Spring break has come! Only about a month later than everyone back in the U.S., but it’s finally here. With a week off for independent travel, I set off with two friends (Christine and Michele) to explore Sichuan Province in Southwestern China. We left campus at 2:30pm on Friday, and a 150 yuan taxi ride brought us to Pudong International Airport about an hour later. Our flight was considerably delayed and finally left at around 7:45pm, a full three hours behind schedule. I called the hostel upon arrival at around 11:20 to let them know we would be late. We then took a cheap local bus and short taxi to Chengdu Mix Hostel Backpackers (that’s actually the official name of the place…don’t ask). At check-in, we asked about the bus to Jiuzhaigou for the next morning. They immediately got nervous that we didn’t already have bus tickets and said we would be extremely lucky to get a ticket in the morning. We finally hit the sack (in this scenario, “sack” is a particularly appropriate word; these beds were basically a piece of plywood) at around 1:30am.
However, our rest was short lived as we woke up at 5am, took a cold shower, checked out (a mere five hours after checking in), and made our way to Xinnanmen bus station. The ticket office wasn’t open yet, so we wandered around until we finally found out that it was supposed to open around 6:20am. We then took our place lining up behind the gate. As the gate opened at around 6:15, it was as if from a scene from any family Christmas movie – people rushing the gate, sprinting to the ticket counter, and then pushing and shoving their way to the best possible position. The three of us played right along and ended up towards the front of the line. We were thankfully able to secure three tickets on the 8:20am bus for 146 yuan (about $20) each. We sat around in the station for about an hour and then go to board our bus. We are lead not to a bus, but rather a beefy-sized van at the back of the bus depot. Despite feelings of sketchiness, it seemed legitimate enough, so we got on and made conversation with the adorable old Chinese couple in front of us. Once the bus was full, and I mean full, we left the station at 8:15am for our theoretically ten hour journey to the magical land of Jiuzhaigou.
A quick introduction to Jiuzhaigou: Meaning “Valley of the Nine Villages,” Jiuzhaigou is a gorgeous national park known for its indescribable natural beauty. Situated in northern Sichuan, Jiuzhaigou is relatively close to the Tibetan Plateau and its native people share many cultural similarities. There are somewhere around 1000 indigenous inhabitants, all from about 110 families. These people practice an animistic pre-Buddhist religion called Benbo; and Jiuzhaigou is thus scattered with various stupas, prayer flags, and prayer wheels. This interesting culture, coupled with incredible natural beauty, makes Jiuzhaigou an incredible heaven on earth.
The bus ride was fairly uneventful. Despite the fact that everyone else on our bus seemed to know each other and proceeded to talk/scream at each other the whole time, the ride was rather smooth. We arrived in Jiuzhaigou at around 6:30pm, bought our return tickets to Chengdu, and checked into Migu International Youth Hostel. My Mandarin was immediately put to the test when I had to explain our confusing booking situation with the non-English speaking hostel receptionist. Because there wasn’t any one room available for our three days in Jiuzhaigou, I had to book three separate bookings in three different rooms. This took a while for the girl to figure out, be we eventually got things straightened out and moved into our six-bed dorm style room in the basement of the hostel. Definitely sketchy, but pretty decent for 30 yuan per night (less than $5). We ate dinner, checked some emails, and went to bed.
Jiuzhai Valley National Park (otherwise known as simply Jiuzhaigou) is an absolutely spectacular place. I honestly don’t think I can adequately describe its beauty. We spent two awesome days exploring the epically huge park. Each morning, buses brought us to the top of one of the park’s Y-shaped prongs. We then hiked/bused our way down, exploring the various lakes, ponds, waterfalls, and forests that lay in our path. I think the best way to give you a sense of the park is to simply post a bunch of pictures. Enjoy!
