It took us waaaay too long, but we finally went to Jiuzhai Gou (九寨沟) the otherworldly natural park in Sichuan’s Aba Prefecture where you can view exceptionally beautiful scenery along with busloads of Chinese tourists from all over the country.
Having this many people around at all times can be a little exhausting especially when they are enthralled with your son and keep trying to touch him. But it also increases the chances that someone will hand you an herbal remedy that immediately resolves the “I’m about to throw up” sensation that comes with riding a bus around mountain passes while seated backwards.
When I stood up in the bus aisle I must have looked ready to throw up because the guy sitting across the aisle, who was also riding backwards, handed me a small container of ointment and pantomimed, “Go like this” while rubbing his temples. I don't usually listen to strangers – and up until that point I would have insisted it sure wasn’t going to happen in China – but I gave the ointment a quick sniff and then did what he told me to do.
It smelled like eucalyptus or bay leaves or something that makes you feel better and I magically stopped wanting to throw up. Here’s to strangers!
After the bus made it’s way to the top of the mountain and everyone got out, we stood around for a bit trying to figure out what we should do next. It was raining and we had brought Xiao GuaiGuai’s stroller, mainly so we could use the waterproof rain cover to keep him out of the rain while we roamed the park.
This was a good plan in theory except that what actually happened was we carried his stroller up and down the valley along wooden paths and staircases - often putting the little guy to sleep because he was being rocked around so much. We must have looked fairly crazy, Shiwen in the front, me in the back, carting a stroller down a mountain via a series of staircases. But that’s how Chinese parks help visitors experience their beauty – via staircase after staircase through the scenery.
Our plan was to get off the buses that go up and down the main roads and instead walk the paths that connect the various scenic stops. This plan would increase our intake of scenery and decrease our elbow-jostling with other park visitors. This decision was reinforced when two middle-aged women starting fighting at one of the bus stops and had to be pulled apart by the other members of their parties. So tranquil.
The aggressive nature of transport was a theme we’d been experiencing since we arrived at the airport. Jiuzhai Gou uses a really small airport up high in the mountains and after we landed we came out of the terminal into the parking lot to find a set of cabs waiting for riders. The driver who was next in line started to help us load into his car and the other drivers came to see who we were. They were especially interested in Xiao GuaiGuai and his car seat, neither of which form part of China's normal scenery. But this wasn’t the aggressive element of the ride.
That came immediately after we’d pulled out of the airport and the driver gave us the hard sell on changing our plans and diverting to a different park. We did not change our plans, but by the time we got to our hotel some 90 minutes later we had agreed to use this driver over the next two days, including for a long ride to another natural park that we wanted to see before heading back to Chengdu.
It made sense to make these plans but we learned that it didn't really matter with whom they were made since we never saw that driver again. Over the next two days we had two different men show up as our drivers, each with a different anecdote about why the original driver wasn’t available. My favorite excuse was that he’d had to travel to Chengdu to “do some stuff” at the last minute.
Jiuzhaigou is about 35 minutes from Chengdu by air (via fairly expensive tickets) but it feels like a distant planet. The air is clear, the sky is high and wide, and the colors are vivid and crisp. It’s everything that Chengdu is not and you get used to it quickly, daydreaming what life might be like if you could breathe air like this everyday and if people could go outside without having to worry about their health.
The water that flows through the valley is turquoise and has countless paths to the bottom of the mountains. It drifts and drops through moss and over rocky falls. There is always that water. It forms lakes and streams, waterfalls and pools, and it keeps moving and reflecting the sky and the mountains along its edges.
There is something about the water that keeps trees from dissolving and there are places where you see trunks through the clear depths. Branches that stayed above the water line now host greenery like little rafts tied to a pier.
The best places to see these waters are away from the throngs. The paths that keep you off the buses will guide you through the forests and along the rushing waters. Even if it’s raining (and it was) it’s worth it to follow the wooden planks into some of the only peace and quiet that can be found in this country.
