Mount Siguniangshan: Accessible Tibet in Western Sichuan

Mount Siguniangshan: Accessible Tibet in Western Sichuan

Mount Siguniangshan (四姑娘山): Advice and overview


Prayer flags and mountains, Siguniangshan

Historically courted by demons, Mt. Siguniangshan is now the haunt of inclement weather and mountaineers. Known as 四姑娘山, or the four sisters, this massif guards the border between the Tibetan plateau proper and the endless foothills rolling up to it in the Western part of China’s Sichuan province.

Siguniangshan is a fantastic and accessible introduction to both Tibetan culture and topography, being 4 or 5 hours from Chengdu by bus.

Thanks to their rugged and charming appearance, the chain of summits around Siguniangshan township (formerly Rilong) are often referred to as China’s alps. Although my girlfriend, Renee, badly wished to spend our vacation on the beach, I insisted that a little bit of altitude do better to liven things up. Reluctantly and under duress she agreed to buy the tickets.

Once we’d boarded the bus in Chengdu, our city of launch, it became apparent that I was the only foreigner on this tour (which included meals, hotels, and an ethnically Tibetan guide). I was electric; Tibet (or even its borderlands, as we were heading to) was the one place on the globe I wanted to see more than anywhere else. This was the land that time forgot, riddled with mystery and enigma and a host of logistical inaccessibility until the present day. Shangri-La was out there somewhere, reflected by shimmering alpine lakes and the snap of prayer flags in the wind.

Tibetan woman near Siguniangshan
Tibetan woman near Lama monastery, Siguniangshan

Chengdu’s plains give way to a series of towering foothills, many of which still maintain primary forest cover, a rarity in most of Eastern China. One can see why they’d be intact here; the ‘hills’ are viciously steep, shooting up from between 3,000 and 10,000 ft. Flanked by the clear waters of a river and a single-lane highway, we’re told that this is the habitat of the iconic giant panda, before making a stop at China’s premier giant panda museum. Fog and a light rain bore down.

Siguniangshan welcome
Where Han Zi give way to Tibetan script

The group was advised to stay awake to avoid shallow breathing, which is a bane to effective acclimazation. Being tired and wishing to crank my foreigner leverage, I opted into a nap regardless. Renee kicked me into consciousness, and was indignant about my laissez-faire attitude towards my own health.

The climb from 6,000 ft. to roughly 14,000 ft. happens quickly, with hairpin turns that flank around the mountain pass. Vehicles ignore the glaring precipice to our right, and pass one another with hair-raising nonchalance. A stupa, the first yet seen on this journey, appears to our left at about 12,000 ft. as the trees fall away.

Road in, siguniangshan
The road in

Granite monoliths poke through blankets of fog, creating the illusion of dizzying height. Of course, not all of it is illusory; the peaks here rise from between 16,000 and 21,000 ft. A police checkpoint, adjacent to a house ornamented by a Dharma wheel, soon halts the progress of the bus. Chinese passengers hand over their national ID cards and I my passport. An officer, stepping into the bus’s aisle after a brief wait, darts his head around sporadically while holding my open passport in the air. Nervously, I catch his eye to signal that I am indeed the white face in question. He stares at my picture, and back at me.

“Welcome to Siguniangshan!” Sweet relief. The whole of Western Sichuan has a tendency to close to foreigners on a whim, though U-Tsang Tibet does so more frequently than Sichuan.

Checkpoint, Siguniangshan entrance
The Checkpoint: Dharma and authority juxtaposed

We continue into the town for lunch. Stone houses adorning the hill reflect the traditional Tibetan architecture of the area, replete with colorful detailing and large white swastikas painted on their walls. A symbol endemic to South and Southeast Asia, the swastika is not out of place; rather, it was bastardized during World War II, without offering any indication of its standing as an endearing and ancient symbol related to the Bon and Buddhist religions. The houses blend into the terraced hills, whereas the concrete shells lining the main road do not. Concrete is a Chinese preference. Tibetans build with brick, stone, and wood.

Siguniangshan Town
Main strip of town

Brief aside: Though you probably won’t book a tour using a Chinese website, I must still advise you to avoid doing so had you planned to. Our meals were shared, dismal, and lacking in meat. After arrival, we were shaken down by our guide and told there was a ‘mandatory’ fire dance to attend, at the price of 200 yuan per head.

Chicken head, Siguniangshan
Chicken head, our primary source of meat

      The first day sees us in Shuang qiao valley. Of the three valleys in the area, it is the most accessible thanks to a long road traversing its length, a road that deposits us in a circular basin rung by cascading waterfalls running down the lengths of glaciated peaks. A boardwalk, at a span of roughly 30 KM, runs adjacent to the road for those wanting to walk. We take the bus, and find that one part of the boardwalk leads to a gate denouncing trespassers. Unperturbed, we hoist over it to see for ourselves why it has been closed off.

