Some would argue that any trip to China should include the Great Wall, Shanghai and the Terracota Warriors. But there is much more to China than that. There are colourful lakes and mountains with thousands of stairs leading to golden temples. Enter Sichuan’s wild territories. Enter the other China.
A walk in the park
You would think that going to a national park tucked away in a corner of the vast Sichuan province would guarantee some peace and quiet. Especially if the trip requires a 10 hour bus journey from Chengdu or a flight into one of the highest airports in China (3000 metres). And you would be wrong.
Here is an extract from any travel guide:
From 1st October, there is a 1 week national holiday, avoid traveling in China during this time at all costs.
Right. Bring it on!
Jiuzhaigou National Park is as famous for its blue waters as it is for the epic crowds that arrive here from all over the country, especially during national holidays. Saying that it gets busy would be an understatement. Want some proof? Have a look:
But let’s start from the beginning. The park has a “Y” shape, with two valleys stretching some 14km each, right into the heart of the mountain range. There are frequent buses that take you around the park stopping at the main sights. Alternatively, one can follow the trails, away from the main roads.
Following every recommendation we took the bus all the way to the very end of one of the valleys until we reached Virgin Forest. It may be crowded and, at roughly £30, the entry fee may be a bit steep, but boy this place is beautiful!
From there on we walked down using the trails where, much to our surprise, the crowds disappeared. Suddenly it was just the two of us, walking through the forest on a rather chilly day, enjoying the beautiful scenery.
According to the legend, Juizhai Valley appeared when goddess Woluo Semo dropped her mirror into the human world. It shattered into 114 pieces which created Juizhaigou lakes. Gotta love this Chinese legends!
Spaniards in the midst
One of the 4 sacred buddihst mountains in China, Mt Emei stands a short train ride away from Chengdu. The summit, at 3000 metres, can be reached easily in just 2 hours by using a bus and a cable car. But that would be too easy.
The alternative is a path full of… stairs, loads of them. Nearly 10 hours worth of stairs. And up we went, armed with chocolate, bananas, water and hope, plenty of hope.
The first few minutes of stairs were the toughest (together with the last half an hour) but we were excited and keen and in just under an hour we had reached our first site of the day: Wannian Temple.
From there on, more stairs. And, as in Jiuzhaigou, everyone disappeared as they made their way back to the bus depot. For the next 4 hours we saw less than 10 people. It was tough, and all the fog and rain meant we missed out on views that were meant to be breathtaking. On the other hand, the midst gave the climb a beautiful mystic aura. Every hour or so a temple would appear, given us a chance to rest our legs.
At 2000 metres we found our bed in a buddhist monastery, named the Elephant Bathing Pool. Basic dorms, no showers, tasty vegetarian dinner and electric blankets. Could have been perfect if it wasn’t for the annoyingly rude staff that sort out accommodation and dinner.
We shared dorm with a great bunch of young Chinese guys, most of them had not seen a foreigner before. After the usual round of pictures, we shared stories about politics, internet access in China, money, family and many other things. They said that, unless you are rich, life in China is a tough one. The government manipulates the news so that people only get to hear bad things about other countries. That sounds familiar – I thought to myself.
Just before sunrise, the sound of the monks’ chants was the perfect alarm clock and we set off for yet more stairs. The first few minutes were hard, very hard. But after a while, our legs got used to it again and with chocolate, cashew nuts and bananas providing a good source of energy, up we went to find, once again, the crowds.
Not far from the summit a huge parking lot and a few hotels marked the start of the last leg of the climb. And it was packed. From there on, just over an hour until the Golden Summit. It was windy, rainy and our legs were screaming for help. But after nearly 9 hours of climbing steps over two days, we saw Jinding, the Golden Temple, and it felt good, so good.
Sadly, we say goodbye to China as we feel it is time to move on to our next destination. But before that, a long train journey, rice terraces and homemade food. Yunnan, here we come!