When Raymond first got offered this job, and I researched Chéngdū, I was fascinated by Jiŭzhàigōu, a national park a few hundred kilometers north of here, whose online fairyland images were so beautiful they looked artificial.
So, the first chance we got, in our September autumn break (yes, running behind, missed this out so other blogs were reasonably current), this is where we chose to go. Jiŭzhàigōu is very popular with Chinese tourists, but a bit off the beaten track for foreigners. I researched on the web to find a hotel with an English speaker (New Jiŭzhài Hotel – we do recommend it) and to understand what we needed to do when we got there.
We decided to take the bus up and fly back, because we wanted to see the broader region, not just fly over it all the time. So I researched online how to take the bus, and went to buy our tickets a few days beforehand, as online advice was that they could get booked out. So we got the prime seats behind the driver, and it was reassuring that I already knew how to get to the bus station when we needed to do it early in the morning with a deadline. When we got to the station, we found the right gate and friendly locals waved us to the right bus. Now that we have done it once, we will be much more relaxed next time, but like everything we do here, it is good to be prepared the first time – and wonderful to have the online community of travellers who have gone before us sharing their experiences.
The ten-hour bus ride was very interesting. It was great to see the changes as we left the city, as we travelled, from the plains on which Chéngdū sits, up the mountains, and as we headed north. We drove by beautiful rivers and mountain scenery, and through interesting towns. We also saw the extent of infrastructure being built outside the city. The roads were pretty good. We had two drivers, the older one, who drove first, was very relaxing to sit behind, except when he called his colleague to tell me off when I put my feet up on the bar behind him. The younger guy was very helpful with us, but much less relaxing as a driver, going that bit faster and overtaking on blind corners – in a bus, by the river!
This was our first introduction to local toilets – I was already used to squatting, but these were a bit of a shock in terms of their lack of privacy and smell, and that we had to pay to use them. Based on this trip, and our one to Tibet, I have developed the Neal inverse proportion theory – the worse the toilet, the more you have to pay. Although, it is never more than NZD60c. At the first toilet, I did have an unfortunate experience with my phone. It is ok, but now I always make sure it is in a zipped pocket or my bag! My online advisors had recommended taking our own food and drink and I was glad that we did. The food options on the way up catered for locals, as they should, in type and language.
The younger bus driver and I had managed to communicate well enough that the bus was able to drop us off right outside our hotel, and the hoped for English speaker was working that evening. She helped us buy our Jiŭzhàigōu park tickets from the machine at the hotel for the next day. The next morning, she also organised us a taxi to the park entrance.
We knew it was a national holiday and had been warned that it might be crowded, but nothing could prepare a couple of kiwis for the throngs of people as we entered the park. So much for an early start to avoid the crowds. However, there was plenty of space to move, we could see the offices on a rise, we found an English map in one of them, and we followed the crowds to the dozen or so turnstiles. The queues moved rapidly and we commented on how efficient this was in a way that no New Zealand park would ever need to be. Then we hit the other side where the queues disintegrated into a sea of people strategizing how to get to the buses slightly quicker than the person next to them. We picked a couple and followed their every move – Raymond relaxedly, and me monitoring our progress against others making different choices. Again, we were very impressed by how effective this was, with a steady stream of buses arriving in two different places, quickly filling up with passengers and whisking them up the mountain.
We swarmed our way onto a bus and followed our route upwards on our English map – unable to understand the non-stop Chinese commentary from our guide at the front. I had read that you might choose to start at the bottom where it would be less crowded and walk up, rather than be driven to the top. However, it turned out that once we were on the bus, there was no chance to get off til it stopped, so that decision was taken out of our hands. It stopped two thirds of the way up and everyone except us got off. When our guide walked down the back to talk to us, I waved our map in front of her, indicating that we wanted to go higher. She made it clear that getting off here was our only option. We later worked out that there are three bus routes – lower east, higher east, and west. We were at the end of lower east and beginning of higher east. She had probably mentioned it on the way up.
