The overland route from Xi'an to Chengdu takes you through 462 miles (743 km) of verdant mountain forest, providing an excellent backdrop to a 3-5 hour bullet train trip, or a 10-hour drive. If you decide on the latter, there are plenty of worthwhile stops and sights along the way, including the Zhang Quian Tomb in Hanzhong, the majestic Jianmen Pass, and Mount Qingcheng.
Direct flights are also available—the flight itself is about 90 minutes, but with transport to and from the airports and the practically inevitable delays, flying will take you just as long (or longer) than taking the train.
Consider this 13-day trip, which includes visits to both Xi'an and Chengdu.
Duration: 3.5 hours
On a clunky “normal speed” train this journey takes over 11 hours, but the super speedy bullet train whizzes you there in a third of the time. Try to go during daylight hours as the views are not to be missed; the track weaves thoroughly the spectacular Quinling Mountains, China’s natural boundary between the country’s north and south.
Despite 41 daily departures to choose from, tickets tend to get snapped up fast, so try to book in advance. If you aren’t using an agent and don’t speak Chinese, that means a trip to the station with your passport and a long wait in line to purchase them. Note that the bullet train runs between the railway stations Xi’an North to Chengdu East, both of which are quite a way out of the center of town.
Duration: 1.5 hours
Flights from Xi’an’s Xinyang Airport (XIA) to Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU) take around 1.5 hours. There are four flights a day, served by Sichuan Airlines, Tibet Airlines and China Southern.
However, Chinese airports are notorious for having the most delays of any country in the world. Factor in the time to get through security and for a journey of this distance, you will almost certainly get to your destination quicker by bullet train.
Duration: 10-12 hours
While it’s not really feasible to rent a car as a foreigner in China, you could organize a private transfer with a driver to take you all the way from Xi'an to Chengdu. Really this is a blessing in disguise, as many of the mountain roads are narrow and winding, so tackling it yourself, or even on a long-distance bus while contending with trucks overtaking you, is hardly a relaxing experience.
With 10-12 hours of solid driving time, making this road journey worthwhile means breaking it up over a few days, staying in Hanzhong or possibly Guangyuan along the way. From Xi’an, you follow the road to Zhouzhi and through the Qinling Mountains as far as Hanzhong, where you can visit the city museum and tomb of Zhang Qian. Get a good meal and stock up on snacks and water here before you continue along the mountain road to Guangyuan, down the long stretch of the Shu Road to the breathtaking Jianmen Pass.
After this, it’s a flatter, easier road towards the Chengdu expressway, peppered with attractions like the Wuhou Tomb, Mount Qingcheng and the ancient city of Dujiangyan.