Sunday, December 27, 2009


On December 25th we exchanged token presents, went to work, and in the evening flew to Jiǔzhàigōu (gee-oh jai go) in Northern Sichuan. This trip was our big Christmas present to ourselves!

The Chengdu airport has been experiencing frequent flight cancellations due to more fog than ever before. Jiǔzhàigōu airport is high up and also noted for heavy fog and flight cancellations so we were more than a little worried about a delayed or cancelled flight.

We got to the airport almost two hours before our flight so we had some time to kill and dropped into UBC Coffee. This charming company provides beer and Jack Daniels for western prices (¥30 and ¥48 respectively) but without even as much service as you'd get at an airport bar. Our favorite feature was that they give you a side of a booth. Not a whole booth, one side. The other side is filled by whoever they see fit to dump next to you. Considering they charge the price of a meal for a single drink we felt that giving people an entire table might have been a nice touch!!

Lounging over our over-priced drinks we enjoyed watching the flight board, which was a field of red "delayed" and "cancelled" messages for literally nine out of the next ten flights, and listening to the announcements, which were a continuous stream of delay and cancellation announcements. We began to wonder if they flew planes out of this airport at all!

In a fortuitious turn of events while they may have cancelled all the low cancellation risk flights out of the airport they elected to run ours as normal. Well ... almost as normal. We lined up at our assigned gate, which was displaying that it was the flight to Jiǔzhàigōu on an LCD monitor only to have an airline staff member wander up after about five minutes and inform us that Jiǔzhàigōu was actually the next gate down (clearly labelled as not being so). We enquired in pidgin Mandarin as to whether the other people in this line were headed to Jiǔzhàigōu and as they were decided we'd give the plane a shot. One charming chap was evidently nervous about flying as he spent most of our time in the second line-up throwing up in a corner. Unfortunately this was not grounds to prevent him from boarding. Luckily he didn't sit anywhere near us!!

A short time later we boarded the plane. The chap next to us turned out to be a university student from Hong Kong heading to Jiǔzhàigōu as well. Our flight left without much issue and we chatted for most of the flight. It turned out Kyle (or Xu Chen) hadn't arranged transportation to Jiǔzhàigōu from the airport. As we'd booked a car we offered him a lift. This worked out rather well for us and presumably for Kyle as well. Kyle spoke fluent English and Mandarin, making him an ideal translator to aid us in speaking to our driver. The driver spoke Mandarin and very very little English so without Kyle we would have had problems.

During a ninety minute drive in the dark down narrow roads with snow and ice on them that descended alarmingly steeply in some places we learned the driver was a Jiǔzhàigōu local and a member of the Qiāng people. We also listened to numerous sales pitches for hotels from the driver until we finally explained we'd booked the Xing Yu Grand Hotel (aka Jiuzhaigou Grand) online, with commitment to stay there for the entire duration of our stay. We would later learn that regardless of probable kick-backs for staying at drivers-choice hotels it still would have been a good idea. We dropped Kyle off at one of the drivers-choice places and headed to our hotel.

The Xing Yu Grand had a unique charm. We got off to a good start by having ¥1000 demanded in deposit. We expressed concern as our online receipt clearly stated payment on checkout. After a little though the booking clerk suggested we do ¥1000 pre-authorized visa payment. At any hotel that actually has such a firm policy they won't budge so at this point we were pretty skeptical. They assured us that this was normal everywhere in China. We assured them we'd stayed in many Chinese hotels and this was not normal. The clerk then suggested a ¥600 deposit. We suggested there was no way in hell. Finally he suggested a ¥300 deposit. Since this was equal to our first night fee we said OK and paid up conditional on receipt.

We went up to our room and discovered it (at the end of a dark hallway used as a stunt double for The Shining) to be adequate ... but cold. Very cold. And without heat; the A/C is only available certain hours. We knew this in advance (all hotels seemed to have it) but it was still colder than anticipated. On the plus side the kettle was a very nice touch; much more useful than the crappy coffee maker that an equivalent western hotel would typically give you.

A call to the front desk eventually yielded more blankets and we settled in for a rather chilly night.

On the 26th we got up and headed for Jiǔzhàigōu aiming to get there for opening time. The hotel breakfast was very Chinese but quite good with the exception of the coffee. Our driver met us out front and to our pleasent surprise he'd picked up Kyle.

