We left Shanghai early Wednesday morning to fly to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. We checked into our hotel then went to the bus station to buy tickets for the next morning to travel into the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau and on to Jiuzhaigou. We stopped to buy fruit and found a hotpot restaurant for dinner, then home to sleep before our early start. The photo shows the “plain” broth – chock full of all sorts of freshly chopped herbs I couldn’t identify, and some Sichuan pepper. The fresh fish came with some sort of chili paste spooned on it so we got some zing in our soup anyway.
We left our hotel before 7am Thursday morning. The bus from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou takes 10 hours, driving about 400km (250miles) up the Min River. There are flights that go most of the way to Jiuzhaigou, but they are expensive, and a taxi from the airport to the town costs more than a bus ticket the whole way from Chengdu! We paid about 150 RMB ($25) each for our one-way bus tickets. About 1.5 hours into the drive we got to Dujiangyan at the foot of the mountains, and from there climbed steadily most of the day. The road follows the Min River most of the way, although there are also tunnels cut through the mountains to make the trip shorter. We drove through 15 tunnels, I think, and more were under construction.
This trip used to be longer and more dangerous, with bad road conditions and regular accidents. Apparently, 10-15 years ago a bus would roll into the river every other month… Now the drive is much safer. The roads were in good condition the whole way, although in a few places the road narrowed to a single lane where rocks were on the road, or workers were in place. There were also a lot of visible landslide protection measures; some of the metal mesh strung up to protect the road from falling rocks was obviously very well used. We got stuck in traffic behind an extremely minor bingle between a bus and a car that blocked two-way road almost completely for a while, and later we saw the aftermath of a collision between a bus and a truck. The bus driver’s window was badly smashed up – I hope the driver was okay. Other than that, traffic moved smoothly the whole way.
In May 2008 a massive earthquake hit the area we drove through; Wenchuan, less than 100km from Chengdu, was the epicentre of the quake. About 70,000 people died in the 8.0 quake and millions were left homeless. I felt the quake while at work in Langfang that day – it was a sensation of dizziness, as if I were about to faint, as the ground rolled beneath me. Tall buildings in Beijing and Bangkok swayed for several minutes following the quake – several of my friends had stories about objects moving about the rooms they were in. About 80% of Wenchuan’s buildings were destroyed in the quake; as our bus drove past the town we noticed that all the buildings seemed quite new and a lot of construction was still ongoing. We also saw remnants of the destruction, such as a thick concrete bridge that collapsed into the water was left as it fell, with a sign to mark it. The destruction of infrastructure in such mountainous terrain severely hampered efforts to get rescuers and supplies into the worst affected areas following the quake. Many small mountain villages went a long time on their own before help arrived.
The seat in front of me on our bus was occupied by a young girl from Jiuzhaigou town. Ni Xingdan is 18, the youngest of 5 children, and was returning home after her first year of university in Chengdu. She said her parents were away in Inner Mongolia for work, but she spoke to her older brother and an uncle on the phone along the way. She enjoyed chatting with me from time to time (and Esther, through translation), and introduced us to piba, a local fruit similar to an apricot. She was one of many, many people on the trip to assume that I was a tourist and Esther my translator, and upon finding out Esther is Korean, to exclaim at just how Chinese she looks.
As in other parts of China, even tiny scraps of land by the roadside were cultivated. I was surprised at just how many different crops I saw. In the lower river valley there was corn, beans, soybeans, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips and another root vegetable I think might have been sweet potato, along with lots of fruit trees – apples, peaches, walnuts, and cherries. There was a bit of terracing, with small plots carved out up the hills, but most of the growing seemed to be done closer to the river. Once we climbed higher, rice and wheat were added to all the rest, along with quite a number of small honey farms – 20 or so hives near a stall by the road where fresh honey could be purchased in large jars. There were wildflowers all over the place – pink, purple, white and yellow – especially a little higher from the river.
Higher up the village architecture changed markedly. We saw large houses made of shale and wood, with huge piles of firewood alongside, as opposed to the whitewashed concrete look of the simpler dwellings downriver. In some areas there were rows of very simliar structures I can only assume were mass constructed after the earthquake. By this stage the rest stops all had albino yaks saddled up for tourists to mount and take photos on – for a price, of course. The stalls sold dried fruit instead of fresh, and had more and more Tibetan jewellery and charms for sale. The indigenous peoples of the area we were now in are Tibetan, albeit living outside the province of Tibet. There are lots of Tibetan people in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, both of which border Tibet to the east.
Soon we climbed to a fairly flat valley, which was extremely green, full of verdant rice terraces and small villages – a far cry from the rocky slopes behind us. When we reached Songpan we caught our first glimpse of snow-capped mountains in the distance. We passed the turnoff to the airport and now I was in familiar territory – back on roads I travelled with my parents in October 2009. The drive across the plateau and then down into the Jiuzhai valley took another 1.5 hours or so.
I was surprised by just how lush the forest was as we made our way down. My last trip had been in autumn, and while it seemed quite green to me at the time, I now realised the difference. It seemed that everything was overgrown with unbelievably bright green leaves. There were pretty daisies by the roadside, and thick deciduous trees contrasting their bright grass green against the deeper green shades of the pine trees. The change in foliage had been noticeable as we climbed – at a certain elevation there were suddenly pine trees on the slopes, until a certain point higher up the hills at which the vegetation stopped.
Almost ten hours on the dot from the time we departed Chengdu we alighted at the bus station in Jiuzhaigou, took a taxi 2km up the road to our cheap guesthouse (we definitely got what we paid for…) and then went out in search of dinner. We ate spicy yak meat and a local mushroom as well as some stock standard Chinese fare. Then it was back to our room for a game of monopoly deal before bed, ready to explore the park the next morning….