Contemplated to go over 3 years,
Bought tickets 8 months in advance,
I'd thought I knew all, even small details, before the trip, but yet, there were so many things that caught me unprepared.
Despite that, the trip went great. I have to say we were incredibly lucky. It could have gone very very terribly wrong.
The 1st thing we hadn't anticipated was being mistaken as Japanese, towards whom, because of the ongoing tensions between the 2 countries over the Senkaku island dispute, Chinese locals were very hostile. How narrowed minded these locals were. How come they could think the rest of Asian people, other than themselves, were all Japanese.
We actually at first didn't know that as we didn't understand the language. So lucky for us that we didn't have to suffer that either as when we tried to find the taxi counter, I happened to stand right next to a Taiwanese guy who could speak English and was waiting for his wife who was using the restroom. We started talking and sharing details about our itineraries. It's revealed we had similar schedule: visiting HuangLong Shan 黄龙山 (HLS) first and then JiuZhaiGou (JZG), so I suggested we shared the cab. He and his wife agreed, and we went looking for a cab.
He did all the negotiation with a bunch of local taxi drivers (Note that there was no taxi counter as had been advised here on TripAdvisor earlier)
The price was asked at RMB700. We didn't agree, and the taxi drivers reacted very aggressively. They were like shouting in Chinese, irritatedly following us around and then kept tapping at a rate table on a board right outside airport building exit trying to make their point why it had to be RMB700. We tried to find other drivers that would offer lower rates like we had learned on travel forums but soon realized it was impossible. The taxi drivers worked together. It's one's of the drivers' turn. His cab was in the first row. No other taxi driver dared to offer lower rates. Some of them simply answered if the driver that's his turn at that time to go didn't move his cab, all other cabs would be just stuck behind.
We worked out the math. With 4 people, we actually just had to pay RMB175 p.p., which was still lower than RMB200p.p. that we'd planned to spend for the cab, so we took the cab.
Meeting with that Taiwanese guy was the most fortunate thing that happened during our trip.
Meeting that driver turned out to be the 2nd most one.
Because of the stupid map in Lonely Planet book, I'd wrongly thought HLS was on the way to JZG. So I'd anticipated to arrive at JZG after a trip to HLS at 1pm and then have whole afternoon to find tickets for the Tibetan cultural show, ZangMi 藏谜 (ZM), for the night of the same day.
But as you all may have known, HLS was not on the way to JZG. It was in the "opposite" direction from the airport. And in the guide book, they say it's 3 hour walk down from top of HLS after using cable car to get there, but for us and also the Taiwanese couple, it's 5 hours.
You see at that point, my ZM plan for the evening was almost about to be thrown out. I wouldn't have the whole afternoon to find tickets. We might not even be able to get to JZG by 7pm for the show even if we were to get the tickets, warned the cab driver.
So lucky for us, the driver made some calls and got us 2 tickets, despite that it was peak season and the driver said, and we believed him, that normally tickets had to be booked 1 day in advance. We're grateful already that we got tickets, we didn't really care about the seats, but indeed, he got us 2 great seats right at center of the audience on the balcony, which provided better view of the stage than the arena. The tickets was RMB150, as having been informed by member JZG here on Tripadvisor earlier. As we knew the rate in advance, we quickly accepted it and was glad the driver had asked the correct rate and we didn't have to negotiate with him.
In the morning we arrived at JZG airport, it was snowing. It was like a snow storm to me when we arrived at XueBaoDing 雪宝顶 (XBD), which was the highest summit in the whole mountain range. But in the afternoon, the sun was out. When we passed XBD the 2nd time on the way back, the scenery was completely different, clear of snow and calm (much less interesting as well). But because of the condition significant improvement, the cab driver could drive faster and we got to our hostel at 6pm.
