If you’d like to skip ahead to see our Traveler’s Tips for Jiuzhaigou, the national park in Sichuan, you can scroll to the bottom or click here.
One of the attractions for us of traveling around China by motorcycle was that we would have quite a bit of freedom to see the country on our own schedule and not necessarily get sucked in to the tourist traps or seasons. Unfortunately, for this particular section of our trip it didn’t quite work out that way as we were stuck smack in the middle of the busiest traveling holiday in the most populated country in the world while making our way through one of the more scenic and popular areas of China of North Eastern Sichuan province.
The Gannan Region of Gansu into Province #14
As we made our way out of Linxia, Gansu province, there wasn’t really much of note that happened. The area seemed to be a scenic area with signs for different tourist spots such as outlooks and temples. The roads were quite nice with signs of Autumn starting to show themselves in the tree covered hills. Plenty of cars driving around but nothing that was too obstructive.
Gannan or 甘南, the hilly Tibetan Autonomous Region of Gansu we were going through soon made way for our fourteenth province of the trip, Sichuan. Here the Tibetan influence on the area started to become more pronounced, prayer flags, temples, writing on signs, the style of dress, even yaks were all reminded us of Tibet. The trees gave way to plains with herds of grazing animals and plenty of streams. We had been hoping to camp in the area as it seemed perfect for it, but just after picking up supplies we went through a small mountain range, through a tunnel, and as we popped out on the other side we were in a large grasslands preservation area that was overrun with tourists.
Tourists On The Grasslands
The locals were clearly setup for the tourist season with yurt and tent camps all along the road wherever there wasn’t an actual local herding family’s tent setup. We eventually gave up looking for a place to camp and settled on one of the tourist camps. We were going to setup our tent there, however we found that one of the poles for our tent, a fake french branded tent which we had bought in Xi’an, had snapped, making our tent useless. Not surprised, but slightly disappointed. So we settled on one of the little two person cabins for the night.
The next day, after defrosting from the freezing cold of the plains, we continued our way through the tourist infested grasslands. Not fun driving through tourists where everyone seemed to have their own special claim to the road (both lanes of course).
The Road To Jiuzhaigou
We had started to see signs the day before for one of the most famous tourist attractions in China, Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) a nature preserve in Eastern Sichuan. This was one of the places we had hoped to visit but actually hadn’t been expecting to see it yet. So today we planned to make the detour, about 200km off of the G213, to go take a look.
The road we ended up taking, the north west approach to the park, was clearly the one of two approaches less traveled. Though it was in a state of disrepair and in some places just gravel road, it was really beautiful both for its seclusion and the natural beauty. One thing that really struck me about the area was that the constant struggle that this road (and those responsible for its maintenance) seemed to be in against an area that was in constant flux. We passed countless landslides where the road was being swallowed up by massive boulders or areas where the half the road had just collapsed and taken the barriers with it. We spent 20km of the day making our way over a tough mountain pass over gravel switchbacks and through rain that quickly turned to sleet and snow as we climbed higher. With earthquakes, landslides, rain, snow, and ice, this road’s attempt to remain an unchanging artery through this volatile landscape seemed quite futile.
The whole time though the scenery was breathtaking. When we weren’t climbing mountains, we were weaving next to rivers. Farm animals were everywhere, pigs, yaks, dogs, cows, sheep, and goats. Sometimes the road would curve around a mountain and all of a sudden around the bend would be a Buddhist temple covered in prayer flags. The best part was of course, that this was not the main road connecting with the park meaning that it was more or less empty of tourist traffic.
We finally got to the junction that would lead us to the park, just about an hour or so before dark. We were worried about finding a place to stay since it was late, at a tourist sight, in the middle of Golden Week, but it turned out not to be a problem. Where there is demand there will inevitably be supply! Along the road I found people holding out signs with the characters 住宿 on them, or ‘lodgings’. So we ended up finding a place with a local family who was offering up one of there rooms.
There was one other tourist family staying in the village and he recommended we head to the park right then to buy our tickets. He had left at 6 that morning to get his and found he could only buy for the following day. So we unpacked and quickly got back on the bike to head the 20km to the park entrance.
