Trip to ChengDu and JiuZhaiGou
11.05.2013 - 18.05.2013
Here’s a snaphot of my recent trip to Chengdu, China
This is supposed to be the highlight of the tour. The journey by bus took approximately 6 hours but due to various stopovers along Maoxian and SongPan, it took us almost a full day to reach our hotel. Along the way, we passed by some scenic mountainous views. We also passed by WenChuan county, scene of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Reconstruction efforts was fast and today, you can almost spot no signs of the destruction.
Before embarking on this tour, I have seen some pictures from my friend’s previous trip to JiuZhaiGou. They were certainly nice but not spectacular enough to really set me drooling. The best time to visit, according to the tour guide, would be in the region of September to October whereby all the flowers would be in full bloom, cool weather and we would be able to see some spectacular scenery. However, this would also be the time where the park is the most crowded – so you might end up seeing more humans than flowers.
JiuZhaigou reminds me of a big nature walk, the centre of attention being its crystal clear lakes. Along the way, one would spot some of the clearest waters ever seen. As the saying goes “九寨归来不看水“。This I totally agree. The high concentration of calcium carbonate in the water makes the water so clear that the bottom is often visible even at high depths. And I have to especially mention Arrow Bamboo Lake （箭竹海）. I was totally awestruck by how clear the water was that it basically served as a mirror, reflecting in perfect symmetry of a mirror image of the nearby hillside in the water. This is a heaven for photo taking enthusiasts. Till today I have not seen such a clear reflection of image in the water.
Another area worth mentioning is Wu Hua Hai (五花海). This is a lake whereby one is supposed to see the different shades of water colour in the lake. Unfortunately as this was the off season, I only managed to spot 2 shades of colour. This was also one of the bigger areas of the park where a lot of people stopped by to relax and snap photos.
There were 2 waterfalls in the park, namely NuoRiLang waterfall and ZhenZhu waterfall. They were certainly nice and relaxing to see water tumbling down but do not expect the spectacular standards of the Niagara Falls (maybe my expectations too high). Oh the locals kept emphasizing that NuoRiLang waterfall was the location whereby the famed drama series Journey to the West was shot back in the mid-80s.
As we moved along the park, one just has the feeling that the rest of the park seems to mirror what we have seen earlier – great lakes, clear water, the occasional waterfall. We ended our trip at around 5pm and bade goodbye to JiuZhaiGou.
My feel of JiuZhaigou? Worth a go but I don’t think I would make a return trip due to the long travel distance from Chengdu and there is nothing really superbly exceptional that would entice me to want to make this extra effort to return. In a nutshell, it feels like a over-hyped big nature walk. To really enjoy JiuZhaigou do spend at least 2 days there, take your time to walk through and enjoy nature’s beauty. But then again after a while, you will realize everything seems to be the same…
Huang Long (黄龙)Park
Before going to Huang Long, our tour group was offered another alternate location to visit MuNiGou. The tour guide, I had a feeling, was trying his best to dissuade us from going to Huang Long as he claimed due to off season, there was nothing to see. Having already visited JiuZhaiGou, some of us decided we have enough of “gous” for this trip and stuck to the original itinerary. The rest had no strong objections and off we go!
In a way, the guide is not wrong. As this is the off season, there is not enough rainfall to fill up the natural mineral pools and lakes – the highlight of a visit to Huang Long. Thus basically we would only see dry rock and no water. But still the journey was not a waste of time. En route to Huang Long, we caught some of the most spectacular mountain scenery one can ever see. I was glued to the spectacular snow capped mountain and the winding journey, capturing some breathtaking photos along the way. I almost wish we could have just stopped and stand there to admire the scenery. One certainly has to be impressed with the Chinese (or human engineering technology), with the way they carve out the road on a widely steep mountainous region and there are is an even an ongoing project to tunnel through the mountains. Only a skilled driver familiar with mountain driving can have the guts and skill to keep the bus from falling off the cliff and although the road was in good working condition, still any miscalculation would end our journey prematurely. For that one has to admire and be grateful to the skills of our driver for making our journey safe. But I have a feeling the roads will be closed during winter time due to safety concerns ie slippery roads and falling snow.
