Tibetan culture

Sep 8, 2014

Natural wonders in Jiuzhaigou

And some people who get to call this place home

The amazing ponds of Jiuzhaigou are fantastic colors
Our hotel room had a good view of the mountainsThe hotel
Our hotel in Jiuzhaigou had an amazing view of the mountains. (Oh, and heads up: That Sauwastika there is a Buddhist symbol and has nothing whatsoever to do with National Socialism.)
Out in Jiuzhaigou, the townThe wild riverBar street in the hostel area
Jiuzhaigou-the-town has its beautiful spots as well.
Peter gives a whiskey pouring lesson
Peter gives a whiskey lesson to the staff at Minibar Tavern.
Our rainy walk through the parkThe mountains in the park
Our day in the nature reserve was rainy, but beautiful.
The mirror pool
The lakes are so clear that they make perfect mirrors.
Our guide, LisaPeter and Emily in the landscape
Lisa, in the photo at left, took fantastic care of us.
More fantastic colors
Those are the real colors of this pool. It’s pretty amazing.
Us and the many touristsMany, many tourists
Did I mention that we were only two of about eleventy-billion other tourists that day?
Oh, those colors. And the water is so clear.
This pool is actually many hundreds of meters deep.
Lisa's sister dresses Emily in a traditional costumeEmily as a Tibetan
Lisa’s sister kitted me out in a traditional Tibetan costume.
The forest in the park is beautiful.More colorsThe Great Falls
The Great Falls … and the end of our journey.

Jiuzhaigou is about 2 and a half hours north of Songpan, a bus trip that wends on a 2-lane highway through peaceful mountain greenery. The ride itself is a remarkable journey with incredible views that will make you feel you’ve traveled to another world.

Jiuzhaigou proper, however, is a for-real deal tourist extravaganza. The nature reserve is at the center of about 5 kilometers of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops set up to handle many thousands of visitors per day. August is the high season, so the place was filled to capacity. It’s a small world, though: On our first night in town, we ran into our friend Meichen. Never was I so surprised to hear my name called out on an unfamiliar street. But that was nothing compared to the shock we gave all the onlookers watching a white woman and a Chinese young adult running at each other for hugs.

East of the park, the collection of homes-away-from-home is called Longkang Village. This is where we stayed, and it also contains the delightful Bianbian Jie, a cobblestoned river walk with a bunch of cute little restaurants. When we were there, many of the shops were closed down (some by apparent government order), making the walk a pretty peaceful place to escape the crush of humanity up on the main road.

To the west is Pengfeng Village, mostly similar to Long Kang. Pengfeng’s standout attraction is the small cluster of funky Lonely Planet-approved hostels. In this small cluster is also an area called Bar Street. This is the place in which we met Lisa, the encounter that changed our whole trip.

It was at the Minibar Tavern. Peter asked for a shot of whiskey, but the staff wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. Which resulted in every ex-pat drinkers’ dream situation: They asked him to show them how it’s done. They covered, in English, the vocabulary words “neat,” “with ice,” and “chaser”; and he showed them how to use their fingers to measure the proper amount.

Lisa was the young woman who had been doing most of the translating. This was her sister’s new bar, and later we would learn that this was Lisa’s first visit since the bar opened. Lisa and her brother, Peter (a double Peter!), were local kids, and they offered to show us around the park for free the next day, in gratitude for the bartending lesson. “I’ll give you the quality tour,” she promised us.

We would be fools not to take them up on this. So early the next morning, we met them outside of our hotel and they took us to the park. Lisa, actually, had been born there. Her family, she told us, was one of three large extended families that made up 荷叶, or the Lotus Leaf village, a small village inside the park. (There are a few Tibetan villages inside the park.) This made her and Peter extremely knowledgeable guides. (Though Peter seemed a little shy about his English.) They showed us all the best views, where to take the pictures, which walks were the most interesting, when it was advisable to take the bus between sights, and even where to sit on the bus for the best vantage point. The lakes of Jiuzhaigou are startlingly brilliant and even in person unreal looking. “I know. It looks Photoshopped,” Lisa said.

