Wenchuan (汶川) is a small town in Sichuan’s Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which straddles the confluence of the Min and Zagunao Rivers. Wenchuan county is one of only 4 counties that are the main location of China’s Qiang (羌) ethnic group – the others being Lixian, Maoxian and Beichuan.
Being on the main route from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou National Park, Wenchuan has until recently been a ‘passing through’ place where tourist groups stop off for meals or visit the traditional Qiang village of Taoping (桃坪) in neighbouring Lixian county. However, this whole Qiang area is gradually becoming a destination in its own right, being much more accessible from Chengdu for a week-end than places further up the Min Valley like Jiuzhaigou. The journey used to take 3-4 hours from Chengdu but with the new road it is only about 2 hours by bus between Wenchuan and Chengdu's Chadianzi bus station, from where the new subway goes right across the city. The Wenchuan region is less crowded than the more well-known destinations in Aba (Ngawa) Prefecture and has some good ‘off-the-beaten-track’ areas to explore.
The Qiang people have traditionally lived between the Tibetans to the north and west and the Han to the south and east and for centuries Wenchuan has been a place where ethnic groups overlap. The remains of defensive walls from the Three Kingdoms period (220-265 AD) and from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are still visible on the hills above the town. Further back in the mists of pre-history, legend has it that Yu the Great, one of China’s famous ancestors, was born in this area, and a large memorial has been built since the 2008 earthquake above the main Chengdu-Wenchuan road. Chapter 171 of the New Tang History (Xin Tang Shu 新唐书) mentions that Wenchuan's Longxi (龙溪) region received Qiang who had surrendered to the Han in the late 8th century AD. The striking watchtowers and fortress-like style of some of the local Qiang villages are a testimony to the need, historically, for defense and self-preservation.
Wenchuan is easily accessible by bus from Chengdu. Buses coming down from Jiuzhaigou/Songpan and from Hongyuan/Ma’erkang to Chengdu also stop in Wenchuan. All Chengdu buses depart from/arrive in Chadianzi bus station in the west of Chengdu. A new road, which bypasses Dujiangyan, has been completed since the May 2008 earthquake and on a good day the journey between Chengdu and Wenchuan is only about 2 hours by bus. The ticket price is about 50Y and there are several buses a day. There are also buses going between Wenchuan and the main bus station in Dujiangyan. With the flooding of the post-quake bus station in Qipangou (summer 2013), the buses now leave from the lower end of Wenchuan's main street, near its junction with the lower wide road bridge. The buses are lined up on the street and easily visible and the ticket office is just a small shop-front next to the buses. There are also large minivans taking passengers from Wenchuan to Maoxian and Lixian.
Unless you have your own vehicle, you will need to hire taxis or minivans for most local travel, although there are local walks directly out from Wenchuan. Taxis out to the tourist villages of Taoping and Luobozhai might be around 60Y. Minivans seating 6 can be hired for around the same price unless you find one with locals already heading to your destination, in which case the price should be about ¥15 per person. Some minivans generally tout for business around town, calling out their destination, while others wait near the main bus area. A recent and very useful addition is the public bus service between Wenchuan and Longxi valley. This costs 4Y and saves having to negotiate with minivan drivers. It drops passengers at the lower end of Longxi valley, either at the first village of Dongmenkou (东门口), a very relaxing tourist-friendly village, or further up at the administrative centre of Longxi which has an excellent small Qiang museum. This bus leaves from the part of town across the footbridge from Wenchuan's main street.
The Qiang villages and natural scenery are the biggest draws of the area. Although the 2008 earthquake did much damage it is now fine to visit the area and tourism has picked up again.
Luobozhai village (萝卜寨), which is a high village about 30 minutes by hired van or taxi on a turn off from the Songpan/Jiuzhaigou road going north from Wenchuan. It is in a marvellous location on a small plateau near the top of a mountain and has a stunning view of the main Min River valley. The original village was badly damaged in the earthquake but parts are being re-built and a new section of Luobozhai has been built above the old site.
