As ancient Chinese legend would have it, here in the Sichuan region of Southwest China there was a fierce dragon lurking in the Minjian River, a 735-kilometer-long tributary of the famed Yangtze River that we were visiting from nearby Chengdu.
After a complicated journey involving a luxuriously sterile bullet train ride, followed by a slightly bewildering bus trip, we finally arrived – well, that is to say, we were either at Mount Qingcheng or the Dujiangyan irrigation system. Both historical sites are in a similar area surrounding the Minjian river, and our local bus gave little indication as to which stop I had arrived at.
We were later to discover that it was the Dujiangyan irrigation system that we had reached.
The expansive waterway of Minjian bisects the modern from the ancient – on one side, the city of Dujiangyan. On the other, the Guanxian ancient city. Laid down as far as the eye can see is a visual feast of flowers, trees, and monasteries. Pagodas teetered on the cliff faces and each turn reveals a manicured Chinese garden, robed monks lighting joss sticks with craned legs practicing tai chi.
One of the great technological achievements of ancient China, Dujiangyan has prevented yearly flooding and served for almost two and a half thousand years of irrigation. Implemented first in 200 B.C, the irrigation system still provides a major source of water for many fields and farmers in China.
This impending mythical crisis was unfurling at the time Governor Li Bing began construction on the Dujiang Weir. The man and the dragon were at odds, fighting over the river construction. The governor was displeased. Not to be outdone by the bellowing, ferocious dragon, he arranged for an opulent feast – an excuse to meet and negotiate with the fearsome beast.
Yet, the dragon, as dragons have a tendency to, did not arrive on time – sending him into a furious rage. He became so angry that he transformed into a rhinoceros and plunged into the river to battle. They fought tirelessly in the foaming waters, neither losing ground. Eventually, Li Bing returned to the platform and tied a ribbon around his waist before returning to his opponent. He instructed his soldiers to shoot arrows only at the dragon, telling them he would be identified by his ribbon.
They succeeded in the end, shooting and killing the dragon in the river Minjian, giving a name to the Fulong Temple, meaning subdued dragon in Chinese. And here we stood, on the Douxi Platform overlooking the magnificent Dujiangyan irrigation systems and down the hill slopes, decorated with ornate pagodas and cherry blossom trees right to the Minjian’s edge. It was hard to imagine being anywhere other than an ancient land steeped in a rich mythological heritage.
Wind chimes tinkered in the distance and the courtyards and hillside walkways ambled through ancient temples and the perfect setting for an ancient kung fu story. Visiting Dujiangyan waterways is less a tourist escape and more a practice in time travel.
These areas are home to the Panda Village in Pixar’s Kung Fu Panda 3, and if you travel across to the nearby Mount Qingcheng you can visit the precise temple it was modeled upon.
After many hours meandering and exploring, taking in the breathless beauty of a truly ancient place, we found ourselves back at ground level in the Guanxian ancient city on the banks of Minjian. Built around a 340m long street which begins at the Songmao Ancient Path, this town has been an important regional jade market for more than 3,000 years. The ancient Shu people unearthed Xiu Jade from the Minjian river to be turned into sacrifices for their gods. Guanxian Jade is popular across the world, and during the ancient cities more prosperous period, it was home to dozens of different jade shops. Now it has been done up to capitalize mostly from tourism, however, they’ve done so in a way that still maintains the traditional feel and authenticity of the area.
After a thoroughly enjoyable day spent negotiating local Sichuan buses, exploring vast hillsides of ancient history and devouring candied fruits in the town below, we made our way back to Chengdu to spend our final days exploring the Sichuan capital.
We eventually left Chengdu by an overnight train bound for Xi’an around noon, arriving at the central train station early with time to spare. The station entrance is located in a large square populated by touts & hawkers, bordered by convenience stores and low-grade restaurants. We choose a restaurant at random, but the C food grade rating complete with red, sad face should’ve been enough of a warning to try elsewhere. The owner took only one order from both of us, then returned with two of that, leaving me no chance to order. I sent my dish back, and once again was not able to order. The food quality was bad and in the end, we paid our bill and left. I didn’t want to try my luck twice so immediately headed to one of the many convenience stores to pick up snacks – prunes, ramen, and snickers to eat along the way.
The curious thing about train stations in China is the sheer length and number of queues you must stand in. The first, on this occasions, was the longest and we waited to enter the x-ray + pat down area. Once inside, we were to find which waiting area our train left from – an area full of seats, although none free and bordered by restaurants, McDonald’s, and yet more convenience stores. Soon it was time to board, and we were to stand in another long, snaking queue along with the rest of the passengers for our 19-carriage long train.
We were hard sleeper class, the cheapest sleeper carriage with 3-high bunks in 6-bed open berths. Much more comfortable than the Indian equivalent, and not sold full of people either. We were on the bottom berth, with excellent large windows and a small table between us. The countryside was beautiful – many yellow flowers, hills, valleys and mountains, some cherry & peach blossoms passed our views. We got to see many small towns with great scenery and questionable Chinese architecture, tons of factories, massive overpasses, log mills and many abandoned buildings. It was a very relaxing journey and we enjoyed wonderful views and a comfortable ride on to our next destination of Xi’an.