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Cute cuddly pandas, a very big buddha, an early sunrise - then the hard sleeper from hell...
One can find in the airport at Chengdu a very useful CITS travel service who were able to recommend a good tour to Jiuzhaigou (our first main destination in Sichuan). This was supposedly meant to include a free night at the Jin He Hotel, which then in turn kicked in a free taxi-bus ride from the airport. Despite the promises, once at the hotel the staff stared at us blankly when we mentioned the free night. The same sort of expression that I'm sure Mariah Carey had when told about the sales figures of her latest album. Nonetheless we booked the 3 day tour leaving the next morning to Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong anyway as it was much cheaper than the lo wai prices we had been quoted by e-mail. The formal name of the hotel translated as 'Golden River', but all the literature said otherwise - proclaiming it as the 'No. 3 Hostel of Chengdu Military'. This explained the large number of men and women in green uniforms moving regularly between the restaurant, games room and karaoke parlour. Our room was relatively cheap (only 120RMB) and clean, but it was old and had many fixtures missing. They must've fallen off due to age and/or poor renovation (a fairly constant theme in the Chinese building industry) and/or a previous visit by 'The Who'. At least there was no karaoke parlour directly under us.
Late in the afternoon we went for a walk down to the main square which is dominated by a huge statue of the great helmsman himself, Mao Ze Dong. We pondered on what Mao would think now overlooking all the capitalist/imperialist signage that dominates the area. We crossed through the square and down to a famous Sichuan restaurant on Shandong Da Jie. There was no English menu but we managed to fumble our way through ordering what eventuated as a fairly ordinary meal. Returning to the hotel we stumbled upon an underground market street that literally stretched for kilometres. When after an hour or so we came to the karaoke bars and games parlours we decided it would be best to come up for air. Consulting the map we found ourselves a teensy bit lost. Well, rather lost actually. Despite this inconvenience we managed to navigate our way back and finally tucked ourselves in for the night. It was to be an early rising time in the morning.
Jiuzhaigou and Huang Long
Rule 1 for Chinese tour buses: Bring earplugs! This would be the most important lesson we were to learn in the next few days on the trip to Jiuzhaigou. We waited for a long time in the morning for the bus. After it finally arrived we moved onto another location where waited yet again for another lengthy period. Eventually we were moving, the tour badges were handed out and our guide was on the microphone with introductions. After the first thirty seconds we were already rummaging through our bags for tissue to use in place of the aforementioned earplugs. When it came our turn for introduction I just feigned the Chinese blank look and they moved right along. After our first toilet (see: smelly awful hole in the ground with exorbitant price paid for the privilege) break the bus began winding up through the hills accompanied by an awful clunking, a strong smell and the grinding of gears. About 11.15 we pulled in for repairs (see picture) and there we were to cool our heels for several hours, until they were to finally pronounce our bus deceased and summon another from Chengdu. At 12 we decided that we couldn't wait for lunch any longer (seeing we had got up so early) and ate a delicious Sichuan style meal at one of the nearby local restaurants. It was probably just about the best food of the whole trip so at least that was a silver lining to the situation. We went for a short walk while were waiting and were greeted with some astonishment by the locals. I think we were probably one of the few, or maybe the only, lo wai to ever grace their presence. Upon return we made friends with a small shop owner who took us into his courtyard and wanted to chat with us. He seemed really interesting and it was a pity there was such a communication gap. But soon the new bus arrived and we were once again crawling our way through the valleys and up into the mountains in scenery not dissimilar from NZ and Japan.
