Huge gratitude to Jess who contributes to my website by writing this blog about our Sichuan trip ! I believe it’s a big security for a lot of fun moments written by her, a native speaker. Article is quite long, I just make my words short. Here we go :
It has been a tremendously long time since I exercised my writing muscle, but Chengye and I’s most recent trip to Sichuan was too phenomenal to not put on paper. It was without a doubt my best weekender trip I’ve ever experienced in China, and probably also one of my personal favorites in Asia. If I could sum up the entire trip in one word, it would have to be “serendipitous.”
There were various instances on this trip that could’ve gone terribly awry, but it seemed as if luck was still on our side and the stars were all aligned. What was supposed to be just a ski trip for the New Year’s weekend turned out to be so much more than we could’ve ever imagined. Little did we know we were about to inadvertently embark on an action-packed weekend filled with spontaneous backpacking adventures, exploration, rich local culture and breathtaking views off the beaten path (and barely any skiing).
Getting There: Airport Mixup
It seems as if I’ve fallen into a notorious pattern of “A Series of Unfortunate Airport Events” with my most recent travels lately. We were set to head out to Hongqiao Airport Friday after work. I was fortunate to be able to get off work early that day and arrived at Hongqiao Airport via metro at around 5pm, a breezy four hours before our scheduled departure time at 9pm. Chengye and I had planned to meet at the airport at around 7:30 so I decided to grab an early dinner in the meantime. After taking my sweet time devouring my delectable meal at Tsui Wah (not), I headed towards the departures board at around 6:30 to see if our flight would finally pop up. After not seeing it on the screen, I approached an airport personnel and showed her our flight information written in Chinese verbiage. She looked at me and said, “This flight leaves from Pudong Airport.”
Rookie mistake. I let out a resounding “FUCKKK!” and darted towards the elevators to lower level parking. I had to get out of there – fast. I frantically called Chengye, who was just wrapping up at work and about to head to Hongqiao, and she calmly told me the fastest way to get to Pudong Airport was by metro. I checked my metro app and to go from Hongqiao on the west end of line 2 to the opposite tail end to Pudong Airport would be an astounding 27 stops and an estimated 91 minutes to reach.
“We’re never going to make it! We’re going to miss our flight! I can’t believe we fucked this up!” I panicked.
I heeded her advice anyway and dashed towards the metro station. Chengye later informed me to meet her at the Maglev station in Pudong, and from there we could hop on the high-speed train to PVG which would take only 8 minutes. After checking airport information, she mentioned that 8:30pm was the “last call” to check into our flight.
I finally hopped on the metro at around 7, panting and anxiety-ridden. At around 7:50 and 16 stations later, I met Chengye at the platform exit and we sprinted towards the Maglev station with our heavy 20 Liter backpacks, winter coats, snow pants and boots in tow (thankfully we’re both pretty in shape, though I’ve been battling a debilitating cold/sinus the past few days and thought my lungs were giving out). We miraculously made the train at 7:58, a mere two minutes before the train would be speeding off. Had we made the next train 20 minutes later, we knew we were doomed. We let out a sigh of relief and still had a sliver of hope that we might actually make our flight. Thank God for high-speed trains!
8 long minutes passed, and we bolted out the train and charged through the seemingly endless Terminal 2. We had to stop and put down our backpacks through security checkpoints a couple times which only prolonged our running spree. We finally reached the long line at the check in counter where a few folks ahead of us were gracious enough to let us cut them. We finally reached our last security checkpoint and then made it to our gate area with about 15 minutes to spare! We had enough time for a bathroom break and to freshen up before boarding. Although we made our flight in the nick of time, we were so rushed and discombobulated that Chengye had left behind her coat at security and I thought I had left my passport in the bathroom so we had to run back and look for it (though I ended up finding it in one of my bags). Woops!
A coatless Chengye and I landed safely at Chengdu Airport just before midnight. We were astonished to be greeted with a noxious wave of pollution, even lurking its way inside the airport. While at baggage claim, the air reeked of a pungent burnt coal and the smog was making our eyesight all hazy. Chengye had arranged for a driver to pick us up to take us to our airport hotel where we would be staying overnight. Because our trip was booked at the eleventh hour and with all the craziness surrounding our busy schedules before year’s end, we didn’t have time to book our stay at the ski resort for the remainder of the weekend (spontaneity at its best!).
Back at our freezing hotel room, we were displeased to find out the ski resort was fully booked. We opted for another hotel, inconveniently located below the mountain in a lil’ village called Maoxian, a place unbeknownst to us. Little did we know, this would later turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
We finally passed out on our rock hard mattresses and slept for three hours, as we were bound for another rigorous journey via bus to hit the slopes the next morning.
Day 1: Taiziling Ski Resort on Mt. Jiu Ding and Ringing in the New Year in Maoxian
Chengye and I took a three hour bus ride to the remote Jiu Ding Mountain at the crack of dawn on New Year’s Eve. The bus dropped us off on a busy roadside at the mountain base and we were immediately swarmed by local “Shi Fu’s” or drivers offering to take us up to Taiziling Ski Resort at a discounted price. Skeptical, Chengye tried using her Didi (Chinese Uber) app but to no avail.
Both of us were overwhelmed, as the locals had extremely thick accents that it was almost unintelligible, even for Chengye! They could barely speak any Mandarin or “Pu Tong Hua” and we found the local dialect to be baffling, using varying tones and jargon which I thought never existed. There were numerous occasions where me and Chengye exchanged perplexed glances with one another, hoping one of us was able to catch on to their lingo.
