China: Take the high road

Mount Emei.
Mount Emei.
  • From bustling cities to sacred mountains, Andy Welch explores the Chinese province of Sichuan.
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The cloud of smog that engulfs most of China is actually visible to astronauts orbiting the earth, which hardly makes it the most appealing destination in the world.

But instead of giving the entire country a wide berth, you simply need to modify your choice of location. Ignore the obvious choices of Shanghai and Beijing, and instead, look further south, and to places of high altitude, such as Emei.

Chengdu at night.

Chengdu at night.

The jewel in the region’s crown is undoubtedly Mount Emei. It’s the tallest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, located around an hour’s drive from the centre of Emei. Dozens of coaches travel up there each day. It’s around £8 return, and you’ll also need a ticket to enter the national park, which is about £17. The bus will only take you so far, however, so you’ll have to walk to Jinding – the top of the mountain – which takes about four hours up the stepped path, or you can walk for an hour and get a cable car up the rest of the way. It’s not too strenuous and when you reach the top, all your effort will be rewarded with some of the best views you’ll ever come across.

There are also two Buddhist temples, one of which dates back to the first century and was the first-ever built in China. A giant gold statue of Buddha himself stands 48m tall – symbolic of the 48 wishes of the Amitabha Buddha – weighs 660 tons and has faces in 10 directions; north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest, up and down.

Next on your itinerary should be Emei’s market. Traditional in every sense, Chinese delicacies, such as pickled chicken’s feet, yards and yards of intestines, pork bellies and all sorts of weird and wonderful herbs and spices line the market stalls, while buyers barter and haggle with the traders. Emei is a tourist hotspot, but a lot of that is internal tourism, meaning Brits will stand out and attract (friendly) stares from the locals. The market also has a live area, which you should probably only venture into if you have a strong stomach and don’t mind the sight of hundreds of eels being masterfully filleted in front of you.

There are a number of great places to eat around the market too. Lookout for the chicken noodle broth served in piping hot stone bowls, and the roadside barbecue joint we ate at one evening was one of the best meals you’ll ever have for just over a fiver. Here at the One Arm BBQ – so called because the owner has, well, you’ve guessed it – plates and plates of grilled meat and veg on skewers keep on coming, although the skewers of chickens’ paws leave a little to be desired. The asparagus and the new potatoes though, crispy and salty, are fantastic.

The nearest good hotel to all this is the Anantara Emei. Recently opened, it’s set in a sprawling compound, and features 90 rooms, 40 pavilions and 20 villas, varying wildly in price from about £140 a night to around £400.

The rooms are luxurious, some coming with their own Jacuzzi – and you can have cookery lessons from the talented chefs.

It’s likely you wouldn’t just go to Emei if you were visiting China, and it’s probable you’d get there via Chengdu. It’s about two-and-a-half hours away by road, although a new high-speed rail line is now open, which can also take you to all the way to Shanghai in 15 hours, via Wuhan and Chongqing.

Chengdu might have a bad human rights record and allegations of an oppressive authoritarian regime, but with a population of around 14 million, it feels like a modern, relaxed European city. Much of it is built around the two tree-lined rivers that run through it, while China’s economic boom is on display for all to see. Eating out and socializing are hugely popular, but shopping, particularly in high-end boutiques and expensive designers, is seemingly the number one pastime.

Food in Chengdu is excellent. This is Sichuan, after all, the capital of hot and spicy food in China. They will, of course, make concessions for British palettes and serve you a milder version of whatever you choose, but when in Rome, as they say...

The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base is a must-visit, as are the bustling food markets of Jinli Street and the beautiful nearby Wuhou Memorial Temple. But best of all is the People’s Park. Here, locals gather to put on mock fashion parades, take part in keep-fit dance classes, play Mahjong and, if they have single children over the age of 25, post notices to marry them off.

Figures suggest there are as many as 100 marriages a year due to this sort of analogue version of a dating website. And in a country where the over-25s can be referred to as ‘Christmas Cakes’ – because no one wants them after the 25th – the pressure is on to find a partner. With Sichuan women known as the most-beautiful in China, and the men of Chengdu priding themselves on how subservient they are to their wives, there’s lots of competition.

The region is unique; a mix of the ancient and the forward-thinking, blessed with some of the best food you’ll ever taste.

• British Airways (www.ba.com) offers flights to Chengdu from Heathrow five times a week, starting from £740 per person.

A double room at Shangri-La Hotel (0800 028 3337, www.shangri-la.com;) Chengdu starts from approx. £151 per night, based on two sharing on a room-only basis.

A deluxe lake view room at Anantara Emei Resort & Spa starts from approx. £141 per night, based on two sharing on a B&B basis.

Wendy Wu Tours (0844 875 2436, www.wendywutours.co.uk) offers a number of competitively priced group, private and tailor made packages to China, including Chengdu, Mount Emei and the surroundings.