It's important to note that the wife of that Taiwanese guy got sick on the way back. She threw up a lot half an hour after we left HLS. I thought it was car sick since the road was winding and the driver didn't really use the brake . But the cab driver said it was altitude sickness. When we were on the way to HLS in the morning, he took us to a local pharmacy that sold HongJingTian 红景天 (HJT), but because it was RMB230 for a box that could be used for 2 people for only few hours, we decided to not buy and took our chances. As the wife kept throwing up on the way back, the husband was convinced by the cab driver that his wife should have taken HJT and we stopped at that pharmacy to get her some. I later fell asleep in the cab, but when I woke up she looked better. Still very tired which must have been because of the throwing up that I'd seen from earlier, but she seemed rested. HJT seemed to work.
We were not affected by the altitude except while hiking at the top of HLS. But nothing serious, we just made stops, took deep breaths, and minute later, we could continue. But for your information, we took GNC ginseng capsules regularly since we started the trip as we knew about the lack of oxygen caused by the altitude situation. Looking at the fact that the wife was affected by the altitude and we weren't, it appeared like the capsules might have helped.
Nearly a day together, the Taiwanese guy helped translate between us and the driver. Thanks to that, we were able to quickly & effortlessly arrange with the cab driver to pick us up for the airport for our return flight. Given that the taxi to HLS and then to JZG cost nearly twice than what we had anticipated, to our surprise, he only asked for RMB200, which was the official rate for one way from airport to JZG. He expressed thru the Taiwanese guy if we were going to keep our word to go with his cab from hostel to airport. That was really unnecessary as at that official rate, we were more than happy to go with him (his cab was very clean). It's we who're worried if he wouldn't show up as the pick-up time was quite early.
The morning we visited JZG park, we came down at the reception of our hostel at 6am to give the key. It was open so I thought the hostel had 24 hour reception. The following day that we had to leave for airport at 5:30am, we came down only to find the cab driver had been waiting there for a while in front of a locked, light-off reception. We needed the front desk to be open as we had deposit RMB100 for the room key. I banged on the door for a while hoping someone was sleeping inside behind the front desk but in vain. Then the taxi driver gave the signal that there was a piece of paper with phone number, some kind of hotline, stuck to the door and he would call. Fortunately, in the 2nd attempt, someone picked up. I didn't understand what they exchanged on the phone as it was in Chinese, but when he finished the call, he signaled me to slide the key inside under the door. With my very limited Chinese vocabulary, I told him it was RMB100 for the key, he quickly got it and called that number again. A few minutes later, a receptionist came and gave us our deposit back and then we could depart.
Thinking back, I can't help but thinking I owed that taxi driver so much. I need to emphasize how much the driver saved our trip. The trip could have turned very wrong if he hadn't showed up. Months before the trip, I was working with a Chinese tutor to develop scenarios I would face at certain stages of the trip to prepare simple Chinese sentences. In the emergency that the taxi didn't show up, I'd only thought of asking the front desk to help me call another one. But from the facts that actually had happened, if the taxi driver hadn't showed up, there would have been no front desk available to help. And while we were on taxi to airport that morning, we realized there were no other taxis on the streets at that early, so if the driver hadn't kept his word to show up, and with the front desk being closed like that, we would have missed our flights because of no taxis nearby to hail. But he showed up, and we not only did not have to worry about the taxis situation and missing flight altogether but also had our RMB100 room key deposit back.
On the way to the airport, we and the taxi driver couldn't really communicate since we didn't speak a common language, but he still acted very nice despite being quite hostile in the 1st day for thinking us being Japanese. He, knowing that we had watched ZM 2 nights ago, played ZM music during the trip. A while into the trip, I didn't show any discomfort, but he still adjusted my seat (I was in the front seat) to move back so I could stretch my legs more and signaled me to make the back of the seat lean back for me to rest comfortably. And he shouted yak/niu牛 when he saw one for me to see. He completed the trip in 1:30 hours as he estimated 2 days before. We, thanks to that, had plenty of time for check-in.
