Qingcheng Hou Shan gorges walk, near Chengdu, Sichuan, China
- Where and what is Qingcheng Hou Shan?
- Getting there
- Finding somewhere to stay, and to eat
- Setting out on the walk
- The path up the gorge to Jade Green Lake
- An "ancient village"
- Many statues and steps on the way to White Cloud Temple
- An hour at the Temple
- A slippery route down
- Back to the village - and away
Qingcheng Hou Shan and Qingcheng Shan are two neighbouring wooded hills with strong religious associations, about 80 km (50 miles) west of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. We had chosen to climb these in preference to the better know sacred mountain of Emei Shan south-west of Chengdu, which sounded like it had become just too much of a tourist trap. This part of China is also famous for the wildlife reserve which is the last refuge of the giant panda, and for a landscape feature known as the Stone Forest. The Leshan Great Buddha, which we visited afterwards, was just a couple of hours' bus ride to the south, and Chengdu itself is an atrractive city, so there would be plenty to justify a longer stay in the area.
Qingcheng Hou Shan has been developed more recently than Qingcheng Shan, to spread the benefits of tourism, and this was evident from the major investment in rebuilding the footpath network with concrete fashioned to look like timber. There are two cable car lines and villages with guest houses and restaurants along the way, opening up the mountain to large numbers of visitors.
Nevertheless, it doesn't seem overcrowded - I remember many years ago learning that forests are ideal for absorbing large numbers of people and still seeming unspoiled. If they cover steep hillsides and gorges, they can also make for an interesting walk despite poor visibility, when a walk on an open hillside might be uninspiring. We did pass quite a number of other walkers, most of whom appeared to be Chinese, but even so the tourist facilities were all very quiet.
We had flown to Chengdu from Kunming, and caught a taxi from the airport into the city - which was warm but hazy like Beijing had been. Both these provincial capitals are also big - with populations of 11.3 and 3.8 millions respectively!
We left our backpacks with Catriona's friend Ally, another English teacher whom she had met on a trip to south China a few months earlier. It was then a matter of catching a city bus out to a large bus station (Ximen) on the outskirts, getting a more comfortable coach out to the town of Dujiangyan and then a large minibus to Qincheng Hou Shan.
It seemed a long time before we escaped from the built-up area, and the minibus drove through Qingcheng Shan and miles of roads winding around wooded hillsides before reaching Q Hou Shan (meaning "back mountain"). We had to pay 20 yuan (£1.40) admission at the entrance to the area of the mountain, before being driven the last winding section to a tourist village across a river from the cable car station.
It was about 6 p.m. on an overcast evening, and we had nowhere to stay. A woman from the bus offered to help us find somewhere, and took us up a street of timber buildings - shops, guest houses and restaurants - that had clearly all been built as part of one grand design a few years previously.
To cut a long story short, we finally decided on a guest house towards the far end of the street, after the proprietor of the first one that the woman took us to had been following us from one place to the next. The one we chose had a big triple bedroom with a shower and WC plus the usual TV set, and a balcony overlooking the village street, and cost 100 yuan (£6.50) for the night.
We had agreed to go back to eat at the first guest house, and went there via the parallel street which had more shops and fewer places to stay - but still looked pretty much the same style. None of the businesses had many customers - it seemed like an enormous overprovision of tourist facilities for the number of visitors. The owner was therefore delighted to see us, and very attentive (hilariously so, in fact). He probably expected a big meal order from us, but we had learnt by now not to order too much.
We had a good meal for 40 yuan between us, including 3 beers which would have been better chilled! Oddly in China it's usually necessary to ask for chilled beer, as it's normally served at room temperature otherwise, and this guy didn't have any in the fridge. He took the warm beer away then brought it back after 5 minutes, without any noticeable reduction in temperature.
By the time we'd had our meal a couple of the other tables were occupied, so the owner was looking a bit more relaxed. For the first and only time on the trip, we felt a coolness in the air, up here in the damp mountains. Catriona pointed out that it was several hundred miles north of where we had stayed in sub-tropical Yunan.
We had an amusing walk back to our guest house via a whole series of shops which were trying to sell almost exactly the same range of household items, cold drinks, snacks and miscellaneous souvenirs. However it was very difficult to find one that stocked either tablets for an electric mosquito repellent, or bars of good quality chocolate meeting Catriona's requirements. She found out what the Chinese word was for mosquito repellent, and eventually got some in just about the last shop, but there was no joy with the chocolate.
After a comfortable - much cooler - night's sleep, I spent a bit of time on the balcony looking down on the village activity below. A fruit and vegetable vendor parked his bike and cart close by and a number of women gradually gathered around to see what he had on offer. He had a set of hand-held scales to weigh the produce. One of the customers was a woman walking along in her pyjamas - apparently quite a common site in China. An old man from a café facing us came over to wash out a bowl in the stream channelled down the middle of the street.
