I was only in Chengdu for one night, but seeing it demonstrated just how ascendant China really has become. While boasting a long history, most would never equate it with metropolises like Shanghai and Beijing, yet it has three times as many people as Chicago (and over 14 million in its metropolitan area), with huge shopping areas, towering buildings, and brand spanking new freeways connecting it up. There are scores of these massive cities whose names you have likely never even heard in this country. At this point in China, “brand spanking new” was the calling card. Everything was so neat and planned (from small Shigatse all the way to this huge urban area). Also packed as hell, but it’s China after all. The Mao House, where I stayed the night, was an excellent and very helpful hostel, but I was just passing through, and after a walk around the area, I got to bed early for my departure to Jiuzhaigou and its National Park the next morning.
The bus ride up to Jiuzhaigou was one of those darling 6-10 hour affairs I got so used to in Peru, winding through valleys and passes and past more insanely clean and new-looking tourist towns with hulking statues of people looking straight out of Dynasty Warrior. Jiuzhaigou town is a tourist trap as well, and utterly packed with Chinese tourists (although I did see one other white dude and an Indian couple), but the main attraction is well worth the annoyance, price (50$ park entrance and transportation and 50$ bus ride up), and effort.
I’m one of those bad apples who’s seen Chinese Yellowstone or Yosemite before the real article in my own country, but it’ll be interesting to see how they compare in the future. First off, all those entry fees are clearly being reinvested in the park, as I haven’t seen nicer, better maintained trails and walkways anywhere, and staff were constantly on the hunt for litter and the like, with garbage cans never too far away on the main pathways (something Korea might take note of). And before you think this is some sort of model propaganda paradise, ask if you’ve ever heard of the place, or know anyone who has. This is almost exclusively a Chinese tourist destination. Start learning your Chinese now- China’s middle and upper classes are positively burgeoning, and they’re still a manufacturing economy to boot (which must take some staggering exploitation to pull off, but still). China’s economy will pass the U.S.’s in our lifetime. It’s just a matter of simple math and time.
Let’s get back to the park. It has two forks, and the bus I got on smack at 7 a.m. (go as early as possible to avoid the crowds, but regardless, you won’t be able to for long) headed up to the Primeval Forest. Once I got out, I purposely zagged when the crowd zigged, and got a blessed 30 minutes of freedom by myself in the snow-frosted evergreen forest. It’s hard to describe, but it was almost a religious experience for me- enough to realize why folks like John Muir became as attached to and protective of the forest as they were. It was preternaturally peaceful, with only the sounds of dripping frostmelt breaking the silence. After a few minutes, I noticed some movement a few dozen yards away. It was a panda! Okay, before you get too excited, it was only a red panda (and soon three of them), the raccoon-like cousin to China’s most famous native, but still, it was incredible to see them scamper around, playing. I didn’t get close enough for a picture, unfortunately, and eventually the yelling tourist hordes found us, at which point they scattered into the underbrush. Still, for a 15 minutes or so, I witnessed a state of pure grace.
With that, i started heading down the trail to Swan Lake, now swanless in Fall, but still a pretty sight surrounded by stark cliffs and colorful foliage. From there, I bussed down to Arrow Bamboo Lake (also arrow bamboo-less in this season) and, of course, the panda-less Panda Lake. This latter, though, had stunning clear blue water, only to be topped a couple of kilometers later (I must have walked 15 in total) by Five Flower Lake, whose stunning array of colors led its way through the short Peacock River and Pearl Shoals to the incredible Pearl Shoal Falls, which even in this comparatively dry season rank among the most beautiful falls I’ve ever seen.
From there, it’s a long slog down to Mirror Lake (oddly, the least reflective of the lakes when I went, although it’s much more so in the summertime, when Zhang Yimou included it in his movie, Hero) and the comparatively disappointing Nuorilang Falls. By this time I was exhausted, but hastily ate on the run (mmm… preserved eggs and cashew nut crackers) and took the bus up the other fork to Long Lake, nestled in the 5,000 m Min Shan Mountains and reflecting their snowy glory.
After that, a very congested track led down to Five Color Pool (on the sign, “Colorful Lake”), which should be called Five Unbelievable Shades of Blue Pool.
After this, I fell asleep on the ride down, but revived myself in time to walk another kilometer plus on my poor feet past Sleeping Dragon Lake, so named because an underwater shelf apparently looks like a dragon- I didn’t see it, but it was still as gorgeous as anything in the park.
My last stop before heading back for a well-deserved rest was Bonsai Shoals, where an odd trick of geology stranded fertile plots of ground just under the surface of the water, allowing for stunted bonsai trees and flowering bushes to grow midstream. While undoubtedly a more impressive sight in the spring, it was a good end to a great day. Well, my dinner of cold yak meat in Sichuan pepper sauce probably qualified as that. Tasty, but a little sour and very oddly mouth-numbing, not so much due to the heat (which was still hot) but some other property of the famous pepper. So, that was my good end to a great day, then.
This is actually pork in sichuan pepper oil… also delicious.