China Trip Part 3: Jiu Zhai Gou & Huanglong
–Note to Readers: For a parallel and more feminine account of our travels, please visit Yean’s page at feijoacrumbl3.wordpress.com – it’ll be well worth your while!–
The flight from Chengdu and Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport was filled with mixed emotions. Upon leaving Chengdu, it felt as if the pinnacle of the trip had been passed, with just the big tourist spots of Xi’an and Beijing left to check off. As the small plane started to descend however, we became more and more excited. Deep valleys and high rugged peaks opened up, and the plane was soon below the ridges, following the gentle curves of the valley towards an unseen airport. It was with a fair amount of surprise when we touched down – we were that engrossed with the surrounding countryside. Having grown up in New Zealand, I’ve always loved the mountains. There’s something special about mountain air, the freshness, and dryness sending waves of elation and positivity through the body. After a year in Singapore and travelling around South East Asia, it was a relief to step out of the aeroplane and be met with a cold rush.
If you’re planning a trip to the Jiuzhaigou/Huanglong region, please keep in mind the traveling distances. The flight is really the easiest and shortest bit. Having landed, Kuang informed us that we now had to catch a taxi for a 2 hour drive to the village of Longkangcun, where our accommodation was located and within walking distance to the Jiuzhaigou Park. While this was unexpected, it was by no means a bad thing – we spent the next two hours driving through some of the most amazing scenery I think I’ve ever seen. Horse trains formed a lot of the road traffic, and the taxi driver occasionally spoke up whenever we passed something significant.
In my first impressions, Longkangcun was a fairly non-descript town – a few years ago it had been a small farming village, and in the space of 3 years, has grown tremendously to the size of a small town. When the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake hit, killing over 68 000 people and leaving an estimated 4 million people homeless, the Chinese government pledged vast sums of money and support to rebuild the area. One of the key areas of rebuilding was to include a sound tourism infrastructure plan, and this is no more evident than in the area surrounding Jiu Zhai Gou valley. Several resorts dot the area, in well hidden areas so as not to distract from the landscape, and the towns are packed with hotels, hostels, and restaurants. Consequently, Longkangcun had a peculiar feeling of being rather soulless – lost in the myriad of grey concrete walls with brightly painted facades decorating the doorways. We were dropped off at the hostel we had booked, and once settled in, proceeded to find dinner, which turned out to be stewed Yak and rice. For the first time on the trip so far, we turned in early, ready for another early start the next day.
We were out of the door at 6am, walking to the entrance of the Jiu Zhai Gou park. We arrived with plenty of time before the 7am opening, so we took it in turns to keep our place in the ticket queue. As the clock hit 7, a facinating thing happened. The orderly queues that had formed outside the booths suddenly dissolved. We found outselves in a swirling and pressing mob, everyone eager to be the first ones with tickets in thier hands. Kuang and I managed to push our way to the front, got the attention of a vendor, and thankfully, we got our tickets.
Entering the park, it was easy to see that this was no haphazard affair. Neatly lined up awaiting boarding were a full fleet of buses, ready to take passengers to the upper reaches of the two valleys. We boarded the next available one, and then we were on our way.
Tip for the tourist: Go right to the top first thing, most people will get distracted and hop off at various places on the way up. This allows you to wander down at your own pace and avoid most of the crowds until lunchtime.
We spend the rest of the day wandering the park, only taking the bus once more to get to the top of the second valley. Beautiful views, beautiful logistics, horrendous crowds. By lunchtime the park was teeming with people, and they all were on a mission. It was a competition for everything – photospots, footpath space, seating space, bus seats, bus floor. I’ve never known such aggression. Often we’d be taking a group photo, and would have someone walk in for thier own, while even more often, we’d be physically pushed aside for someone to have their photo taken. But the vistas made it worth it. With forest clad hills as a backdrop, the water in the pools and rivers take on a brilliant blue hue, while remaining so clear any debris on the lake floor is completely visible.
We managed to keep walking until Shuzheng Village – one of the 9 Tibetan villages the valley is named after. There we finally called it a day, jumping on a bus for a short trip to the gates. Finding a tea garden straddling the river just outside the gate, we sat down and unwound from the hustle and bustle of the crowds over a cup of tea, and spent a while writing postcards to home (I’m notorious for writing postcards that never quite get sent).