On arrival at Jiǔzhàigōu it was a bit chilly. As in a bit chillier than our limited cold-weather gear could handle. Hands freezing was something of an issue until the sun came up a bit later.

Jiǔzhàigōu is amazing. There is the most incredible amount of water forming into a remarkable set of lakes that all appear to have different colors and shades from what's decaying in them and the reflection of the hillside. In many places the water spreads out to form a thing layer over seemingly all the ground around you. The trails in Jiǔzhàigōu form essentially a big Y shape. We took a bus up one side of the Y and set out to wander back down.

Typically along one side of the lakes runs the road and on the other runs a boardwalk. The boardwalks were crudely walled up so we got a chance to practice our fence-hopping. Soon after the sun began to creep over the hilltops and feeling began to return to fingers. We also began to pass close by some of the remarkable lakes. These are stunningly clear, allowing you to see into the depths. Many of them appear shades that suggest tropical warmth.

A little way further alone we encountered the first instance of what would prove to be our favorite sight at winter Jiǔzhàigōu: frozen waterfalls. Most of these have spectacular ice formations with water rushing over them. We found even the first and smallest one we encountered, "Arrow Bamboo Waterfall", to be breathtaking.

Next up was a series of tropical water impersonations.

At one spot the ice melting produced an eerie, almost musical, series of cracks and moans.

Just downhill from this was a much larger semi-frozen waterfall.

At this point we were a bit cold and hungry so we stopped for lunch. The most expensive instant noodles ever were also the best ones ever as they were hot! After lunch we viewed further tropical water impersonations. Five-colored lake was spectacular. It may be even more so in fall when the brilliant colors of the trees reflect.

In many places the decaying trees look almost like coral.

One remarkable little tree was trying to make a go of it creating a new island!

In many cases the trees and hillside opposite you reflect a seeming transparent section into the water, with the part reflecting the sky appearing opaque, or much closer to opaque.

Another fence-hop along we spotted what would prove to be one of our favorite areas: the landscape seemingly entirely covered by a thin sheet of water above the Pearl Shoals Falls. Aside from the the whole surface for a considerable distance is water.

Pavan loves the sound of small waterfalls so she took a quick break to enjoy.

Looking uphill:

And looking downhill:

The boardwalk then continues down around the side of the huge waterfield (aka Pearl Shoals), ultimately leading to Pearl Shoals Falls. The biggest waterfall in Jiǔzhàigōu and the biggest draw in the park, Pearl Shoals and the Falls were in spectacular semi-frozen state. We saw pictures of some of the other lakes in Jiǔzhàigōu in other seasons that looked better than winter but the semi-frozen waterfalls we saw beat out all the pictures we've seen of them thawed!

At the base of the fall was a neat waterway seemingly formed by a naturally fallen and hollowed out tree.

Our next hop was back up the side of Pearl Shoals toward a bus stop.

We wanted to see mirror lake, a little further down our side of the big Y from us, and the Long Lake before it got too late. Long Lake was something like 10 or 18 km away so we began hunting for a bus.

Mirror Lake was unfortunately subject to a bit too much wind to really mirror spectacularly. It was nice still but clearly would have been magnificent without the wind. And warmer.

It was getting into late afternoon so we rushed to make our way to a bus up to Long Lake. On reaching Long Lake after a rather considerable driver uphill we paused to demonstrate Rod was still tallest (Kyle is on the right).

Long Lake was beautiful in it's frozen state. We wandered about on the shore, scrambled some rocks, and tore another pair of Rod's pants. One rip-free pair remains; we may have to find a seamstress.

On the driver down we stopped to admire another small five-colored lake and to admire another frozen waterfall.

After Jiǔzhàigōu we decided to check out a local minority "feast". This sounded a bit like a scam but we figured it'd probably be an enjoyable scam. For ¥100 each we got dinner (albeit largely food we didn't care for) and a kind of home-made show. At several intervals during the show we were encouraged to quaff mugs of vile local "wine". It bears mentioning that "wine" in China is ~50% alcohol with an aftertaste and a half.