Damage is visible along the river, with splintered boards and mounds of talus interrupting the user-friendly boardwalk. This is likely they result of frequent natural disasters in the area; in 2008, an earthquake in this part of Sichuan killed up to 60,000 people. The central Chinese government responded by affording the survivors in Rilong 50,000 Yuan a piece.

Boardwalk, siguniangshan
Five Yuan hat? Check. Philosophical distance gazing? Bingo.

While utilitarian, this gesture served as more than good-will disaster relief. Though Gyalrong Tibet (this part of Eastern Tibet resting on the flanks of the plateau) has been under Chinese rule for centuries, the annexation of larger U-Tsang Tibet and suppression of Buddhism has been a catalyst for unrest throughout the region. Previously divided Tibetan peoples with separate customs, languages, and religions now find themselves banning together to preserve their collective culture. The central government, through a variety of means, attempts to make sure this union doesn’t become political.

Average view, Siguniangshan
Average view

The way back sees the bus stopping at large pagodas framed by yaks and prayer flags, staircases climbing through old-growth forests, and breathless blue lakes and ponds. At the hotel, we attend a performance put on by the local Tibetans with fire-dancing and songs (the one conscripted by the banditry of our  guide), featuring traditional costumes and a crucified roasted-lamb. Many of the performers, and locals more generally, are tall for this part of the world, 6’ ft or more. They regard me, a foreigner, with nonchalance, contrary to the prolonged stares that often bore into me while riding the buses in my city of residence, Guiyang.

Avoid climbing rocks in Pagoda area. You’ll be yelled at

Electricity comes and goes during the night. A cold and rainy morning sees us at the bus station, heading towards Changping valley. To our astonishment, we see a lone foreigner board the bus before we do. His name is Martino, in China for 3 weeks. After a 7 km drive, we join forces to hike our way into the valley proper to catch a glimpse of the four sisters themselves.

There’s no bus route, in either Changping or Haizi valley to the East. Familiar boardwalks carry hikers only so far, until a refreshing dirt trail (rare in the World of Chinese hiking) takes over. Visitors can opt into horseback riding, tackling the 13 km hike to the valley proper on four legs instead of two. Along the walking trail are more waterfalls, falling into iron-strewn creeks that tint the water’s reflection orange. Visitors must be prepared for when the horse and walking trails converge, further up the trail; Sloughs of mud can suck the boots right off your feet, as was demonstrated to me by Renee.

Iron River, Siguniangshan
Iron deposits

Once the trail ends, we’re afforded spectacular views of Yaomei Feng, the highest peak of the four sisters and the highest in the immediate area. Thick and precipitous glaciers cling to the summit cone, with corniced headwalls and ridges separating its world from ours. It’s no small wonder this peak has only ever seen four ascents, while the other sisters can be gained by novice mountaineers over the course of only two days. While not terribly remote, the peak seems to create its own harsh weather in a manner of minutes, and its steepest slopes are its summit ramps.

Yaks, living the good life

We gain the valley by jumping a wooden fence designed to keep yaks from wandering down the trail. It seems to be working; There are dozens of the blundering, shaggy beasts of burden lingering near the river. Yaks are used by Tibetans for hauling, meat, milk, fur, medicine, ornamentation, plowing, everything. Our guide had informed us that enterprising Chinese marauders, taking advantage of rural Tibetans’ lack of knowledge about the outside World, used to exchange the simplest of commodities for these beasts. A small tube of toothpaste, if demonstrated effectively, could net 3 yaks.

The trail through the valley meanders along its open edges before wandering into forest to skirt a swamp. Wishing to traverse the whole of the valley, we soon realize that the bus will be leaving at 5:30 and we’re pressed for time. This is a shame, because further along is a pass that gains 1000m of elevation over the course of 1.2 km, something any intrepid high-altitude trekker would enjoy. The yaks have turned tail and gone towards the fence, and we now elect to do the same.

Horseback riding, Siguniangshan
Horseback riding

Tired and asking me to carry her, Renee suggests we get horses. I refuse to assume the role of a horse myself, so I agree. The horses cost 100 yuan for about 2 kilometers – a steep price for a steep trail. Martino chooses to walk, but ends up jogging to keep up with us. The Tibetan in charge of my steed runs us to the front of the pack. A clearing opens as the horse trail branches from the main one, and a large stonework house can be seen situated along the edge of a long ridge. This is what one would expect of such a place; a flashing band of peaks ringing with quiet amidst the trot of a horse. A smile comes easy, and stays a while.

Riding, Siguniangshan
Enjoying the ride

Haizi valley, which has the best view of the Four Sisters, must be skipped. It’s our last night in town, with the morning bus taking off at 7:30 AM. Our current hike ends, and a bus takes us back to the station. Along the road are a few heads of cattle and many horses – as it turns out, The Gyalrong Tibetans release their horses when reach the age of 30, as a sort of retirement. As domesticated animals, you can approach them mid-graze, which I do cautiously.

