JiuZhaiGou National Park, Northern Sichuan Province

April 17th – 20th: JiuZhaiGou (“geo j+eye go”) National Park – On Saturday morning, April 17, Mr. Wang came in a taxi to take me to the bus station. I tried to tell him Friday evening I didn’t want him to take me (I knew how to get there) but it became obvious that he felt it his duty and if I didn’t let him it would cause him some distress. We arrived at the bus station and Mr. Wang got on my bus to sit with me for a while before I left. It was a comfortable bus and I had the window seat right behind the driver. Mr. Wang asked a couple of ladies behind us to help me when we got to JiuZhaiGou and they said they would. We said our goodbyes and Mr. Wang left, and the bus left about 20 minutes later. The air quality was particularly bad on that morning and the coughing and wheezing that had become routine for me while I lived in Mianyang worsened a bit. But I was excited about heading off to a new adventure, especially since we would be going into a scenic mountainous area. I also hoped that the air would be better as we climbed in altitude, something my friend Connie Claman, who made this same bus trip with her son last year, had told me. The bus left about 9:30am and we were to told we’d make a stop in PingWu for lunch at about 12:30. I had been warned about the limited selection of foods at bus stops so I took along some snacks that included nuts and some kind of dried meat. After we left Jiang You, the driver started showing movies on the large TV that many people bumped their heads on when they got on the bus. At first, I was more interested in the scenery than movies. However, the scenery was only marginally interesting and I found myself watching “The Shanghai Kid” with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson for the second time. I hadn’t liked that movie much the first time I saw it, probably because I’m not a big Owen Wilson fan. Jackie Chan, however, is always appealing and he was especially so in this movie. There were several young Chinese men on the bus and they were laughing loudly at the same things I was which made it more enjoyable. We started slowly ascending into hills now and the road was often not very good.

About 12:00 we slowed to a stop and the bus driver turned off the ignition. We could see a line of traffic stopped ahead of us and the blinking lights of a police car about a quarter mile up the road. It was apparent we weren’t going anywhere soon so everyone, including the driver, got off the bus. I joined them but I kept a close eye on the driver to make sure I wouldn’t be left behind. Two hours later, we started off again but we were rerouted through the narrow main street of a town that was effectively being rebuilt (see video.) My guess is this town suffered heavy earthquake damage in 2008 and was now rebuilding. Going was slow but at least we were moving!

Video: Slow Detour on Route to JiuZhaiGou

About 3:00 we stopped at PingWu for lunch. By this time I had already eaten a lot of my snacks and I wasn’t particularly hungry, which was good because there wasn’t much to offer at the mom-and-pop convenience store where we stopped. I did buy four bananas and the ladies Mr. Wang had asked to keep an eye on me offered me some oranges which I gratefully accepted. As we left PingWu, the bus began climbing more steeply. There were many sharp turns and switchbacks, and frequent obstacles such as cars or motorcycles pulled off to the side made the bus driver’s job interesting. These vehicles were not really pulled off to the side since the road had no shoulder. Instead, a deep storm basin bordered each side of the road. Any veering to the right would result, at the very least, in a disabled vehicle. Late in the afternoon, I could tell we had reached a high altitude as I felt just slightly light-headed. This section of the road was the most difficult – there were few guardrails between the road edge and steep hillsides. Many small work crews were pouring concrete foundations for new guardrail posts. Their 3-wheeled motorcycles and piles of raw materials ( e.g. concrete mix) often blocked one of the lanes, requiring the driver to alternate use of the single remaining lane with oncoming traffic. At this point I began to understand why several teachers had asked me why I wanted to take the bus – they thought it would be much better and safer to take the plane. Of course, the main reason I took the bus is because I wanted to see the countryside.

It was dark and raining lightly as we approached the JiuZhaiGou national park area. There are scores of large hotels along the main road near the park entrance and I knew that mine, the XingYu International Hotel, would be on the left side just before arriving at the bus station. I tried to spot it but the rain-spattered windows of the bus made it impossible. When we pulled into the bus station (really just a small, unlighted parking lot) everyone got off the bus. Several local taxi drivers, hoping for a fare, accosted us as we disembarked. The ladies who had been asked to help me started talking with the drivers but I wasn’t sure what was said. The drivers wanted 10RMB to take me to my hotel, but I figured that was probably way too much as it couldn’t have been more than a quarter mile away – I could easily walk it. I pulled my poncho out of my suitcase and started to put it on. At this point, one of the drivers lowered his fare to 5RMB and I decided to accept. He took me to my hotel and I checked in without any difficulty. The room was really nice, even though I only paid about $35 USD per night. Especially after living for a month in my marginally acceptable MianYang hotel room, it felt like the height of luxury to have a western style toilet and a mini-bar!