But she said so much more than that. In the midst of this natural wonder, Lisa answered my million nosy questions about her life and family, giving context and reality to our otherworldly surroundings, even as we crushed along surrounded by thousands of other tourists.

She’s the daughter of a Tibetan father and a Han Chinese mother, a match which made all the parents grumble at the time, but it’s been a long and happy marriage, “so no one can say anything now,” Lisa said. As a child, she and her brothers and sisters and other extended family members — whom, by custom, Lisa explained, are all referred to as brother and sister; for example, our aforementioned Peter is actually a younger cousin — were turned out to play in the park as their own 700 km2 playground. “There are no bad guys out there,” her mother reasoned. They swam and fished in the pools, rode horses through the forests, picked wild strawberries and mushrooms in the hills. It all sounds like the perfect countryside childhood. Her father was even part of the team that rounded up the wild pandas to bring them to the Wolong Panda Reserve.

Lisa said a few times during our trip that too many people come now. She’s understandably very protective of the land. As we walked, she pointed out stray litter as well as the little boat they use to go clear trash from the ponds. There are 2-3 cleaning people for every 1-2 kilometers, Lisa told us. And they do excellent work; the whole reserve was remarkably clean, given the fact that there were tourists everywhere munching on disposable cup noodle and rice dishes.

Lisa was on familiar terms with pretty much all of the park vendors and employees, throwing out friendly waves and stopping for a chat here and there. “That’s my uncle,” she said of a passing bus driver. After a quick hello with some young jewelery sellers, she told me, “We’re almost all relations.”

One sister, a much older woman, ran a stall with traditional Tibetan costumes. The idea was that you’d dress up and take a photo with some Jiuzhaigou-ness in the background. This sister never went to school; she worked in the park since she was very young. Because I was with Lisa, she let me try on a costume for free. It was a funny interaction. Lisa pointed out that I was a native English speaker, speaking Mandarin with a woman who spoke Tibetan. The sister told me I was pretty all dressed up, though. I understood that.

Lisa said that her father thought that education was very important for her and her siblings. His mother, a woman Lisa spoke very fondly of, worked really hard to send him to university, and he in turn wanted the same education for his children. So she went to middle and high school in Chengdu, and now studies accounting at university in Leshan. During her vacation time, to make a little money she and Peter used to sell watermelon and other snacks to tourists in the park. Now that they’re older, they give tours to people like us.

Though much of her family has found some employment in the park, not everyone stays. Once she finishes university, Lisa said that she was uncertain whether she would return. Another sister — who is actually Lisa’s niece but older than her — just married an English man. But they came back to the village to have a traditional week-long Tibetan wedding ceremony. It sounded wonderful, with lots of delicious foods: wonderful breads baked with fresh wild vegetables.

Jiuzhaigou is such a wonderfully strange sight to see. You have the fantastic natural formations: the outrageously colored lakes, the soaring mountains, and fertile forests. And then there’s just people, everywhere. All of them taking pictures, so much so that the outstretched arms and digital screens become part of the scenery.

After a photo scrum at the Giant Falls, we took a rest that turned into the end of the line for us. Sitting down, we realized that we were tired, wet, cold, and after almost 4 hours, fully sated with nature. Lisa kindly assured us that the two sights we were skipping — the Long Lake and the Five Color Pool — are similar to lakes we’ve already seen. It’s just a lake that’s long, she said of the former, and we’ve seen all five colors in other lakes. We said our goodbyes and she dropped us off at the bus to the exit. And she rushed off to go help her mom somewhere in the park.