We got home late and had a second dinner of instant noodles. Pavan was feeling a little under the weather from being cold since arrival in Jiǔzhàigōu so we called front desk to see if they could do something about the cold. After expressing surprise we'd be cold (the room was probably only negative a single-digit value...) they provided a "heat fan". This is an electrical heating coil with a parabolic reflector back to allow you to guide the heat. It sort of works. It was chilly that night, but not *as* chilly. Shortly after receiving the heat fan a chap from the hotel came and knocked on the door and apologetically informed us we'd have to find alternate accommodations for the following night as the hotel transformer was broken and the entire hotel was shutting down the next day! This would prove a blessing in disguise.

The next morning Pavan was feeling a little low still, plus we'd heard that the second viewing spot we wanted to visit, Huanlong, was frozen over and the cable-car was closed, so we decided to just take a day off. We slept in then checked out of the hotel. It turned out the hotel was closing until March! The entire lobby was full of staff packing up all the plants onto trucks to go to plant storage somewhere. We decided to just go to a "drivers choice" hotel. This turned out to be our second choice hotel when we were booking online, which we almost booked instead of the Xing Yu, the YouU Hostel. Name aside this is a nicer hotel than the Xing Yu and has heat under your control in the room available all hours. The lowest price listed on their price board was ¥880 per night for a triple room but our driver had said it would be ¥180 and so for ¥180 we got a decent king-sized bed room for the night.

We enjoyed doing a little preparation for Thailand over our first real meal in pretty much two days.

The next morning (Monday) we got up rather early to drive the icy ascent to the airport in the dark, flew home, got a quick change and shower, and headed back to work. Jiǔzhàigōu rules; we really hope we have the chance to return and see it again. Who knows, maybe we'll see Xu Chen again too, either in Hong Kong or perhaps studying in North America...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wenshu Temple

On Sunday December 20th we visited the Wenshu Temple, the largest and best preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu according to Lonely Planet, it also happens to be walking distance from our apartment. Unfortunately it turned out to be our weekend for misdirection. Once again we set out the wrong way! The problem this time at least made sense: our apartment address is on Ren Min Zhong Lu and we were under the impression so was the building entrance. It turns out the building entrance is on the street perpendicular to Ren Min Zhong Lu so we set of 90 degrees off-course. Luckily we discovered this reasonably rapidly and headed back in the right direction. Soon we started to see the outside walls of the temple!

Inside the temple was a fairly large grounds with nice Buddhist paraphernalia. However we were cold and we've seen a LOT of Buddhist stuff lately so it didn't seem as novel as it might have otherwise. The main building highlight is the narrow pagoda structure somewhat east of the entrance.

Somewhat more interesting are the teahouses and vegetarian restaurant along the side of the temple. The teahouses are *stuffed* with locals playing mahjong and cards. The vegetarian restaurant serves tons of meat dishes made with vegetable substitutes. In fact their menu is so full of this it is almost difficult to order straight-up vegetables. The best things we tried were bamboo shoots and a plate of peppers. Hot peppers. VERY hot peppers in some cases. In an amusing role reversal Pavan couldn't take the heat! Rod ate most of them and then expressed concern over the slowly increasing burning sensation.

After a very nice brunch we started wandering around the temple grounds. Most of it was fairly standard Chinese Buddhist stuff. One neat highlight was a large building from which chants were emanating. We walked over and discovered that as advertised Wenshu is a functioning Buddhist temple; long lines of people were walking in a fairly complex wavy line chanting.

After Wenshu we decided to try to get some supplies for the week. We'd heard a french grocery store carrefour and figured it might be relatively decent so we headed over to it. It was a rathole. Perhaps it was french in as much as it was populated by smokers with attitudes. Their bread selection was slightly better than most Chinese stores but the appeal was diminished dramatically by the numerous people pawing at the un-bagged bread bare-handed. For bonus points carrefour Chengdu also features crowding, general dirtiness, and poor organization. We grabbed a few items and beat it for the exit only to be confronted by shopping carts piled high with raw meat!! A lot of things in China are a little different but somehow lining up behind a dude with two shopping carts packed with raw meat was a particularly alien moment.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

tiānfǔ guǎngchǎng

One of the first things we noticed looking out the window in Chengdu was that it seems to be quite common to have plants on buildings. We never saw anywhere in Xi'an with so many plants.

As previously mentioned, one of the first things we got to try was Chuàn Chuàn, a hot-pot with skewers, and now with pictures!

