Eleven hours covering a distance of 460 kilometers! That’s how long it took for me to travel from Chengdu International Airport to Jiuzhaigou.
Jiuzhaigou nestles in big mountains, isolated from other cities in the province. Chengdu remains the gateway to Jiuzhaigou. Domestic flights from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou are available. Flying would have taken only an hour, allowing me more time to explore the place and conserving my energies for the days ahead.
However, I had already purchased (a mistake??) my online travel voucher seven months earlier at the special price of US170.00 per person. This voucher covered accommodation for 5 nights in a 4-star hotel, three meals a day (lunch and dinner banquet style with a minimum of 9 different Chinese dishes during every meal), entrance tickets to all attractions, national parks and cultural performances, land transportation and airport transfer! How could I not resist? The only condition was that I had to travel to Jiuzhaigou by bus!
So, I swallowed some travel sickness tablets after arriving at Chengdu Airport, and stepped into the waiting bus that would take me to Jiuzhaigou via Dujiangyan, Wenchuan, Maoxian and Songpan. The bus had wide windows, and was spacious, comfortable and clean. On the plus side, going by land gave me a chance to see the Sichuan countryside and rural towns.
The road took me past rivers, long tunnels, valleys, lush mountains and abandoned homes. The Sichuan province is very susceptible to earthquakes. Even up to today, the devastation resulting from the Sichuan 2008 earthquake is evident in the landscape. Buildings and houses have been reduced to a rubble. Huge rocks and boulders have filled the river, causing the muddy flow of water to run its course in a series of rapids. The rural landscape is stark, bland and badly wounded.
Diexi Lake is a landslide dam-created lake formed during the Diexi earthquake in August 1933. It is 190 kilometers south of Jiuzhaigou and is a must-pass through route if you visit Jiuzhaigou by land. It’s kind of sad to think that this peaceful, calm lake bears the legacy of tragedy, destruction and death.
I saw a yak for the first time in my life when we stopped at Diexi Lake for a 20-minute break. Yaks are heavily built, with a bulky frame, sturdy legs and rounded cloven hooves. Don’t let looks fool you. They are actually friendly in nature and are easily domesticated. Yaks like high altitudes and have the capacity for transporting oxygen through their blood. Conversely, yaks do not do so well at lower altitudes. They start to suffer from heat exhaustion at temperatures above 15 °C (59 °F).
This mountain yak is led by a rope tied to a ring attached to its nostrils. Do you think they feel any pain when the rope is pulled?
Songpan Ancient Town
The ancient city of Songpan serves as a stopover point on the road to the Jiuzhaigou.
It was built during Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) and was later rebuilt during Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). The historic town consists of both an inner city and an outer city. Due to its location, four ethnic groups are resident in the ancient town of Songpan – Tibetan, Qiang, Hui (Muslim) and Han (Mandarin). The blending of these four cultural elements has given birth to the Kangba culture, unique to Songpan.
Downtown, old wooden buildings still line some of the side streets and residential areas. These shops sell Tibetan ornaments like bracelets, rings, ethnic costumes and horn combs. Regional food offerings like stewed whole duck, steamed chicken, crispy yam, local mushrooms, rare Chinese caterpillar fungus and yak jerky are also sold.
Songpan’s countryside comprises rolling grasses and endless valleys. It’s a great place to visit if you enjoy horse-riding.
It would have been nice to have had the time to visit Huanglong National Park, which is only 88 kilometers away from Songpan. It is famous for its ponds, forests and coloured rock terraces. Unfortunately, Huanglong was not part of my tour itinerary and I had to give it a miss. What a pity!