Shanghaied, Chapter 13 (Independent Travel, Part 3): The Great and Terrible Yak Man

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               I have seen some beautiful things on my independent travel. And I’ve also learned so much. For example, I have learned that I have no idea how the Chinese bus system works. I also learned that said system occasionally traps you in ten-hour-long torturous tour-prisons. It wasn’t a particularly fun lesson to learn.

               (This post will be a long one. You've been warned.)

               We got very little sleep the last night that we were in Chengdu, because we had to catch an early long-distance bus to Jiuzhaigou. Jiuzhaigou is one of China’s most famous national parks, located in the north of Sichuan province. It is particularly well-known for its mountain lakes. We had seen cities and animal life, and I wanted the chance to see the natural beauty of China up-close. However, we were still in Chengdu, which is located in the center of Sichuan province. Sichuan province is quite large, a fact that would be extensively impressed upon me. The bus was supposed to be around eight hours long, which seemed daunting, but I figured we could just sleep through most of it.

               Now, I’d like to preface this by saying that what we bought appeared to be a normal, run-of-the-mill bus ticket. Just a bus to Jiuzhaigou. No tour guides. No bells and whistles. A normal bus ticket. The six of us got on with very little incident. The bus took off and we settled in for a nap.

               Enter Yak Man.

               After around ten minutes of pleasant resting, a guy got at the front of the bus and started speaking loudly into a microphone. The speaker was turned up way too high, and his voice was particularly grating. I could barely understand his rapid-fire Sichuan dialect. I assumed he was giving a brief safety presentation or something to that affect, and waited for it to pass.

               Cut to half an hour later, and he’s still going strong. He starts talking about the history of Jiuzhaigou, Chinese government infrastructure plans, and most importantly, yaks. Yaks, for those who don’t know their animals particularly well, resemble fluffy cows. He expounded on the importance of yaks for the local economy, and their history in Sichuan province. For this, we dubbed him Yak Man. And Yak Man would become the scourge of our bus ride to Jiuzhaigou.

               I remember Blaise remarking early into Yak Man’s speech that it would be hilarious if this turned out to be a tour bus. Half an hour into Yak Man’s lecture about Jiuzhaigou’s key sites, it finally dawned on me that we may have made a terrible mistake. This really did seem like a tour bus. And we were trapped on the tour. Yak Man’s loud, harsh voice blared over the bus’s loudspeakers, emotionally accosting me as I tried to sleep. Around the one hour mark, as he shifted to his namesake (the noble yaks of Sichuan province), I realized that he wasn’t stopping. I really tried to stop listening and rest, but Yak Man would not be ignored.

               This begins the audience participation portion of the tour, where Yak Man asked a series of rhetorical questions to the audience, ending each line with “hǎo bù hǎo?”, which means something like “do you agree?”, or “right?”. I tried to ignore his endless requests for affirmations. I was largely alone in this. Most of the old Chinese tourists who were on our bus enthusiastically responded to his questions, ensuring that we got no rest. It soon became clear that this was a sales pitch. He walked down the entire aisle and tried to get everyone to buy expensive tours to see Jiuzhaigou. He seemed very frustrated with our disinterest/terror towards purchasing a tour, and he repeatedly tried to convince us to change our minds. At this point,  the entire group was exhausted and frustrated, especially Blaise and I. I hoped he would be quiet after he got his money, but the lecture continued. At one point he spent an hour talking about the ongoing construction of the high-speed railway, which only filled me with a deeper bitterness. Why couldn’t they have finished the rail before we came?

               Perhaps this sounds trivial. But we had been on the move for days on end with little sleep. I was exhausted and I needed rest before the long hikes that would take place at Jiuzhaigou. Every time Yak Man excitedly (and loudly) pointed out the small groups of yaks that we would pass, I got a little more despondent. To prolong our exposure to Yak Man, the bus would stop at every rest stop that we encountered. This would extend the total bus ride time by around two hours. These stops did give us a brief reprieve from Yak Man, which was a relief. One of these rest stops was selling what my friends believed to be dried beef jerky, which they bought and started eating. However, I was curious about one of the characters that came before “beef”. A quick translation revealed that this was in fact yak jerky. They were rather startled by this, for some reason. During our time at the stop, Yak Man used this opportunity to attempt to sell people jerky. And not like hyping up the jerky with speeches; he got behind one of the stalls and started serving people. I still have no idea what his actual job was.

               In any event, we survived, but it was a draining experience. He spoke for a total of six out of the ten hours on the ride. As a small consolation prize, we did drive through some beautiful mountain passes. Yak Man eventually released us in the small village outside the entrance to Jiuzhaigou and we made our way to our hotel, where I swore I’d never take another long-distance Chinese bus.

