Just like the Chinese, we wanted our pounda’ flesh and fortunately we were in just the right place… 379 days in.
Our flight into Chengdu was a battle of plane versus air currents, and the air currents put up a jolly good fight! Somehow, amid jolts left and right and short sharp descents the hostesses managed to throw everyone their inflight brown egg and sugar puffs, though these only added to the jeopardy of possible turbulent mishaps. By the time we landed at nine pm we were on the green side of queezy and just wanted a bed, but Chengdu wasn’t going to make it so easy for us. Whether the four guesthouses that I had pinned on maps.me existed or not, I have no idea, but at each location there was an absence of anything remotely hostel like. Although, we did find a hotel in one of the places; getting a bit desperate we decided to enter the block of flats to see if somehow it contained a guesthouse, and even more bizarrely on the second floor was the plush reception of a midrange hotel! We trapsed on, rejected by some hotels for not being Chinese enough and refusing others based on the number of calling cards until settling on a cosy enough place a bit above our budget but by now it was 11:30 and we had covered half of Chengdu!… Well, okay, a small fraction, with Chengdu’s population at 14 million it’s bigger than most countries capital cities, but then with China, everything is just more massiver!!!
Chengdu’s image is based around the ubiquitous panda. Of the 2000 wild ones remaining, they almost all live in the mountains of Sichuan province. Chengdu has also grown a specialty for breeding the bears, with 146 of the black and white beauties running around in the research and breading centre, quite literally! We were amazed at how active they were when we saw them in the morning, having read one of our fellow traveller’s blog from their visit in December. One female was especially rampant in her destruction, charging up and down her enclosure; though never with much aptitude for staying upright! But of course, it was the cubs that stole the show. Their playful antics, mock fights and forees up tree trunks that seemed destined to end in a fall had everyone exhaling a huge group sigh as LiLi and QiQi made it back down to earth with only a slight bump; it would appear their tree climbing proficiency takes some time to hone.
As our time in China was nearing the end we decided what better way to spend two days than on the twenty hour round trip bus journey to Jiuzhaigou national park! Sichuan’s must-see sight, after the Pandas of course and another tongue twister of a name to get our heads around. With mesmerising blue lakes and verdant forests, the guidebook description had Mike hooked months ago when thumbing through a copy. Having purchased our budget busting entrance tickets at 310 yuan each (£36) including bus tickets, we joined the hoards queuing for the entrance. Receiving over 2 million visitors per year, hoards doesn’t feel like a large enough term to describe the number of people, they were everywhere you turned (as was the awful smell of their bad breath). During our nine hours spent in the park there were only a handful of times when we weren’t surrounded by other tourists and mainly domestic ones, although the guidebook had warned us of this so it didn’t detract from my experience.
Jiuzhaigou means the valley of nine villages and you could visit some of the villages inside the park, with traditional Tibetan houses, prayer wheels and flags, you could learn about the local culture as well. We decided to stick to the natural beauty and made good use of the buses to navigate our way between the lakes and waterfalls, as the national park covers an area of 720 sq km (the size of Exmoor national park back home) and ascends from 2000 to 3000 metres. The national park is ridiculously overpriced for what it is, some lakes and forests, however, it is well maintained by an army of staff. According to one of the bus conductors (who spoke pretty good English), they employ over 10000 people, have a fleet of 500 buses to transport tourists around and when you are on foot, you never leave one of the many well maintained boardwalks.
The national park is beautiful and without doubt our best experience in China. What made it so impressive you must be wondering? With truly picturesque scenery at every turn, you can’t help but take picture after picture. Beautifully clear cobalt blue lakes, sit at the bottom of pine and larch tree lined, steep sided valleys. Waterfalls softly cascading over limestone rocks. Fallen trees and roots making fascinating patterns just under the surface of the crystal clear waters. Apparently the park is beautiful in all four seasons and our visit was when the signs of spring were starting to appear, the birch and rowan were coming into bud and the fruit trees had pretty pink blossom. Although that didn’t mean winter was over yet, as on the day we returned to Chengdu it rained constantly and as the bus crossed some of the high passes the rain turned to snow, the scenery turned magical and everyone’s eyes turned to the windows.