In JZG, we stayed at Zhuoma Youth Hostel (九寨沟卓玛青年旅舍)
There was only one guy there who spoke English. When he wasn't at the front desk, we were completely screwed. The other receptionists were not a bit sympathetic with those who didn't speak Chinese. They quickly turned away to deal with other Chinese guests. In general, everywhere, non-Chinese travelers were treated like inferior to Chinese ones.
The room was quite spacious. There were electric mattresses. Plenty hot water. Hair dryer was available for borrowing with RMB50 deposit.
The location was excellent. About 1km from the park entrance. The walk was nice, so 1km was not really a problem. There were a lot of shops and restaurants in short walk distances.
That's all good things about the room, now the bad things, outnumbering the good ones, unfortunately:
We didn't spot the cigarette smoke odor in all the bed sheets, comforters, and pillow cases until we went to bed that night. The odor was so strong and thick that it really bothered us. We really enjoyed the fresh air in the HLS and JZG area, but the smoke odor in the room quite ruined the experience. Hours after falling into sleep, I was bothered too much by the odor that I had to wake up and use my body spray to spray the sheets and the problem was gone for a 1-2 hours and we had to spray again.
The following morning we asked the receptionist who could understand English to have the sheets changed for us and explained to him the cigarette smoke odor. He said ok, but in the evening we came back, we could still smell it instantly after opening the door and knew they weren't changed. We also found the folded towels in the room were soaked wet (they were somewhat damp in the 1st night but we figured it was because of the rains so they couldn't dry the stuff properly so we didn't bring that up. But that morning, because everything got wet in the bathroom after we got shower so we used the used towel to wipe dry the basin table to have space to place our skincare stuff and so it was very wet). We asked them for different ones and were given. But really after the incident, I thought this place was gross.
The light in the room was dim enough to be well considered sleep light. It's difficult to get ready or pack because of that.
No toilet rolls. I came down to ask them. I was given 2 pocket packs of facial tissues. No kidding. Luckily we were careful enough to bring a roll from home.
The toilet did not flush. It wasn't really stuck as the water still got away but the hard stuff was still in there. Only after we tried to flush several times with buckets of water taking from the shower then did the situation seem to be controlled.
Water outage in early evening in both nights we were there.
We almost freaked out when the socket burnt and burnt plastic smoke came off from the multiple electric socket in the middle of the night. We asked them to change, they instead simply took it away and used all wall sockets for the electric blankets. Of course, it was very cold at night so we couldn't unplug the blankets, and hence, we had no sockets for battery charging.
No 24-hour reception. The day we went to visit the park, we came down at 6 a.m. to the front desk to give the key and it was open, so we thought front desk was available 24 hours, which would almost cost us 100RMB deposit for room key or maybe our flight the following day.
The hostel had several separated buildings. Our room was in one building that was different than one that housed the front desk. The door to that building was locked and no lights inside. Luckily, the taxi driver was there and helped call the hot line showed on the door and a receptionist came and gave us the deposit back. Btw, if you're gonna stay there, make sure not to lose any deposit slips. The receptionist didn't say, but it seemed even if we had the key to return, without the deposit slip, he wouldn't give us back the deposit.
I don't know if this is important, but it seemed this ZhuoMa youth hostel was not related to ZhuoMa homestay recommended by Lonely Planet. We went to Abuluzi, the authentic Tibetan restaurant recommended by Lonely planet and owned also by the people who ran the ZhuoMa homestay, and people there kept asking if we were guests at ZhuoMa homestay. We gave them our hostel name and they didn't seem to consider that was one of their places.
We were at JZG for 2 nights. The 1st night we rushed to ZM show and when we came back at about 9p.m., most restaurants in the immediate surrounding of our hostel had closed. So we had our instant noodles. The following night, we managed to find Abuluzi.
The address of Abuluzi on Lonely Planet website was completely wrong.
As matter of fact, there's no address in JZG, said the only receptionist who could speak English in our hostel, just showed the name to locals or taxis, they would show the direction.