               The tourist village outside of the park entrance is modeled after a traditional Tibetan village. Jiuzhaigou is located in the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which has large populations of various minority ethnic groups. Many Tibetans live and work in the area, and the village by the park entrance is an eclectic and colorful clustering of Sichuan restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops. We ended up staying at a small hotel which was both nicer and cheaper than any of the hostels we had previously stayed at.

               The next day, we began our first day of hiking Jiuzhaigou. Jiuzhaigou (which means “9 fortified villages valley” in Chinese) is a national park that encompasses a Y-shaped valley. We headed into the park entrance, bought our tickets, and tried to board a bus to take us to the main rest stop at the junction of the two main valleys. Unfortunately for us, we weren’t aware that you had to buy a separate bus ticket. It’s around 6 miles to get from the bus stop to the main rest stop by the junction, and we didn’t want to walk that. When we tried to go through, one of the guards (who wasn’t wearing a uniform, adding to our confusion) forcibly prevented us from entering and yelled at us in her unintelligible Sichuan accent. After being aggressive grabbed and pushed by her, we finally realized our mistake and retreated from our assailant. Chinese guards can be unnecessarily violent and it’s a good idea to not try and push past them. They have a habit of WWE-style body slamming you until you come around to their way of thinking.

               Take two. We got our bus ticket and took the bus up the valley. The bus system is actually really efficient (if only Sichuan province had hired the Jiuzhaigou bus people…). Buses go up and down the valleys, stopping at every major lake. On our bus, a video in Chinese began explaining the history and mythology associated with Jiuzhaigou. Despite my fear of another tour bus trap (I half-expected Yak Man to pop out from behind a seat, lock the doors, and start lecturing), the videos were quite informative. We began winding our way up the mountain trail, passing by several small, normal-looking lakes. I wasn’t initially very impressed.

               And then we hit the blue lakes.

               As I write this, I’m confronted by the difficulties of describing scenes of stunning natural beauty. Nothing I say will ever do it justice. But I’ll do my best.

               The lakes of Jiuzhaigou are blue. Not blue as in the sky reflecting off the lake, or even the blue of the ocean. I’m talking blue. Like someone poured blue dye into the lake. The lake we passed was an electric turquoise. The reason why the lakes are so blue is complicated. The short answer is that calcium ions dissolved into the water scatter the clear sunlight, which makes the bodies of water look blue. But they’re mountain lakes, meaning that they’re crystal-clear. This strange blue-shaded clarity is what makes Jiuzhaigou so famous. We were already blown away just by the view from our bus.

               As our bus arrived at the rest stop, we were informed that it would take us to the top of the Rize valley, the right-hand branch of Jiuzhaigou’s “Y”. We stayed put, and our bus took us straight to the top of Jiuzhaigou. The rest of our day would be hiking or busing down back to the rest stop through the Rize valley. Our first stop was the misty Primeval Forest. The Primeval Forest is what Jiuzhaigou used to look like before the loggers began destroying it. It was only in the late 70s that the area became protected from encroachment. The forest extends outwards through the mountains that surround Jiuzhaigou. The weather report said that it was going to rain, but the clouds had just passed as we arrived, leaving the forest dripping wet but otherwise fine. It was cold up at the top of the park; piles of snow lay scattered about.

               Jiuzhaigou’s paths are all wooden walkways that make the park incredibly accessible. And in true conservationist spirit, rather than cutting down the trees to build the walkways, holes were deliberately built into the wooden paths around the trees that were in the way. Trees would poke out of the path, which I thought was a fun touch to the area; the Primeval Forest was protected to save it from loggers, and this was a continuation of that ideal. You can’t go into the forest itself, but only stand at the edge. Nevertheless, it’s beautiful. Mist-shrouded mountains loom in the distance as sunlight filters through the clouds and the branches of the trees. The cold weather and rain had scared off many tourists, and there weren’t many people around, so we had this part of the park mostly to ourselves.

               I had downloaded an altimeter onto my phone, and at the forest, we were at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. The air was very thin here, and I found it hard to breathe. Even a few steps up some stairs would leave me winded. We soon began heading down the Rize valley. While walking to the nearest lake (we could have taken a bus, but it wasn’t particularly far), we saw no other people on the way. Additionally, throughout the day, we would only pass one foreigner; the main tourist season is in the fall, when the leaves change colors, but this suited us perfectly fine.