As we studied the sheer drops on one side a girl in the group introduced herself as He Xu Jing, and she was back in China on break from studying at Greenwich University in England. Xu Jing was to prove a vital friend for us over the next few days as we struggled through the complex arrangements of a Chinese tour. That's her on the right in the picture with members of her family and some family friends who all took us in graciously at mealtimes. With all the disruptions that day we did not get to our hotel until 10.45pm. We were served dinner before we went to bed, not that we felt like much. We also had to shower as the hot water was only available between 8 and 12 in the evening. By this time we had proceeded up to 2500 metres and it was getting quite cool. We didn't sleep well that night which we attributed to either the, A) late meal, B) high altitude, or C) the mad bloody barking dog with different coloured eyes at the back of the hotel. It didn't matter too much as we were hauled out of bed at 5.10am anyway for a 5.30 breakfast and a 6.00 start. The countryside was becoming distinctly Tibetan with herds of horses, Tibetan style houses, and people walking with their prayer wheels. The decibel level of the guide was even higher than the previous day, or so it seemed at that time, and we reached once again for the tissue paper.
Before (and since) we came to China Jiuzhaigou Valley has been the top spot that My wife has wanted to visit. And it was not to prove a disappointment. Upon arrival the guide and the authorities in general showed some excellent organisation - not always a common theme in the Chinese tourism industry. The guide bought everyone entrance and bus tickets and we were packed off to do our own thing for the day, as opposed to spending the entire time with the group trailing behind a guide with a coloured flag and very loud megaphone. Before we entered I was asked for my first photograph by a couple of ladies and this was to continue throughout the day. Fair dinkum, I could have asked for a fee as a 'minority' and made a bit of money on the side. Or maybe they just thought I was someone else. We covered everything during the day that we wanted to see and were not generally hindered by massed milling crowds. We didn't feel like lunch so we grazed during the day on snacks from our bag plus the exorbitantly overpriced drinks they sell throughout the park with a 150-300% mark up. TRAVEL TIP: Bring your own food and drinks - obviously. That night the rest of the group had forked out 150RMB for a tourist show but we managed to get out of that and rest up at the hotel, much to the chagrin of the guide who obviously gets a cut from each ticket sold. After much hounding we finally got them to turn on the hot water by 8.45 before settling down for an early night.
A couple of the many shots we took at Jiuzhaigou
The morning we were allowed to 'sleep in' until 6.10am. Yippee! We were under way around 7am with fog and light rain falling. Along the way to Huang Long there were many in minority dress trying to flag down the oncoming tour buses. Either wanting to get a free lift or tout their wares I guess. Maybe a bit of both, but none of them seemed to be having too much success. We were subjected along the way to a 90 minute stop at the obligatory tourist trap, this one for selling jade, along with what seemed like every other tourist bus in a 50km radius. Then 45 minutes on down the road we stop for another - this one for beef and breads. THEN, and yes, THEN we stopped for lunch at 10.45am! Here there were also gift shops with fake communist memorabilia, large knives and animal skins, including wolf, tiger and leopard. All rather depressing really. The local area was expanding rapidly as it will be the site of a new airport servicing Huang Long. Apparently there used to be an old airport there but it was, according to Xu Jing, only ever used for the transport of goats. Bizarre.
By 11.30 we were finally making our way up the new road to Huang Long along which several Tibetan tent communities were situated at regular intervals. As we got off the bus around 1.00PM we noticed many tourists with small inflatable style pillows. At first I thought that maybe they were for some form of transport down a stream but later found they contained oxygen for the high altitude. I would have loved to have snuck into the suppliers building one night and fill some of them up with helium or laughing gas. Imagine that - a whole gaggle of loud Chinese tourists laughing and talking in very high voices. That would be different. Despite only starting to climb at 1.00PM (due to all the required stops) we were told to be back for 4.00PM. Three hours is not really enough, unless you are an iron man jogger who is not interested in seeing anything on the way up. It's not helped by having only one path up and one down. We managed to get about 4/5 of the way up but were approximately 30 minutes late. It didn't matter as others were still arriving more than 30 minutes after us. We set off for several hours into the approaching darkness and eventually were into Mao Xian around 10.00pm. We struck some landslides on the way and thought at one stage we were spending the night on the bus, but fortunately it was not to be.