There will still be other people, but some of them will be like you, looking for quiet moments and beauty away from the buses. Others will be fleeing from where you’re headed saying how they had to turn back, how it’s too far... "Whatever you do," they warn "don’t keep going!" We took their warnings as a hopeful sign that others may have turned back too, leaving the path empty for those who would truly appreciate the trudge. For how else can you describe hoisting a not-small child and his stroller up and down staircases out in the woods?
It was the most beautiful place we have seen in southwestern China and we were glad to be there. We also had decided very early in the day that we’d be returning to the Tibetan restaurant where we ate the night before so we could re-order the Tibetan version of Shepard’s pie (with yak) that we had loved and try the sizzling mutton that had fragrantly passed our table on its way to other diners. This was a powerful motivator as we traversed the wet and cold park where, per usual practice, we were chided by various Chinese passers-by for not dressing our child warmly enough.
They didn’t seem to care that we were toting him up and down slick wooden staircases at a precarious angle. Nope, the problem was that he was not wearing mittens. (Neither was anyone else in the park but who are we to point out the obvious.) We tried to ignore the wardrobe commentary and instead focused on not dropping the stroller down a long flight of wet stairs astride a Chinese mountain.
The next day the rain stopped and we left our hotel for an adventure with the second of our two new drivers. His main goal seemed to be convincing us that the natural park where we wanted to go was too far away and at too high an altitude for us to visit in the time we had.
His case about it being too high did gain a bit of traction when at 4100 meters our mountain road entered the clouds and visibility dropped to about 30 feet in front of the car. When I asked if these were dangerous conditions he’d assured us that this was all right because sometimes you could barely see at all. Ah, yes, barely seeing at all – that would indeed be worse than seeing only 30 feet in front of you on a high mountain road. But not by much.
Before that point we had seen a fresh covering of snow as well as copious amounts of yaks and goats, in addition to several wandering horses. When we had stopped at a tiny restroom on top of a mountain we’d each felt woozy getting out of the car. The man staffing the rest stop had asked our driver if he was the driver coming with the supplies. He was not and when we left him there, at the top of the mountain, in the snow and cold and low-oxygen air, we thought we had an idea of how desolate it was as the man and his rest stop faded into the distant cold as we drove higher into the sky.
When we finally got out of the clouds and arrived at Huanglong (黄龙) Scenic Area we bought tickets that allowed us to take a cable car up the mountain to a great path that cut through a beautiful forest edged with moss and flowers, the tranquility of which was only occasionally disturbed by workers lugging 20 foot I-beams to an unseen construction project in the distance. Not quite what you expect on the mountain but it definitely makes you feel better about the sleeping toddler you’d mistakenly thought was a heavy burden. Hard to complain when a guy passes you with a metal beam hoisted on his shoulder.
This path was even more beautiful than the Jiuzhaigou paths, perhaps because it was open to the mountains and there were snowy ranges in the distance under a sunny blue sky. The lack of rain was also a plus. Overall it reminded us of vistas we had seen during hikes in Europe, absent the rifugios and Europeans you would encounter along those trips.
The pools that are the highlight of this park were suffering from what seemed like low water levels but they were stunning regardless. Their coloring was a contrast in yellow and bright blue and again showcased water in a way we had never seen before. We walked the loop at the top but then hiked back to the cable car rather than taking the path downhill.
Once we’d returned to the road at the foot of the cable car we reunited with our driver and headed to the airport with time to spare. We were in line at departures in less than an hour and headed back to Chengdu nearly on time.
After we'd arrived in Chengdu and piled into a cab to head home we waited for the driver to insist that we change our plans. Or compel us to make an adjustment of some kind. But that conversation never came.
Instead, we just sat back and drove into the grey urbanscape, wondering how two very different places can be so close together in the scheme of the world but so far apart in every other way.
(Aside from the noodles. Seems you can always find a decent bowl of noodles in Sichuan.)