Jiuzhaigou གཟི་རྩ་སྡེ་དགུ།, China 2010

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Although I haven’t been to many places, few of the ones I’ve visited are as magnificent as the landscape of Jiuzhaigou, 九寨溝. But boy was it a long, hard road to get there. After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008–clocking in at a magnitude of 8.0–many of the roads were still impassable.

Unfortunately, the main expressway was essentially destroyed after the earthquake  and the remaining route to 九寨溝 was a winding, 5-hour long rock, sand, and potholed obstacle course. I’m talking one-way travel here. My advice: strap yourself down to your seat and if you’re one of those lucky people who can sleep on jittery buses, you’re set. I was forced to endure jerking, jolting, and lurching–hitting my head multiple times on the bus window–all the while needing to use the restroom for the longest 5 hours of my life. Learn from my mistakes!

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What was also slightly unfortunate was the weather–rainy, slightly chilly, moist, and cloudy. But in spite of the lack of sunshine to illuminate the valley, the vibrant colors of Jiuzhaigou’s lakes and rivers nevertheless shone through. Jiuzhaigou Valley sits on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and multi-level waterfalls, lakes, and snow-kissed peaks  stretch across its 180,000 acres and through elevations of 6,600 to 14,800 ft.

The name, 九寨溝, literally means “nine village valley” and takes its name from the nine Tibetan villages running along its length. Famous inhabitants include the giant panda and golden snub-nosed monkey, both of which are nearly impossible to spot due to the massive tourism at 九寨溝 .

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Our first stop was the welcome center: a 3-storied bazaar of food, Tibetan tapestries, clothing, and Yak-bone combs and dining wares. The lobby of shopping was a kaleidoscope maze of colors. And of course, some Engrish in good humour found in the women’s bathroom: “the disposable hygienic chamberpot sits in the gasket paper”. Meaning? I have no clue.

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Jiuzhaigou is absolutely worth 2-3 days of visiting; however, given the 10-hour travel time roundtrip, it’s more feasible to make it all happen within a day. There sadly aren’t places for visitors to stay within the park. Our tour group was given less than 3 hours to explore what we could of the park and it was rather pitiful. I wish I could jot down a list of what lakes and waterfalls to visit, but in all honesty, each is worth visiting. Whatever you see will be worth it, no matter how much time you have or how much you saw.

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Our day in Jiuzhaigou was cut short by a 90-minute lunch. Had we not been traveling with a tour group, I would have definitely forsaken lunch to see more of the park!

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Fooooood!  Potatoes, naan/sesame bread, and lots of meat. I forget what we had as vegetarians, but not much.

Also, be sure to get yourself some 紅景天 [hong jing tian], an herb called “rhodiola rosea”, if you tend to get altitude sickness. Which could be very likely given that most aren’t accustomed to hiking at 10,000ft+. Tibetans consider it to be a sacred herb and grows mostly in harsh, cold climates.

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My mom and I bought two bottles preemptively and it actually helped with a lot of my motion sickness. They’re a pretty popular tourist necessity, so don’t worry about being stranded with altitude sickness in Jiuzhaigou Valley.

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Huanglong, China 2010

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九寨溝機場 [jiu zhai gou ji chang], or Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport, is the third highest airport in China at 11,312ft above sea level. We flew in from Chengdu in the morning; a lot of members of our tour group were worried about altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is a common concern for people traveling to Jiuzhai Gou, 九寨溝, so the airport actually supplies small canisters of oxygen and sells Tibetan herbal medicine to cure the sickness.

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To-do list: Huang Long, 黃龍 [huang long]. The road to Huang Long was one of the most beautiful I’ve traveled in China–quiet, lush countryside with herds of grazing yak and sheep.

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We made a quick pit stop for lunch to eat the local food of Songpan County, which is composed of Tibetan, Qiang, Han, and Hui people. The fresh, woody mushrooms and pan-fried mantou (steamed buns) were some of my favorite dishes from that meal. Was so ready to hike with energy reserves replenished!