The restaurant was closer to our hostel than we had thought. We walked past it on the way from the park to our hostel but didn't spot it as it was on the 2nd floor.
The people there were very friendly and nice, especially Kelly (we didn't get her Chinese name), ZhuoMa's younger sister, and we could tell from the facial features that all the waiters and waitresses there were Tibetan.
That was my first time having Tibetan food. I found all were fresh and delicious though not to the point of being very impressive.
All patrons before leaving were given a white scarf printed with Tibetan symbols as complimentary. The scarf looked very nice and I wore it the next day sightseeing Chengdu. But the prints on the scarves were so cheap that when I washed mine at home after the trip, the prints were nearly entirely gone.
The restaurant was well-decorated in Tibetan theme. Very pretty. All the waiter and waitresses were well dressed in pretty Tibetan traditional costumes.
They had a small stage for patrons to sing or for them to sing to entertain patrons.
I forgot how much we paid for dinner, but I didn't feel it was exorbitant.
Probably only one complaint was the smokes. Cigarette smokes from nearby table as well as smokes from cooking. My eyes were very sensitive to smokes. My nose might not have even smelled it but my eyes could feel it instantly.
HLS & JZG
I loved nature and enjoyed walking thru the parks but I was by no means a hard-core hiker and camper. I time & money had budget to consider as well, so in my final decision I decided to spend 1 day in HLS and 1 day in JZG despite many members on Tripadvisor had suggested they would have skipped HLS and spent all their times in JZG.
I visited HLS thoroughly since it's single-pathed & doable in 5-6 hours. We followed advice to take cable up to the top and walked down to WuCaiChi 五彩池 and to the entrance. The scenes in HLS were much different from JZK. No big lakes, but it had beautiful travertine pools, which JZG didn't have. In HLS, I could see year-round snow-capped summit, a pretty temple with Tibetan buddhists going up and down on the same paths with tourists. All these nice features were absent in JZG.
From XBD, which was well below zero celcius degree with freezing heavy snow shower, to HLS, which I believed 1000m lower, with sleet, to JZG with beautiful autumn weather with not too hot sun, cool breezes, I felt the trip couldn't be more complete climate-wise.
JZG was awesome. The best lakes and waterfalls there were unrivaled. But the less famed ones in JZG like all those before Nuorilang 诺日朗, Grass lake 芳草海, Swan lake 天鹅海, Virgin Forest 原始森林, etc I think could be skipped if the time budget was limited.
On our only day in JZG, because we knew we had only 1 day, we took the bus right away from the entrance to the stop at the Tourist Center, and went down to Nuorilang waterfall, one of the most impressive sites in the park, while only few tourists were there. Then I took the bus to Arrow Bamboo Lake 箭竹海 and walked down to Nuorilang again passing the most famous places in the park namely Panda, Five Flower五花海, Pearl 珍珠滩, Mirror 镜海 lakes/shoals/waterfalls etc.
The disadvantage of my route was by the time I got to the most popular place, the Five Flower lake, it was quite into the day and a lot of tourists had got there and it was very crowded. If I could do it again, I think after Nuorilang, I would take the bus to Five Flower and walk down to Tourist center and then take the bus to Bamboo Arrow.
But there was an advantage to the route I did was when we got to the most beautiful lakes (Five Flower, Mirror, Pearl Shoal), it was well into the day, and the sun was out and shining strongly and the most beautiful lakes were hundreds more beautiful and sparkling. If we had visited them earlier in the day, they wouldn't be in their most shining moments.
Anyway, my advice for future travelers is if you're going to have 2 days like I did, spend one full day in JZG and be strategic by visiting all the best places first and then the remainder if you have time. Don't go to the end of one fork and follow it down. You only do that if you have 2 days to explore the park thoroughly and entirely. The other day, which actually should be the day you fly to JZG, you take one of the earliest flights and use the remaining time of the day to see HLS.
