Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Clear turquoise lakes full of fallen trees, mournful and stoic like patient ghosts; deep, dark forests full of wild flowers and streams; sharp, crystalline skies that fight for space with taunting dark clouds; water that falls over hillsides of black rock and courses over forested plains; reflections and shadows that are capable of mesmerizing even the most focused monk; Tibetan villages brightly painted with fantastical imagery and colors of hot orange, yellow, and red; mist that swirls in the tops of dark pine trees on mountainsides... This is Jiuzhaigou, a nature reserve in Northern Sichuan, located within the borders of an autonomous zone for Tibetan and Qiang minorities.

We traveled 12 hours north of Chengdu to get to the park aboard a ramshackle bus, sitting in seats so tiny we were forced to wedge our bodies into place sideways. But the uncomfort was well worth the trip. The drive itself was not without its own kind of beauty. The road we took wound its way along a scenic river up, up, up mountains and transported us from the urban city sprawl of Chengdu to wide vistas and the rustic countryside. The road was elevated high on the side of the mountains,crossing over concrete bridges that spanned vast valleys and through endless tunnels hazy with exhaust. Far down below,several towns lay in ruins -- a curious site, entire cities demolished. Concrete and brick rubble in piles next to a fast moving river. Several buildings were still standing, but without a roof; inside the walls were painted egg shell blue. Farmers on sheer hillsides worked the land with hoes in between rows of corn and wheat growing on impossibly steep angles.

Soon after lunch (we had a dish of pork fat and fried green onions... yum), I buried my nose in a book for several hours, getting lost in the story, which was set in America. It's always a shock to lose myself in a novel about a place that is familiar and then looking up,I find myself back in the foreign in an instant... it takes a moment to readjust to the sights and sounds surrounding me and it always sends my brain into a momentary spasm of confusion. The sensation reminds me of the butterfly feeling that happens to the stomach when driving over a bump in the road -- when I was younger, my friends and I knew of a certain road with just the right sized bump and we would drive up and down that road, over and over again, just to feel our stomachs tingle.

At one point during our drive to Jiuzhaigou, I looked up to find a whole new scene outside of the window. Long haired white yaks with brightly colored pompoms and other decorations stood on the side of the road with 'hill people',Tibetan jewelry and souvenir stands. There was a mist in the air which had become chilly in the high altitude. Little girls walked through the streets of villages with rosy, pink cheeks from the drizzle and cold. The hills and land: bright shades of green -- steep, straight, flat. Black,craggy mountains with snowy crowns looked like they were glowing as the gray sky opened up just above their peaks to white heaven.

We arrived to Jiuzhaigou in the setting darkness of the evening and checked into a hotel outside the park entrance for one night. Our plan was to get up early the next day and set out for several days in the reserve. According to the LP guidebook, we could stay overnight in the park, but that was published three years ago and as we've found in China, a fast developing nation, three years can be a lifetime. The rules have changed and a sign in the ticket office proclaims staying in the park to be 'prohibited'. But we'd met an Israeli couple on the bus the previous day and had quickly transformed our separate groups of 2 into a single group of 4. They thought we should ignore the sign and we agreed, albeit with some trepidation.

Eli and Nalda were on their honeymoon and despite this, they were still up for traveling together in Jiuzhaigou. Our group, somehow, formed itself naturally, without effort. We were strangers when we boarded the bus from Chengdu, but by the time we got to Jiuzhaigou, we were all travel partners. It's interesting how this happens -- it's happened to us before, in India with a Dutch couple -- there is never a discussion about it, no plans are made... It just happens. It reminds me of being a child, when making friends is as easy as walking up to another kid with a toy you'd like to play with. Then next thing you know, you've been friends, sometimes best friends, with that kid for as long as you can remember... it's rare for that to happen in adulthood, except when you're on the road.

The four of us ventured into the park and began our search for a place to stay. There are three Tibetan villages and as fate would have it, we found our hideout in the last village, the most remote, in the home of a Tibetan family. It had been a long haul with all of our packs on. We were all quite ready to take anything by the time we found the place. As I walked into the village, an old man carrying a baby on his back flashed me a smile and waved his hand towards his home. He had a twinkle in his eye and though our communications with him and his family consisted of pantomime and grunts, it was relatively easy to secure two rooms for the night, where we dropped our packs and began our first day's hike of Jiuzhaigou.

