Paul's Travel Pics

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Late Autumn in Huanglong National Park

This turned out to be one of our favorite places on our 18-day trip of Sichuan. Huanglong completely blew us away with some of the most unique and spectacular scenery in China, or anywhere else for that matter.

Granted, our expectation of Huanglong was toned down when fellow travelers recommended visiting Huanglong earlier in our itinerary before the supposedly more impressive Jiuzhaigou. This was supposed to be Jiuzhaigou's little brother, and we honestly didn't expect such world class scenery.

It was a world of turquoise and white, a 4km long promenade of glacial water cascading down half-frozen waterfalls and opaque limestone pools. Combine this unearthly landscape with an elevation as high as Lhasa, Tibet, and we're in for a memorable hike.

We did visit Jiuzhaigou the next day, and Huanglong was no less breathtaking (pun intended) in our opinions. To put things into perspective, the hike was said to be 4 hours up and down; we spent about 4.5 on the downhill alone, deliberately slowing down for photos and for breath at this high altitude.

The photos below documented our visit of Huanglong National Park on November 15, for anyone planning to visit this alpine paradise this late in the year. Just two days later the only accessible road would be blocked due to heavy snowfall, and the National Park would soon officially close until next April.

We began our day from the medieval walled city of Songpan, the main transportation hub in Northern Sichuan. Buses to Huanglong were discontinued in the off-season, and we resorted to hiring our own private vehicle for Huanglong and the subsequent transfer to Jiuzhaigou in the late afternoon.

Of the 6 different drivers we hired over our 18-day trip, Ma Shifu was among the 2 drivers I would wholeheartedly recommend. A semi-nomadic yak herder in his former life, Ma Shifu came from a Hui Muslim clan in multi-ethnic Songpan and grew up having these mountains as his own backyard. On this day we would traverse the mountain saddle known as Xueshanliang, a typical alpine ridge adorn with Tibetan prayer flags and rock piles.

08:45. At 4000m above sea level we stopped for photos, a sea of clouds beneath our feet stretching as far as the eye could see. While the skies were clear at this altitude, Ma Shifu knew how quickly road conditions could change and warned ominously of a chance of snow. His prediction would come true in less than 48 hours as we would be delayed flying out of the local airport.

09:40. Ma Shifu dropped us off at Huanglong and promised to pick us up in the afternoon. We arrived on the last day of the ropeway's seasonal operation, taking advantage of the quick ascent and mitigating against overexertion at high altitudes. The entrance ticket would be cheaper by RMB 140 (CAD$25!!) the next day, but we would receive the same discount visiting Jiuzhaigou. I'd rather visit Huanglong while the ropeway was still in operation.

11:00. Our first peek of the Five-Coloured Pond came after 50 minutes on a well-maintained planked trail. According to timestamps on our photos we would spend a full hour here, yet it was hardly enough time to appreciate the 700 calcified pools of various hues from yellow to turquoise to emerald green.

The menacing presence of oxygen bags for rent along the trails was a sober reminder of the present danger of altitude sickness. This was precisely why we opted for the ropeway -- the highest pools were accessible via a 3km walk on level ground, instead of a taxing 4km climb at the treacherous elevation of 3600m.

Thin oxygen didn't prevent the construction of a series of shrines to venerate the Yellow Dragon that allegedly transformed into these sparkling pools and waterfalls. Appearing on most postcards is the so-called Huanglong Ancient Temple which, despite its serenity most of the year, would host a boisterous fair attracting thousands of Tibetans, Hui Muslims and Han Chinese alike every summer from hundreds of miles away.

11:50. We stopped for a snack break in front the Rear Temple. The open square would be perfect for Tibetan Circle Dances during the temple fair, which is held at midsummer rather than during Chinese New Year as is the custom in most of the country. There is simply no road access to this remote corner of the Tibetan Plateau in February.

12:20. We took a glimpse of the Middle Temple and its collection of statues passed down from the Ming Dynasty. Curiously the temples seemed partially Taoist (hence the legend of the Yellow Dragon) and partially Buddhist (hence the Hall of Arhats), which added to the intrigue on this line of religious divide between Tibetan Buddhists from the southwest and Hui Muslims from the north.

