Dujiangyan Irrigation System & The Journey to Xi’ian (Overland Asia Diary #9)

As ancient Chinese legend would have it, there was a fierce and evil dragon lurking in the Minjian River at precisely the time Governor Li Bing began construction on the Dujiang Weir. Not to be outdone by said ferocious dragon, he arranged an opulent feast to meet and negate this newly found predicament.

However, the dragon, as dragons have a tendency to, did not arrive on time – sending Li Bing into a furious rage. He became so angry that he himself transformed into a rhinoceros and leaped fearlessly 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 plunging back toward his opponent. He instructed his soldiers to shoot arrows only at the dragon, telling them he would be identified by his ribbon.

The shoulders shot and killed the dragon in the river Minjian, giving a name to the Fulong Temple, which means 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. It was hard to imagine being anywhere other than an ancient land steeped in mythical dragons and a rich mythological heritage.

Views over Dujiangyan Pagodas. Photo by <a href="http://19178-km-plus-loin.com">Flo</a>
Views over Dujiangyan Pagodas. Photo by Flo

After a complicated journey which involved a borderline luxurious 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, and our local bus gave little indication (and zero English) as to which stop we were at. Nevertheless, we disembark and walked mesmerised toward the massive traditional archway and across an elaborate, covered bridge.

We were later to discover, after careful online research and landmark comparison, that it was the Dujiangyan irrigation system that we had reached. 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.

The expansive waterway bisects the modern from the ancient – on one side, the city of Dujiangyan. On the other, the Guanxian ancient city. Laid before us for as far as the eye can see was a visual feast of flowers, trees, and monasteries. Pagodas teetered on the cliff faces and each turn revealed a manicured Chinese garden, robed monks lighting joss sticks or perhaps somebody practicing tai chi. Wind chimes blew in the distance and the courtyards and hillside walkways felt like an untarnished home for a kung fu grand master more than a hundred years time. Visiting Dujiangyan waterways is less a tourist escape and more a practice in time travel.

Ancient town at the base of the hillside
Ancient town at the base of the hillside. Photo by Flo

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. 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.

Magnificent Magnolias. Photo by <a href="http://19178-km-plus-loin.com">Flo</a>
Magnificent Magnolias. Photo by Flo

We eventually left Chengdu by an overnight train bound for Xian 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, snickers, iced coffee and Pringles to eat along the way.

Wonderful waterways. Photo by <a href="http://19178-km-plus-loin.com">Flo</a>
Wonderful waterways. Photo by Flo

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.

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