Monday, December 20, 2010

The Place Whose Name I Cannot Spell

Part 1: The Park Itself

This past weekend was a long one for Pat so he decided to give me an early Christmas present-a trip to Jiuzhaigou Valley- a national park about 450 kilometers to the north of Chengdu. We flew up on Thursday evening, landing in frigidly cold alpine weather. The altitude ranges from about 2000 to nearly 5000 meters above sea level. And there was ice... boy was there ever ice. A 70k drive from the airport to Jiuzhaigou Town, which would normally take the kamikaze taxi drivers about 30 to 45 minutes, instead took us around two hours. About 27 switchbacks down and up the mountain, we were dropped off at Uncle Jiang's Guesthouse- I highly recommend it. There's not much heat... or urbanization... in this part of the world, but somehow Uncle Jiang (who may or may not be a pimp) has cornered the market on hot water. Lots and lots of hot water. And they brew real coffee instead of instant.

Friday and half of Saturday were spent in the park itself. Big, beautiful scenes of waterfalls, lakes, and shoals greet those of us willing to get off the tour busses and hike it a bit. The park has a bit of a young and somewhat overstuffed life: Jiuzhaigou was declared a national park in 1982 (after the Chinese government kicked the Tibetans and other minorities living there off of their land); a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992; and by 1997 it was proclaimed a World Biosphere Preserve. Bad Pauly Shore movie jokes notwithstanding, this place is unbelievable. The mineral compounds in the lakes have turned the water tremendous shades of emerald, turquoise, and all blues you could possibly imagine. It runs clear and free down a series of waterfalls, rivers, and creeks before filtering out of the valley and into other parts of Sichuan.

And the air is so clear there. At least on the two days we had, we could see up to the imposing reaches of glacially charged mountain peaks. It's something out of days that don't exist anymore. In fact, if it weren't for the over-emphasized and hideous tourist stations, you could positively forget that you were in China.

Part 2: A Three Hour Jam

For a multitude of reasons I won't bother explaining, Pat and I left Jiuzhaigou on Saturday afternoon and traveled to the crossroads town of Song Pan. There we planned on spending the night before catching an insanely early bus back to Chengdu. While only about 45 minutes by plane, the valley to the north is about 8 hours by bus, and that's on a good day.

Song Pan is a weird town. In the high season, I imagine it is a great place to be. Horseback tours into the surrounding mountains leave pretty regularly, taking pampered tourists and beaten travelers alike on a four day trek complete with bonfires, Tibetan grain and vegetable meals, and breathtaking views. I'm sure during those busy summer months there are heaps of people around and a real community exists. But in the low season, Song Pan is transformed into the town that time forgot. It's a little "Mad Max", to be honest- with dogs and young boys roaming the streets in equal abundance. It is cold, dirty, and unfriendly. The best word I can think of is 'sinister.' So Pat and I made an executive decision to turn in early and holed up in our room playing gin, snuggling under three down blankets, and waiting out the night.

I mentioned before that the bus between Chengdu and Song Pan is 8 hours on a good day-7 on a great day. Well, Sunday was not a great day, not a good day, not even a tolerably passable day. Sunday was the day of Kate's great cultural explosion. It happened to me once last year and I am hoping that this past weekend will be my one time this year. About halfway into the trip (and we were indeed making kickass time) we stopped. The bus driver turned off the engine, leaned out the window, and then put his head down. After some debate, some walking about, and some 20 minutes, Pat and I deduced that the cause of this pause in our journey was the paving. That's right- the road paving going on in a tunnel-bridge, in the middle of the day, on both sides of the road.

Here's the thing- and it took me a while to realize this- I am not a spoiled Westerner. I am not. It's just that I was raised in a place whose infrastructure manages to work at least marginally well the majority of the time. That does not make me spoiled. It makes me sad that the Chinese literally have no idea what kind of crap they are putting up with just because they don't know any better. Sure, I have been stuck in three or four hour traffic jams before- but never because a provincial road crew decided to completely shut down the major route (I cannot stress enough the fact that the only other road deadended across the river in a deadend town) during the time of day when the most traffic was sure to appear.

Sometime close to our third hour of watching nothing progress, I lost my cool. I had had enough of seeing people abuse the land and each other. You see, there is no concept of preserving the natural world in China. None whatsoever. Yes they have National Parks; no they don't care about throwing their garbage all over the place. Anywhere they weren't- that's where the Chineses' garbage went. Into the river, into the hillsides, straight onto the road. Which is why I started bellowing at people and eventually burst into tears. It may seem over dramatic- and it was- but spend some time here and then tell me there aren't days you went home and cried your eyes out. My problem Sunday was that home was still another 4 hours away and traffic was not moving.

Poor Pat, who calls me Eco-Bear, didn't know what to do. I'm sure he was just silently grateful that no one around me besides him spoke English. A good thing, too.

Part 3: Humbled, Put in my Place, and Then Some

Eventually we started moving again. I calmed down, had a cookie, and started reading (Bill Bryson's "A History of Nearly Everything"- check it out, you won't regret it). I was exhausted, dehydrated, and a little on edge; gritting my teeth everytime someone on the bus even glanced in my general direction.

And then the bus exited a tunnel only to be greeted by the ghost of a collapsed bridge with a brown sign stuck on it proclaiming that we were now entering the epicenter zone of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

Go ahead. Take route 213 south/east through Sichuan Province. At some point, you will be re-routed across the river to a new 213. But look closely- you will still see crushed shells of cars sticking out of the rubble of a massive rockslide caused by an 8.0 earthquake. There, under the breathtaking sight of craggy mountains lousy with glacial ice, are the ruins of towns, roads, and lives.

It is a terrifying, sobering, and humbling reminder of the absolute and unchallengeable force of the natural world, which does what it wants. It does not matter how many earth-movers the Chinese now have stationed along the road in a massive rebuilding effort, it is still the site of painful and overwhelming destruction. The earth, so magnificent and yet so mangled by human dominance, fights back with stunning regularity and mind-blowing effectiveness.

It also puts that three hour traffic jam right back into appropriate perspective.

Until next time,

Wednesday, December 15, 2010



According to Pat this happens "like one every 10 years." Needless to say, when he came home from work, covered in icy white flakes, and said "I've been calling you for 15 minutes!" I lost my well-maintained cool and jumped outside, shoeless, to stand in wide-eyed wonder. It's not been too long since I last saw snow (dad and I took a trip to Maine this fall and happened to catch just a bit then), but snow in China, especially here in the urbanized armpit of China (which is a term of endearment that could be applied to any major city), is just different.

It reminds me of calmness. I suppose it always has, this snow stuff. But even moreso now. Snow is this silent harbinger of simplicity and grace and childhood deliciousness- hot chocolates, candy canes, wool hats and mittens. It makes things right in an often very wrong world. My friends in New Hampshire will laugh at me- they have experienced far more of it than I have and I imagine have a very different opinion of it than me. But I will keep my childish enthusiasm all the same, thank you.

Until that is, the snow showers tonight mess with our flights tomorrow (we are off to a spectacular-rumored- National Park a little to the North of us). Then I will complain, and fuss and cause a scene.

I am what I am- nothing if not completely immature.


Friday, December 3, 2010

A Quick Perspective

Seriously Quick.

Just to put things in perspective... If you are ever wondering if what people say about the air quality in urban China is true...

Sometimes I like to walk behind people who are smoking. That's right. Second hand smoke feels, I do not jest, cleaner than normal urban air. I think it is possibly because I can actually identify the scent I am inhaling.

Welcome to China.