When we went to dinner with our new friends in Beijing, we asked them to put together a dream itinerary of their vast and intriguing country. Though some of the places on their 8-destination list like Xi’an and Chonqing were familiar, others were completely new to us. The first surprise, Dunhuang, proved too remote for our timeframe, as it would have required a 2-day train ride each way from Xi’an. The spectacular caves there filled with centuries of Buddhist art will have to wait for our next visit. The hardest place to pronounce on the list, Jiuzhaigou (sounds roughly like Jew-zai-go) did make the cut, however, as it was a mere 12-hour bus ride from Chengdu. Given only a few pages in the various Western guidebooks, Juizhaigou is one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists, and with good reason. Touted by the tourist board as “fairyland on earth,” it is an oasis of fresh air, majestic mountains, and crystal waters in an otherwise polluted and crowded landscape.
We were tempted by the raving of the Chinese over an area largely ignored by foreigners. When we discovered there was a Sheraton resort in the remote setting, the deal was sealed. We called and booked two rooms for three nights using Tom’s frequent guest points. Even if the scenery let us down, we could take long, hot baths, sleep in soft, fragrant beds without our sleep sacks, and swim in a heated indoor pool. And there probably wouldn’t be any cockroaches (don’t even ask).
The bus ride, which had been touted as smooth and relatively painless, was neither. The bus was clean (at the start) and no one smoked, both good. What was bad was that it came equipped with shock absorbers specially engineered to reach alpine heights with every bump in the road, and there were many bumps. Sitting in the back we watched some spectacular scenery pass by, but found it hard to appreciate as we cracked our skulls against the ceiling with each pothole. The serpentine ascent into the mountains was laden with switchbacks which added to our discomfort and left a few members of our party green in the gills. Fortunately the driver stopped frequently for bathroom and snack breaks so we could stretch our legs and gulp large doses of fresh air.
The Sheraton did not disappoint and neither did the park. Admission was steep but included a pass for a bus that shuttles visitors between the various landmarks. We gawked and gasped as it drove us past turquoise colored lakes (there are 114), thundering waterfalls (there are 17), and picturesque Tibetan villages (there are 9). We jumped off and hiked as often as our little people could handle it but took great comfort in the fact that motorized transport was never more than a few hundred meters away.
The Chinese are proud of this park and take it seriously. Our guidebook explained that when World Natural Heritage Organization officials visited in 1992, “Jiuzhaigou was such a natural beauty that they were shocked straight out of their unexpectedness for their admiration of nature’s extraordinariness…” The government prizes this national treasure sufficiently to do the unthinkable in China: they have made it a no-smoking zone! Remember, this is a park. It is outdoors. Do officials really fear that droves of smoking tourists can effectively pollute the pristine mountain air? No matter how illogical, we were glad for the ban, especially since it seemed to be enforced.
Not wanting to miss a single spot of Jiuzhaigou’s beauty, many of the Chinese visitors make a point of stopping and photographing themselves at each and every landmark. A few guidebooks had warned that their habit of hopping off the bus, snapping a picture, and hopping immediately back on could mar the experience for enlightened Western outdoor enthusiasts, but since the number of tourists was relatively few, we found it charming and were periodically guilty of the same behavior. I suppose it is fine for die hard, true blue backpackers to dismiss convenience and the trappings of tourism as beneath them, but when traveling with children, these amenities are worth their weight in gold.
Perhaps I’m partial to the camera happy Chinese because they are almost universally kind to us (Xi’an excepted). We saw only four other Westerners at Jiuzhaigou and no one spoke more than a few words of English, yet we felt at home and knew that people would bend over backwards to make us happy. As usual, we tried to repay this kindness by complying with the countless requests for photographs. Asher is undoubtedly the star of our clan and with promises of ice cream and souvenirs from us, she will often indulge her Asian admirers. She does not appreciate the attention but definitely enjoys the treats. And if a Chinese enthusiast offers an Oreo bar up front, she becomes all smiles and poses without hesitation. People literally drown her in hugs and offerings of fruit, nuts, and tchotchkes, which is overwhelming given that at home and in Australia and New Zealand, she is just another child who people frown on for climbing on things that shouldn’t be climbed on or throwing a fit over snack food at the grocery store. She walks on water here, and if she is unhappy, we incur the disfavor of her adoring public.
After two relaxing, beautiful oxygen-rich days in Juizhaigou, we endured an even bouncier return bus ride to Chengdu with a driver and copilot who felt the ban on smoking in busses applied to everyone but them. We received offers to stay with one couple north of Beijing, where unfortunately we will not be returning, and with a friendly pair of young men from Tibet. Tom met them standing on the side of the road when we stopped for an hour to endure some inexplicable traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. We met lots of interesting people during this hiatus. Together we breathed the once again black air, marveled at the vehicular logjam, and exchanged essential tidbits of information through gestures and broken speech. Much to my dismay, the most common question for me these days regards my age. Tom has learned to say the number in Chinese, but I feign ignorance. Does anyone know how to say 26 in Mandarin?
Oh, I almost forgot. Here’s the yak.