My Trip to China: from the Mountains to the Sea

The Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou. Photo by Alan.

by Alan Phillips

On my trip to China this summer my wife and I decided to visit some of the remoter natural wonders in the mountains of Sichuan.  I had always wanted to visit this region ever since I first went to China eighteen years ago, but I never got the chance.  This trip however, we finally went to the edge of the Himalayas in a journey that led us from the mountains of Greater Tibet to the East China Sea.

Hello, Jiuzhaigou

After living for the first week cheaply in my mother-in-law’s in Chongqing with six of us crowded in a two-bedroom apartment, my wife, Ling, and I decided to splurge and stay at a five-star resort hotel at Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟), a national park in Sichuan province.

On the map, Jiuzhaigou doesn’t look that far from Chongqing, but it is located in a very mountainous area that takes a long time to reach by bus and no trains reach that area.  So we took a short plane ride to Jiuzhaigou’s small airport.  And although it was small, the airport was crowded with incoming visitors.  Jiuzhaigou is a very popular destination for Chinese tour groups.

Upon arrival, we could see that this was very different from the more populated sections of China that we were familiar with.  Although this area was officially part of Sichuanprovince, historically and culturally it is really the western most part of Tibet.  Much of the local population is Tibetan and you can see the Tibetan influence in the street signs and storefronts written in Tibetan as well as Chinese.  Much of the architecture is different, with fewer Chinese-style curving tile roofs and more natural Tibetan-style stone brick square buildings that look like fortresses.  The animals, too, are different.  There were no water buffalos plowing rice paddies, but rather herds of hairy yaks wandering on the roads.

The city of Chongqing is nicknamed the “MountainCity” (山城) in Chinese, but what I thought were incredibly steep mountains and cliffs in Chongqing were nothing compared to here.  This region is the eastern edge of the Himalayas and the mountains rise up to barren vertical cliffs near their summits.  Further to the west they rise higher and higher as you head intoTibet itself.

This part of Chinais less densely populated than places we had been to before.  Rather than unbroken stretches of crowded farms, villages, suburbs and cities, there were miles of uninhabited forest with occasional Tibetan or Chinese-Tibetan towns that were isolated from each other.

The hotel we were staying at was the Intercontinental Resort Jiuzhai Paradise and it certainly was an impressive place.  The resort was a complex of a hotel, several restaurants and shops built in the style of a stone-brick Tibetan village nestled in a deep valley surrounded by sheer, pine-forested mountains.  A stream had been diverted into the village where it flowed through man-made ponds, fountains and waterfalls.  Black-feathered Tibetan geese lounged in the ponds for the benefit of the tourists.

What was really impressive though, was that the hotel, the “village” of restaurants, the stream, the pool and a hot spring were all covered in a series of huge, interconnected glass domes so that guests could stay warm and “outdoors” regardless of the temperature outside the dome.  It was like living inside a Tibetan spaceship.

I made the mistake of not reading the guidebook carefully before coming to these Himalayan foothills.  Although it was August and had been 90 degrees in Chongqing, we were now at 10,000 feet altitude and in a completely different climate.  Gone was the subtropical vegetation, rice fields and humid summer of Chongqing.  The mountains here were in misty pine forests and the weather was in the 50s.  We had no cold weather clothes, so we hopped in a taxi and went down the road to a collection of stores and restaurants built to look like a traditional Tibetan village with stone brick facades and Buddhist swastikas painted on the walls.  Here I bought a fleece jacket and Ling bought a wool shawl.  Now we were ready for the next two days of hiking.

The next day we boarded a minibus with several other guests from the hotel for a ride to Jiuzhaigou town.  The park entrance was half an hour away and the winding road zigzagged further down the valley from the resort between the steep mountains, passing larger and lager Tibetan villages until we reached Jiuzhaigou town itself.  The quiet and seclusion we enjoyed in the resort higher up in the valley was broken by the crush of dozens of tour buses unloading literally thousands of visitors making their way through the ticket gates.

Jiuzhaigou is heavily advertised as a tourist site in China and despite its remote location, it’s extremely popular.  Jiuzhaigou offers something that rarely seen in the densely populated eastern parts of China: uninhabited forests that stretch for miles, unpolluted bright blue lakes, and rivers and waterfalls where the water is as clear as glass.  The price you pay for all this beauty, however, (besides the entrance fee) is that you must share it with hundreds of other shouting people, elbowing you up and down the boardwalks.