We were away at 8.15am, and stopping at the first tourist trap only 10 minutes later! This was supposedly a famous teahouse and in the foyer were large pictures of Queen Elizabeth II and Jiang Zemin. I'm not sure whether it was because they drank the tea from here or had actually visited. Probably the former - as I can't quite imagine Liz and Phil dragging their backpacks out here into the sticks. The area around Mao Xian is populated predominantly by the Qiang minority. The Qiang are a matriarchal society where the children take the mother's family name and women are allowed many husbands. Ten minutes on from the teahouse was another gift shop, then a further 10 brought us to a Chinese medicine shop. I think we could have walked back to Chengdu quicker. At 11.45 we stopped for lunch at a place where the stairwells had a stench remarkably similar to a toilet. This did not bode well for a pleasant lunch, especially as were seated just next to the stairwell door! Finally we get on the home stretch to Chengdu but they refuse to take the expressway before instituting a lengthy toilet stop just 25km from Chengdu. As one last impediment to our progress the guide mysteriously injures herself at a stop near the train station and we are left to wait in the bus while she goes to find a doctor. We decide to grab a taxi instead and book ourselves back into the Jin He for two nights.
TRAVELLERS NOTE: Don't bother getting your washing done at the Jin He Hotel. At 10RMB for a t-shirt you might as well burn yours and go out to buy new ones. We washed our clothes in the basin before I went out looking for tours to Tibet (without luck). I offered to bring pizza back for dinner but darned if I could locate any. I eventually stumbled onto a restaurant where they were prepared to sell me a pizza for 60RMB including a glass of red wine and a buffet salad. I then threw them into complete confusion when I asked how much it would be just for a takeaway pizza. After much consultation they said it would be the same price. After I pointed out that I would not be receiving any red wine or salad they went back into their huddle before coming up with the same verdict. I excused myself and went to KFC instead.
In the morning we had one of most enjoyable outings of the time away - a trip to the Panda Research Centre. It's a little difficult to reach there so we plumped for a taxi that was not too expensive at 35RMB and the entrance fee was only a meagre 10RMB. Due to the heat there were only a few pandas to see but it was still very worthwhile indeed, the two panda cubs being especially cute. They elicited the loudest cries of "kawaii!" from the hordes of Japanese tourists present. The whole place was very quiet and surprisingly bereft of local tourists for some reason. I guess it's probably the same with Aussies and koalas, or maybe it was just because it was a week day. After leaving the panda enclosure we bore up under the extreme noise of the cicadas (so it's not just the humans who are loud) and made our way to the restaurant for brunch. As we worked our way through the menu we got a constant 'lao' (apparently 'no' in Sichuanese) to everything we ordered. In the end we were able to procure some soup and fried rice which was more than enough anyway. After the meal we were lucky enough to find a taxi waiting outside and headed down to the CITS office.
At CITS we were looking for a trip to Tibet. We had been quoted a price of US$320 over the phone but by the time we made it to the office inflation had somehow pushed it up to over $600. There was also a few days to wait plus there was some question over whether we would be allowed in with our green residence cards and not our passports (which we weren't carrying). We decided it was just not worth the hassle and went off to have some lunch at Dicos (a McClone). From there we stumbled upon 'John's Massage Parlour' on Shanxi Lu just near the Rong Cheng Hotel. This wonderful place is staffed with people holding real qualifications, rather than country girl 'hairdressers' like those on Song Yuan Lu who seem more interested in giving your inner thighs and groin a good work out. They asked if I wanted to be 'cupped' and I tentatively said 'yes'. This is not some twisted and painful manoeuvre utilising a large coffee mug but instead involves sticking suction cups on your back to draw the blood out of the muscles. The short term effect of this is to have your back smothered in round shaped bruises. Nonetheless we both felt wonderfully relaxed afterwards, all for the princely sum of 15RMB. Back at the hotel we tried fruitlessly to procure train tickets while the hotel electrician attempted to give us lighting in our room before darkness fell.