I knew that the park opened at 7AM the next morning so I showered and got ready for bed early. I planned to enjoy the free hotel breakfast when the dining room opened at 6AM. As I got into my pajamas and snuggled into the comfy bed, I decided to look over the materials the hotel provided, thinking I might learn something useful. Very quickly, I became alarmed that nowhere in the materials did I see the name XingYu International Hotel. Instead, most of the references to the hotel were “Grand JiuZhaiGou Hotel” and a few places identified it as “Sacred Hotel.” I had a sinking feeling that the taxi driver may have taken me to a hotel where he gets a kickback for bringing clients. I had made the XingYu reservation online and I had guaranteed payment on my credit card, so if I wasn’t at the XingYu I would be paying two hotel bills that night! I logged onto the internet to see if I could confirm or deny my suspicions but it was difficult to tell. I ended up sending email of the hotel’s name in Chinese characters to my young Chinese friends Lisa and Mandy (they are in the USA going to school and I knew they’d be awake) to ask them whether “Xing Yu” was in the name. At about the same time I got the news that “Xing Yu” was, in fact, in the hotel’s name, I found another piece of evidence that suggested I was in the right hotel: the phone number in the room matched the one shown in my online reservation. With that minor panic behind me, I was able to enjoy a good night’s sleep.

In the morning, I enjoyed the buffet Chinese breakfast which included things like dumplings, hard-boiled eggs, and vegetables. After breakfast I decided to walk to the park entrance. I thought it couldn’t be too far and I wanted to check out the area anyway. It turned out to be nearly a mile and uphill but I walked slowly and it wasn’t too bad. The park entrance grounds are very lovely, and the large main buildings are large, attractive Tibetan-style buildings. JiuZhaiGou actually means “nine village valley” which refers to the nine small villages within the park that are populated by people of Tibetan origin. For this reason, most of the architecture and many of the souvenirs in the area are Tibet-themed. I had read that you could purchase a two-day entrance ticket for the same price as a 1-day ticket so I asked for that. An agent who spoke good English explained to me that the two-day policy is not in effect during the busy season. She asked if I was a student and I laughed and told her no. Then, she asked if I was over 60 – I showed her my passport and I got a 50RMB ($7) discount off the 310RMB ($50) entrance fee.

As I entered the park, I hopped on the bus with everyone else. For the next 20 minutes we held on tight as the bus sped to the two topmost points in the park. Along the way, we caught glimpses of beautiful aquamarine and turquoise colored lakes. As we disembarked at the top, we were met by scores of Tibetan-minority vendors who would dress you in Tibetan attire for a photo using your camera. I decided “what the heck” and had a lady dress me and take my photo for 10RMB. After the photo, I started up a walkway that was supposed to lead to a “primeval forest,” but I was quickly too winded to go on so I turned back. The altitude there was about 3000 meters (or 9,300 feet) which isn’t too bad for breathing unless you exert yourself. So, I took the next bus downhill and got off at the first stop. The park is really nicely equipped and maintained. Beautiful wooden raised walkways snake along both sides of the lakes and waterfalls that cascade down the valley. The roadside route is noisier because of the bus traffic so the walkway on the side away from the road is much nicer. It wasn’t very crowded and I was able to find opportunities to be completely alone while walking (see video), although there were some rowdy tourists who thought it was fun to see how far their voices could carry. I don’t think I would enjoy it in August when it is much more crowded.

Video: Beautiful JiuZhaiGou National Park

The lakes and the waterfalls were absolutely gorgeous. It was a little dry while I was there. Much of southwest China has been suffering a drought, although Yunnan hasn’t suffered as much as other provinces. Some of the most spectacular waterfalls were much diminished and you could see many dry areas where water normally flows. One of my favorite places was the smaller falls between Arrow Lake and Panda Lake (see video). I liked them so much I went back on the second day. After a very enjoyable couple of hours walking, I jumped on the bus and headed to the massive tourist service center for lunch. I had the Chinese buffet lunch and it was good, though way overpriced by China’s standards (50RMB.) Everything in JiuZhaiGou is more expensive than elsewhere. After checking out a few more interesting places in the park, I took a taxi back to my hotel and had a much-needed nap.

That evening, I attended a “Shangrila” show at my hotel whose theme was Tibetan culture based. I enjoyed a lot of the dance numbers (see video) and some of the music but what I found most interesting were the little things that were different than I’d ever seen at a Western show. First, they provided a plastic-hands-on-a-stick (see photo) device at every seat. With this device, you can applaud by just waving the stick with one hand. They’re very loud and can become annoying when audience members use them to keep the beat with every bar of music. Second, upon entry, every customer had a white (silk-like) scarf draped around his or her neck. During the first solo song, an older lady from the audience stepped up on the stage and approached the singer. She draped her scarf around the singer’s neck and there was applause. Throughout the concert, every song was an occasion for audience members to go up on the stage and give their scarf to the singer. I thought this was kind of cool except that many of the people who did it stood by the singer facing the audience and smiled while their friend snapped a photo from the edge of the stage. Some even put their arms around the singer for the photo-op! It was a routine that I decided I didn’t really like – I think I prefer concerts where the audience is expected to remain in their seats and cameras are not allowed. I was in the second row so I had a great view but there were several businessmen in the first row that kept holding their cameras up over their heads to take videos and photos. One of them was especially annoying because he was constantly running up on stage with a wide grin to have his photo taken with any performer who came near his seat. He was with a group of older men in suits and I got the impression he was trying to impress his boss. I also thought I detected that the performers were not thrilled about this guy either. At another point in the show, one of the performers tried to coax audience members to join him onstage for dancing. The guy next to me tried to drag me with him but I refused – I didn’t know exactly what was expected and, after a month in Mianyang, I’d had enough being the center of attention. Those who did go seemed to really relish it as the stage filled with audience members, and friends snapped photos of each other. One final thing I noticed was that almost the entire audience filed out of the room during the cast’s curtain call. You see this from a few people in Broadway shows and I always find I disrespectful to the performers. But, I realize that I’m unfamiliar with Chinese cultural standards and I may have been the only one with these kinds of impressions. In general, the show was quite fun and I was glad I went. However, the music was quite loud and, after two hours of it, I was happy to escape to my quiet room.

