Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Travels with Li Dongni – Jiuzhaigou, China (April 2009)

To the edge of Tibet...

I’ll wager money right now that you’ve never heard of Jiuzhaigou.  Am I right?  Thought so.  It’s ok - neither had I.

But it’s a place I’ll never forget, somewhere that I now have a strong emotional connection with, and somewhere I heartily recommend you visit if you ever get the chance.

Map courtesy of the wonderful www.chinatrekking.com

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) means ‘nine villages valley’ in Chinese.  It’s a site of natural beauty in China’s Sichuan province.  The name comes from the fact that 9 Tibetan villages are nestled within the mountains, rivers and pools of the valley.  It’s also a wildlife reserve, with golden monkeys and even reclusive giant pandas living in the wooded mountains, though you’d be extremely lucky to see a wild panda.

The site is located in the north of Sichuan, near the city of Songpan and definitely not on the main foreign tourist routes, though Chinese tourists are well aware of itIt can only grow as a tourist destination, so my advice is to see it quick before mass tourism ruins the experience! 

We flew in from Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan and my wife’s home city).  The flight provided some great views of the mountains, as both Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou are nestled on the edge of the great Tibetan plateau.  The airport we flew into is at Huanglong (‘yellow dragon’) - a tiny airport which only exists to serve the tourists flying into and out of the local beauty spots.  The airport itself is situated at nearly 3,500m (11,311 feet) above sea level – the third highest airport in China and surely one of the highest in the world.  I have never before been warned of getting altitude sickness in an airport!  To jump ahead to when we flew back to Chengdu – it felt more like the plane had simply driven off the runway rather than taken off, as the runway points off the edge of a cliff!

The whole area is at high altitude, and you’re often at about 4,000m (13,000 feet).  That’s halfway up Mount Everest!  For an English guy like me, who lives virtually at sea level, this is quite extreme altitude.  When combined with the jetlag of the long haul flight I had done only the day before, it led to me feeling rather drained of energy to say the least.

But on to the valley itself.  It’s a large place and could you could easily take a few days to see all of it.  We employed a combination of walking and hopping on the regular busses to make sure we saw the major bits over two days, which seemed about right.

Describing the site is very difficult, and I'm not sure I've seen many photos do it justice.  Hopefully the next few photographs go some way to showing just how breathtaking it can be.

As I mentioned earlier, there are 9 villages nestled in amongst the valley (you can apparently get in free if you are staying with a local).  The Tibetan style homes and clothing though make for a colourful addition to the greens and blues of the water, and the painting on the Tibetan houses is fascinating to explore.  The locals are very welcoming to tourists, whom they depend upon for their livelihoods.

I was even persuaded (something not easily done) to dress up in Tibetan costume and have my photo taken in front of ‘Sword rock’.  So, for your eyes only (promise you won’t tell anyone), here is the most embarrassing photo of me ever taken...

There is actually a very special reason for this place holding such resonance for me, and it’s not entirely due to the beautiful scenery.  It’s also the place where I decided to propose to my wife, in a secluded spot, by a shimmering lake, in the shadow of the snowy mountains.  Fortunately she said yes, otherwise I’d never have it in me to write about this magical place, and that would have been a real shame.

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