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China's Wild West
Far beyond Beijing lies the rugged terrain, fiery flavors, and Buddhist villages of Sichuan province. By Jim Benning

Map: China
Map of China

Lured by images of the Great Wall and the Pearl TV Tower, first-time visitors to China often head straight for Beijing or Shanghai—then never venture farther than roped-off museums and sparkling KFCs. Many old China hands would say to skip the east altogether and make a beeline for Sichuan, a southwestern province that's steeped in culture and rugged beauty. Its historic capital, Chengdu, offers traditional teahouses, up-close panda viewing, and famously spicy cooking. From there, it's just a few hours by bus to the horse-trekking center of Songpan and the breathtaking cliffs and waterfalls of Jiuzhai Gou, a UNESCO World Heritage site that's China's answer to Yosemite. No trip to the west is complete without a now-or-never cruise down the Yangtze River through the soon to be submerged Three Gorges, the most iconic landscape in all of China.

WHAT TO DO
Fly from Beijing to Chengdu on Air China ($174; www.airchina.com.cn) and spend a day and a half exploring the city's incense shops and Buddhist temples. Don't miss the outdoor teahouse in Renmin Park, set amid sprawling gardens and home to masters of one of those hard-to-fathom Chinese disciplines—earwax removal. Before leaving Chengdu, visit the nearby Giant Panda Breeding Research Base ($10, including transport), where the rambunctious animals like to ogle visitors. The next day, take the early bus ($6) to Songpan, a rustic, predominantly Tibetan town where locals lead yaks down the main drag. Offers for horse treks abound; hold out and go with Happy Trails (+86 83 788 09118), which leads well-run three-day trips to the lakes and hot springs in the nearby Min Shan mountains ($29). Back in Songpan, take the three-hour bus ride ($3) to Jiuzhai Gou park. The 178,000-acre (72,034-hectare) reserve (admission: $31) is home to Tibetan villages, miles of trails, and the translucent blue waters of Five-Colored Lake. Score some good karma by making an offering at the Zaru Buddhist Temple, inside the park. Plan a layover in Chengdu between the bus ride from Jiuzhai Gou ($12) and the one to the city of Chongqing ($13), the departure point for a three-day cruise down the Yangtze River. Grab a good viewing spot at the bow as you pass through the Three Gorges, site of the yet to be completed 600-foot Three Gorges Dam, the largest in history. Disembark in Yichang and catch a China Southern flight back to Beijing ($157; www.cs-air.com).

LODGING AND FOOD
In Chengdu, the Traffic Hotel is centrally located ($29; +86 28 854 51017). Songpan offers a range of inexpensive hotels on its main street (Song Zhou Traffic Hotel is a good bet; $3). Camping is prohibited in Jiuzhai Gou. Before you arrive, use Sichuan China Travel Service (+86 28 866 55738), one of the best agencies in Chengdu, to arrange lodging nearby at the Min Shan Hotel ($6). The agency can also book your Yangtze cruise. Avoid the overly expensive first class and the cattle-car third; reserve a second-class berth in a shared cabin ($73). Sichuan (often spelled "Szechwan" at stateside restaurants) is the place to eat spicy; try a hot pot, a fiery blend of vegetables and meats that you cook at your table in a boiling pot of seasoned oil (dinner for two costs about $10).

Map courtesy of Steve Turner

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Graphic: 11 Days in China for Under $1,600 [an error occurred while processing this directive]

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August 2004



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