One specific incident of note occurred on day one of our adventures in Jiuzhaigou. Many popular tourists attractions throughout China offer traditional style clothing that can be rented for about 20 yuan ($3) for kitschy photo ops. Following the resplendence of Long Lake, I had to take the kind old Tibetan woman up on her offer and deck myself out in Tibetan-style robes. I paid my fee and then Michele and I set off on an epic photo shoot. It was super fun and we got some ridiculous and hilarious shots.
After two days of full-on hiking, we were all natured-out and awakened early Tuesday morning for the ten hour return trip to Chengdu. Again, there was nothing of particular note for this leg of the journey. At around 6:30pm, we arrived back at the clumsily-named Chengdu Mix Hostel Backpackers, checked into our room, at a quick dinner, checked some emails, and went to bed.
Wednesday was our day for exploring Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. Despite forecasts of rain and ominous clouds all day, we somehow managed to enjoy a rain-free, albeit it wildly humid, day. We first made our way to Tianfu Square, Chengdu’s city center and home to the world’s largest statue of the great Chairman Mao Zedong. The statue was certainly imposing; however, I must confess that I was a bit disappointing. Considering the fact that the glorious face of Mao graces the surface of every single piece of currency in this country and was adorned on the wall of nearly every household (up until about 10 years or so ago), I was expecting a bit more grandeur. That being said, the sculpture was still impressive. We moseyed around the square for a while and then made our way west towards People’s Park. Now you may be asking, “People’s Park? Well which one?” Haha, or you may not. But regardless, it would be a great question because I have yet to visit a Chinese city that does not have it own people’s park. In fact, China (or more specifically the Chinese Communist Party) loves to refer to the things of “the people.” From the “people’s republic” to the “people’s currency,” add the people’s in front of just about any noun and it immediately sounds more pleasant to the Chinese ear (or so the Party tells me).
Chinese people love public parks. For those of you who have heard my stories or seen pictures/videos from my adventures at the Temple of Heaven public park in Beijing last summer, the scene is much the same. Chinese parks are the center of city life, especially when it comes to the elderly. Gossip, recreation, music, and even family matters are all done in public parks. With all this excitement, we spent a solid four hours or so just taking in Chengdu city life.
Things got particularly interesting when a random old Chinese man walked up and started hitting me with his badminton racquet. Apparently that was his way of inviting me to play with him. I brushed off the webs of my rusty sports skills and started a pretty intense badminton volley with the old man. We went on like this for a good twenty minutes and had a great time. This is precisely why I love Chinese public parks so much. There are people dancing, opera (if you can call it that) being sung (screamed?), and taiqi being practiced everywhere you look. The best part is, these people always love to see foreigners. Especially because I can chat with them in Chinese, they love to spend as much time with us as possible. They always get the biggest kick out of me not only being in China, but also speaking Chinese and hanging out in their local parks. It was definitely an awesome experience.
However, Chengdu’s People’s Park got even better when we realized they had their very own “marriage market.” I had heard tale of these marriage markets in Beijing and Shanghai, but had yet to see one in person. Basically, these “markets” are just sidewalks lined with single-page personal ads.
Mostly attended by parents and grandparents, these marriage markets are the ideal way for meddling family members to ensure the successful marrying off of their son or daughter. It was definitely a sight to be seen. Reading through some of the ads was hilarious. From old men looking for women under 35, to young nerdy guys emphasizing their “amiable personalities,” the marriage market is a perfect example of China’s blurred line between modern and traditional.
After some tea and Chinese card games at one of the park’s traditional tea houses, we headed for the Tibetan Quarter in search of a restaurant lauded by a bunch of fellow travelers and guide books. After a longer than expected walk, a public bus ride, and more walking, we finally found Khampa Tibetan Restaurant. As per the advice of several friends, we ordered the fried yak meat (apparently an extremely common and traditional meat in Tibet). It was incredible! Seriously, so delicious! Who would’ve thunk yak meat could be so good?
