Sichuan: Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong (Backpacking China Pt 2/2)

Part two of my one-week backpacking trip around touristy China in Guangxi and Sichuan. Apologies for the wall of text; I have more pictures, but they’re on a currently misplaced flash drive. Let this be a lesson, children: back up photos onto the cloud!

Monday 07/22
Xingping → Huanglong airport
Busing to the airport from Xingping takes nearly three hours, and I would’ve been late for my flight had it not been for the help of a friendly college student who moonlighted as a tour guide. While we chatted in Chinese on the long ride, I learned that rent can go as low as 240RMB/month (40USD); from me she learned that Israelis are not Muslim nor Christian, but Jewish (she had mistaken a kosher diet for halal).

My plane was delayed and the first two-hour leg to Xi’an had a break in the middle, by which I am still baffled. The second leg to JZH was at 7am in the morning, so I planned on sleeping the night at the Xi’an airport – which apparently closes in the middle of the night, so I couldn’t even get to the terminal of the airport I wanted to be in. This was an adventure in panic (I had to find a hostel and it was past midnight, and I saw no taxis around) until the guard told me I could sleep in the airport, but I’d be locked in until the doors were unlocked in the morning. I half-dozed in terror until 6am, when the doors fortunately did open.

Tuesday 07/23
Huanglong + Pengfeng
The view from the plane to Sichuan was already stunning, with snow clouds creeping up like waves upon stands of rocky mountains. The tiny airport, nestled in green hills, reminded me of the one near the Grand Canyon; both welcomed with crisp mountain air upon alighting. I almost immediately found the service for which I was searching: a 100Y shuttle that would take me to Huanglong National Park before dropping me off by Jiuzhaigou. I was placed in a shuttle with five Chinese and eight French people. I felt so badass for being able to understand everything that was going on.

From here, my terrible night at the airport melted into perfection. The drive could have been an attraction itself. The roads, though windy, were paved perfectly smooth. The rolling green hills seemed Alpine but for the occasional Tibetan prayer flags and yaks (and mountain goats and HORSES). The animals had no qualms with standing in the middle of the road, so it was like both a scenic drive and a safari wrapped up into destination-focused transportation!

Having read some reviews that I could afford to skip it, I had low expectations for Huanglong National Park. Supposedly the park had only a 3-hour loop to see one set of colored ponds. But I was blown away before I even reached the top. Never before had I seen the color of the Tahitian sea contained in ecru limestone pools shaded by fuzzy firs, all backdropped by grandiose green mountains. “It only gets better – you haven’t seen anything yet,” said some (overly)friendly Sichuanese who were eager to show me more.

Huanglong pools

gasping for oxygen at the top of Huanglong (just kidding)

The set at the top was indeed breathtaking. Besides the famous pools, Huanglong has a nice waterfall and a Tibetan temple. It’s definitely worth a visit as long as you go when the pools will be full. By walking slowly (I was paranoid about getting altitude sickness, and walked even slower after I noticed a group of overprepared girls pressing canned oxygen to each others’ faces), I took the full four hours my group was allotted to see the park. One small annoyance was the excessive picture-taking. It was impossible to “contemplate” Huanglong’s beauty without being asked to move multiple times by other tourists, who each had to take multiple photos with a variety of ridiculous poses.

I enjoyed the ride from Huanglong as much as I did the ride to. The shuttle driver dropped us off in a parking lot, across which was a huge building with a sign “Jiuzhaigou Dream.” Other signs like it were nearby, and I smiled in amusement, ready for the dream. I asked for the direction of the park and set out.

This was where my perfect morning melted into disaster. I had arranged a homestay with a Tibetan family that lived quite a distance from Jiuzhaigou. I was to meet them at the bus stop. I had drawn a crude map of Jiuzhaigou’s general surroundings and was confident I’d find the bus stop in 10 minutes. I walked 20 minutes. No bus stop. Thirty minutes, no bus stop. I began feeling uncertain. Each passing taxi honked at me, driving my nerves into a frenzy of irritation and stress. An hour passed and still no bus stop. The honking was starting to get to me and finally, when one particularly persistent driver stopped to honk, honk, honk, HONK, I broke down into my trip’s hilarious low point: I started crying and yelled in English at the poor man.

The next half hour was spent stumbling, sweating, panicking, and wiping away tears onto the back of my increasingly dirty hand.

I finally reached PengFeng, the town that supports JuiZhaiGou’s tourism, as the sun started setting. By now I’d long given up reaching my prearranged stay and just needed someplace to sleep before it got dark. The town was half under construction and, frankly, looked like a dump. Now for the first time in my travels, I finally got to do that romantic thing where the traveler wanders from door to door, lamplight to lamplight, looking for a place to stay.

