A Winter Wonderland

Written by Dec 20, 2006 21:12
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Escaping the Crowds at Jiuzhaigou National Park

The overloaded bus whined desperately as it struggled to make it to the top of yet another incline. There were ironic cheers from the small foreign contingent seated at the back as the antiquated vehicle finally crested a ridge, and we were rewarded with a stunning view down to the valley floor below, where the churning river resembled a small silvery ribbon twisting and careening between canyon walls. To my immediate right, a large, leathery-faced Tibetan woman wearing traditional clothing and outsized earrings was promptly sick out of the window, and then continued her conversation with a neighbour as if she'd just performed some routine bodily function. One glance at the two enormous parcels of yak butter between us and I knew it couldn't have been a belated effort at weight control.

It was late November, and we were heading towards Jiuzhaigou National Park from the Sichuan capital Chengdu. Our increasingly mountainous surroundings, the plummeting temperatures, and roadside blanket of snow marked the approaching Tibetan plateau. It was with a slight sense of trepidation that we counted down the kilometres to the park entrance – none of us were quite sure whether it would actually be open. Various travel agents had warned me that the park closed for the winter season, buried beneath impenetrable drifts of snow. After a journey of seven, backside-numbing hours, the thought of returning to Chengdu without a glimpse at one of China's greatest natural marvels was more than a little depressing.

Descending the winding road, almost doubling back on itself to counter the steep gradient, we entered the town of Jiuzhaigou in hazy, late afternoon sunshine. Row upon row of gleaming hotels and characterless, box-like holiday homes sprung out of the darkness, festooned with gaudy neon lighting. I groaned inwardly. Was this going to be another case of unchecked tourist hordes blighting China's beauty spots and cultural wonders? As we drove along the street, it became apparent that something was missing – people. No tourist buses, no baseball-capped holidaymakers ready to be marshaled like sheep into groups, eager to check off the sights in their glossy brochure. I wasn't sure if this was a good sign or bad. The absence of snow gave hope the park was still open, but the absence of people hinted the opposite.

Staring out of the window, vainly trying to see something in English that would tell me where the park was, I became aware that the Chinese passengers were greatly amused by something. Overhearing the word laowai several times, distinguishable even in the coarse Sichuan patois, I realized, not for the first time, that I and my fellow companions were the butt of our fellow travelers' good humour. The bus jerked to a halt, and the chain-smoking driver frantically signaled for us to get off. Struggling down the aisle, picking my way between assorted vegetables, spattered pumpkin seeds and what looked like spare parts for China's equivalent of the space shuttle, I had visions of being stranded overnight in a sub-zero town where nothing was open.

As the bus pulled noisily away, its occupants still chuckling at our imminent demise, a small, dwarf-like figure danced up to us, and asked in broken English if we were looking for accommodation. “Is the park open?” I replied, not willing to fork out 400RMB on a luxury penthouse if an immediate return journey to Chengdu was on the cards. “Sure – you can get ticket in morning 8 o'clock,” said our newly acquired friend, stroking his jet black beard, which for a Chinese male was surprisingly bushy. It looked as though our journey hadn't been in vain and we were about to have the run of an otherwise empty Chinese four star hotel – things were definitely starting to pick up.

Despite the disturbing photo on my newly-made park I.D. card, which hinted at criminal tendencies, I was allowed through the park entrance early the following morning. Even the small number of tour groups queuing to get in couldn’t dampen my spirits. It was our plan, if possible, to stay inside the park in one of the Tibetan villages dotted up the valley. The park minibus dropped us outside Shuzheng Zhai, a slightly kitsch but nonetheless picturesque village, complete with long, fluttering flags, ornate Buddhist prayer wheels and a monk burning incense by the main gate. Encircled by snow-capped peaks and pristine pine-clad slopes, it was a breathtaking spot to be based for the next few days.

Jiuzhaigou is a truly magnificent natural spectacle. Even so late in the season, the colour of the leaves that remained on the trees was dazzling - the reds, yellows and ochres perfectly complemented in their intensity by the deep, peacock feather hues of the various lakes and pools running the length of the valley. Below Shuzheng Zhai, clear, ice-cold water from the aquamarine Tiger Lake cascaded over icicle-clad falls on its downward journey. Higher up the valley, at the even more impressive Nuorilang and Pearl Shoal waterfalls, the sound of the Zechawa River became a deafening roar as it dropped over wide, crescent-shaped cliffs, sending out clouds of spray to coat nearby vegetation. Although I discovered some of the park's walkways were closed, this was more than compensated for by the lack of tourists - at times it felt like I was all alone (a distinctly odd sensation in China), with only the click of my camera shutter disturbing the tranquil silence.

A trip to Jiuzhaigou is special at any time of year, but if you're someone like me who values some occasional alone-time, then you should definitely consider a trip in late autumn or early winter. The beauty remains, but the busloads of daytrippers from the park's “golden time” have long since disappeared. Ignore the Beijing travel agents, pack an extra sweater and be prepared to see one of China's seven wonders in glorious solitude.

 More Jiuzhaigou Travel Reviews
1. <C> Fairyland on Earth KATIENCHINA from CN Nov 25, 2006 21:11
2. <A> A Glimpse of the real Jiuzhaigou… LEMONCACTUS from CN Dec 22, 2005 01:12
3. Jiuzhaigou ALMOND Oct 23, 2005 07:10
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