After maneuvering and winding through the spectacular mountainous roads, we finally reached our destination. The tour guide then brought us partially up the park, introducing the park to us and trying to hint, “See? I told you so”. Huang Long is basically an upward incline journey of about 4km to the top, with a temple and a lake awaiting the conquerors at the top of the park. Since there was really nothing much to see, with only a few pools half-filled with water, (this I have to agree with the tour guide), most of the tour group decided to drop out barely a quarter of the journey leaving the last 3 of us to complete a race to the top within the stipulated timing of 3 hours. We were warned not to overexert ourselves, since after all we are 3,000 meters above sea level and to turn back if we feel tired or if time runs out. Perhaps with a point to prove, we raced to the summit in 1 hour 40 minutes, spent about 20 minutes hurriedly at the top, snapped a few photos along the way, and took another 1 hour to decent. The journey was actually not that tiring as compared to other walking trails I have taken before in other countries, with the biggest obstacles still being the low oxygen level at high altitude level so more than once, we took our time to catch our breath and rest and photo taking. Along the journey, there were more than once whereby I thought of turning back (due to lack of time more than anything else) but my companions timed the journey and estimated we had more than enough time to make it since they expect descent to be much faster than ascent. So basically, this turned out to be a physical activity rather than a sightseeing tour! But had the pools and lakes been filled with water, we might have spent more time taking photos and thus had no time to reach the summit. This would be one of the regrets of this trip ie unable to view the supposedly beauty of Huang Long
The next stop of our journey was Leshan, a 2 hour journey from Chengdu, to see the famed Grand Buddha (乐山大佛). This was a giant project commissioned by a monk named HaiTong with the intention of serving as a guardian angel for shipping vessels and villages located along the river bank. Leshan itself is a modern city well worth exploring; the trip itself was a huge personal disappointment for me as it was unfortunate that out tour group did not spend more time in the city as we would have liked. Sigh. One of the disadvantages of joining a guided tour.
The boat trip itself to view the Buddha was also disappointing to say the least. We were only given a limited time at the front of the Buddha to snap some photos. To catch the x spot, one has to pay an exorbitant ‘entrance fee’ to grab the ideal spot for photo taking. Due to commercialization (so typical of China), the boat left for pier only after 10 minutes thus we only managed to see the Buddha statue for only a short while. Another regret was that we did not have a chance to be up close and personal with the statue by scaling it. Basically, this was a hit, see and run boat ride. But still the statue itself was magnificent and one wonders the amount of effort spent to construct it during ancient time. To really enjoy it, one can take the boat ride (more for photo taking purpose though) followed by a bus ride to the actual location which will allow spend more time at the base. However, one will not be able to take a full picture of the Buddha at such close range so for photo enthusiasts a boat trip is necessary. Of course spend one day in Leshan to explore the city.
After leaving Leshan, we headed to nearby Er Mei in preparation of our ascent to mount Er Mei. Mount Er Mei was reputed to be a cloudy place with sunlight rarely present for most parts of the year. We were told if we could catch sunlight, we would certainly have been blessed.
Like most mountain ascent, the journey to the top was long and arduous. Firstly, it took a 2-hour bus ride past a wet and hazy environment just to reach base camp. This was followed by a 20 minute hike to the cable car station. After a short cable car ride, we had to walk another 10 minutes to reach the peak. The road itself was well built to cater to mass tourism and most people would have no problems waling to the top. For those who really cannot walk, there is an option of being carried to the top by 2 burley man via a carriage. Of course, one has to pay for it.
Due to the cloudy conditions, visibility was poor throughout. For those wishing to capture some nice photos, they would be deeply disappointed. On the top of the mountain (dubbed the “Golden Summit”), there was a statue of Buddha as well as the temples for devotees to pray. Despite the weather, there was still a strong crowd. After this came another arduous 3 hour descent to the base of the mountain.
Chengdu itself is a modern and vibrant city. We visited a few old towns filled with ancient Chinese-style architecture, namely HuangLongXi, KuanZhai and JinLi. These are places where locals and tourists mingle with shops selling souvenirs and local delicacies. The one that really left me with a deep impression was JinLi. This was where I spotted handicraft work I would have never seen back home – candy drawing, paper cutting, portrait drawing, egg sculpture and even an artist doing head sculptures using clay! This was something interesting and crowds gathered around the various stalls to see the artists at work.
And no trip to Chengdu can be completed without a trip to see the famed pandas! The day to visit the pandas itself was a rainy day but still it did not dampen the spirits of everybody who wanted to catch a glimpse of these cuddly black and white creatures. They were certainly auntie killers – every auntie who saw the pandas blushed and gleamed with delight. We were lucky in the sense that we managed to catch the pandas when they were most active aka busy eating. We were told that after meals they tend to slack off for a nap and all attempts to wake them up after this would be futile. We certainly did not wish to see sleeping pandas!
I usually don’t talk about shopping but this is one unique case that has to be logged into this blog. In any guided tour it is very common to include trips that you bring you to places to shop for items that you do not want that are exorbitantly priced. This trip is no exception. Amongst various items, we were brought to shops that sold tea, honey, pearls, medicine, jade etc. The one that I wanted to mention occurred during a trip to a silk shop. Like any other organized shopping trip, we were eager to get out even before we entered the shop as we simply had no interest to but the products. But when the sales person made her sales pitch, her accent immediately told us that she was not a local born Chinese, rather someone from our neighboring Malaysia. Once she spoke, we immediately felt she was someone close to home and an ally to customers that we could trust. We later learnt that she was an exchange student from Batu Pahat sent to China on a 3 month attachment. She was unhappy with the arrangement, was paid a meager allowance and suffered diarrhea on arrival. And she had no commission from sales, so she had no incentive to pitch sales and tell tall tales. So she basically turned into a wrecking crew, while not deny the merits of the silk product, she also tried to dissuade us from buying something we have no use back home, especially considering our tropical climate. To disguise her intentions, all of us spoke hokkien, a dialect that local Chinese and certainly others staff members as well as the tour guide could not understand. This was the first time I have encountered a sales person who tried to dissuade us from buying! And I have also never paid so much attention to a sales pitch! But still some of our tour members decided to buy the silk so she also did her best to get lots of discount as well as throw in as much freebies as she could. She even went to the extent of trying to transfer the tour guide’s share of commission to us. But I do agree with what she said, if the item is too expensive and you don’t really need it, then do not buy it. After all, we are here for the sights and tour, not for shopping
I left the shop feeling bemused.