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Although I certainly didn’t have the stamina that a local we ran into did. The elevation of Huanglong runs between 5500-18300ft, so watching a 50-60 year old man sprint up the trail with minimal oxygen and about 100lbs on his back was awesomely impressive. As we hiked up through Huanglong Valley, which is a little over 2 miles, I felt increasingly short of breath. When concerns about altitude sickness were first voiced, I scoffed at it because, hey, I was young and worked out! But over a mile in and some 11,700ft up…I was tired. Oof. It was then that I understood the necessity of the oxygen cabins that we passed along the way. A few of the senior (70-80 year old) members of our tour actually had to stop in for oxygen.

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But man was it worth it! My photography skills aren’t particularly telling of the beauty there, but it’s no wonder that Huanglong was a buzzing hive of tourists. It was nigh impossible to stand your ground and I was thrown around like a rag doll by pushy tourists vying for the same spots to take pictures as I was.

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The iridiscent travertine terraces are formed by calcite desposits–limestone deposited by mineral springs (mostly hot springs). Huanglong Valley’s main body of water starts from the ancient Buddhist/Benbo temple at the top of the valley. The Multi-Colored Pond, 五彩池 [wu cai chi], has over 693 pools! Unfortunately, when we went to Huanglong, we saw that climate change had already left its mark: terraces and streams once overflowing with water were dead, dessicated.

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Regardless, Huanglong Valley remains one of my favorite places visited to date and I would return in a heartbeat if I had the money and time. Snow-capped peaks and dramatic valleys of verdant flora–and wonderfully clean and refreshing air to boot. A different China from the infamous smog of Beijing and Shanghai.

Sichuanese Opera, Chengdu, 2010

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After intense cuddling with panda cubs and browsing dozens of street vendors, we concluded our day in Chengdu with a night of Sichuanese Opera. According to locals, the best place to see Sichuan Opera is “屬風雅韻” [Shufengyayun Sichuan Opera House]. The stage is inside a famous Taoist temple, which has functioned for over a hundred years. Of all the interesting acts on the set list, we were all most excited to see the face-changing, or ” 變臉” [bian lian]. Face-changing is a trade secret that is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next within families. Women were not allowed to learn the secret, since women were married out of the family.

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There are four ways of face-changing: blowing dust to obscure the face “吹脸” [chui lian], beard manipulation “髯口功夫” [hu kou gong fu], pulling down masks “扯脸” [che lian], and face-dragging “抹脸” [mo lian]–where the actor drags greasepaint to change his appearance. Switching between masks was like flipping a light switch on and off. So, so fast. Each mask portrays different characteristics and personalities of the characters.

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We were also given a traditional Chinese music concert, with cymbals, brass, and a type of “胡琴” [hu qin], or vertical fiddles (usually two-stringed). There was a very talented “二胡” [er hu]–two-stringed fiddle–player, as well as an amazing “簫” [xiao]–a vertical bamboo flute–player. The others were less memorable. I could never adjust to is how high-pitched and “squeaky” Chinese instruments sometimes sound.

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The shadow puppets were great to watch to. Fluid and elegant. Seamless transitions. Hand puppets came to life under the masterful manipulations of the puppeteers. They too, could do face-changing, or dress changing, play instruments, dancing, or fight against each other–even could change their facial expressions. Quite amazing.

After intermission, we were treated to a short opera of iridescent robes donned by ancient war heroes battling in the struggle for power.

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The night concluded with “滾燈” [gun deng], or “rolling light”: a technique unique to Sichuanese Opera.  “Rolling light” originated in the Han dynasty and the story stems from a husband and wife arguing over the husband’s excessive gambling; as punishment for his addiction, the wife forced the husband to perform progressively difficult stunts to perform. The last of these stunts was balancing a flaming bowl on his head–while rolling, tumbling, and diving over and under chairs, tables, and benches.

If you’re ever in Chengdu and want to see Chinese music and performance art in a nutshell, this is the place to go. It’s tons of fun and full of things you would not find outside of Sichuan province. (Also, there’s free tea, massages, and ear wax removal (?!?!) provided).

behind the scenes look

behind the scenes look