12:40. The spread of calcified pools narrowed as we approached the Flamboyant Pond. Only a handful of locations in the world can boast travertine pools of this massive scale, and Huanglong is arguably most obscure compared with Yellowstone and Pamukkale.

12:50. At Azalea Pond we approached the halfway point of our descent. Having spent a week elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau, and perhaps aided by the Tibetan Rhodiola that we had been taking as herbal supplements, we fortunately did not feel any symptoms of altitude sickness.

13:00. Arrival at Mirror Pond, which wasn't so mirror-like on this frosty day.

13:10. On the way to Bonsai Pond we passed several Tibetan villagers selling various incenses and snacks. Our lunch on this day consisted mainly of the yak meat jerky we purchased at Mount Siguniang, and we would have no proper meal before arriving at Jiuzhaigou that evening.

One reward for visiting in this frigid season was the view of these lovely frozen ponds throughout the length of the creek. Sadly we were likely among the last groups of visitors to enjoy this rare sight, as we would hear of the National Park's seasonal closure from a taxi driver just two days later.

13:30. Leading towards the bottom section of the creek was a giant cascade of glacial water down a gentle slope known as Seven Miles of Golden Sand. Late arriving visitors could still be seen puffing and climbing in the direction of the Five-Coloured Pond, 3.5 hours from gate closing.

13:40. Arrival at the pale blue Lianyan Pond, now three quarters of the way down from the top.

The temperature was below freezing even under the warm afternoon sunshine, and for the first time we had to utilize every layer of clothing available in our backpacks. But it was all worthwhile arriving in the most beautiful time of the year, when half the ponds had frozen into a magical translucency while the other half remained brilliantly crystal blue.

14:00. An array of half-frozen waterfalls guided our descent on the last stretch of the hike. In a momentary lapse of judgment I followed behind several Chinese visitors and treaded across a thin sheet of ice to access a frozen waterfall, which was incredibly risky in retrospect as everyone could have collapsed into the freezing pond.

14:10. At last we reached the Welcome Pond at the bottom of the valley, nearly 4.5 hours after setting out from the cable car station. The downhill route was probably doable in 2 hours without stopping, though 4 would be realistic IMHO with spectacular scenery almost every step of the way.

Ma Shifu was already expecting us near the entrance, eager to bring us back across the 4000m mountain pass while the ever-changing weather was still cooperative. The sea of clouds from the morning had largely dissipated for now, only to return within the next 24 hours to blanket the plateau with more snow.

On our way back Ma Shifu shared fascinating stories of yak herding in his younger days, of highway banditry in this isolated corner of 21st Century China, and of the power of (surprisingly!) matriarchal clans among his tribe of Hui Muslims. You could tell the straightforwardness and honesty of this man from his sense of responsibility in his work, and I would have no problem recommending him to fellow travelers who are able to communicate with him in Chinese.

We bid farewell to Ma Shifu at a teahouse north of Chuanzhusi, where he handed us off to a Jiuzhaigou-based driver to take us to our destination. Our private vehicle from Songpan to Huanglong to Chuanzhusi to Jiuzhaigou cost a total of RMB 500 including waiting time, which I found quite reasonable for 180 km of winding mountain roads. The next day we would take on the longest hike of our trip, at the world famous valley of Jiuzhaigou.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Songpan - Citadel on the Tibetan Plateau

We entered the medieval walled city under magnificent blue skies and blinding UV-rays.

The oxygen was thin, the air was crisp and the midday sun was scorching down our foreheads. Nobody was too concerned about sunburns as everyone in town seemed to be wrapped up in heavy woolen chupas. It was November at the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

After recuperating on flatland for two days we returned to higher elevation, staying this night at an altitude of 2850m at the ancient Chinese bordertown of Songpan. Despite being nowhere near the modern national border, this was the northwestern outpost of many Chinese Empires in centuries past, hence the heavily fortified ramparts defending this narrow mountain pass leading towards the fertile plains of Sichuan.