It was a cool and cloudy morning, with a little mist drifting across the tree-clad slopes. We packed and settled up, then crossed the road to a shop for some water, isotonic drinks and snacks. It was 9.45. Over the bridge we went to a decorative square and gateway just to the left of the cableway station (for those wanting the easy way up). We had received a map of the footpaths on our tickets, and there were plenty of waymarkers along the route, especially at junctions.
The path into the gorge went through the gateway and immediately we were in a steep-sided heavily wooded valley, climbing up concrete steps. We saw the first of a series of notices showing where we were on the network of paths - together with the unmistakable appearance of the path itself, there wasn't too much risk of getting lost.
Other notices explained the appearance and mythology surrounding the various features along the way, in fantastic prose. Apparently this was Feiquan Gully:
"With the ancient name of Lengling Gully, Feiquan Gully is 10 km long. The cliff is precipitous and the river water is torrential. The water of waterfall looks like pearl. The wood on peaks along the gully is flourish and with rich wild birds and flowers. In addition, there are bridges, pavilions and footways in various styles....."
Read more on the separate page where these are all transcribed from photos taken along the way.
It was a long climb up the gorge, up hundreds of steps, often along paths raised above the stream bed on piles. Concrete beams and protective rails had been moulded and coloured to look like timber.- clearly it must have been a monumental undertaking, completed quite recently. The amount of labour involved must have been considerable - but of course, labour is relatively cheap in China (see the Qingcheng Shan story for more on this). In some places the remains of an earlier path and genuine wooden steps could be seen on the side of the gorge, and other sections used the original stone steps.
At various points there were timber shelters built beside, or across, the path. At one of them a group of workers were sitting playing cards - which by then had become a familiar scene from every place we had visited. We passed more walkers coming down, and joined another group admiring a series of fine waterfalls streaming down from the crags above, with a slender stone bridge spanning the narrow gorge above. The path squeezed through a short tunnel under a cluster of rocks, over and around them and up to the bridge.
Then we reached a "long bridge" which effectively ran down the middle of the stream, zig-zagging for a couple of hundred metres. At the end of it, we walked through a collection of guest houses and restaurant areas tucked into the gorge, with a few people cleaning up and carrying out repairs, but no sign of any customers.
We came to a junction with a path leading left to the stop for the cableway coming up from the valley. This path continued to rejoin the circular route, at a station for the upper cableway linking with a village higher up (see below). This meant if you didn't want to exert too much effort, you could use one or both cableways and just walk sections of the path. The network of paths was therefore like a giant figure of 8, with routes up two gorges linking at the top, the bottom, and halfway up.
We continued ahead, and quickly came to the landing stage at the foot of a long sinuous lake- "Jade Green Lake". There was a group of youths from Hong Kong waiting for the ferry, and we chatted to them. The little ferry arrived, driven along a submerged cable, and took us to the far end where a small Buddha statue was waiting to greet us.
From there, we continued along a path that climbed up the side of the gorge, which became a wider wooded valley. At several points earlier we had thought we were emerging from the depths of the gorge, only to find ourselves back there again. Now there were more people around, and we joined a loose procession which followed the path left around the head of the valley and up towards the sound of music. It turned out to be the "ancient village" of Bai Yun, where the upper cable car station was situated along with a large number of guest houses and cafes (again without customers). Like us, people just seemed to want to get on with the walk. It was 11.30, less than two hours after setting out.
After walking through the village a sign directed us onto a path up to the right, onto a wooded ridge, which was quite a contrast from the long hike up the gorge. We could see across the thickly wooded mountainside to the left and, up ahead on what seemed a very steep face, picked out the colourful shapes of temples buildings. This was our destination, the White Cloud Temple. It was a lot further than it looked on the little map on the back of our tickets!
First we had to drop down the ridge, to a temple-type building where we passed a group of Europeans - older men - walking with a Chinese guide. They were impressed to learn that we came from Scotland, without the help of a guide! Their guide had heard of one of the Dundee football teams, because they had recruited a famous Chinese player for a time, but he wrongly thought it was Dundee United! After recovering from this unlikely conversation, we had to take care climbing down stone steps here, then along the hillside and up again, but there were protective rails all the way.
At midday we reached the entrance gate to the Buddha Cave, and after paying a few yuan each we were able to admire the colourful statues positioned beside the steps, climbing up a long hollow cut out of the rock. These were in good condition and very impressive, in a variety of poses, all the more remarkable given the isolated location.