Being a place that one is not supposed to stay except for a day, there are few food options. We spent that first day eating pre-packaged food found in a concession area. It was slim pickings as nothing is recognizable and in China, there is a lot of room for error -- are those pig's ears in that bag? Are those spiced intestines in that one? Are those worms or pickled vegetables? We played it safe -- Benjamin bought peanuts and I bought chocolate Oreos. Eli and Nalda bought dried lotus(?) and more peanuts. This constituted our breakfast and lunch.

Jiuzhaigou is immensely beautiful, as well as huge. Most of the other 'tourists' there were Chinese on package tours, taking the bus from one scenic spot to another.. getting off to snap a few quick pics before heading off to the next place. We chose to take the bus to the top of the mountain and walk down along the plank pathway through forest, by lakes, and over streams and waterfalls. Towards the end of the day we noticed the busses were no longer going up the hill and when we made our way to the road, we were picked up by a truck going down. We determined that the park was closing soon and the employees were trying to herd the visitors to the exit. It was only 5 p.m. and we didn't want to stop our hike, much less be taken to the exit. Our packs were at our 'guesthouse', a place we weren't supposed to be, and it was totally out of the way from the park's exit.

Conversations ensued as to what to do. Would we be 'caught'? What would they do... what should our story be? Benjamin and I spent a lot of time discussing the options, strategizing a 'plan A', a 'plan B', and a backup plan if either of those should fail. The Israelis didn't seem to mind. Eli said they are used to breaking the rules -- Americans and Europeans, he said, do things the 'right way'. We discussed the cultural differences between us, them being comfortable in bending the rules, us being wary of what might happen to us if we do. I started to feel like a big wuss. Was it the Catholic guilt instilled in me in childhood? Or was it the overabundance of rules and consequences in America that had me thinking to hard? In the end, it mattered not... escaping the park employees proved to be a non-issue.

The four of us retired to our rooms -- simple rooms -- with thin, bare walls and a wood plank floor... we stayed there without access to a real meal (the old man's daughter did sell us some instant noodles and boiled eggs), and went to bed early as the family was concerned about people seeing the light from our rooms after the sun went down. We spent the evening, up unto the point of 'lights out', sitting on benches that lined a courtyard in front. We talked about the day's events, the potential for a very cold, very uncomfortable night in our spartan rooms, and the lack of real nutrition after miles of hiking. Eli went out looking for 'real food' -- he is prone to do this. He and Nalda have survived the eating hassles in China because he goes into the kitchen to point at what they want. He took off looking for food in the village's surrounding homes and though he came back empty handed, he did have a few stories. That family over there, they wouldn't sell him their goat. And that family over there... they invited him in to watch a VCD -- the only material possession in their home was their TV with VCD player and a cell phone.

The night passed with deep dreams. Everyone was surprised when I announced, in the morning, that I'd had one of the best night's sleep I'd had in a while, despite the fact that I slept in all of my clothes, the same clothes I spent the day hiking in (windbreaker and all). There were down comforters which proved to be quite warm in the night's cold of an unheated wooden room. The windbreaker did its bit, too.

We spent our second day hiking and found a lunch buffet to refuel. We had all kinds of intricate plans to get back to our guesthouse before the busses stopped going 'uphill' again -- we'd learned our lesson from the previous day. Nevertheless, we found ourselves in a scramble towards the end of the day to get back to our remote village to retrieve our packs before the busses stopped running altogether. It all worked out. We got back uphill on one of the last busses going that way -- got our packs -- and hoofed it downhill until we found a bus taking park visitors to the exit.

All of mine and Benjamin's scheming looked all the more silly when we simply walked through the exit with no questions asked. We laughed at the exertion and worry spent on getting 'caught'. The four of us got rooms at a hotel near the bus stop and reveled in the fact that there was a hot shower and real beds with real pillows waiting for us. We were also excited to eat a real dinner at a little restaurant near the hotel -- a place with kindergarten-sized chairs and tables. This is how the Chinese eat... on miniscule furniture that we all, especially Benjamin, looked ridiculous sitting on. Eli, of course, went into the kitchen to select our meal. He found a live fish swimming in a tub of water. They grilled it and served it to us 'Sichuan style'... in hot, spicy oil.

We woke the next morning early for a quick bus ride (3 hours) to Songpan where we were to get on horses for three days... more to come...


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