Jiuzhaigou is a beautiful landscapeThe Falls, again

Sep 6, 2014

Wandering the Songpan countryside

前面一点点, or Go on ahead, just a little farther

High on the hills outside of Songpan
Some horses in the roadA small streamWhere are we going? Not here.
This is it, our driver told us, Shangniba Monastery. On the phone with a translating David, I said that this isn’t the it we were looking for.
Some kids in a small Tibetan village.More village
We passed through a small Tibetan village on our way out into the countryside.
On the roadSome prayer flagsOur little truckOur little truckWe keep going up
Just keep going up.
On the west mountainMore horses
On our second day of exploring, we drove up the mountain to the west of the city.
Houses on the west mountainMe on the West GateOur friends on the West Gate
The West Gate is isolated from the hubbub of the valley.

All of the travel services in Songpan are geared to get you out of it. Whether it’s on horse or by bike, on foot or by car, someone in town will help you plan and execute your foray into the wild. Our someone was David, the son of our hostel owner and the main barista/bartender at the Kitchen. He also had some great advice for us on local wines. He’s a knowledgeable man.

David found us a driver (because, of course, we went by car). A plucky little guy with a little silver pickup who laughed at all of our antics. For two days, he drove us everywhere we asked to go, even when we had no idea where we were going.

Our first afternoon, outside of Shangniba Monastery — a destination I plucked from the hand-drawn map on the wall of the Kitchen — he had to call David to explain that we were, in fact, there. It’s nice, I said, but it’s not what we had in mind. The sprawling Buddhist temple was in the middle of a serene valley, but we were hoping our trip would take us in a more upward direction. Later, Peter joked privately that, “We’re Americans. We just want to go to the top.”

So our driver drew two arrows on a piece of paper, one pointing forward and the other looping back. We chose forward — “前面一点点,” Peter said — and he took us on a joyride into the mountains. And it was fantastic. He drove until there was no road and we got out to look. Then he turned around and we reached a crossroads with a road that ascended even higher. “上可以吗?” I asked. Can we go up? Yes, we can.

Our journey that day took us through the valleys, up the twisty mountain roads, past farmland and through small villages. Periodically, small herds of yak and horses would crowd the road. Our driver would honk and we’d all laugh. Vibrantly colored Tibetan prayer flags stood out against the green of the mountains. It was idyllic. And the view from the top was just magnificent. Up high, the only sounds were the prayer flags that whipped in the wind, and a horse in a field that snorted at our arrival. Taking it all in we marveled: “It’s amazing that this is China … that this is the earth!”

The next day, we headed for the West Gate, an ancient fortification perched on the mountain that overlooks Songpan city. (That’s actually where I hoped we were going when I asked for the monastery.) Our driver took the back way straight to the top, where we decided that we’d take the walking trail back down.

But before our decent, it was snack time. Peter and I sat looking down on the city on the edge of the West Gate, and broke out our yak and barley bread picnic. We were quickly joined by a boisterous group of kids — and their adult — who had actually done the climb on their own two feet. They — four young boys and a somewhat reserved girl — were still full of energy. Between snacks, they howled like wolves at the city below, and aimed pretend guns through the gate’s crenelations. Like you do. They were also pretty amused by our presence, and tossed jello cups to us. (“Like we were monkeys,” Peter said.)

The way down is impeccably maintained. High up on the mountain is a wooden walkway, which turns into a stone pathway as the incline gets less steep lower down. There are regular rest areas along the way, placed to enjoy the prettiest views. On our way down, we only ran into a few other small groups, so the pathway belonged solely to us for most of our descent.

Near the bottom, humanity reasserts itself. One house becomes a few, becomes the outskirts of the city. A group of local woman claimed the lowest viewing platform for their afternoon hangout. We followed the path to the end and made our egress onto a busy city street. A few kids gave us high fives for our success. Or because they liked the looks of us. Who knows? We were all having fun.

Our travels in Songpan represent probably the least planning we’ve ever done for a trip. But it all worked out amazingly. By just picking a destination and figuring it out, we may look like fools some of the time, but we stumble into experiences we wouldn’t have even know to look for had we come burdened with any expectations. Sometimes the results are confusing, or even boring, but even that teaches us something. On the whole “just go on ahead, a little more” has been a rewarding way to live our lives.

