This title has two meanings. Both the nature to be found in China and the nature of Chinese tourists and their method of experiencing that nature. The last leg of our Sichuan trip brings us to 九寨沟 National Park (jiuzhaigou, jo jai go). The park is in northwestern Sichuan, very near Tibet (it used to be part of Tibet) and was “discovered” in 1984, its beauty prompting the government to open up the region to tourists.
Before we got here though we went to (the former site of) Du Fu’s thatched cottage. Du Fu was another Tang Dynasty poet, a contemporary of Li Bai, who lived in Sichuan for four years as an official in a thatched cottage that featured in several of his over 1,400 poems. The real site was agreed upon in 1811 and the Qing dynasty erected a massive memorial garden there. A new incarnation of the garden is still open, and is yet another example of beautiful Chinese landscaping. While the potted flowers and zither music piped through rock speakers give it a slightly Disneyland feel, it’s still beautiful with towering bamboo, peaceful ponds, a pagoda, and the foundations of some of the Tang era buildings. Below is one of his poems allegedly written in the cottage, entitled Pleasant Rain on a Spring Night and translated by yours truly (there’s probably a much better English translation, but I didn’t bother looking for one).
Good rain knows its cue, coming just as spring arrives.
It comes with the wind as night settles in, nourishing countless lives.
Field and river, all pitch black, just a lantern as the boatman drives.
At dawn wet flowers droop, heavy with water as Jincheng* thrives.
*Old name for southern Chengdu
We then flew to Jiuzhaigou, up on the plateaus. We stopped briefly at a Tibetan village to have a brief look, I had hashbrowns on a stick, delicious. We then started to descend, and I must say the (former) Tibetan seriously resembles the Yosemite Valley at times. Remarkable.
Day two: It’s been an emotional one, ended well, but I’ll try not to let this develop into a rant. So Jiuzhaigou basically resembles a big Y, 14 km long on the bottom and 17 and 18 km for the left and right arms respectively. Some background: Chinese tourism, especially to nature scenic spots can and often does consist of large groups of tourists wearing matching hats getting on a bus, getting off at a scenic spot, taking pictures to prove they went, and immediately getting back on to ride to the next spot. This hurts my soul every time I see it, this is not how you are supposed to experience nature, I feel like I need to work for your scenery, I need to feel like I’ve accomplished something. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the absence of trash on the trails and the way the engineers built boardwalks around a lot of trees (I would have preferred a nice trail to a boardwalk, but I suppose you can’t have everything)
So the original plan was to take the bus to the top of the right arm and hike 31km all the way down, doable in the eight hours we had. Things started to go downhill though. We got off the bus before the top of the arm to be told it was closed, as was the trail leading to the next lake (and the lake itself). So we hopped on and off the bus, managing to hike a total of maybe 4km at most before we made it back to the fork. Needless to say I was kind of pissed. Allegedly the trails were closed due to fire danger, but for some reason I was getting incredibly hung up on the fact that my long hike kept getting interrupted and I was being forced to do the Chinese style of “hiking”. Even more so when we took the bus to the top of the left arm to see Long Lake (beautiful as you’ll see, but I was still hella salty). Ride 20 minutes, stand there for five, ride back to where you started. We get back to the fork and are resolved at least to hike the last 14km home, only to find that yet more trails were blocked. At this point I and four other classmates just said fuck it and decided to walk the road until we found an open trail. Fortunately we did (for a while) and I finally felt better. One other fun tidbit, this was the first time someone has asked to take a picture with me and then handed me their baby (something that has happened to many of my classmates). The mom was nice and the kid (maybe two or three) actually spoke some decent English, I hope she grows up to do great things.
Why the emotional duress in the first place though? It took me a while to figure out. First of all hiking has become somewhat of a religious experience for me. It’s a way for me to escape the system of life and experience something new/mystical. It also has its rituals and rites for me. Packing my backpack, making sure I have enough food, planning the route, and most importantly having a nice long strenuous endeavor with the reward of scenery at the end. When things go poorly and I’m not allowed to observe these rituals or accomplish my goal, I get very put out for lack of a better term, depressed even. This time it was compounded by the fact that I was still forced into a system, the system of the buses and blocked trails Jiuzhaigou has created. Fortunately, the walk down the valley, over and under brushes, on and off the road was enough of a rebellion for me, and I feel quite exhausted and accomplished currently. Accomsted if you will, Stephen Colbert eat your heart out. I’m going to have to do some thinking about changing that mindset for the better though and see where else it pops up in life.
I should probably get on to the scenery though. The place is gorgeous, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but it’s main draws are the towering mountains and crystal clear water that comes in at least five different colors depending on the time of day, season, and the rocks underneath. One of it’s lakes was used to shoot a scene from Zhang Yimo’s Hero, which is an amazing movie if you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to it.
The park’s elevation ranges from 1800 to 3300 meters above sea level and at the highest levels everything’s still frozen, leading to the wonderful sight of Long Lake you can see below. Like if Hetch Hetchy completely froze over; shocking. It still saddens me though that so much of the valley is so strictly regimented,whereas Yosemite is mostly wide open to those with the proper equipment, training, and drive. This felt too much like a tourist attraction. I realize through all of this though that I should quit whining and appreciate the opportunity for what it is. It truly was amazing. We leave back for Xi’an tomorrow, and I’m a little apprehensive about my ability to transition into study mode after yet another three weeks off, we’ll see how everything goes.Thanks for sticking to the end of this long and somewhat self-indulgent post, pictures below as always. Lots of pictures.