Leshan and Emeishan
Rising early in the morning we checked out and then roused a taxi driver from his back seat slumber to take us to the bus station. We missed the 6.30am 'gorgeous' bus to Leshan but there was a standard bus leaving at 7.00am. For some reason we were charged 10RMB extra - supposedly on the basis of insurance. The bus left at 7.10am after it was completely full, then they pulled up outside the terminal and picked up three extras. This practice is actually illegal but it seems to happen with great regularity. Police sometimes make spot checks but I guess any possible fines are outweighed by the potential revenues lost. Just before we arrived in Leshan we were herded off the bus with others and sardined (literally - there were about 15 people) into a minivan for the trip to the Oriental Buddha Park. I'm not sure about the reason for this, and we were understandably recitent. However it took us right to the gate for no extra payment. So apart from the inconvenience of having someone's bum in my face it was all kosher.
The Oriental Buddha Park (37RMB) mainly consists of reproductions of other Buddhist statues from around China and other countries in Asia. The Chinese issue of piracy appears to not only extend to DVD's and watches but rather to other extremes as well. It was however a great pleasure to stroll around for a couple of hours before walking over the hill and entering the Great Buddha Park (40RMB). Once again there was plenty to see and it was not overrun with tourists - although it was still reasonably early on a Saturday morning, and we may have just been able to beat the tourist buses in. We didn't undertake the boat tour as it seemed hardly worth it. We were finished before lunch and headed for the bus station. The taxi driver did his utmost to convince us to take his taxi to Emeishan for 70RMB. Being only an hour and 10RMB bus ride away we felt it was rather steep. However at the bus station he fixed a joint ride with others for 40RMB so it ended up good value and much quicker.
We got the driver to drop us off at the Teddy Bear Cafe (phone 0833-5590135), a very useful place to get information, and making bookings, not to mention eat some delicious food. Here we were pounced on by a tout offering rail tickets out to Jin Jiang. The prices she quoted seemed reasonable until the manager surreptitiously told us to check her commission. This turned out to be 50RMB per ticket - a ludicrous amount! Eventually as we already handed over a deposit we settled on 30RMB. We bought some yummy banana pancakes for lunch, sorted out our bags for storage at the cafe, then went to the bus terminal next door. The bus station in Leshan must be the most modern and cleanest in China - not that it would take much I guess. We took the 90 minute ride up to Lie Dong Terrace and then went looking for accommodation. We were told at the cafe that it would be quite difficult but there were plenty of rooms available with the vendors being very keen to negotiate. The first tout started out at 300RMB but after several hotels we snagged a nice clean room for 80RMB. We thought this better than staying on the floor of a monastery for 20RMB each as many travellers are wont to do. We would have liked to have gone up further to Jie Yin Palace or the Golden Summit but we didn't want to take the chance of not finding something and being forced to come down again. There was absolutely nothing to do apart from see some of the tourists taunt the monkeys or watch Chinese TV so after a very average meal we went for a short walk and watched the beautiful sunset. By the time we got back to our room it was getting very cool and we had to put the heater on.
This day, which was to begin with us ascending toward heaven and finish with us steamrollering into hell, started with knock on our door at 4.30am to enable us to get to the summit for the sunrise. We were out on the trail by 4.50am and it was very crisp indeed, although we did enjoy (for us) the rare sight of a star filled Chinese sky. We made it to the gondola lift by 5.10am but it was closed! In typical Chinese style they waited until just before the lift was due to run then opened the ticket offices causing bedlam as people stormed the windows. By good fortune we were near the front of the crush and able to be on the first car up at 5.35am. We snaggled a good viewing spot and suffered the freezing cold until the sun rose around 6.20am to the collective appreciative 'oohs' and 'aahs' of the gathered masses.
By 6.35am we sought refuge from the cold in the Jin Ding Hotel. We had thought about coming to stay here but the cheapest rack rate listed was 600RMB. When it was a little warmer we walked around enjoying the view including a glimpse of the distant snow-clad Gonggoshan peaking out of the top of clouds. We thought we would take the monorail to the summit (what a bizarre concept on a 'holy' mountain) but 20 metres out of the station it stopped and had to be physically pushed back in before being re-started. From the terminal, which consisted of a some wooden planks, we could easily amble to the summit at 3099 metres (see picture). This trek was much easier than my attempt on Mt. Fuji in 1996. We decided not to take the full 8-10 hour walk down which just as well because the short four hours was plenty for us. We eventually struggled into Wannian Temple after 24 kilometres to get a chairlift and bus down. Comments in the Teddy Bear Cafe seemed decidedly against this walk being anything of great value and we would have to agree. However it must be remembered that the trek began as a pilgrimage up a holy mountain so the question of scenery has never really entered into it. Nevertheless we seemed to encounter plenty of lo wai who were more than happy to do both the hike up AND down over two days. We also had contend with a VERY strange teenage boy who almost seemed to be stalking us for at least half the journey.