Dongmenkou (东门口), at the entrance to Longxi valley, can be reached by public bus from Wenchuan for 4Y and takes about 20 minutes along a pleasant riverside road. It used to be just a regular village, almost invisible from the main road between Wenchuan and Lixian, but since the 2008 quake it has been opened up for tourism and is also used by locals as a place to relax and socialise. It's a pretty village with places to eat and stay and interesting enlarged photos of Qiang culture around the village. The bus will also drop passengers further up in the administrative centre of Longxi which is a fairly modern cluster of buildings but has a an interesting museum of Qiang culture. (Ask for the 'bówùguǎn' 博物馆.) This whole valley is an area of natural beauty and the Qiang language is still spoken here. Since the quake it has been chosen by Wenchuan county as 'The Valley of the Qiang people'. A 25 minute drive up the valley takes you to Baduo Zhai village and beyond this is extensive unspoilt countryside and a small mountain lake. The Rev Thomas Torrance, who established a small chapel in Dongmenkou in the 1930s, describes the people of this region in his 1920 paper "The Customs and Religion of the Qiang".
Taoping village (桃坪) is beyond Dongmenkou and in Lixian rather than Wenchuan county. It is roughly the same distance as Luobozhai but going north on the Ma'erkang/Hongyuan road and well worth a visit. It has 3 towers and is very fortress-like with an inner maze of winding alleyways and an underground water system which sustained them in times of siege. Many tourists come in tour groups which just stop for an hour, ‘do the villages’ and then move on. This means the countryside beyond the villages is often quiet and uncrowded, with locals just going about their daily work in the fields. New Qiang-style tourist accommodation has been built below the village (partly to avoid wear and tear of too many guests in the original buildings) fron where guests can go and wander at leisure around the old village.
Yanmen village and beauty spot is about 15 minutes by taxi/minivan from Wenchuan on the road north to Songpan/Jiuzhaigou. This has tea houses, good walks and places to picnic. There are now yellow public buses that do this route from Wenchuan too.
Qi Pan Gou This village, south of Wenchuan on the Chengdu road, has an unsurfaced road which follows a stream up to a nice walking area.
Qiangfeng Village. Further south and across a plank suspension bridge on the right of the main Chengdu road you can walk up to the Qiang village of Qiangfeng. There were plans to develop this as a tourist village but they never really took off so it is less touristy than Taoping, Dongmenkou and Luobozhai.
Buwa Village high up on the mountains with its three watchtowers is visible from the main street of Wenchuan. The road is good - quite steep and winding - and can be walked from Wenchuan. If you can make it to Buwa, it's worth going further up to the plateau area at the top. The mountains around look quite steep and barren so it's a contrast when the upper areas open out into fertile farmland.
Wenchuan is becoming a more tourist-orientated town. There are plenty of restaurants and shops, a large food market, and a pleasant small-town atmosphere. An attractive walking area with riverside seating has been created between the uppermost footbridge and the road bridge just slightly lower down. (There are three bridges: a footbridge, a road bridge in the middle of town, and a lower road bridge near the buses.)
There is a large red Qiang museum about 5 minutes walk from the bus area with earthquake photos and information on the first level and good Qiang cultural and historical displays on the two upper floors. A dancing area has been built by the river near the central road bridge where tourists can join locals doing Qiang and Tibetan dancing most evenings - very informal and great fun. Wenchuan is a comfortable town just to wander around and is also a good center to stay in and then go out to the neighbouring villages and valleys.
Behind the New International Travel hotel (新国旅大酒店) there is a road which curves up the mountainside to the remains of the ancient walls and affords a good view of the town and the surrounding mountains. Stone steps then lead down into the upper end of town. The whole walk takes about an hour.
If you stay in Taoping, they sometimes have traditional Qiang dancing and singing in the evenings, with a bonfire and a goat-roast. This is more frequently on national or Qiang holidays or if visitors are part of a large group.
The Qiang New Year takes place on the 1st day of the 10th month of the Chinese lunar calendar (Oct/Nov) and tourist-orientated areas such as Luobozhai, Dongmenkou, and Wenchuan itself, may have celebrations which tourists are welcome to attend.