Excuse my language for this but my God, what a shit show. There is no other way to describe it. As you approach, you basically enter a town of hotels all catering to the tourists. It seems we weren’t the only ones with the idea to get our tickets early since there was maybe a 10km traffic jam (at least) of cars lining up to get to the entrance. Thank God we were on a motorcycle, because there were still cars that we passed on our way to the ticket office that were still lined up as we were headed back, to say nothing of the line to get back OUT from the entrance.
Traveler’s Tips: Jiuzhaigou 九寨沟 National Park
I’ll just skip right to the tips for this. Below the tips are our “closing thoughts” if you want to know more about what we thought of the park.
What Is It
Jiuzhaigou is basically a large scenic national park. If you’ve ever traveled around the parks in the US, it is very reminiscent of the East Coast parks like the Smokies, Shanandoahs, or Adirondacks. Very green, lots of crystal clear lakes, and high mountains. It is not organized like US parks though as travel through it is strictly controlled with the ticket system, you can’t drive your own vehicle in, there are no real hiking trails, and the park closes at night as if closing down a restaurant or store.
- This may seem obvious, but it has to be said. Avoid going here during peak China travel seasons! There are something like 30k-50k people a day during Golden Week that are visiting.
- Don’t take the buses into the park. The way the park is organized is with one main road that takes you through (it splits 15km in) and you can take buses along this which makes stops at the various lakes and scenic spots along the way. You have to line up for these though and then fight with 30,000 other people to get on the bus. Skip it, take the hiking entrance which has no line and you will be virtually on your own for about 5+km until the first bus drop off point.
- Consider whether or not you want a bus ticket. We walked nearly 20km for the day through the park. We had not bought a ticket since the system isn’t clearly explained but, since the bus stops are so chaotic and we were 2 of maybe 4 people that walked in, after we were in the park no one checked tickets and we took a bus at the end of the day back to the exit at no cost. This might not work as well out of tourist season though, so try at your own risk.
- If you’re walking, make sure to pack water, snacks, and maybe even a lunch with you. There are a couple of tourist villages along the way where you can buy stuff but they aren’t that frequent, prices are a little higher, and all they had to eat were instant noodles.
- If you are going to take the bus, get your tickets the previous day, but feel free to NOT get there early. Everyone tries to beat the crowds by arriving before the doors open at 6:30am, and so the crowds inevitably form before the doors open! If you get there at around 9:30am, there will be no lines to drive to the entrance (though parking may be a different story) or to get on the buses.
Look, don’t get us wrong, the park is beautiful, some really stunning scenery of lakes, mountains, and even some temples. They also, all said and done, have done a commendable job managing the crowds with the bus system which helps to disperse people quite effectively through the park. As we hiked along the trails (which all parallel the road) we were only affected by the numbers of people a couple of times, and often even found ourselves without a person in sight.
Now that said, I think it’s quite sad the lost potential that Jiuzhaigou has with this type of organization- get everyone out, ship ’em through the sights, snap pictures, ship ’em all out again. In my opinion at least, the treasure of a place like Jiuzhaigou is not in the individual lakes or waterfalls but rather in the area taken as a whole. By treating it the same as you would a man-made sight like the Forbidden City or The Bingling Temple where you can ship people in to take a look and then close it at night, you cheapen the area as a whole. As we were hiking through the trails, with the buses clamoring back and forth on the road not far away, I kept thinking to the similar parks I’ve hiked through in the US. The Smokies, Shanandoahs, and Adirondacks are all organized around a central road which drives traffic through the park from which there are some scenic outlooks, but most importantly where there are trailheads from which you can hike out on your own (The Adirondacks are a little different due to its size, but it’s the same idea). The road outlooks will serve to satisfy the needs of most traffic and hiking trails, though vulnerable to some vandalism, littering etc. will help weed out most of it by the simple fact that it’s not as easy to walk as it is to drive.
Anyway, I suppose it’s a sign of China’s tourism industry being relatively nascent and maybe things will change over time. Or maybe it’s just a cultural difference where here it is more valuable to make the experience as accessible to as many people as possible. Either way, we were pleased to see that the strategy of development that was employed was still executed relatively well with the area more or less well preserved. Maybe sometime in the distant future there will be the chance to go back and visit again to take a week and hike through the park (as it’s selfishly meant to be enjoyed).