Reality check: not having accommodation planned out is much more stressful than romantic when you’re frazzled, although I did internally fist-bump myself for scoring a discount by hesitating at one hostel. I was grateful to be able to speak Chinese, and even more happy to when I found that all of my bunkmates were Chinese. They were all so friendly, moreso than I’d seen at any other hostel, with each other and with me.

Exhausted by my long day, I decided to treat myself to the Tibetan meal I would have been eating had I been successful at finding my homestay. There’s a place in town that is actually run by the homestay host’s brother. It’s clearly for tourists, as prices are ~$10 per entree, and I even saw my French friends from the airport shuttle in there. They’d been less stubborn than me and had hailed a cab.

Wednesday 07/24

I woke up before dawn to walk to the park entrance before the gates opened. I was ready for this trip’s climax, this legendary land of frosty cascade set against fiery forest, of still aquamarine reflection, of  –

you see where this is going, right? If you read part one of this trip, or even just this post, you should really see where this is going. I should really just rename this series “Manage Your Expectations.”

Spoiler: It did not look like this. Photo Credit Emnopen

Yes, Jiuzhaigou is beautiful. But my expectations were built higher than than its highest mountain pools, its highest waterfalls, its highest peaks. The first aquamarine lake was beautiful. By the seventh I was bored, and my feet felt like bricks, which was understandable seeing as I had jolted them from less than one hour per day of standing in Shanghai to 8+ hours of walking in Sichuan.

Jiuzhaigou is still worth it if you have reasonable expectations and go during the fall, which is when the colors of the forest are at their most complementary to the pools. Jiuzhaigou is also totally doable in one day. Take the bus all the way up to the forest, be back at Nuorilang by 1 or 2, bus back up to the five color ponds, and then then walk down. Personally, I rushed the morning and was back at Nuorilang by 12, and was able to finish the lower paths around 5.

When I got back, I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, and I still didn’t know how I was getting to my 7AM flight at the Huanglong airport. I was incredibly, incredibly lucky – a fellow Chinese tourist overheard me talking to my hostel’s receptionist and hooked me up with a young Chinese couple who also had a flight the next morning. When the sun rose, we shared a taxi they’d called. On the way to the airport, I talked to them about their lives. They were from the Northeast and this vacation was their first ever since they’d been together – and they were married. Such is life as a Chinese worker. They’d scrimped so hard just to come here, and I was happy to hear that they’d enjoyed their trip.

Final note: the tourist world in China is tiny. The guy on my LongSheng trip was in my hostel room in YangShuo the next day; the Chinese guy on my airport shuttle was on my first bus in JiuZhaiGou park; I saw the French family from my airport shuttle walking around in JiuZhaiGou; I saw the young French group from my airport shuttle in the Tibetan restaurant, in PengFeng in the morning as I was walking to JiuZhaiGou, and again in the lower trails. I guess this means that I failed in seeing ~*ReaL ChiNa*~ but this was a great introductory experience for traveling solo in a less-developed part of the world: it’s a lot (!) more stressful and you need to allocate more time for transportation. But it can be cheaper and it’s wonderfully interesting in an entirely different way.


4 responses to “Sichuan: Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong (Backpacking China Pt 2/2)

  1. This post saved me!!! I am copying your itinerary with the exception of spending more time in each city (which may be cut short if transportation becomes tedious) and heading home to Shanghai from Xi’an.

    I have a question, however!
    Where did you find transportation from Xingping to Huanglong Airport? It wasn’t clear to me in your post. Did you take a bus or hop a ride with the college girl?

    Thank you! Love your blog…new follower earned :]

    • Shelby, great to hear from a fellow traveler, and too glad to hear that my post helped you plan your trip!

      There’s a bus that runs between Xingping and Guilin and through Yangshuo. The college girl helped me get off at the appropriate stop in Guilin. I remember getting off a blue bus and jayrunning across the street to a hotel, which also serves as an airport shuttle stop between Guilin Airport and Guilin proper.

      Does this help? Let me know how your travels go!

  2. Hi Katarina :)
    My wife and I plan to be in Changdu around mid december and wish to track Jiuzhaigou and HaiZi valley.
    Can you please help with directions and reomendations? :)
    You mentioned this is doable in 1 day, and i keep reading it requires 2…
    Also interested to know about the altitude sickness if exists…

    Thanks a lot! :)

    • Hi Nir, great to hear from you! The directions for doing JiuZhaiGou in one day are in my blog post – not sure what HaiZi is! I didn’t have altitude sickness after having lived in Shanghai for the past months.

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