Travellers cheques should be changed in Chengdu (Bank of China branches) before travelling up to Wenchuan. The China Construction Bank in Wenchuan has ATMs that accept foreign credit and debit cards but it's also generally better to do this in Chengdu before you travel.
Qiang handicrafts and specialty foods are on sale in the town and in the more tourist-orientated local villages. It’s worth bargaining if you want a fair price – although an unfair price will help the locals more. Be sure to distinguish between genuine local embroidery (which takes a long time and will be more expensive) and mass-produced embroidered items which are plentiful. The region is famous for its fruit and, in season, has apples, pears, plums, peaches, walnuts, cherries, loquats (枇杷)...
The restaurants in Wenchuan town tend to be mainly regular Sichuan restaurants or noodle/dumpling places and it's best to go to the villages for a more traditional Qiang meal.
The Qiang are famous for collecting wild vegetables and for their cured ham (腊肉). They also serve some unusual dishes such as 'walnut flowers' (part of the walnut tree). Their staple food used to be maize although rice has largely replaced this in most areas. Another simple and good traditional food is small potatoes cooked in their skins which can be dipped in a mix of chilli and salt. A Qiang meal is usually very tasty and healthy with less chilli pepper than traditional Sichuan food.
At the junction of the two main shopping streets (opposite Sichuan Rural Credit Union) there is a tiny restaurant selling 'ciba 糍粑' - Qiang potato dumplings in a wonderful soup. Look for their yellow sign that says 洋芋糍粑.
The Qiang have a traditional mild alcohol called ‘za jiu’(咂酒) or ‘sucking wine’. At festivals this is drunk through communal long bamboo straws from a single, large jar. However, it can also be requested at meals as a bottled drink. Other standard drinks are generally available (water, Coke, etc). Chinese tea is often served with meals.
There are at least five hotels in Wenchuan.
1. The Wenchuan Hotel (汶川大酒店) is the newest and most modern. It is at the far northeastern end of the main street, just beyond the new big gymnasium and facing a park. Rack rates begin at ¥888, but the real rate will most likely be one-third to one-half of this.
2. The International Travel Hotel: this is at the southern end of Wenchuan, past the big red museum as you walk away from the center of town. It is at a broad 3-way street junction. Twin rooms with shower and western toilet are about ¥240 (with breakfast).
3. The Kaiyi Hotel:go up the main shopping street and cross the river via the traffic bridge in the center of town, continue straight ahead and the Kaiyi Hotel is on the left at the T-junction. Twin rooms with shower and western toilet are around ¥240 (no breakfast).
4. The Anbang Hotel is just opposite the police station and not far from the Kaiyi Hotel. Access is through an archway off the main road (just past the only supermarket on this side of the river) and the reception and hotel tea house are on the right. It has twin rooms for c.180Y (no breakfast).
5. The Sang Ping Hotel: not far from the Kaiyi Hotel. Cross the river via the footbridge (just beyond the traffic bridge) and keep walking straight. The Sang Ping Hotel is on the left at the T-junction. Twin rooms with shower and squat toilet are around ¥100 (no breakfast). Pleasant local staff. Clean but unfortunately smokers have damaged the carpets.
There are many guesthouses, located in most every residential building in Wenchuan. These usually run about ¥80, and may or may not have a private bathroom. Some also provide Internet (usually wired, often by means of an Ethernet cable coming in through the window). Look for words like "住宿", "旅馆", or "客栈" on signs around town. Do not expect any of them to speak English, but sign language should suffice.
In Taoping there is accommodation available in fairly basic but clean and comfortable guest rooms which are extensions to family homes. Prices may be around ¥80 for bed, breakfast and evening meal in the old village, and ¥100 in the new village. A good opportunity to experience Qiang cuisine - great ham and sausage and wild vegetables.
From Wenchuan there are buses going northwest to Ma'erkang and the grasslands of Hongyuan and beyond, or north to Maoxian, Songpan and the alpine area of Jiuzhaigou. Buses go southeast to Dujiangyan and Chengdu. There are also direct buses to other parts of Aba prefecture such as Shuimo and Heishui. Large minivans go regularly from Wenchuan to Maoxian and Lixian from where other buses go to various locations in Aba.