Jiuzhaigou is a valley where a river flows into a string of lakes, each connected by terraced waterfalls.  Unlike most rivers and lakes inChina, the water at Jiuzhaigou is crystal clear and the lakes glow blue when the sun shines upon them.  No matter how deep the lakes are, you can always see clear to bottom of each one.

The many waterfalls are wide and often cascade in terraces like a giant staircase.  At first it seems like the valley has suffered a flood because at the top of nearly every waterfall, stands of trees and bushes are growing out of the water, and at the falls themselves, trees often grow out of the vertical side of the terraced falls while water rushes around them.  But all this is how the vegetation normally grows here.  There are several Tibetan villages in the park.  Long before this place was a national park and tourist destination, the local Tibetans farmed in this valley.  Several of the villages have been removed to allow the wild vegetation to grow back.  The remaining Tibetan villages now have brightly decorated facades with prayer flags, prayer wheels and dozens of souvenir stores.  But in the back of these storefronts you can see the real villages where the locals live.  Their houses are not as fancy as the souvenir storefronts, but they are just as colorfully decked out in prayer flags and Buddhist banners.

Jiuzhaigou is unlike any place in China—perhaps unlike any place in the world—which makes the park hugely popular.  Unfortunately the park administration policy seems to be: get as many people in and out as quickly as possible.  Shuttle buses drive the tourists up and down the lakes, but the never stop at the most scenic points.  Instead they drop tourists off at the roadside stands where, for a fee, people can dress up in Tibetan princess or warrior costumes and have their picture taken with the mountains in the background.  To see the best parts of Jiuzhaigou, we had to abandon the shuttle bus and walk on the boardwalks that follow the rivers and lakes.

Another thing that I failed to heed from the guidebooks was the warnings about altitude sickness.  Jiuzhaigou is between 10,000 and 12,000 feet in altitude above sea level.  Since we didn’t have the time or money to linger in this region, we planned to hike in the national parks right away without spending a day to acclimatize.  So despite using the shuttle buses to get around the park, I found myself out of breath from the lower oxygen and as the day wore on, my knee began to swell and I had difficulty walking up and down the boardwalk steps.

After we got back to the hotel, I spent the evening sitting in the hot spring under the glass dome trying to ease my swollen knee.  We were going to visit another natural park the next day and I wasn’t sure if I could walk it again.  But the next day my knee was fine and I could breathe easier.  After a day of acclimatizing in Jiuzhaigou, I felt adapted to the altitude.  Now we were going visit Huanglongshan (黄龙山) or “Yellow Dragon Mountain”, another national park similar to Jiuzhaigou.  This place was more remote, however, so we hired a car to take us and our luggage there since we were going to the airport right after.

Yellow Dragon Mountain

To get to Huanglongshan we had to travel through the town of Songpan(松潘) near the airport which was the largest town in the region.  Though tiny by Chinese standards, it seemed large to me with houses and farms sprawling over a wide valley.  We stopped here on the main street to check out a traditional medicine store.  Here they sold herbal medicines that supposedly cured altitude sickness and other assorted ailments.  The medicine shop counter was filled with big jars containing animals preserved in alcohol.  The largest one actually had a small baby deer or deer fetus inside.  Stuffed heads of deer and yak skulls were mounted on the walls.

The shop lady tried to sell my wife a handful of bright purple medicinal flowers for 10,000 yuan—that’s over 1,600 U.S. dollars!  While I’m a believer in traditional Chinese medicine, there was no way I was going to spend that much money on medicine unless it could bring the dead back to life.  We decided to do without, and as it turned out, when we were back in Chengdu days later, we saw the exact same flowers used as decoration in our hotel lobby.  If we had grabbed a handful of them and returned to Songpan, we could have made a fortune selling medicines on our own.

Fortunately we didn’t require any altitude sickness medicines that day at Huanglongshan.  We reached the park by driving on a highway that crossed the steep mountain ridge overlooking Songpan.  We stopped at the summit to look at the valleys far below.  We were so high up that it really seemed we were on the “roof of the world” as Tibet is nicknamed.  Yet these mountains were only the small foothills at the furthest edge of Tibet.  The Tibetan Plateau is even higher and the summit of the Himalayas reaches airplane cruising altitudes.

