During my first May holiday in China, I headed to Sichuan Province — after a short stay in Chengdu, it was a long bus north to Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou, broken up by a brief stay in Songpan.
I didn’t realize during the planning stage that early spring is not the best time to see Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou, as the snow hasn’t melted. The best times to visit are late spring and early fall — the photos from those times are even more impressive than what I got.
My companion and I caught a bus from Huanglong to the town of Jiuzhaigou — the woman taking ticket money gave my travel companion the number of a Tibetan who hosted tourists inside the park. It was a chilly ride through the mountains of northern Sichuan as a little rain and snow fell along the road.
Exhausted from our hike through Huanglong, we stayed near the park entrance at the Jiuzhai Hotel — it had hot water for only a few hours that night for a shower and wasn’t overly comfortable. Sans comfort, we were enticed to wake up early enough to be some of the first people into the park the following morning.
The first day was rainy — the cold, light rain didn’t dampen the awe-inspiring views of nature. After more than six months living in Shenzhen, surrounded by millions of people, this was the most beautiful sight despite the rain. The low clouds surrounding the mountains gave Jiuzhaigou a more dream-like aura.
Tickets during the holidays were more expensive than other times of year and were only good for one day (usually they’re good for a few days). Fortunately, we were staying inside the park and didn’t need an extra ticket for the second day. Of course, staying inside the park is illegal, but rarely enforced. There are numerous houses throughout the park that are converted into small hotels — I assume the owners pay security to look the other way.
We stayed in the Tibetan village of Shuzheng — it’s the first major stop on the bus route through Jiuzhaigou. The building looked like a small apartment complex with a beautifully painted exterior. Inside the rooms were bare and equipped with a squat toilet. Unlike the hotels outside the park, this one had 24-hour hot water but no heat, which would’ve been nice in early May. Including a nice dinner it only cost us 100 yuan.
During dinner, I met a college student who grew up in Jiuzhaigou and was visiting her parents for the holiday. She told me that turning the region into a national park was good and bad — the children could now have an education, which took them away from the region to study in cities and it explained why I saw so few local children. She also said that the local lifestyle was forced to change — the Tibetans were no longer allowed to raise livestock, so all the food was brought from outside the park. But tourism brings in enough money for everyone to live comfortably.
We also met two young teachers from a music college in Chengdu who were on the same bus from Huanglong — they also took the phone number for the hotel from the woman on the bus. We traveled a while with them on the second day (until one forgot his camera on the bus and had to chase it down). One of them enjoyed singing Elvis songs, but didn’t understand the meaning — I tried to explain some, but it was difficult with his limited knowledge of English. They were entertaining for the evening since we weren’t allowed to exit the property to walk around the village after 8 pm.
The views of Jiuzhaigou are magnificent. At times, words fail to describe the beauty. It is like nothing I have ever seen or could ever have imagined. I could’ve sat and watched the rivers and mountains for hours.
Everywhere we looked there were pieces of Tibetan culture — brightly painted buildings, jinfan and longda sending prayers through the wind, and mills powered by the rivers (and some prayer wheels turned by the same flowing waters). It was at the temple in Shuzheng village that I was blessed by a Tibetan monk.
On the second day, we learned how to avoid most of the tour crowds and enjoy the peaceful silence that nature provided. We also learned that the “eco-friendly” transportation was not as great as advertised — they were normal, diesel-powered buses fitted with better exhaust systems. Still, it is better than allowing private transportation through the park — I could only imagine the traffic if the regular holiday crowds could drive through.
There were plank bridges that led away from the main road that most tourists seemed to ignore — of course, that’s where I wanted to walk. Just a short walk away, the noise of the crowds and buses diminished, and we were left to enjoy the sounds of nature.