Being tired and dusty we caught a taxi down to the local hot spring hotel to relax and clean up. However it was the type that required bathing suits and, being none for hire, the cheapest buy was 60RMB - on top of the 128RMB entrance. We tried to convince the hotel staff to just let us have a shower but we got locked into a circular argument about use of the hot spring. Our worst day was just beginning. We gave up and asked for a taxi. When it arrived it contained one of the rudest women in China. Despite us showing her the chinese character for bus station, and telling her in Chinese she abused us and said she couldn't understand. When we both told her loudly to to just "**** off" she realised she was about to lose a fare and she, with absolutely no grace at all, delivered us to the bus station. Here we were rescued by the gracious staff of the Teddy Bear Cafe who arranged (for 5RMB) to have a shower at the hotel around the corner. After a meal at the cafe we headed to the train station. The driver wanted to charge us 25RMB but we asked him to use the meter - with the fare ending up at 13RMB. At least he didn't abuse us...
Panzhihua was never meant to be a stop for us. However it was to be one of the most fun. When we got on board the train at Emeishan we found that the tout in town had only bought us local hard sleeper tickets. Now we understood why it was so cheap! We made our way to our beds only to find them already occupied with old ladies and dirty dickensian children. We had to end up shouting at them before a small proportion could even be cajoled to make way for us. Some of the kids had left the sheets filthy and we were unable to make ourselves comfortable at all. Some of them got off at a station 45 minutes later which meant they were actually hard seat passengers who should have never been in the car. Even after that we were still sharing with 5 others. No a/c was also making things more unbearable. My wife was beginning to feel quite ill and finally cracked, fleeing to the soft sleeper carriages. I asked for an upgrade to which end the quite sympathetic attendants were unable to help us. One helpful man allowed My wife to lie down on his bunk for awhile. It was around then that Charles Wang of the People's Liberation Army and his friend Yu hoved into view like white knights.
Charles, Yu and their friend had spent the weekend partying in Chengdu and were on their way home to Panzhihua - the main city next to the railhead at Jin Jiang. The PLA, being the successors of those who liberated China, are accorded special status in China and Charles set out to exert this considerable influence. Somehow he managed to get two beds freed up for us and all he asked in return was for My wife to rest and for me to drink with them in their compartment. Not much of an ask really. That night I consumed two whole bottles of beer. This would have to be around 1.5 bottles more beer than I have ever consumed in my whole life! The attendant came at one stage to remind us that passengers are not meant to smoke or drink in soft sleeper, to which they replied "We know!". My wife came up later wondering where on earth I was and found us sitting around with our shirts off laughing and having a good time. This was enough to bring a broad smile and laughter, so they were pleased to finally see her feeling better and smiling. Over the course of the night they convinced us that should stay one night in Panzhihua and we readily agreed, so in the morning they arranged for their van to take us to the Panzhihua Hotel. After breakfast, ablutions and a rest we wandered around the city for the day. The city in itself is nothing remarkable but the streets are not crowded and the people are friendly. There is also a very nice park for relaxing in. Around 7pm Charles and the crew come to meet us and take us away for a night of savagely spicy hotpot and nightclubs, up to the city lookout and finally to a karaoke alley (infested with ladies of the night) where we consumed another whole range of incredibly spicy grilled goods (see picture). In the end our gracious hosts released around 1.30am and we hope one day we can repay them one day when they visit Shanghai. It was an very nice thing that came out of something very bad. After this very pleasant interlude we were to be up early in the morning for our next leg to Lijiang in Yunnan.
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