We asked our (Chinese) driver if most of the townsfolk in Songpan were Tibetan since many signs were written in Tibetan and many houses had Buddhist swastikas painted on them, which is something I hadn’t seen in Chinese villages.  He said that many were ethnically Tibetan but nearly everyone here spoke Mandarin.  By the end of our stay in the Jiuzhaigou area, however, we discovered one way to distinguish Tibetans from Chinese.  All the Chinese drivers drove fast and recklessly while the Tibetans drove safely and carefully.  I’m not sure how or why that happens though.  But our current driver was Chinese so we raced over the mountain passes dodging yaks on the highway and construction vehicles until we reached Huanglongshan.

We spent most of the afternoon at Huanglongshan.  We rode a cable car to the summit of the mountain where a boardwalk led us to a temple and a series of blue terraced pools where water cascaded into brooks below.  Huanglongshan was much like Jiuzhaigou, but I found it more pleasant because it was less crowded (few tour groups bothered to make the extra trip here) and there were no buses!  Plus, my knee had acclimatized to the altitude and I could walk with ease. We walked along a boardwalk several miles down the mountain following the ponds and terraced waterfalls until we met our driver again at the base of the mountain.

Chengdu and the Three Kingdoms

We flew back to Chengduin the lower altitudes for a few days where it rained most of the time.  (We would be dealing with rain most of our trip, unfortunately.)  We went to visit the WuhouTemple(武侯寺), a garden park and museum dedicated to the history of the Three Kingdoms period. The Three Kingdoms was the time in Chinese history during the third century when the Han Dynasty fell and China divided into three countries.  The classic Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) is an account of the events in this period.

There were many halls housing statues of famous generals and kings of the Three Kingdoms era, many of which were made a hundred to three hundred years ago.  But I was surprised when I saw several people kneeling and praying before the statue of Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮), a famous general of the Three Kingdoms period.  I asked my wife why people were praying to this figure.  After all, he wasn’t a Buddha or Taoist god—he was a historical person, a general and strategist with no supernatural stories attached to him.  It would be as if modern Italians prayed to statues of Julius Caesar or Marc Antony.  Apparently in China, anyone can become divine, given enough time.

Before we left the temple, I bought a complete collection of picture books that told the story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  My wife said these were popular among her and her classmates when she was young.  I figured this could help me in my never-ending quest to improve my Chinese.  Since each postcard-sized book only has about a single sentence per page with a big picture, it shouldn’t be too overwhelming for me.  And even if I can’t understand the grammar, at least I can look at the pictures…

Taking a Bullet Train to Hangzhou

For the last part of our trip, we left the mountains for the sea.  We have often been to Shanghai, but we wanted to explore the coastal cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou as well.  We flew to Shanghai and took the bullet train to Hangzhou first.  Most of the old “hard seat” and sleeper trains have now been replaced by the new high-speed bullet trains through out China.  For example, fifteen years ago the train ride from Chengdu to Chongqing took ten hours, so most people took the overnight sleeper train.  Now the bullet trains make the same journey in two hours.

But with the spread of the bullet trains, some old customs of travel in China have changed.  In the old days, peasants would often bring cages of live chickens on board the trains.  But nowadays, the railroads don’t allow live animals on their clean, shiny new bullet trains.  At the train station in Chengdu, we saw a pair of women farmers who were refused to enter into the train station because they want to bring a live chicken along.  Undeterred, they went outside of the station, cut the chicken’s throat, and let it bleed out into a garbage can.  No longer carrying a live chicken, they could now get on board the train.

Fortunately there were no chickens, live or dead, on our train to Hangzhou. Hangzhou was once the capital of China in the Song Dynasty and Marco Polo even called it the most beautiful city in the world.  In the 700 years since then, however,Hangzhou has suffered a lot from wars, civil wars, Cultural Revolution and neglect.  But much of it has been saved or restored in recent years.

Hangzhou’s most famous attraction is the West Lake(西湖), surrounded by parks, causeways and temples.  We spent our entire first day walking around the lake and exploring the temples.  But the rain and fog that followed us most of the trip made Hangzhou dark and gloomy and most of the lake was invisible in the fog.