               Jiuzhaigou national park is incredibly well-maintained. I hadn’t expected such a such attractive and environmentally-friendly infrastructure, and such a rational and efficient bus system. The bathrooms were also spotless, which was perhaps the most surprisingly thing of all. This was a national park that easily met the standards of what you’d see in the West. Part of the Western bias shows here; I don’t know why I thought the parks would be of higher quality here. I was deeply impressed with the commitment to the preservation of the local environment.

               As we walked through the tree-riddled path, the terrain became less forested and grassier. Small, shockingly blue rivers ran under the walkway, which had become an elevated bridge. The ground became swampy. From there…

               Okay. I’m not going to go into too much depth about each lake, because there are a lot of them and it’s impossible to communicate the raw beauty of places that I saw. Pictures won’t do it justice, either. But I’ll do my best.

               We soon found ourselves by the shores of Grass Lake, which is a small green lake with a beautiful view of the valley. As we walked, the temperature steadily rose, making it more pleasant for us. We passed by Swan Lake, which is a stopover point for local waterfowl. Here, though, it just looked like a small, green lake. I did see a pretty, yellow-tailed bird that I’ve been unable to identify. From there, we walked down until we hit Arrow Bamboo Lake, which was a deep sapphire-blue. Arrow bamboo is the kind of bamboo that pandas eat, and there were once pandas in the area. However, it’s been several years since a panda was sighted in the area. Further down,  the lake morphed into a series of waterfalls. There were small pools between the falls to walk along. Next, we headed down to Panda Lake, which confusingly doesn’t have pandas like the previous lake. Rather, it’s called that because of dark spots along the bottom of the lake that give it a panda-like coloration.

               And then we hit a gate. My old nemesis. After flashbacks to Purple Mountain in Nanjing, where my attempts to circumvent a gate got me lost and may have led me onto private property, we headed to a bus stop and started taking the buses between the lakes. Construction along the paths had rendered them unusable, and since everyone was forced to take a bus, we had to fight for our seats. People get surprisingly violent over buses here. Blaise made it on and dramatically pulled us onto the vehicle through the squabbling crowd.

               From there, we saw Five-Flower Lake, which is a stunning azure color and considered to be one of the prettiest lakes of Jiuzhaigou. Ancient trees that have fallen in the lake are still visible through the clear water. I kept an eye out for sneaky park rangers with blue food coloring, because the lakes were just too blue. I also kept an eye out for Yak Man, because you just never know. Our next bus took us to a series of waterfalls known as Pearl Shoal, so-called because of the drops of white water that splash and fly above the fast-flowing falls. Next, we reached another very famous lake, the Mirror Lake. The lake was staggeringly clear and quite deep, and it perfectly reflected the surrounding trees and mountains. A local Tibetan legend states that after a god fell out of love with a goddess and abandoned her, the heartbroken goddess angrily cast down a mirror the god had given her. The mirror fell to earth and shattered, and the shards became Jiuzhaigou’s lakes. After seeing Mirror Lake, I understood where they got the idea from. And from there, we finally reached the rest stop by the Nuorilang Waterfalls, which are Jiuzhaigou’s largest waterfalls, where the two valleys meet. The Tibetan village of Zechawa was nearby, which is a series of colorful, touristy buildings that tried to sell of cheap souvenirs.

               The buses were set to stop running fairly soon, which would have forced us to walk all the way to the gate, many miles away. Nevertheless, we decided to take a smaller bus to some of the lakes in Zechawa valley, the other branch of Jiuzhaigou’s Y. We caught a bus to Colorful Pond, which is pretty much the least-creative name I could have thought of. But the pond is pretty colorful; there are blues, yellows and greens in the small lake, due to various minerals dissolved in the water. Our final lake for the day was Long Lake, at the top of Zechawa valley, which, as the name suggests, is one of the largest lakes in the area. By then the sun was going down, and the lake was a deep, rich blue. After that, we headed back to the entrance, making it out just before the buses stopped running.

               We emerged from the park, exhausted but triumphant. We had managed to see a majority of Jiuzhaigou’s lakes, and nearly all of the most famous ones. As we retired to a Sichuan restaurant to eat some more deliciously spicy mapo tofu, we planned the next day. We were going to visit one of the nearby national parks called Huanglong.

               Huanglong (“Yellow Dragon” in Chinese) is a few hours away from Jiuzhaigou. It’s higher and colder than Jiuzhaigou, and is most famous for its Terrace Lakes, which are many colorful pools that form a series of terraces that slowly drain into each other. Getting there involves a bus ride through the mountains, and the weather turned from cool to snowy. At one point, we cleared 13,000 feet above sea level, before slowly dropping to around 10,000. We passed several yaks grazing on some of the mountain grasses (Legend has it that if you see a yak and say Yak Man’s name three times, he’ll appear and try to sell it to you). As we arrived at the foot of the park, we were confronted by freezing cold temperatures and snow. And I was only wearing a light sweater.