This ancient market town has always been the confluence point of exotic cultures and ethnicities: Amdo Tibetans, Hui Muslims, Qiangic tribes and the Han Chinese. Little has changed over the past thousand years and our arrival at the bus station was met by Tibetan guesthouse owners and Muslim cab drivers alike, each trying to squeak out a living at this remote landlocked corner of 21st Century China.

Even today the local population remains extraordinarily multi-ethnic: nomadic Tibetan and Hui Muslim herders dominate the expansive steppes to the northwest, Han Chinese merchants settle mostly in town and along highways, and the Qiang people mostly congregate within their ancestral enclaves. Insert the backdrop of a windswept stronghold on the plateau and you have the Chinese version of the wild, wild west.

For centuries this had been the arena of military conquests and treaties between Tibetan kingdoms to the southwest and the imperial Chinese to the east. Peace was largely tentative and short-lived, though all rulers of this volatile region love to remind everyone of the medieval golden ages that culminated in the marriage of Princess Wencheng to legendary king Songtsan Gampo.

1300 years later the Tibetan king and his Chinese consort still watch over the peasants, now as symbols of ethnic unity in Communist propaganda. The locals don't seem to mind, as the statues have become somewhat of a tourist draw and a rare opportunity to tap into the new found wealth brought over by the increasingly affluent coastal Chinese.

Overlooked by most travelers as a destination on its own, Songpan finds visitors mostly on quick stopovers on their grueling 9 hour bus ride between Sichuan's top two attractions, Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou. For us it was the launch point into our mini-trip of Huanglong National Park and Jiuzhaigou's spectacular alpine lakes, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Arriving at noon after a 5 hour bus ride from Dujiangyan, it made perfect sense to stop for a night before tackling Huanglong the next morning.

Unmissable to any visitor is the town's Ming Dynasty fortifications, stretching up to the local mountain top in the form of a mini Great Wall. While much of the ramparts had been refurbished to meet 21st Century safety standards, there exist sections that remain untouched in their authentic earthen form, and can be climbed for free instead of the extortionate RMB 150 (CAD$27) to climb the refurbished sections.

Within those walls the town consists of mostly new reconstructions, after decades of devastation by everything from WWII Japanese bombings to 7.2 earthquakes to 21st Century mass developments. Vestiges of the Qing Dynasty remain, but only in the form of severely dilapidated houses in isolation. For a glimpse of the old Songpan one must climb above the city wall ...

... and into a pastoral landscape of the surrounding communes. Just steps away from the dusty market streets reside entire villages of Hui Muslim shepherds, still carrying on their age-old way of existence into the new millennium. Walking among the donkeys and the sheep on village paths one could mistake this for 15th Century, except for the occasional satellite dish on the rooftop.

Contentedly grazing away above the town were flocks of woolly sheep and perpetually roaming goats. Upon closer inspection the earthen hedge along the cliff was actually a medieval defensive wall of mud bricks and straw, complete with remnants of crenellations. This was the Songpan I had come for -- not the modernized town within the walls, but an ancient community of multi-ethnic natives striving for survival against the harsh winters and high altitude.

Arriving at the start of winter we came across not even one foreigner, the climate and elevation considered too hostile for domestic and international tourists alike. The odd adventurer would come specifically for horseback excursions to the Songpan Grasslands to the northwest of town, but mostly in summer months. By mid November even domestic Chinese travelers would resort to warmer destinations such as Yunnan and Hainan, leaving Northern Sichuan to those who didn't know any better ...

The regional specialties of yak meat jerky, wolf skin and Tibetan herbal medicine covered the length of the main drag. In a peculiar and perhaps unintended tradition of self-segregation the silversmiths were mostly Tibetans, restauranteurs mostly Hui Muslims, and supermarkets run mostly by the Han Chinese.

A most unexpected and welcomed sight in town was a SPAR supermarket for all our grocery needs, including energy snacks for our upcoming hike at Huanglong National Park. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, as the Chinese had also been embracing their Carrefours and Walmarts.