Horse in Siguniangshan
Horses can be seen wandering around town

Brief Mythologcial aside, skip if uninterested


 Legend tells of a malevolent spirit who had wished to marry four beautiful girls in the village of what is now Siguniangshan (Rilong). Their father, for the sake of avoiding demonic grandchildren, fought and killed the spirit, forfeiting his own life in the process. He now stands as the as the 14,000 ft. peak that travelers must bus over to enter the town. Not wishing to be outdone, the four girls ended their own lives and rose towards the sky as four prominent mountain peaks, the Siguniangshan massif itself.


Before heading back to Chengdu, we’re taken to a series of traditional houses on the tail end of town. The tour group is joined by a Tibetan woman garbed in the dress of the area – a flat silk cap adorned with her long braid and a cropped blue jacket and skirt stitched with intricate patterning. She’s decked out in a more than a couple ounces of silver, a sign of prosperity. In her kitchen, we’re lectured about culture in the surrounding area.

Siguniangshan Prayer stones
Prayer stones

Brief aside 2: This ‘cultural immersion’ was really naught but a ploy to try and sell us a variety of goods forged from silver in the adjacent shop, which we were not allowed to leave (according to our swashbuckling guide we’d be left behind should we forsake perusing the shop for the whole of an hour. I stood awkwardly as everyone else in the group bought-in and purchased trinkets).


 Apparently, educated foreigners (Han or Western) can find themselves settling into a work-free polyamorous lifestyle in some of the more rural villages found deeper in the plateau. If the most beautiful woman in the village is unmarried, and you happen to be this foreigner, you can marry her and all her sisters. As Renee translates, I nod vigorously and my face betrays more than it should. She’s less than amused, but It’s hard not to be impressed by this land of mountain spirits and astral projection.

Misty Mountains, Siguniangshan
In case the reader is wondering, I’ve no pictures of the 4 sisters proper because they were, with the exception of once on a moving bus, covered by mist

As we were leaving, I managed to catch a final glimpse of the Four Sisters (really the only full and unadulterated glimpse of the whole trip), and the Tibetan concept of Lanay crossed my mind. Lanay posits that the essence of a person’s soul can be spread far across the whole of an ecosystem, in life and death. The ‘bigger’ and more important the person, the more of a reach they have. Taking in the view of Yaomei Feng, I can only imagine that she was some sort of symbolic giant, sharp in wit and stunning in appearance. That, or she was just really, freakishly tall. I close my eyes and try to do a bit of projection myself, but I only end up falling asleep. After awakening, the mountains have fallen away, and my mind, like the foothills hugging the road, is shrouded in fog.


Siguniangshan Practical Advice and Logistics

Arrive

  • Chengdu is your base for getting to Western Sichuan. It will occasionally be the case that foreigners aren’t allowed in a certain area, so do your research. The Land of Snows blog is a good place to start. Sometimes, bus-station employees won’t know if foreigners are permitted and will simply tell you that they are not. Unless you corroborate that with a reliable governmental or online source, don’t believe them, and quietly press the issue of them selling you a ticket (it’s best – and maybe essential – to know a little Chinese at this point, or have a translator handy). Xinnanmen (新南们) tourist bus station, on 57 Linjiang Road (use Baidu maps to show a taxi driver) is where you’ll buy the tickets. Buses usually leave at 6:30, 12:00, and 15:30, but that can change like everything else in China. Though many reports describe the road as damaged, it has since been (mostly) fixed.

Do

  • The central draw of the area is its scenery, big mountains among tumbling valleys. Haizi valley affords the best view of Yaomei Feng, the largest of the four sisters. Shuang Qiao valley has a road running along it’s length, as well as a 30km of boardwalk to hike on. Buses stop running at 5:30, and there are regular pick-ups along the road. Entrance fees for each valley are between 50 and 70 yuan depending on whether it is high or low season (April to November being high season). Changping Valley is a mix between civilized hiking trails and scenery, unlike Haizi where a fair amount of bushwhacking is required to gain ground. You can ride horses for an arbitrary length of the trail in Changping valley should you wish to avoid both walking and motorized vehicles.

 

  • If you wish to climb Da Feng or Er Feng (the two lowest of the four sisters), you can do so by registering with the Sichuan mountaineering association. Guides, porters, and equipment are all for hire in Siguniangshan town, though you may book with a tour company as well. Camping at the base will set you back 150 yuan. Da Feng is a non-technical ascent, whereas Er Feng will require some technical climbing equipment and a minimum of experience. There are a ton of other 15,000+ ft peaks in the area for those wishing to put up new ascents.

 

  • For nightlife (which is admittedly minimal), check out the Iced Rock bar. They serve local wine, Yunnan specialty draughts, and a variety of booze. The owner and his staff are musicians and culture buffs who can entertain or enlighten you. The bar also serves as a hostel. Make sure to contact your hotel or accommodations of choice beforehand, as many places in China simply cannot take foreigners due to local law requirements.

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