China's Yellowstones Revisited
Sep 18, 2004
David Rich 1000 Words
C h i n a ' s Y e l l o w s t o n e R e v i s i t e d
To leave Pakistan I happened to cut through China and found myself going to the same old places, places that had changed enormously in the three short years since my last visit. At the top of the revisiting list were the Yellowstones of China, Juizhaigou and Huanglong National Parks, strikingly gorgeous spots that by themselves would justify a trip to China. The easiest way to Juizhaigou and Huanglong is on a four day tour for $105 out of Chengdu, capitol of Sichuan Province, because public transportation and hotel bookings are iffy in this remote corner of the Province, way up near the border with Tibet. And things have definitely changed.
My second tour wasn't the racist affair I'd had three years past: see China's Yellowstone buried three years back on this website. Instead the new tour guide was friendly (especially the tour guide in training who somehow fell asleep on my shoulder one afternoon) while my fellow tourees were again extraordinarily kind, anxious to help at every turn though again I was the only person of "European descent" among the incredibly many thousands who thronged China's Yellowstones.
Only one person spoke English; Dan, the manager of a five star hotel south of Beijing doing the tour with six other hoteliers. Dan kindly clued me in on the essentials after every lengthy announcement including the essential, "Up at six, breakfast at 6:30, bus at seven," the drill for four days.
The ride into the boondocks of Sichuan Province, near Tibet, was faster the second time around. This time we headed due north from Chengdu on a brand new freeway before laboriously cutting over to the Western mountains and the tortuously sinuous road up to Juizhaigou. The park entrance has changed even more enormously. Instead of the half dozen hotels from three years ago there were fifty some including a half dozen five star jobbies from the Sheraton Jiuzhaigou to fancy Chinese palaces. Plus the buses shuttling tourists inside the park were luxurious Korean mega-transports instead of the wheezing antiques from three years back and the roads were superhighways instead of narrow dirt tracks. Though Jiuzhaigou was crowded with more Chinese tourists than ever the park infrastructure was immaculately organized and ran far smoother.
The same as my first time around hotels were included in the Jiuzhaigou tour according to the rate paid for the tour; the cheap seats followed a pattern: two beds separated by a console for lights and TV, slippers for wading flooded bathrooms, and a thermos of hot water for tea because water is potable nowhere in China. Probably I should have shelled out an extra twenty five dollars (last time only ten dollars extra) and gone the luxury route. Food was again included, up to fourteen courses with whole fish, mystery meat, and mystery veggies, eaten with bowls of rice accompanied by two mystery soups. Tea preceded the meal for swirling in one's bowl, and then tossed out the window or onto the floor, "cleansing" the bowl. The boardinghouse reach was mandatory, practiced simultaneously by a dozen hands armed with slashing chopsticks. Severing a fish carcass was reserved to the native wielders of chopsticks. Except for the largess of my fellow tourees I would have remained fishless for the duration
The first forty-mile section of Jiuzhaigou begins with a primeval forest criss-crossed by crystal streams flowing into colorful lakes that fan into a 300-meter-wide waterfall with dozens of cascades. The mirrored lakes range in color from pale fluorescent blue to deep turquoise with strangely shaped underwater trees. The Chinese take every opportunity to pose in front of scenic spots dressed in ancient costumes: red velvet dresses with rainbow striped aprons and wristbands, sleeves traditionally a foot too long to facilitate twirling, topped by matching pillbox hats crowned with ermine and dangling pearls, resulting in photos greatly appreciated by foreign tourists. The lakes in September reflected autumn foliage of canary, orange, and scarlet. Tibetan villages flanked rivers and lakes, inhabitants in their own native dress, restaurants serving yak butter tea and yak fritters next to ornate temples and white stupas gaudily painted in reds and blues.
Marvelous Huanglong is surrounded by ten peaks over 16,000 feet and is considered (by me) among the most gorgeous national parks in the world. But then I'm smitten by travertine pools which Huanglong boasts in spades; split-level ponds strung out over four kilometers (2 ½ miles) up to 12,000 feet, brilliant pools ranging from fabulously fluorescent blue to pale Persian cobalt fading to teal, also interspersed with Tibetan temples, vendors of cheap snacks and pairs of poor Chinese men toting fat Chinese tourists in chair litters on bamboo poles, most of the passengers vigorously inhaling bottled oxygen.
The trip back took one and a half days with six stops to purchase yak meat, visit a Tibetan Temple, select Chinese medicines unfortunately lacking English subtitles, sample antler velvet, taste exotic honey aphrodisiacs, sample a variety of Chinese teas and mandatorily (for the Chinese on my tour) purchase 'cow combs'. Cow combs, made from the horns of cattle, reputedly turn the unruliest hair silky.
After four days the characters on the bus became vivid: the assistant judge who got a kick when I chanted, "Here come da judge"; the sexpot married to the older man; two guys snacking on raw garlic to cleanse their breath, pressing cloves on me at every meal, failing to mention whether the gift was preventative or therapeutic; the honeymooners; the couple arguing loudly and long; Ms. Five-Star Prissy Pants who turned up late at every stop and the ever present Ms. Orange tour guide, whose outfits changed to purply-blue, really red, and on the last day, ghastly green, still vivid after three years. My fellow tourees on the latest trip were far more sedate, content with collecting jade, Chinese coins, fancy carved vases, fossils, daggers and Buddhas, all purportedly ancient and all fake. A good time was had by all, especially me, feeling like Marco Polo, one of the few westerners who had experienced the Yellowstones of China, twice.