On December 19th, our first day off in Chengdu we decided to try some simple taxi directives. We had found a list of phrases for Chengdu locations with characters and pinyin so for the first time we tried to direct a cabbie without first practicing pronounciation with a local. We were delighted when on our first attempt the cab driver understood
tiānfǔ guǎngchǎng (Tianfu Square). There isn't much in Tianfu other than a big Mao but it seemed like such a central location that we should visit.

Just west of Tianfu is the Peoples Park. We'd heard this was often full of locals playing majong, doing tai chi, and also had a number of tea houses so we went to check it out. A short walk brought us there and we discovered it to be a very nice park. The trails inside are very peaceful and green, broken periodically by waterways and little collections of plants.

On of our favorite spottings was a gentlemen calmly sitting cross-legged, shoes off, reading the paper.

A little further through some paved squares open up. These are rather noisier, full of people playing netless badminton, dancing, and in setting up what appeared to be largely unscheduled musical performances often involving a woman impersonating a screeching cat.

There were also a few young super-heroes.

West of the noisy area were some walkways with older people sitting and talking, playing instruments we didn't recognize, playing majong, or just chatting and smoking.

Shortly after we popped out the west side of the park and set off west along the side of a small river in search of the Wenhua Park. Along the way we intended to walk down Jinli street, which is noted as being a novel street, but as far as we can tell we instead walked down streets near Jinli that were not actually Jinli. We stopped a short distance in to have lunch and were presented with our most dreaded adversary: the all chinese character menu provided by a Mandarin-only host. Luckily in Xi'an we practiced "I would like this/that" a fair bit and seem to be able to say it fairly well (at least well enough people understand) at this point. A few quick "w
ǒ xiǎng yào nà gē" + pointing at a dish someone in the restaurant was eating combos and our food was on it's way. Luckily Chinese people all seem to know how to write numbers our way so we can always get the price written down or shown on a calculator. Just down the street from the restaurand people were fishing in the river. It is important to note that pipes of what appear to be fairly raw sewage enter into this river and that it appeared the fish caught in the river were being taken home, presumably to eat.

A little further along we saw a cool pagoda in some little park that didn't seem to exist on our map.

We side-tracked north a little at a cool building that turned out to be a bar.

On a relatively fancy street heading north from the bar we saw a man vending turtles.

At this point we finally located the entrance to the
Wenhua Park, reputed to contain a Green Ram temple. The entrance was somewhat difficult to locate as it was reduced to a narrow pathway through construction supplies that are probably for the future Chengdu subway.

The temple was quite nice, with all your standard issue temple gear.

After the temple we decided to try to find Grandma's, a western restaurant reputed to be quite good. We got a taxi and after a rather confused conversation managed to convince the driver to take us to the big X we'd drawn on the map. We got off at the rather large intersection and immediately noticed a large number of people underneath playing mahjong!

Grandma's proved hard to find. After walking a fair way away from the intersection we identified that there was no bloody way it was that way. Unfortunately we were having some trouble with signage and it seemed rather likely the driver had let us off at a slightly different spot than we asked for so we were unclear on which of the other three directions it was actually at, or if we'd gone the right way and it had simply closed or moved. Undaunted (well ... maybe slightly daunted) we set off another way. This way seemed correct based on comparisons of hotel location in reality and on the cheap street map we bought. Sadly it turned out that either reality or the cheap street map was in error as Grandmas failed to materialize. By this time it was getting dim and we were getting hungry. We decided to try one last path. As we walked past an area blocked off by scaffolding we noticed Zoe's BBQ. This seemed like a good sign so we kept going. Shortly thereafter we passed by an inconspicuous door with no apparent sign (at least not one visible from our sidewalk). It looked kind of western so we stuck our head in and at long last there was Grandma's!!

As promised Grandma's served western food! We got a chef salad to start and it was wonderous. A real western style salad! Pavan mentioned that this felt like a "wine moment" and a second later the waiter wandered over, to announced we had somehow been selected for free wine, and dropped off two complimentary glasses!! A burger and apple pie rounded matters off. We love Chinese but once in a while we get a craving for Western! Curiously the store offered us a ¥10 discount card instead of an official receipt (fa piao). We figured we'd be back so we accepted.

Luckily we got a taxi rather fast when we left. Normally Chengdu is something of a taxi nightmare. At any time that could be considered within 60 minutes of any sort of peak period taxi's are *all* full.