Video: Tibetan Show at JiuZhaiGou Hotel

On my second full day at JiuZhaiGou, I got up early, and, this time I took a taxi to the park entrance. There were areas of the park I hadn’t seen yet, and they were my objectives for the day. One destination was a Buddhist Temple near the park entrance – a temple that my Lonely Planet guidebook described as “authentically Tibetan.” The guidebook said the bus doesn’t stop there but it’s a short walk from where the buses are loaded. As I started walking up the road, a man yelled something at me and motioned me to come back. I did as he asked and he asked to see my ticket. After checking it, he asked me where I was going and I showed him on the map. His demeanor was gruff and he indicated I couldn’t go there. I guess the Lonely Planet writer was either lucky enough to escape detection or the rules for visiting the temple have changed since the guidebook was written. With that plan thwarted, I jumped on the bus with everyone else and headed back to the topmost point, just as I had the day before. During that day, I visited some beautiful new places and revisited some of the places I liked from the previous day. I had the buffet lunch again. This time, as I approached the dining hall entrance, a nice young Chinese man offered a buffet ticket to me, saying he had bought one too many (he spoke English).  He was really offering it to me for free but I paid him for it and he was surprised but happy.

That afternoon, I had an unpleasant experience when I tried to board a bus at a stop that was very crowded. I thought I was first in line to get on the next bus but found myself pushed back by more aggressive bus-boarders several times. When the third bus pulled up, I got more aggressive and made sure I got on. Even with being more aggressive, I still found there was only one seat left when I boarded. I grabbed it but the guy next to me had his leg jutting out into it, obviously trying to save the seat for his friend. I tapped his leg and motioned for him to move it, which he did, but he and his party seemed annoyed with me during the ride. Little incidents like this can be annoying but I tried to put it in context with all the other occasions on which people have been so kind to me.

My impression of the park is very, very positive. It is truly a unique, beautiful, international treasure and I am so happy that it is being preserved. The park entrance fee is very high (~$45) but they have done a very nice job building walking platforms that blend well with nature and take you to the most beautiful places. The park is also fairly English-friendly, and you can find your way around on your own using the maps located at almost every major pathway junction. My impression of the JiuZhaiGou area, however, was less positive. I found the local people (except my hotel staff) to be less friendly than those in Mianyang, probably because it is a major tourist destination and the locals get tired of tourists. There were a couple of small shops I visited where the people were downright unfriendly. Overall, it was a wonderful two days. It is definitely worth a visit if you love nature. The lakes and waterfalls must be among the most beautiful in the world.

On my final evening in JiuZhaiGou I rested in my room and prepared to leave the next morning. I had a flight from JiuZhai-Huanlong Airport which was about 60 miles away. After spending the two previous days asking locals and scanning the internet to find the cheapest way to get to the airport, I had given up and agreed to have the “hotel car” take me there for the exorbitant fee of 300RMB (~$50.) My Lonely Planet guidebook had told me there were shuttle buses to the airport and described where you could find them. But I went to these locations and was unable to find one. Perhaps it was my poor language skills that caused the problem but I was a little annoyed with the Lonely Planet writer who had led me to believe it would be easy.

I left early on Tuesday morning in a nice sedan driven by a man in a business suit and white gloves. The airport is north of JiuZhaiGou so we took a route not seen on my trip from Mianyang. We started climbing soon after leaving and the area was very beautiful. As we approached the zenith of a particularly high mountain, it was snowing lightly and the pine trees along the road were very beautiful.

I thought the driver was going too fast but he seemed very competent. Solid yellow lines between lanes apparently mean nothing: it seems in China drivers pass any time they can squeeze a few inches in between the car in front and oncoming traffic. I got to the airport early and couldn’t check in for about 30 minutes. The check-in area was very cold so I opened my suitcase to find my warmer shoes and sweater. Check-in went smoothly and our plane took off about 30 minutes late. As we climbed above the clouds, I had a nice view of the mountain peaks of northern Sichuan protruding through the clouds. I was off to the next stage of my adventure – Chengdu and the pandas!

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