On Thursday, we caught up on some much needed sleep and then journeyed to the bus station to catch a ride to Leshan, a city about two hours away from Chengdu famous for its incredibly large buddha. And incredibly large it was! Carved into the side of a mountain in 803 (no, I didn’t forget a digit, it really is that old), the Leshan Giant Buddha is the largest carved stone buddha in the entire world. [Actually, I'm just realizing now that at this point, my "Buddha Bucket List" is looking pretty good. Largest carved stone buddha at Leshan, check; largest seated buddha at Tian Tan in Hong Kong, check; and tallest bronze buddha in Bangkok, Thailand, check.] As far as the buddha in Leshan, it was commissioned by a monk in 713 in an attempt to pacify the uproarious waters surrounded the mountain.Miraculously, once construction was finally completed about 90 years later, the waters actually did calm down and became much safer to travel. Many hailed this as a result of the spiritual powers of the buddha, yet many scientists agree that nearly a century of rock and debris helped to change the tides and calm the waters. All that to say, this buddha is pretty spectacular; hands down the coolest one I’ve ever visited. After hiking up the mountain to reach the buddha’s head, we began our decent to its gargantuan feet. I quickly realized how grateful I was that no one with a fear of heights or claustrophobia was with me; the steps leading down were not only massive and uneven, but while one side of the wall constantly felt like it was caving in, the other wall seemed to get shorter and shorter, allowing me to realize how easy it would be for one slip to lead to my immediate demise. That being said, we made it down the buddha, took an obscene number of photos, and then began our hike back up. Seriously, the more time I spend in this country, the more I begin to understand how everyone’s so skinny. From dancing in public parks all day to hiking up ridiculous mountains/buddhas/monasteries/etc., these people don’t mess around.
Finally, our last day in Chengdu brought me to my most exciting and anticipated location of the entire trip, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. As the natural habitat to what’s left of China’s dwindling (i.e. nearly nonexistent) wild panda population, Sichuan is the logical location for the center of China’s giant panda breeding program. After the thirty minute bus ride out of the city center, we arrived at the research base at around 8am. With an ever so light drizzle and a cool breeze, the weather was perfect for panda watching (because when the weather’s too hot, the pandas all retreat to their plush, air-conditioned enclosures). This place was unbelievable! No where else in the world can you see pandas (adults and babies) so up close and personal. They are kept in huge, natural enclosures, which gives you the awesome opportunity to watch them behave as the would naturally. After a while of watching and picture taking, it was finally time for the greatest moment of my life…HOLDING A BABY PANDA !@$#!%$@#^%$@%$!!!!!! I paid my outrageous “donation” of 1300 yuan (about $200) and received my certificate, t-shirt, and DVD. I then put on my hospital gown, gloves, and shoe covers while waiting in line for my turn. Once I entered the back room where the panda holding takes place, I just about died. Right there before my eyes was an adorable seven month old panda being held by a random white girl! I got my camera ready and excitedly watches as the five people in front of me had their turn with the panda.
Once the line reached me, I was told to sit down next to the guy currently holding the cub; the handler then proceeded to lift and fling the adorable bundle of preciousness onto my lap. The woman in charge of taking pictures for people then did exactly what I asked her to do and began snapping away at about a mile a minute (kilometer a minute?). I was absolutely in my glory! The panda was absolutely adorable; so soft and cuddly. At the end of my few minutes, it even latched onto my hand. I’ve never felt more at home and Asian in my entire life! Despite the rather steep price tag, I would do it again in a heartbeat; when else will I get the chance to hold and cuddle a panda cub?! Another check off the bucket list and one incredible life experience to add to the list of awesome adventures here in China!
We then got up on Saturday at an ungodly hour, made our way to the Chengdu airport, boarded our flight, and finally made it back to good old Shanghai at around 1pm. I’m now broke and exhausted, but it was a phenomenal trip! We had a great time and it was wonderful to see a different side of this huge country. With only three weeks to go before I head home, I’m quickly realizing that my time in China is coming to a close. I still have so much left to see and do, so stay tuned for more updates!