Near the western edge of town stood the brand new mosque for the local Hui Muslim population, built to gradually replace the old crumbling one to the north of the town walls. In a marriage of architectural styles the minaret was built in the form of a Chinese pagoda, something we also observed in Dujiangyan and Xi'an.

Our hotel was operated by a Hui Muslim family, the lady running the show while her husband operated yet another hotel 2.5 hours away in Jiuzhaigou. Booking a reliable hotel online proved quite a challenge as the smaller hotels hadn't yet advanced to the Internet age, while the larger hotels were concentrated 20km away at the town of Chuanzhusi. I made the mistake of booking without realizing one important caveat ...

We had no heat in our room at below freezing temperature! We did have lukewarm showers and an electric blanket to curl up under, but between turning off the water and diving underneath the blanket, it was a mad dash. The town's electrical grid was also unreliable and darkness came upon our entire block intermittently. At one point I offered extra cash to the owner to rent us a small electric heater for the night, except she didn't have one. To the locals it was just a normal wintery day.

This night in Songpan gave me a new perspective on the things I had taken for granted for years: a warm house, 24 hours hot water, reliable electricity, even the seated toilet which was a rarity in rural Sichuan. Here's my advice to fellow travelers: don't come anywhere near the Tibetan Plateau between November and March unless you're well-prepared for the cold.

While our hotel wasn't so recommendable, the locals did suggest a great little eatery along Highway G213, one minute walk from the statue of Princess Wencheng. Laosi Fandian was your typical Hui Muslim restaurant serving the local variation of Sichuanese fare, except for the substitution of pork with the regional specialty of yak meat.

We tried out this place for lunch and decided to return for dinner, which says something about the quality and affordability of the dishes. As expected in Chinese Halal eateries most items on the menu were either lamb or beef ... or yak actually, such as the pictured Red Braised Yak Tongue.

Two courses for lunch followed by a giant hotpot of Yak Meat and Wild Mushrooms for dinner, for a combined total of RMB 150 (CAD$26.8) over two meals. Prices for yak meat were definitely much cheaper than in Chengdu -- after all, woolly yaks were all they had in terms of cattle.

At 08:00 the next morning we would set out for the breathtaking scenery at Huanglong, on a private car arranged by our hostess. Was Songpan worthy of an overnight stay? This was the only intermediate stop between Dujiangyan and Jiuzhaigou that seemed interesting to me as a traveler, all other stops being tiny Qiang or Tibetan villages that required a private vehicle to access. So my opinion is a yes ... but only in a better-equipped hotel.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The New-Old Town of Jiezi

Quaint historic towns are always among our favorite places on our journeys. As we dedicated 18 days to just one Chinese province this time, I made sure to cover Sichuan's ancient towns and villages, from Langzhong to Shangli to Songpan to Danba's Zhonglu and Suopo.

Except this little town wasn't originally on our list.

This was the second half of our day-trip after spending the morning and early afternoon at Mount Qingcheng, the birthplace of Taoism and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. THAT wasn't originally on our itinerary either, but it turned out to be a pleasant half-day hike and we wanted something more. That's where Jiezi came in, almost as an afterthought.

The Old Town of Jiezi wasn't unknown to us -- in fact it's often promoted as one of the Ten Historic Towns (Shida Guzhen) of Sichuan -- there are simply higher priorities on our list. Sichuan is the ancestral homeland to a wide range of indigenous ethnicities and their 2000-year-old settlements, and towns like Jiezi has a lot of competition.

If I were to rank the historic towns of Sichuan, the Ancient City of Langzhong would undoubtedly be on top of my list. Smaller but well-preserved towns such as Shangli and Pingle would form the next tier. Then there is the extensively refurbished type such as Huanglongxi. Jiezi, fortunately or unfortunately, belongs to this third type.

But Jiezi has one unique advantage over its competitors -- its proximity to the internationally famous Mount Qingcheng. Basing ourselves in Dujiangyan it was easy to visit Mount Qingcheng for a half-day then take a 20-minute direct bus ride to Jiezi. And at the end of the day, Bus 102 returned us straight to Dujiangyan. It doesn't get much more convenient than this, especially in suburban Sichuan.