At the end of the procession of statues we meet a man with a big basket of green plums, and bargained with him for about half a kilo of them. We had reached another gateway, this time into what must have been the Buddha Cave proper. The sheer rock walls were decorated with hundreds of little statuettes of Buddhas, stretching high up above us, as we climbed up some slightly awkward wooden steps through and out of the top of the cave.
We passed through the gate into a courtyard, with rooms and little shops around the side and a few steps up ahead of us to the main temple building. A cheerful monk stood there welcoming visitors, and assistants sat at tables selling prayer items. Inside we could see large statues of Buddhas. However we were ready for something to eat, and Catriona found a catering area through to the right, with a kitchen where a little woman served us bowls of strange mountain vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and aubergine. The smiling monk came to see us and created a medal for Owen to commemorate his visit (for 10 yuan).
After we'd eaten as much as we could, Catriona went over to the front of the main building and was soon engaged in lively conversation and laughter with the monk and his assistants. Owen and I were ready for a drink of tea, and found one of the counters in the courtyard serving it in traditional teacups with lids and saucers. We were taught the correct technique to drink it without getting a mouthful of tealeaves or dropping the saucer!
We were also attracted by the red and gold ornaments hanging in the nearby shop, and I bought a couple to take home as presents. It was a good place to take something back from, and it seemed worth supporting the mountain economy! Rather strange as well, to contrast this kind of religious mountain hospitality with the sturdy refuges found on Alpine peaks, serving soup, wurst, gluwein and beer, and the unmanned bothies tucked away in the Scottish Highlands. Of course in Austria and Scotland the mountain peak is the main objective. Here in China, it seemed to be the temple itself.
After an hour at the temple we set off back down at around 1.20 p.m., carefully descending the two long flights of steps and the twisting wooden stairway through the Buddha Cave. From there we turned right, rejoining the circular route and heading down along another section of path following a hollow in the cliff. We were surprised to find another set of painted statues in even more unusual poses than the ones we'd passed on the way up. There were pandas, tigers, prisoners and devils as well as religious figures. Maybe each was illustrating a fable of some sort.
The path followed another ridge for a short section, before turning down to the right after a shelter. From there the path became very slippery, with a skin of dampness on top of the stone. We were picking our way down very carefully in our trail shoes, when a group of Chinese walkers came past in what appeared to be town shoes without any indication of difficulty. I still haven't worked out how they did it, when our shoes had no grip on the surface.
The next stretch of path offered what looked almost like a tropical panorama of dense forest, with several layers of vegetation. There were lots of wonderful large butterflies flitting around our heads and through the greenery. Underfoot, the concrete sections of the path had been marked with individual designs - birds, fish, abstract designs - rather than leaving it as a standard surface.
We came to a refreshment stop - a woman under a shelter, selling cold drinks - and had a welcome break. Then we reached the village where the upper cableway started from, and it was the same story of lots of guest houses and cafes with only a few customers and little groups of people playing cards. Then we were down into another gorge - Five Dragon Gorge. Like the one we had climbed a few hours earlier, this had its fair share of waterfalls and dramatic views, and a long "plank walk" to parallel the long bridge. It was almost symmetrical!
One of the bridges gave a particularly impressive view of waterfalls behind, and there were little shops nearby. A little further down, and we passed a gang of workers building a new timber gateway or shelter, and a couple of porters hurried by with large baskets of material on their backs. Later we passed modern western-style ladies and gents toilet cubicles - there had been a set on the way up as well..
There were plenty of other walkers on the way down, once again looking as if they were dressed to walk along a city street rather than down hundreds of steps through a steep gorge. A couple had taken the really easy option of travelling by sedan chair, carried by two porters. A woman beside the path was cooking kebabs on sticks, and we bought one each to keep us going.
Finally the slope levelled out, past a series of cascades, then followed a path along an avenue of conifers that might have seemed more at home in a landscaped garden. This led us to the gate at the mouth of the gorge, and a picturesque bridge over to the road. It was 4.00 p.m.
We still had about a kilometre to walk along the road, past some new tourist accommodation with coaches parked outside. Maybe that helped explain why the older timber guest houses were so quiet. Back in the village, we passed the Tai An Temple, but decided we'd had enough for one day and the priority was to get transport to our next overnight stop. A minibus arrived, but wasn't going our way. We were concerned we might be stuck there for another night, but managed to find one of the small minibuses that would take us towards Qingcheng Shan. The driver thought he recognised the photo of a guest house which Ally had given us - and sure enough, he dropped us pretty close. It took a bit more checking with passers-by, showing them the photo, before we found the guest house, but then we were warmly welcomed by the hostess and shown to rooms where we could rest and get cleaned up before dinner. Quite a day!
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