Jiuzhaigou: natural paradise with a side of Vegas

21 to 25 May 2017

Leaving the heat and history of Beijing behind, it was time for a few days in the natural beauty of northern Sichuan province. It was a refreshing change to go from 35 degree heat to around 15 degrees as we stepped off our direct flight at Huanglong airport, which sits at an altitude of 3448m and is surrounded by tall snowcapped mountains. 

Our accommodation had arranged for a taxi transfer from the airport to the hotel, a roughly 2 hour drive. This proved to be one of the more hair-raising journeys I’ve done as the driver pushed the limits of overtaking and speeding along the wrong side of the road along hairpin mountain bends. My broken Chinese of “Màn shì hǎo de” (slow is ok) finally seemed to get through to him and the last hour of the journey was slightly more relaxing. We got into our guesthouse – the Tibetan Barley Yododo Inn – late at night and although initially a bit taken aback at the glass wall separating the bathroom from the bedroom, we were too tired to care much!

Our first two days were spent exploring Jiuzhaigou National Park and all its beauty. See separate post here. Once we had soaked up all the sights of the park, it was time for some other exploring.

Having heard good reports of horse-trekking in the region, we decided to do a half day horse ride into the mountains. While it was a beautiful area, it was not the greatest experience overall. We had slightly underprepared for the weather and forgotten that sitting on horseback doesn’t keep you as warm as walking does. It soon started to rain. And finally, the tour guides insisted on leading us at a deathly slow walking pace and kept a death hold on the lead rope even when I asked to ride on my own. Admittedly, it had been a long time, but while at school I did several years of horse riding lessons, horse camps, and spent many afternoons trail riding alone with a friend who had horses so I was pretty comfortable riding on my own and staying in control. After I insisted a couple of times, my guide dubiously dropped the lead rope and let me ride ahead, but throughout the 4 hour trip she kept grabbing the rope back at any opportunity (despite there being no indication at all that either the horse or I was out of control!). So in the end, it was a fairly frustrating experience (probably for the guide too!). Anyway.

The high point was our rest stop half way through, as we lit a campfire to warm up and boil a batch of yak butter tea.

I can’t say I would give it a rave review, but perhaps for those who are happier than me to be led (and in better weather) this would be a great experience. For me, I was just thrilled to get back to the hotel and into a hot shower!

Now, obviously the main reason that we had come was to spend a couple of days in Jiuzhaigou national park. I had already seen photos of the park so I knew what to expect there; I was just hoping that the photos hadn’t lied. (They didn’t.) I also knew that the area was mountainous and beautiful and potentially quite cold. I knew that the limestone terraces of Huanglong park would be good to visit on our last day before our flight. I knew there was horse-trekking through the mountains available. I knew that the area would be somewhat touristy and crowded. I knew that Sichuan was famous for hotpot.

What I did not in any way expect was that directly across from our accommodation was this view…

China - Jiuzhaigou - romance theme park 3
Songcheng Romance Theme Park

That’s right. China meets Las Vegas. A massive “Romance” theme park with giant buddhas, tall towers and bright lights flashing! Just what every national park scenic area needs. Each evening, tour bus after tour bus would pull up outside and release hundreds of tourists to watch a local cultural stage show, shop for touristy trinkets and buy overpriced food. It seemed totally out of place in an area of otherwise totally natural, unspoiled beauty.

However, spending 4 nights staring across the road at this monstrosity had us intently curious about what made so many Chinese tourists go to this park. We had to check it out so one night (after partaking in a traditional hotpot, complete with yak meat and a bottle of Chengdu’s finest red) we booked tickets to the Romance show one night…

Wow. Just wow. It was quite the combination of genuinely amazing performances, highly technical stage production, 3D effects, a lot of emotion – and some sheer tackiness! Flying carpets, moving seats, water sprays and a simulated earthquake just to name a few special effects. I don’t want to ruin it for those who plan to view this show, but it takes quite a sudden turn towards the end and touches on the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008 in which nearly 90 000 people were killed. Do take heed of the warning posted outside: “prepare heart pills and tissue paper in advance.”

I still have no idea why it wasn’t enough for people just to enjoy the natural beauty of this region, but hey, if a Chinese cultural show is your thing then you could do worse than this one.

After what seemed like far too short a time, our last day in Jiuzhaigou arrived. We booked a driver to take us to Huanglong national park (around a 3 hour drive), wait with our luggage and then take us to the airport for our flight back to Beijing.

It was still slightly early in the season and there were signs warning that water levels were low (although they were still happy to charge peak period ticket prices of course!) but we took a chance and followed the crowds to the cable car. It was a fairly quick ride up to the top, and then around a 2km walk to the start of the scenic terraces area. We could definitely feel effects of high altitude and the mountain chill – in fact, as we reached the top it even snowed briefly!

Huanglong is famous for its limestone terraces and blue pools of water. It definitely wasn’t as spectacular as Jiuzhaigou park, but it’s not a bad place to spend a few hours while you’re in the region. I can imagine it would look pretty amazing in autumn with high water levels and the orange/yellow/red of the surrounding trees.

Once we finished taking in the scenery (and enjoying the novelty of snow!) it didn’t take too long to walk the 4km downhill back to the entrance and catch up with our taxi driver. It was only lower down that it was obvious how low the water levels were, as the pools got emptier and emptier.

I’m not sure how actual visitor numbers compared between the two parks, but certainly Huanglong felt more crowded to me because it was a smaller space, and only a single trail from the cable car to the terraces and then down to the entrance. There were also very few eating options available, so we once again turned to the trusty vita-wheats and vegemite for lunch, and finished off the last of our provisions. Once we reached the airport, we were actually too early to check in and there was no seating available in the airport except at the one lone cafe… so we also paid a ridiculous amount to eat what was basically 2 minute noodles and sit at a table! That cafe must make an absolute mint out of tired, hungry travellers who just can’t be bothered to fight on the outrageous marked up prices.

China being China, our flight back to Beijing was of course delayed. I will say that Huanglong is not the most entertaining airport in which to spend several hours! We finally took off about 2 hours late and eventually got back into Beijing around 1am. Thankfully our trusty driver (the same one who took us to Jiankou) got us quickly back to a friend’s very comfortable apartment, and bed! Zzzzzzzzzz….




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