We arrived without even a map due to our spontaneous decision to visit, and as usual taxi drivers circled the bus station like vultures. Trusting neither the taxis nor the golf cart shuttles we started walking without knowing exactly how far and in which direction. Fortunately the way was well-demarcated by a long row of foot massage parlours and noodle houses, and in 10 minutes we reached the town's Paifang gate.

Every noodle stand in town claimed to be the originator of a local variant of noodles known as Dadamian, and each had its own blown-up photo of its founder on the logo. We ordered two small bowls to refuel after our earlier hike, and the noodles were all well-flavored and pleasantly al dente. But which shop had the original original Dadamian? That's China at its most authentic.

Most historic towns in China follow a tourism model in which the town would be enclosed, guarded and charging money for entrance, as typified by the likes of Xitang and Tongli. We half-expected popular Jiezi to follow suit, and were pleasantly surprised by the absence of ticket booths or pesky tour guides hawking for business.

But the Old Town of Jiezi that greeted us was anything but old -- the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 had destroyed most of that. Leading toward the town centre now is a wide promenade of limestone slabs and artificial rivers, flanked by brand new two-storey rowhouses in 18th Century Qing Dynasty style. Everything in camera view was clean and modern as exemplified by these contemporary statues designed as photo-ops for casual tourists.

There's almost an European feel to these airy townsquares and water fountains, except for the red lanterns overhanging the wooden verandas. Fortunately the remodeling was limited to just the main pedestrian zone -- 30 metres off to the side alleys and the real China emerged, with local women selling home-grown vegetables at the back of rundown three-wheeler trucks.

My wife's favorite discovery was an old-fashioned chestnut stand, luring its followers on this cold November day with its familiar crackling sound and hand-warming treats. In my mind few things pronounce Autumn in China better than the charred aroma of roasted chestnuts.

It was only last week when we visited another historic town known as Shangli, but the two couldn't have been more different in terms of refurbishments and tourist volumes. While Shangli still retained its streetfuls of Qing Dynasty houses and medieval bridges, Jiezi had lost much of its old self during the 2008 earthquake and had to reinvent itself into a picture-perfect tourist experience. While there is no doubt about the new Jiezi's commercial success, as a traveler I often wonder if this is the future for many of China's heritage sites.

But Jiezi isn't just a pretty face behind modern cosmetics -- there exists a genuine side in the backstreets where blue-collar laborers work, local grandpas hang out in mahjong parlours and off-school students and their moms zoom by on their electric scooters. Photogenic or not, that's the side that would interest most independent travelers, and it's still observable especially after the busloads of domestic Chinese tourists have departed in the late afternoon.

More importantly the locals seemed perfectly honest and content, as opposed to the entrepreneurism and aggressiveness we experienced in many such towns. Perhaps it's the laid-back lifestyle that Sichuanese people are famous for, something I can easily relate to as a Canadian.

One needs to appreciate the authentic Jiezi for what it is -- a 21st Century blue-collar town with remnants of a Qing Dynasty past -- instead of the 18th Century facade the tourist industry tries too hard to project. While it does sport a perfectly manicured, brand new face for the desires of mass tourism, there also exists an ungentrified side as represented by its working class townspeople. I still wouldn't rank Jiezi among my favorites, but there were aspects of the town that I found enjoyable.

Would I recommend Jiezi to fellow travelers? It's a good side-trip if you're visiting Mount Qingcheng like we were, and photographers would probably appreciate the atmosphere of the historic streets especially at dusk. But if you're a serious traveler and want to experience an authentic Sichuanese ancient town, I would recommend heading to Shangli soon, in case it gets devastated by another earthquake and gets redeveloped beyond recognition.

The trusty Bus 102 would take us directly back to our hotel in Dujiangyan. Two days on flatland was just the perfect cure for our slight altitude sickness at Mount Siguniang, though we had to return to the elevation of 2850m the next morning, at the medieval walled city of Songpan.