“The village behind here is a bit newer. My family is from the village way up there on the top of the mountain,” says Mr Zhu, a man of the Qiang ethnicity whose family owns the inn/homestay where we are hanging out. “The more affluent families lived higher up. There used to be over a 100 families in that village. It’s a 5 or 6 hour hike to the top, and there are bears and monkeys up there. Its been abandoned for some time now, but its beautiful. The view is amazing.”
The Ngawa (Aba) Qiang & Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which starts 150km North west of Chengdu is a magical, mountainous, and largely unexplored region. The severe mountains give way to highland plateaus then again to mountains as it rises West, toward the Himalayas and Tibet. The area has been inhabited for hundreds (if not thousands) of years by the Tibetan and Qiang peoples, and remained largely beyond the grasp of the Han Chinese for most of its existence.
The Qiang peoples have a population of around 200,000 though their territory was slowly confined over the last few hundred years due to conflicts with Tibetans in the region. The majority of that population resides in the counties of Lixian, Maoxian, Wenchuan and Beichuan, all of which lie between Chengdu and the predominantly Tibetan parts of Sichuan further to the west.
Lixian has become one of my favorite places to travel over the last year, and has given me countless adventures, and causes for exploration. It feels, quite literally, like a whole other world. And the best part is, its less than 3 hours from Chengdu.
After the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake the government invested heavily in new infrastructure in the region and promoting tourism. Now with the new highway, which is very much just a series of tunnels (some over 5km long) that bore through the mountains and bridges over the rivers, one can get to Wenchuan and the vast mountains of China’s wild west in a little over 2 hours.
From Wenchuan, the gateway to Aba Prefecture, most tourists head straight for the domestically-famous Jiuzhai Gou National Park. Others enter the region through Kangding in Ganzi Prefecture and go overland to Tibet. This leaves the Qiang homelands, a wonderfully beautiful and largely overlooked region open to be explored.
The stark and severe mountainous landscape and thin river valley, coupled with regioanl conflict meant that most Qiang villages were precariously perched on mountainsides or peaks. After the earthquake many (though not all) of these villages were somewhat destroyed and the Qiang peoples were moved down from the mountains to government built settlements in river valley – ‘for their own safety’. While these forced moves are often viewed negatively in the media, the settlements along with the highway improvements connected these towns and made life and trade more convenient. In fact moving down was something many local people were doing already to gain more access to the developing infrastructure and access to goods from different areas. Many of these new settlements in this area are quite quaint and people are generally happy to live in more convenient and connected communities.
What this means, however, is there are abandoned ancient villages built of stone and slate, resembling medieval castles dotting the mountain tops, and crumbling ruins overgrown with vines and moss along the hillsides and in the valleys. They sit there, reminders of their history to the Qiang peoples, and beacons of adventure and a world we don’t understand to those, like us, who arrive from the outside.
The region has many Nongjiale (countryside homes partially converted into rustic guesthouses and outfitted with a few rooms for visitors), such as the one owned by Mr. Zhu where we stayed. These inns are very basic but make traveling in the areas quite convenient. Most are around 100-150rmb per person an include 2-3 home cooked meals of locally grown vegetables and meats, as well as foraged mushrooms and wild greens from the hills. More touristy areas will have (slightly-more) proper guesthouses but you lose out on the homestay feel of the Nongjiale, and the interaction with their purveyors.
There are regular buses from from Chengdu to Wenchuan, from there minivans will head out to smaller towns in Lixian and Maoxian counties.
About the Author: Jordan Porter is founder and Chief Experience Officer at Chengdu Food Tours where he shares the splendors of Sichuan Cuisine with visitors and locals alike. He strives to continually learn about food and food sources and spends his time traveling in the countryside around Chengdu learning about foraging, cooking with fire and making ingredients.