chess, sing and dance, or find love matches for their loved ones. It’s a great place to slow down, have a cup of tea, and experience life as the locals do.
Located in Chengdu’s Qingyang district, the three parallel alleys of Kuan Zhai Alley (Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi) offer a lively mix of old and new, with renovated and restored buildings that date from the Qing dynasty. A popular shopping, dining, entertainment, and tourist destination, it’s also one of the city’s three historic conservation districts.
Brilliant turquoise pools, quiet rivers, cascading waterfalls and mystical yellow rocks are just part of what makes Huanglong National Park (Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area), a UNESO World Heritage site, worth a visit.
Travelers love wandering the scenic passes that wind through incredible blue waters and the popular cable car offers impressive views of the landscape down below. Easy walking trails stretch over calcified rock and loop through dense forest, offering an up-close look at this unique
and fragile ecosystem. Visitors warn that while the climb is easy, the air is thinner, so be prepared for a shift in altitude—and perhaps a little light-headedness that follows.
Mengding Mountain (Mengding Shan) is considered the birthplace of the world’s tea culture and home to some of the oldest plantations. Visitors to this verdant and historic locale can tour a tea plantation, soak up spectacular views, and purchase tea close to the source.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is considered a Chinese national treasure. Opened in 1987 to care for rescued wild pandas, the 165-acre (67-hectare), open-air sanctuary is now one of southern China’s most popular destinations due to its focus on breeding, conservation, and introducing new pandas into wild populations.
Located north of Sichuan Province, Jiuzhai Valley, also known as Jiuzhaigou Valley, is one of China’s most spectacular nature reserves and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spanning 278 square miles (720 square kilometers), the valley is famed for its colorful lakes, cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, diverse wildlife, and Tibetan culture.
Located at Chengdu’s Jinsha archaeological site, the Jinsha Site Museum offers insight into the mysterious Bronze Age Shu civilization. See the actual excavation site and the treasure trove of relics and artifacts that have been unearthed to date, including bronze, gold, ivory, jade, stone, pottery, and lacquerware.
Once an important caravan town on the Tea Horse Road between Yunnan and Tibet, Shaxi Ancient Town (Shaxizhen) ranks among the most beautiful village squares in China and offers a rare glimpse at what one of these ancient trading hubs might have looked like in its heyday. Many of the wooden facades surrounding the Sideng Village’s old trading market and caravansary have been painstakingly restored. And while Tibetan horses are no longer being traded for Chinese tea, visitors will find old-style cafes, traditional restaurants, shops and a few locals selling horse rides for a small fee.
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