Last day Free & Easy
After enduring a boring & enforced shopping trip, we were finally given freedom to run wild. Being a free and easy advocate, I was finally glad that we could be released from the restrains of the organized tour and to do whatever we wanted. As our flight was in the night, we were given a whole lot of 7 hours of free time. We were dropped off at Chun Xi Street, the shopping belt of Chengdu. Not wishing to die of boredom from 7 hours of mindless window shopping, my hiking buddies and I planned our own mini- tour of Chengdu that the tour itinerary did not cover. Surprisingly everybody in the tour group decided to tag along (there were 3 young ladies who had the shopping face look) and thus armed with my basic research, I became the unofficial tour guide for a wild trip round Chengdu.
The first aim was to try their metro. This was a 2-line railway system (easy to navigate, even if you don’t understand Chinese) and we ended up at HeHuaChi. This was one of the places I would usually go in any overseas trip – a bargain hunting centre to grab cheap stuff as well as last minute items to bring home. This area certainly sold a lot of items from cheap clothes to books, shoes, bags, food, almost everything you can think of. Some of us managed to find some cheap stuff and enjoyed some bargain hunting.
Next stop was People’s Park. This was where a lot of locals mingle to spend an eventful weekend. The park very vibrant and was filled with lots of activities. Along the way we saw street singing performances (I counted at least 4 different rival stage performers), line dancing, calligraphy on the ground (would have been arrested for vandalism back home!), leisure card playing, book reading by the park etc. There was even a spot where worried parents congregate to exchange bio data of the unmarried children with each other, hoping to find the perfect mate for their children (yes this is not a myth)! Besides this there was a bonsai garden (mind you these are giant bonsai) as were as an amusement park catered to the needs for the young ones. I was certainly very impressed. Firstly no tour agency would bring you to such locations so I was blessed I could come here before I flew back. Secondly, I don’t think I can find such a vibrant park back home.
Next was TianFu Park. Unfortunately it was condoned off so we only spent a while there taking photos of the statue of Chairman Mao waving at the crowd. Nobody wanted to stay (TianFu was also shopping area) so we sped back to ChunXi street after that.
With about 1 and half hour to go before we were to board the bus to airport, all of us then went our separate ways on reaching Chunxi and coincidentally ended up at KFC for a quick dinner whereby I clocked my Zinger burger in a foreign city. With barely an hour left, I took a slow walk back and enjoyed the street scene but there was not mad dash for last minute shopping. I only dropped by the snack store aimed at spending the rest of my RMB but found the items on sale either too expensive or not suitable.
Then it was time to leave for home. Bye to Chengdu!
Essentials and useful information of China & Chengdu
1. Do bring an umbrella as Chengdu’s weather is unpredictable, especially in the mountainous areas.
2. Chinese language is still predominately used Chinese society. Although there are pinyin available on street signs, they basically do not tell you what they mean. For those who do not speak or read the Chinese language, one would struggle to travel round Chengdu and communicate with locals. A classic example would be food – all labeled in Chinese. So you will not know what you are eating at all if you don’t understand the labels! Another classic example is that all TV programs are in Chinese language – you will be very lucky to find HBO in hotels. I am not sure of the level of English proficiency in Chengdu but I believe most still do not speak English. Even if they do, I do not think I would want to use English too! It is no wonder I hardly see a Caucasian on the streets. The situation is much worse in countryside.
3. It is a always big debate as to the merits of going it alone verse an organized tour. For Chengdu, Ermei and Leshan itself, one should not face problems with a free an easy tour so long as sufficient homework done. But as for further outreach into the countryside, to save time and trouble, an organized trip will be better. Another advantage is that organized trip brings economies of scale and would bring costs down. To go it alone would definitely be more expensive (imagine the cost of hiring a transport for a 6 hour car ride to JiuZhaiGou). Not only that, the timing has to be immaculate otherwise one would end up missing the bus and left stranded and frustrated in trying to get out of the countryside where transport may be few and far in between.
4. China’s stuff is notoriously very expensive. It is only considering exchange rates that the wallet does not hurt. So control your spending and do not be swayed by emotions; otherwise no matter how much money you bring will also never be enough