A view of Songpan city from abovePeter eats lunch at the West Gate, the kids look on.West GateWe hike down the west mountain
We conquered Songpan!

Aug 28, 2014

Yak Meat: The King in the North

The meals we loved

Dried yak meat hanging on the high street
There is yak meat everywhere, all over Songpan.
Our barley bread of the gods
Out in Tibetan country, we enjoyed the food of the gods.
At some crazy barbecue
Confusing BBQ in Songpan is very tasty.
Dinner at Emma's Kitchen
Emma’s Kitchen in Songpan is a hub for visiting backpackers who want some hearty fare.
Have a chicken
We didn’t eat the head, but the rest our riverside chicken was just fantastic.
Tibetan food at Abu Luzi
We had a Tibetan-style feast at Jiuzhagou’s Abu Luzi restaurant.

When we took off northward, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew there would be mountains and nature — but would there be ATMs? We had an inkling that the area was influenced by Tibetan culture, but what does that mean? And what’s there to eat around here?

To answer our last question first: yak. There would be yak, everywhere. Live yak grazing all over the countryside; We spotted our first herd directly outside the airport. And in town: yak jerky, cured yak, yak dumplings, as well as all organs from tongue to testicles.

It’s not bad. Yak is kind of gamey, with just a little bit of sweetness. The winner for us was the cured yak, which was nice and smokey and paired well with the crusty Tibetan barley bread that was all over the place in Songpan. (We ate two loaves of the stuff in a little more than a week.) It makes a good picnic out in the fresh air. Though it’s less exciting sitting in the hotel room.

Yak meat and barley products, we learned, are staples of the Tibetan diet. And that’s relevant because Songpan and Jiuzhaigou and environs, while part of Sichuan Province, also comprise the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to a large population of ethnic Tibetans. You can see this in the dress of the local people, the architecture, the strong Buddhist presence, and of course the food. But those TIbetans are not alone; the Qiang minority and the Muslim Hui people are also a strong presence, each contributing their own culture to the mix.

We tried to find some Muslim hot pot in Songpan, a rumored area specialty, but ended up at a confusing BBQ restaurant. In retrospect, at issue was some mild altitude sickness (Songpan is at almost 2,900 m above sea level), but they did give us a hot pot menu only to take it away when I tried to order from it. Instead, their thing was veggie and meat skewers that you cooked over a fire pit sunk into the table. Once we got the hang of it, it was delicious and fun. Although, I don’t think they were even Muslim at all, because they also served us beer. But I swear that sign out front said halal hot pot.

We had a different confusing-but-delicious BBQ experience in Jiuzhaigou. (Maybe that is the area specialty.) This time, we were looking for a Tibetan restaurant that had changed addresses since our 2011 guidebook had been published. We stopped to puzzle it out and inadvertently opened ourselves to the most persuasive waiter in the world. To be fair, he first tried to help us get directions, but when it became clear we weren’t committed to moving on, he implored us to stay and have a spit-roasted chicken. The spit was out front of his restaurant, and those chickens did look delicious. I couldn’t resist his command, and soon we found ourselves sitting riverside, eating a succulent, crispy skinned, with just the right amount of spice chicken. We gobbled it off the bone, and went back for seconds two days later.

But we did eventually make it to our Tibetan restaurant, and it was worth all the bumbling. Abu Luzi was kind of an upscale version of our yak and barley bread picnic from the beginning of our trip. The food was simple but extraordinary. We had the Grassland Harvest, a barley soup with fresh vegetables; barley potatoes, which had a nice onion-y kick; and the yak and carrot parcel, a flaky pastry filled with seasoned carrots and the most tender and savory yak meat. We came into this trip without a really clear idea of what Tibetan food would be, and it was a real pleasure to find out. If we had had more days (and more money), we would have returned here, too.

As for ATMs? There are Chinese banks everywhere. No problem for us. (Though if you need to access foreign currency, check with your local institution.)