Note about the apparel: because of the huge altitude gap between XBD/HLS and JZG, you should have heavy winter clothes for the former and light jacket and sweater for the later although it could get quite cold in early morning in the later.
Buying tickets at HLS was a breeze (We didn't buy but the Taiwanese guy did and we paid him back later. But we could see there was no one else there at the time we were there). At JZG it was a nightmare. When we arrived at the park entrance, it was well before 7, but there were huge lines before the ticket office. We got in 1 line and were at about 50m from the ticket office entrance.
I let my friend stay in the line and I went to check the building on the left as we just saw a bunch of people hastily ran in. While I was inside trying talking to a non-speaking staff, who showed obvious reluctance to help me, I heard my buddy called out to me urgently and somewhat frightfully. I thought something terrible had happened outside. I rushed out and found my buddy stand alone in the big empty yard. The lines were gone and all the people were previously in the lines were pushing each other at the ticket office to get tickets. According to my friend, the lines broke into chaos as soon as the ticket office was open. My friend had to stay where she was because she was afraid we would lose each other.
I got the hard pushing crowd at the ticket office and did something I had never done before: jostle my way to one of the ticket counters. Jostle was actually quite an exaggeration. I was small, so I could quite easily get thru the crowd, and I took short cut to first of one line (funnily there were actually lines inside the small ticket office in front of each ticket counter) and got tickets for us in just 5 minutes. I wasn't proud of that because I'd lived in more civil societies and never had to behave uncivilly like that, but I thought it was what I had to do given the circumstances; otherwise, if I kept being civil or shy, it would have taken half a day to get tickets and we would have lost the precious hours to see the park.
Unusual circumstances indeed bring out the unusuals in ourselves, the things that we didn't know we have/can do. But once again, for getting tickets in 5 minutes without elbowing anyone, I knew I was incredibly lucky during this trip.
ZangMi (http://www.藏谜.com/home.aspx), a Tibetan cultural show was indeed world-class and must-see. Tibetan singers had incredible vocal abilities! If they could have competed in the Voice, they could have for sure kicked Christina Anguilera out of the coach chair and made her less so bragging about her being a genius vocalist.
We took flight at 7:30 to JZG. We're so lucky to be assigned window seat. I normally didn't care about window seats and actually preferred isle ones, but it's a must to ask for window seats and look out near the end of the flight. Half an our before approaching JZG when the plane started reducing altitude, you should look out. There will be mountain summits peaked thru the cloud "surface: and there would be dawn over that spectacular scene. It was one of the most memorable scene of the whole trip, a big unexpected bonus!
On the flight back to Chengdu, we got window seats as well, but the scene not as pretty. Sun was already out, and because of the high altitude, it's very hot and skin damaging.
It's of note about Chengdu Shuangliu airport that
1. Terminal 2 is all for domestic
2. Terminal 1 is NOT all international. Only 1/3 of the terminal is for international flights. If you're to board Sichuan Airlines to JZH, make sure you're dropped at terminal 1 as there's no internal walkway connecting Terminal 1 & 2. If you are mistakenly dropped at Terminal 2 then you will have to go outside, walk along the road for 750m to Terminal 1. There's electric car available for ride between terminals, but if you're in a rush and don't really speak Chinese, good luck with that.
My bottom advice for other travelers:
- If you don't speak Chinese and are Asian looking, make sure they know you're not Japanese. Even if you are, lie.
- Dump Lonely Planet guide book
- The map posted on Jiuzhai.com is extremely helpful. The paper ones that can be found in the building to the left of the ticket office is not much helpful. But note that in the map posted on Jiuzhai.com, North is at the bottom. jiuzhai.com/language/…jzv_visitor_map.pdf
Hope this post-trip write-up helps you shape your expectations for the trip and have a wonderful one.
My special thanks to TripAdvisor members, especially member JiuZhaigou, who gave me a lot of information and helpful advice before the trip.