Dujiangyan was always my favorite getaway when I lived in Chengdu. It was only 45 minutes away by bus (now less than 20 minutes with Sichuan style-cooking.
The town is most famous for the 2250 year-old Dujiangyan Irrigation System built by Li Bing, Shu Governor during the Qin Dynasty, and his son. The Dujiangyan dam deftly redirects the Min River as it roars through the Sichuan Basin, lending the people use of the mountain waters and earning Sichuan the moniker “Land of Abundance” among the Chinese.
For a sense of how important controlling China's waters have long been to its people, consider these lines written shortly after the completion of the project by a poet praising Li Bing's masterwork:
"Both rain and drought follow the will of the people, famine is unknown, time has never seen a lean year; all know it as Heaven on Earth."
The dam and the river form the heart of Sichuan’s famed abundance, and therefore the heart of Sichuanese civilization itself. It was also one of the few structures to survive the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake completely intact. I repeat: a 2000 year-old irrigation project which serves its purpose to this day was one of the only structures in Dujiangyan to survive the earthquake completely intact.
However, the mighty Min, although largely tamed by Li Bing two millennia ago, still does not appear willing to acknowledge its fetters as its white waters rush down from the Tibetan Plateau through Dujiangyan and much of the town’s life is built around it. And despite the efficacy of the ancient irrigation system, in 2010 torrential rains led to flash flooding in the Dujiangyan area even as locals were just beginning to really recover from the 2008 quake. Still, the region and its people are nothing if not resilient, and Dujiangyan remains a brilliant destination.
Every summer a beer festival is held along its banks and some of the best restaurants I have ever been to serve food with a view of the river. Several bridges built in the old styles still span the Min, including the An Lan Suspension Bridge, built in 1000 AD by Mao Yisheng. From the An Lan bridge, both water and earth are visible in all their splendor. If you find yourself in Chengdu with time for a day trip–or if you're looking for a great getaway where you can spend leisurely days unwinding–Dujiangyan is a must.
A Taoist Refuge
Just a few minutes' drive from Dujiangyan proper, the waters of the Min blend into the mountains of the plateau to create an environment both inspiring and soothing – an area that drew the attention of the sage Zhang Daoling. According to legend, Zhang developed Taoism here, in the Qing Cheng Mountains (Qing Cheng Shan), and then ascended to heaven as a Taoist immortal. Qing Cheng Shan then became the ancestral home for the Heavenly Master School of Taoism – among the ten great Taoist mountains, Qing Cheng is ranked five.
Qing Cheng Shan is divided into the front and back peaks, both easily accessible through the shaded gates of Jianfu Palace, built in the Tang Dynasty, or up the winding mountain road leading to the back gate and Tianshi Cave, built 1200 years ago during the Sui Dynasty.
Nong Jia Le – Sichuan-style B&Bs
The road up the mountain is lined with ancient spreading trees and cottages offering bed and breakfast in the traditional Sichuan nong jia le (农家乐 - literally, "country home happy") style – small rooms leading to a garden overlooking the peaks across the valley formed by the Black Dragon Stream, home-cooked duck, pork and chicken and a variety of different herbal liquors and teas made with local medicinal plants and tea bushes. The Black Dragon Stream meanders through the peaks toward the Min, forming pools and eddies along the way with worn footpaths leading up to nong jia le perched on the sides of the mountain range. During the summer months, thousands of Chengdunese visit the source of their abundance, the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project, and drink merrily with friends during the beer festival then retire to a B&B near the upper reaches of Qing Cheng Shan to bask in surroundings that captivated Taoist monks.
Both Dujiangyan and Qing Cheng Shan were placed on the UN World Heritage List in 2000 and are listed as Class AAAA tourism spots by the Chinese national Tourism Bureau. These distinctions helped ensure that the area would receive all the funds it would need to rebuild itself after the devastation of the quake. And the devastation was massive. Dujiangyan proper was hit hard – not a single building escaped unscathed and many thousands of people died that day.
When I went to Qing Chen Shan two days after the quake, virtually every standing structure was in shambles and out of the piles of plywood and metal, only random doorways still stood. Boulders were strewn about; valleys that once held a collection of B&Bs were now flatlands following massive landslides and the locals were living in tents.
In the two years since then, the local government in partnership with a consortium of city planners and construction firms has worked to rebuild the city center and the mountainside resorts. For many in the area, the destruction served as an opportunity to rebuild. Tourism officials told me that they would look to Lijiang, Yunnan Province for inspiration. Lijiang, too, was ravaged by an earthquake and managed to rebuild itself into one of China's most popular tourism destinations.
Dujiangyan has similar high hopes ... the potential is definitely there. Of course, popularity also means crowds and arguable loss of authenticity – so for travelers looking to catch this corner of Sichuan before the five-star hotels and massive group tours descend, now is the time. The recent floods have subsided, and the sources of Dujiangyan's beauty – its waters and mountains – remain.