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Sichuan heats up

It's not just spicy food making this province hot -- it has a towering Buddha, scenic peaks and giant pandas too

Special to The Globe and Mail

CHENGDU, CHINA — With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and Expo 2010 in Shanghai, there's plenty to keep tourists flocking to the Middle Kingdom. But travellers shouldn't let these big-name events overshadow China's hottest emerging destination: Sichuan.

At the moment, the destination du jour is Sichuan's southern neighbour, Yunnan. It attracts more than its share of visitors with its excellent roads and luxury hotels, World Heritage Sites and fascinating "ethnic minority" cultures. But Sichuan, equidistant from Beijing and Shanghai, has all the same assets -- and more.

Fifteen years ago, I passed through Chengdu, Sichuan's capital, en route to Lhasa. Like most Chinese cities then, it was dirty, grey and ugly. My only lingering memory is my seedy hotel, where, in the lounge, Chinese businessmen were boogieing to an American song with a rather rude title.

Times change, but rarely at China's velocity. Across the land, cities are modernizing to embrace the expressways and towers that pass for progress in the West: The construction crane has become China's national bird. During a visit last spring, I found that Chengdu has turned from ugly duckling to urban swan, with an international airport, skyscrapers, luxury hotels, stylish condominium towers, swank restaurants and neon-lit streets. It's a work-in-progress, but its transformation has helped the entire province gain a higher profile among travellers. So, from pure scenic grandeur to delicious chili-infused cuisine, here are eight reasons, why Sichuan could steal the spotlight:

A Tibetan Banff

Jiuzhaigou isn't a household word even in China, but the scenic region in Sichuan's northeast rivals anything in the Canadian Rockies. Mount Minshan's peak, at 5,588 metres, looks like an Egyptian pyramid made of sugar. A World Heritage Site, it inspires surreal determination to preserve its pristine beauty: Even in the middle of nowhere, street sweepers treat the highways like national treasures. Kilometre after kilometre, you see no litter.

The resort town of Jaiuzhaigou, booming with the new wave of domestic tourism (flights to the region started only last year), already has 200 hotels. On a good day, 15,000 Chinese tourists pour into the park to ooh and aah at iridescent lakes, waterfalls, glacial rivers and towering snowcaps.

Sichuan is home to the second-largest Tibetan population in China. Tibetans own local hotels and operate the town's restaurants, so don't be surprised at yak milk, yak soup, shredded yak and smoked yak on menus. A Tibetan folkloric show proves memorable: With fantastically costumed warriors and dancers emerging from dry-ice clouds to storm the room with dancing and piercing vocals, this is a show that should take to the road.

Gorgeous gorge

Sinophiles lamenting the drowning of the famed Yangtze Gorges probably haven't spent a day travelling Sichuan's Min River as it flows 741 kilometres south to transform the Chengdu Plain into the "Pearl of the Yangtze." The journey is an exercise in awe, a tapestry of forested hills garlanded in mist, cliffs, drops and peaks disappearing into cloud. The scenic drive ends at Dujiangyan, where an ingenious dam has been managing the irrigation of 2.6 million square kilometres of land for more than 2,000 years.

Minority village

Anything but a homogeneous block, China's Asian multiculturalism encompasses 56 minorities of non-Han Asians who maintain distinct languages, lore, religions, cuisines and dress. Originally from western China and historic enemies of the Tibetans, the Qiang are animist, worshipping spirits and ancestors, to this day. Take a tour around their village, Tiao Ping.

A labyrinthine mud-and-brick maze designed to befuddle invaders, Tiao Ping goes back a thousand years. One cunning defence is a network of moveable panels that allows each house to connect to the next, transforming the whole village into a single fortress. A householder shows us his bedroom, where part of the floor slides away to reveal a tunnel. He points to narrow openings in the walls, for the raining of arrows on approaching enemies, as if a siege were expected any day now.

Big Buddha

Two hours from Chengdu by a highway flanked with rice paddies and tea plantations, we arrive at another World Heritage Site, the world's biggest stone Buddha at Leshan. The statue, 71 metres high and 28 metres wide -- not to mention the 1,051 stone curls on the Buddha's head -- was erected in the eighth century to ward off floods. Threads of tourists snake their way single-file down paths from the Buddha's head to feet, resembling an army of ants.

High notes

Teacups are provided at the Sichuan Opera in Chengdu. Servers pour jasmine tea from metre-long spouts. Peanuts are cracked and munched. Foot, shoulder and neck massages are administered to audience members throughout the performance (why hasn't the Canadian Opera Company thought of that?) The show is a kind of Chinese vaudeville, fabulously costumed, with production numbers that would do Vegas proud, slapstick comedy, fire-spouting dancers and puppets that move with grace and fluidity. Afterward, the talented performers linger to pose for photographs with the audience.

Secrets of Sangxingdui

The Terracotta Warriors of X'ian are the tip of the Middle Kingdom's archeological iceberg. Unearthed 40 kilometres west of Chengdu is the ancient civilization of the Shu, a mysterious people who emerged about 4,500 years ago and created a high civilization that vanished before the time of Christ. The museum showcases more than 1,000 Shu relics, including wine utensils, jade ornaments, jade daggers and sacrificial blades. A 2.63-metre-high tree ranks as the world's largest bronze.

Propagating pandas

The mountains of northwest Sichuan are home to 85 per cent of the world's giant panda population. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, eight kilometres from Chengdu, was launched in 1987. It houses an animal hospital, delivery room, nursery and natural habitat. Outreach programs rescue and treat ill and malnourished pandas from the wild.

Twenty giant pandas live on the base. One favourite "mom," Qing Qing, delivered 13 cubs from eight litters. A day with these characters is a Sichuan must. Also on site are about 60 red or "lesser" pandas.Hot cuisine

Canada's Sichuan restaurants are known for a cooking that pulses with chilis. What's less known is the province's startling variety of flavours, a layered complexity that renders it one of the most sophisticated cuisines in the China. The late premier Deng Xiaoping, a native son of Sichuan, never lost his love of it.

Dinner at Chengdu's Mishan Hotel kicks off with julienned chicken with chilis and sesame skillfully balancing flavours with a piquant, nutty aftertaste. Kung Pao chicken arrives with cashew nuts and more dried chilis. Shrimps are stripped from the head down and dunked into a bath of chilis, garlic and soy. Hot green peppers, grilled and blistering in stripes, are called "Tiger Skins." But not everything is hot. Amazingly fragrant -- almost peachy -- jasmine tea, deep-fried lima beans and wild mushroom broth are all local specialties. In Sichuan, if they cook it, travellers will come.

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

From Hong Kong, you can take a 2½-hour China Southwest Airlines (http://www.cswa.com) or Dragonair dragonair.com) flight to Chengdu.

MORE INFORMATION

China National Tourist Office: 480 University Ave., suite 806, Toronto; http://www.tourismchina-ca.com; (416) 599-6636.

Recommended guidebook: Lonely Planet's Southwest China by Bradley Mayhew and Thomas Huhti (Raincoast Books, $30.95).

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