               The cable car up the mountain was terrifying. Seriously. As we climbed higher and higher, the ground vanished into the mist. I’m not afraid of heights, but I’m not exactly throwing myself off cliffs for fun either, and it was a bit terrifying. But we made it to the top in one piece, and were immediately confronted with even colder weather and stronger winds. Since we were poorly dressed for the occasion, keeping insulated from the wind while trudging through the snowy, slippery wooden walkways was a challenge. But it was truly beautiful. Snow-covered trees and foggy mountains lined our path as we headed to the Terrace Lakes.

               Huanglong’s lakes were stunning. The terraces’ waters held electric blues, soft greens, and muted yellows. Bare trees and the gentle dusty snow that fell over the area gave it a completely different aesthetic from Jiuzhaigou. As we went up onto the observatory bridges on the slopes of the mountains, the yellow stone of the terraces seemed to twist and coil around the edge of the ponds, resembling a winding yellow dragon.

               What Huanglong achieved that Jiuzhaigou could not was the blending of manmade structures and natural beauty. Buddhist temples meld seamlessly into the scenery. Where the colorful touristy Tibetan villages of Jiuzhaigou deliberately stand out, here these small temples perfectly complemented the cloudy beauty of Huanglong. Jiuzhaigou wasn’t particularly crowded at this time of year, but Huanglong was comparatively empty, and despite the cold, it was a quiet, peaceful, and gloriously beautiful. We headed down the cable car (which they charged us to go down, which was annoying). After returning, we played cards and got some sleep. We had one more day in Sichuan before we headed home, and we wanted to make it count.

               On our second day of hiking Jiuzhaigou, we set out on a different path. To save money, we decided not to buy a bus pass, and instead opted to walk the many miles up to the rest stop, seeing all the little lakes that we had passed on the first day. Eryn, Blaise, Umama, Kaneta and I all headed down to walk along the path up the main valley. We began walking for miles along the tree-filled walkway which ran alongside a river. I marveled at the scenic woods and the abundant wildlife. Some things we saw were man-made, however. We would pass a small monastery that they’re building for Tibetan monks. I loved seeing people in traditional robes using iPhones. Later in the day, we would pass some old water mills with antique water wheels. However, the most stunning things that we saw were natural.

               At one point, we hopped across some rocks and a dead tree onto a boulder in the middle of the river to look around. Surrounded by clear, rushing water, I knew that walking had been the right call. As we walked, we got to see some smaller lakes that were off the main path. The walkways twisted along a slope, and some tiny lakes were nearly at eye level, their water spilling down in small waterfalls next to us. After passing a few gorgeous ones, we came upon what I consider to be the best lake in the park: Sparkling Lake.

               Unlike the other lakes that we had seen on the first day, this lake was only accessible by walking. Sparkling Lake indeed sparkled in the clear sunlight, with the wind causing a series of glass-like ripples. It was a gorgeous sky-blue, matched by the sky above, which was clearing of clouds. At this point, curiosity and awe overwhelmed my rules-following instinct, and Blaise, Eryn and I broke off the path and down the slope to see it up close. They headed down on their own routes while I found my own narrow, tree-free path down, no doubt created by years of other explorers. I soon reached the algae-covered rocks by the edge, and I stood by the water of this crystal-clear lake, watching it ripple like melted glass. The verdant mountains the ringed the lake stood silently in the background as I sat and watched the clouds drift through the blue sky. I was alone in my own little world, sitting by this pure, magnificent lake.

               I’ll leave you with this: I left Sparkling Lake shortly after and headed to the rest stop with my friends. After a day of walking and sightseeing, we headed back on the bus (even though we technically hadn’t bought a bus ticket) and soon went back to the hotel. We flew home the next day, and the normal pace of life resumed as finals week leapt upon me with a savage, primal hunger. The blues of the lakes faded into a memory, preserved by photographs that will never capture the majesty of the place. Life largely returned to normal.

               But I’ll always have that moment at Sparkling Lake. That quiet few minutes, standing in the presence of a true natural wonder. I was so close to the shimmering water. The sun was bright, and trees lush, and the only sounds the lapping water and birdsong. I’ll never forget those few moments of beauty and clarity, and that was a better gift from Central China than anything I could ever hope to buy at a tourist market.

               And as always, here’s this week’s bad English. Jiuzhaigou may have been beautiful, but its signs were pretty bad. Your guess is as good as mine with this one.

               Zaijian!

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