We got out, and followed the crowds across the lake on the wooden boardwalk, edging past groups who were stopping when it was a good place to take a photo. It was stunning, but hard to see with people everywhere, and they kept stopping and blocking the way. Then I lost it. I felt like I couldn’t cope with the crowds, and desperately needed some space. Fortunately, the boardwalk forked, and everyone was turning right but to the left was deserted. So we headed left – through beautiful bush, with no water view, and nobody else in sight. I vented to Raymond, we came to a road with the path not leading anywhere, we turned around, and I had sorted myself out by the time we rejoined everyone else.
This meant changing my expectations from a lonely bush walk through beautiful scenery with the occasional hello to passers-by, such as I might find in New Zealand, to, sharing this fairy-tale wonderland with thousands of other people within a different system.
This surprisingly effective system is: walk in the same direction as others (two choices of direction), walk at the same speed or overtake where there is room, stop at good photo-taking places and wait your turn to take photos that create the illusion you were on your own there, then blend back in to the stream of walkers and move on. Of course a country with a density 15 times that of New Zealand needs a different system, and, once you know the rules and live within them, it works very well. And the powers-that-be have to limit walking to unnatural boardwalks to be able to sustain this natural beauty when they have so many visitors, including us, wanting to enjoy it. And we did – it is stunning. Each time you turn a corner, there is another beautiful vista – well worth a trip.
And, despite the thousands of visitors, it is spotless. Jiŭzhàigōu is not in Tibet, but it is right next door, and part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China. The name means nine villages, and is still home to a small number of Tibetans whose ancestors have always lived there. Now they make a living by selling things, inviting visitors to pay to try on local costumes for photos, and, in their blue safari-type suits, picking up and removing the rubbish so that their home is kept clean.
After a full day with lots of walking, fitting in all three routes, and seeing so much beauty that we felt satiated by it all, we caught the west bus back down the hill. We had allowed a second day to return to the park, because some online advisors had suggested they would have liked a second day up there, but entry is relatively expensive (NZD60 pp) and we decided to spend our third day exploring the small township, and to visit Huánglóng, another place of beauty, on our way to the airport on day four.
The next morning, we walked to the market that we had seen the evening before (been steered through actually). We had been in too much of a hurry to look at it, because we were booked into a cultural show (which was truly amazing and we would also recommend). It turns out that the Jiŭzhàigōu township shuts while all the visitors are up the mountain. The market was closed. We laughed, bought some bread and cheese to keep us going, meandered through a tiny shopping area with interesting looking hunks of meat drying and a few small tourist shops, confirmed our suspicion that there was really not much here, and walked back. It was a very relaxing afternoon.
Day four the taxi driver who had taken us to the park picked us up and we drove the four hours to Huánglóng. It took us a bit of extra time, because we stopped at his shop that sells natural medicine, where we sampled a flower tea and he promoted a couple of products, which along with the rest of his goods looked far from appetising or therapeutic to us. Although, the shop’s very clean, beautifully tiled toilets were a good advertisement. En route, he let me practice my Chinese with him, speaking slowly, which meant we actually communicated. When he found out it was Raymond’s birthday, he invited us to dinner at his house, which we were very touched by, but had to decline because we were flying back that evening.
Back in the car and over a windy road to Huánglóng. By now it was drizzling and the fog at the high points of the road made us wonder if we would see anything. We discussed alternative options, which boiled down to ‘yak lunch in my shop’ and decided that we should continue. We were glad that we did, because once again we were overwhelmed by a different style of stunning beauty to that of Jiŭzhàigōu. We would certainly recommend fitting in both. Our pictures do not do justice to all that we saw.
Huánglóng is more straightforward than Jiŭzhàigōu, in that you catch the gondola up, climb a little higher, circle across the top, and then follow the boardwalks all the way down, enjoying the scenery as you go.
Once down, in the car and off to Jiŭzhàigōu airport. The airport is relatively new, specially created for tourists wanting to see these two beautiful places, perched on top of a hill that has had its top cut off. The road up to this airport is winding, with sheer drops at places, and it was a little disconcerting when our driver turned on some music, wound down his window, and meandered back and forth across the middle line of the road, clearly struggling to stay awake. Remember it was drizzling, and we had already driven past a bus that had collided with a car, which seemed to have been caused by swerving to avoid some yaks on the road (Raymond proclaimed this a yakcident). However, we arrived safely at the airport, and flew the one and a half hours back to Chéngdū, appreciating another different way of doing things that better fits our adopted home.