That night for dinner we found a slightly more exciting restaurant, and dined on yak mince (cooked in tinfoil with a rice spirit set alight), a mutton and sesame dish, and potato balls stuffed with yak meat.
Exhausted from a full day on our feet, we returned to the hostel, made arrangements for transport for the next day, and collapsed into our bunks, with everyone asleep in minutes.
The next day, our travel companions decided to have a lay day – a sensible choice considering one was sporting a leg injury and we were all finding the high altitude walking fairly tough on the body. Yean and I however were determined to make the most of being there, and carried on to Huanglong. Having booked a taxi the previous night, we rose early to grab breakfast from the numerous street stall vendors just outside the hostel. Turns out we didn’t quite pick the right ones – the food was lukewarm, the buns stale, and generally lacked appetite appeal. That said, it was enough to get us going, and after a quick change of taxis as the first one had to pull out, we were off.
It’s a 3 hour drive from Longkangcun to Huanglong, so make sure you’ve got snacks for the drive. At this point we started wondering if it would’ve been a better idea to have rented a car from the airport – that lasted until we hit the open road, and realised the centerline is more of a vague indication of road halves, and generally not adhered to by the road users.
We stopped off halfway for a break, and a visit to a medicine store, where we were strongly encouraged to buy altitude sickness medicine. Having not felt any of the symptoms yet, and having not felt them the previous day, we were fairly sure that it was a money making trap, but it wasn’t too expensive, our taxi driver was recommending it, and as we’re all about experiences, we went ahead and brought it. It must have worked, because we lived to tell the tale.
Carrying onto Huanglong, we crossed several saddles and passes, getting higher and higher each time. The vistas were incredible, and every rise we came over meant cameras came up and started snapping away.
We arrived at Huanglong at a respectable 10am. I highly recommend taking the gondola to the (almost) top – it’s a very, very long walk from the bottom. For those unfamiliar with Huanglong and it’s attractions, the main center of beauty are the terraced lakes, sprawling in layers down the mountain-side. New Zealand used to have a similar geological formation called the Pink Terraces, but was destroyed by the Tarawera Eruption in 1886. As a kiwi boy who’d grown up with only paintings to know what they look like, seeing the real thing in real life was worth travelling to the other side of the world for. To tackle the mountain-side, the best bet is to catch the gondola, which takes you nearly to the top. A half hour walk gets you to the terraces, and a quick walk up the slope takes you to the first lake and the Huanglong Temple. Having overdosed on temples in Chengdu, we almost ignored this one, and spent lunchtime gazing over the lakes and the surrounding mountains. From the top, it’s a 3-4 hour stroll to the bottom, depending on how many photos you stop to take on the way. We took a lot.
Reaching the bottom, we met up with our taxi driver, hopped in, and almost immediately fell asleep – apparently excactly the wrong thing to do when in a high altitude environment after exercise, as our taxi driver enthusiastically told us when he woke us up. I suspect he just wanted company for the drive. Not a bad cover story though – we stayed awake for the rest of the drive back to Longkangcun.
After sharing our photos and experiences with our mates, we hit the bunks, and sunk into a deep sleep.
‘Diary Entry – 14 October 2011
I am in seat 23C on flight 3U8835. We are departing Jiuzhaigou, after having spent 2 days here. It has been an eyeopener into the world of Chinese Tourism – an exercise in efficient handling of wandering people. The Jiuzhaigou park attracts 12,000 people daily during the peak period, and the Huanglong park about half as much. The park structure is marvelous, with close to 100kms of boardwalk in Jiuzhaigou alone. Despite all this, and the infrastructure behind it, there were parts with impossible crowds, created, I suspect by the rather self-centered tourists hogging the good photography spots for far too long, getting aggressive with shoves and elbows when seeking a photo in front of a backdrop. The scenery was amazing, and the geography rare, but one can’t help but think it’s all undermined by the crowds. Despite all this, the local culture and people are great. Happy, cheerful, and hardworking, the represent the Tibetan way through their lives. They spend much of their life focussed around the monasteries, taking guidance and teaching from the monks. Their only grip in the world is the hordes of ‘black’ coming to the region; chinese business people in search of quick money through the tourism trade. These people, using the description from the taxi drivers, are generally rude, lazy, and don’t give a damn about the land or the ways of the native inhabitants. We are now off to Xi’an, the old chinese capital, terminal of the silk road, and home of millennia of history. I look forward to the next two days with much anticipation.’