The next day we went to visit LingyinTemple(灵隐寺) on the edge of town.  Like many temples now in China, it has been restored beautifully and has an active Buddhist clergy and following.  Thousands of people pass through here lighting incense and praying at the various shrines.  One unique feature of this temple is that they had hung signs around the temple grounds with cartoons that explained concepts of Buddhist philosophy and teachings.  Sadly, unlike most of the signs here, there was no English translation so I had to rely on Ling to explain the esoteric teachings of the cartoons.

Recently in the news I heard there was some complaint from local city residents that Starbucks was going to open a coffee shop next to the collection of restaurants outside the temple.  I found it odd that folks would complain about Starbucks yet no one seems to mind the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant that is already there.

Going deep into Suzhou

With time running out on our vacation we got on the bullet train again to visit Suzhou, a city very close to Shanghai.  We had visited Suzhouon a previous vacation briefly on a day trip from Shanghai.  Now we wanted the chance to see it in more detail.

Suzhou is famous for its gardens, many of which date back centuries.  One of the largest is the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园).  This is a beautiful garden restored to its Ming Dynasty glory full of lotus ponds and wandering paths connecting halls and pagodas.  Although its designers never would have predicted it, the walled garden is a perfect place to get away from the traffic and noisy streets of modern China and relax for a few hours.

Another smaller garden is the Lion Grove Garden(狮子林园).  At first it seemed unimpressive to me since it was so small, it couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet across.  But this garden manages to be much larger on the inside than the outside.  The garden is full of rockeries, where weathered and pitted boulders are installed to create a vast three-dimensional maze of tunnels, stone stairways and balconies.  If you try to walk across the garden through the rockery, you might find yourself farther away from your destination than when you started or in another section of the garden entirely.

Compared to other Chinese cities,Suzhou seemed very laid-back.  It was less hectic and much quieter than most Chinese cities where you are subjected to sensory overload day and night.  Part of the reason is that building codes don’t allow high-rises to be built within the older part of the city where the gardens are.  Also, many streets are pedestrian-only and follow the canals which crisscross the city.  We spent much of the afternoon and evenings wandering these streets and sitting at the cafés and teahouses here.

A secret Museum of Shanghai

Before we left for home, we had some time to spend in Shanghai, and one of the places I’ve always wanted to check out was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center(上海宣传画艺术中心).  This is a small private museum that has a collection of Chinese Communist propaganda posters from 1949 to 1979.  The museum is very hard to find.  It’s not mentioned in any of the Chinese language guides to the city.  Only foreign language tour guide books seem to write about it.  It is actually in the basement of an apartment building complex.  When you arrive at the apartment building entrance there is no indication of it.  You have to ask the guard for the museum and then he’ll give you a card with a map printed on the back which you follow to a hidden back entrance of one of the buildings.

Inside is a great collection of posters made during Mao Zedong’s rule over the People’s Republic.  The thirty years covered by the museum show a great range of styles and a rapidly changing subject matter from anti-American posters of the Korean War, to the stark red and black prints of the Cultural Revolution showing Red Guards stomping on all sorts of class enemies.  The posters end around 1979 when the economic reforms began and propaganda posters began to be replaced by mere advertisements.

Probably the reason why the museum doesn’t advertise itself so much is that its subject matter is still a bit controversial in China today.  Many of the posters lay bare some of the embarrassing contradictions of Chinese politics in the time of Mao Zedong.  For instance, a poster from 1959 shows a Chinese man standing hand-in-hand with a blond man with the caption: “Long live the friendship ofChina and the Soviet Union”.  But less than ten years later, posters are denouncing “Soviet revisionism”.  A very rare poster shows Mao Zedong standing beside his chosen successor Lin Biao.  Most of these posters had been destroyed after Lin Biao fallen out of favor with Mao and died in a plane crash fleeing to the Soviet Union.  Posters printed after his death have the slogans, “Criticize Confucius and Lin Biao”.

Time to go Home

Finally as we arrived at Shanghai Pudong airport to fly back to Boston, we got a view of the East China Sea from the terminal window where we could see cargo ships making their way up and down the coast.  We had traveled a thousand miles to the foothills of Tibet and back for three weeks, and now exhausted, we were ready to go home.

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One Comment

  1. What a fascinating trip Alan! The part about the “flowers” cracked me up.

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