Monday, August 13, 2007

Jiuzhai Gou & Huanglong Springs

*On the left is me at Huanglong. The right is a lake at Jiuzhai Gou.*

Saturday morning at 7:45 Scott and I left Chengdu for a trip to Jiuzhai Gou, which is a valley about 12-hours outside of Chengdu. Jiuzhai Gou is commonly billed as "Heaven on Earth" by the tourism industry; the name is usually accompanied by pictures of beautiful, turquoise lakes against a strikingly blue sky and lovely mountains. Needless to say, we were very excited about getting some fresh air and taking in some of Sichuan Province's famed natural scenery.
We boarded the bus armed with plenty of snacks, having learned from the awful 35-hour train ride from Beijing to Shanghai during which we ate almost nothing but five Ramen noodle bowls each. The bus ride was an experience in itself because of two factors: the scenery and the bus driver. A few hours outside of Chengdu, the views became spectacular as we would further and further up into the mountains. I was especially excited to notice a blue sk emerging as the Chengdu smog evaporated... after spending two months in one dirty city or another, it's something I've come to miss.

Between glimpses out the window, the rest of my time was kept occupied by the simple struggle for survival and desire to stay in my seat. Our bus driver seemed to forget he was at the wheel of a 35-passenger tour bus and drove our vehicle up steep, winding mountain paths pretty much motorcycle-style. Apparently the road to Jiuzhai Gou has three lanes, if you include the improvised one in the middle that's used for passing and honking at other gigantic tour buses.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside shack; we had just enough time to down some vegetables and rice before getting back on the road. As we drove further into the mountains, peasants hawking photo ops with their pet yaks appeared at each rest station. They lured us tourists with tantalizing (and very hard to resist!) calls of "Halllooo! Yagr Yagr Yagr!!"

Finally around 8 pm, Scott and I made it to Jiuzhai Gou, hailed a cab, and made it to the hotel... only to find they'd given away the private room we'd booked. Since there is virtually no online booking or credit card payment system in most Chinese tourist destinations, an evening arrival usually means the hotel will have forfeited your reservation by the time you arrive. So, the first night we sucked it up and stayed in a dorm-style room.
Monday morning we headed to the park. The first day at Jiuzhai Gou was one of the best days of my life. The scenery was literally breathtaking, and each stop was even more beautiful than the one before it. The pictures I'd seen of the place did not come close to doing it justice. The water was unbelievably clear and a deep turquoise color; picturesque rapids led to exquisite waterfalls suddenly popping up out of nowhere; the mountain slopes surrounding the valley were green and craggy at the tops. We had such a great time walking around taking pictures! It was difficult to tear myself away from each "scenic spot," but each time we reached the next one on the map the same thing happened all over again!

This trip also acquainted me with the extremely aggressive phenomenon known as The Chinese Tourist. Jostling, pushing, yelling... they will resort to anything if it means snapping the perfect picture. It seemed that most of the time "the perfect picture" meant inserting themselves into the exact space in which Scott and I were simultaneously taking a photo. Countless times, we'd find a wide open stretch of railing away from the horde of frantic photographers... set up to take a picture... and look up to find hordes of Chinese people descending on our spot. The result was lots of "QUICK STAND THERE AND I'LL TAKE YOUR PICTURE!" and then dodging out of the way before the masses could reach us.
For the Chinese tourists, Scott and I were just as popular backdrops as the scenery. Sometimes people would ask for photos with me, but mostly they would just try to take the picture when I wasn't looking. Each time Scott took my picture, at least a couple of other people followed suit. I couldn't sit down in front of a waterfall, lake, etc. for more than a few seconds without having a crowd gather asking to take a picture with me. At one point, we sat down along the path to eat some snacks, and people crowded around to watch the show, pointing and talking excitedly. Apart from the loud cries of "HAHLOO" I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I think it was something along the lines of, "Look! The monkeys are eating!"
Tuesday we went back to the park to explore the other half. We had a harder time getting away from the crowds on the main path, so we decided to trailblaze and found a more secluded path to travel between the main sights. We soon discovered that the so-called "secluded path" was actually no longer in use and overgrown, but for some reason we kept on hiking. Further along, sections had been destroyed by rockslides and there was no longer any planking, so we were forced to continue balance beam- style. We were determined though, so we kept going. After about an hour of walking with no sign of civilization other than the park's shuttle buses, we got desperate and tried to flag one down. No one would stop, even though one passed every couple of minutes! We kept walking... and walking... and walking... all the while unsuccessfully attempting to hitch a ride on one of the tour buses we'd paid $15 to use. Finally, after a total of three hours and almost eight miles of the hellish trail, a bus rescued us.
After THAT long, long day, next on the agenda was a trip to Huanglong Springs, a three hour bus ride outside of Jiuzhai Gou. Of course, by the time we got to the station to buy bus tickets, they were sold out. We caught a ride on a rickety old bus to a small rural town halfway between Jiuzhai Gou and Huanglong, then took a cab the extra hour to Huanglong. Upon arriving at the springs around 10:30 am, we discovered that the last bus back to Jiuzhai Gou departed at 3 pm. So, in four and a half hours we hiked four miles round trip up and down a mountain and furiously took as many pictures as possible. The trip was well worth the hassle: Huanglong is home to exotic-looking, multi-colored mineral pools that were just as breathtaking as the scenery at Jiuzhai Gou.
In the end, we made it back to Chengdu on schedule... despite my worst fears, we survived our trip without getting stuck in Jiuzhai Gou all night or being marooned at Huanglong. I enjoyed everything, but I think I lost a few pounds in water weight from the stress of it all! You can't tell from looking at the pictures though, and I guess that's the most important thing!

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