After about 30 minutes of negotiations, we finally decided to hitch a ride with one of the Shi Fu’s along with four other girls also headed up for some skiing. Chengye was able to strike up a pleasant conversation with them in the car ride whom all turned out to be just lovely. Three of them were from Chengdu and one from the neighboring Chongqing.
It was a scenic drive heading up the snow-capped mountains. The winding snowy roads and white dusting amongst the trees reminded me of Canada which made me feel nostalgic. I rolled down my window to get a whiff of the fresh, dry breeze and I could feel the brisk winter air getting cooler and cooler as we made our way up. It truly felt as if we were well on our way towards a Winter Wonderland.
When we reached the entrance gate of the resort, the driver seemed to be bickering with the entrance guard that erupted into a bit of a commotion. I looked over at Chengye and she looked tense. Completely oblivious to what was going on around me, I leaned over and asked Chengye what the fuss was all about. She remained motionless, gave me a concerned look and I took it as a sign to shut up and ask no further questions. After a few more minutes of what seemed like shady business, we received our ski passes and the guard finally let us in.
Because skiing and snowboarding are still relatively new concepts in China, the ski resort was quite underwhelming, and not to mention way more crowded than we had anticipated. The facilities and equipment were above average, but the entire resort only consisted of two bunny slopes (which were pretty much flat) and an “intermediate” hill which would probably be considered green runs anywhere else. You could take magic carpet “chairlifts” up to the slopes, kind of like human conveyor belts, which I’ll admit Chengye and I got a kick out of. There was also a giant ski lift that seemed to lead up to the top of Jiu Ding Mountain for some off-piste alpine skiing, but it was out of service. To add insult to injury, the hard and icy snow quality was not ideal for skiing conditions, unlike the fluffy powdery snow I was used to back home.
Chengye and I did a few runs and still managed to enjoy ourselves, getting in about 3 hours of our skiing and snowboarding fix, respectively. We also found amusement at first-time skiers dressed in jeans and chic designer coats going at accelerating speeds before face-planting in the snow – their skis and poles flying in the air. We couldn’t help but crack up.
When our Shi Fu took us back to our hotel with the other four girls who were bound for Chengdu, another price war erupted once again between the girls and the driver. After the minor dispute, Chengye finally coughed up 208 RMB for the both of us. We got off the car and Chengye later informed me that the driver was trying to haggle the price of the ski tickets for all of us earlier at the resort entrance, eventually getting us a premium discount which otherwise would’ve been ridiculously overpriced. The driver essentially got all seven of us passes for the price of five people (a huge steal!), which explained why Chengye sat frozen in her seat earlier, trying to remain inconspicuous to the guard’s watchful eye.
When settling the transport costs just now, the driver was apparently telling all of us to pay less than what was originally agreed upon. It was refreshing to see such altruistic behavior, especially towards a Shanghai city girl and a foreigner, when the entire time I thought we were probably getting ripped off. The driver’s modest intentions restored my faith in humanity, and Chengye and I agreed that he was probably one of the most reliable drivers we’ve encountered that just so happened to scoop us up from the side of a mountain. In hindsight, we essentially paid 104 RMB a piece (or roughly 15 US dollars), which included the resort entrance fee and about 2 hours of driving up and down the mountain (where the driver also selflessly waited 3 hours for us to call it a day). Not too shabby!
With the frigid weather and our sore muscles, Chengye and I thought that a post-ski hot pot dinner sounded like a glorious idea to fill our empty stomachs. Sichuan is also where hot pot originated from so it was basically a no-brainer.
Out of the seemingly hundreds of hot pot eateries to choose from within our hotel vicinity, we settled on a cozy restaurant with extremely exceptional service. They offered a very generous portion of simmering red hot soup filled to the brim with the biggest and baddest peppers you can imagine. Since Chengye and I are not huge fans of spicy foods, the restaurant was kind enough to take all the peppers out and offer a portion, albeit tiny, of non-spicy soup base in the middle of our pot. We decided to be “adventurous” and dipped some of our food with our uniquely long chopsticks in the “red zone,” which resulted in Chengye desperately reaching for her water and me coughing up a storm as if I had just whole-swallowed a piece of glass. It was incredulous to us that the locals actually cooked their food in such a hot base, to the point where their meat and veggies were fiery red. Spiciness aside, the meal was absolutely divine and really hit the spot – probably one of the best hot pot meals I’ve ever had. Food coma hit us hard and we took a relaxing stroll after dinner through the desolate Maoxian, taking in the serene sights and sounds.
Later that night, Chengye and I enjoyed a low key yet indelible New Year’s Eve together. We were curious to see if there would be any fireworks or New Year’s celebrations happening in our proximity. We went outside our hotel and we were surrounded by vast mountain ranges, an incredibly tranquil setting away from it all. When the clock struck midnight we embraced and wished each other good wishes for the New Year (cue the awwwww’s). Soon after, we heard fire crackers going off in a few directions. It was a rather unorthodox NYE countdown, which otherwise would’ve probably been spent in a rowdy debauched Shanghai nightclub surrounded by sweaty bodies and champagne showers. However, it was precisely this exact moment I was hoping for: ringing in the New Year in complete seclusion with those dearest to you. (Love ya Chengye! <3).
Since we had a full day tomorrow and the ski resort turned out to be pretty lackluster, we decided to do some sightseeing in Sichuan. Chengye told me about a place called Jiuzhaigou up in Northern Sichuan, a gorgeous national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site most famous for its beautiful lakes. To our dismay, we later found out that Jiuzhaiguo was a bit far out and would be a risky trek with the time constraint. We came up with a Plan B, a remote region called Blackwater Ancient Glaciers about 3 hours away (our driver had actually mentioned this place to Chengye in the car ride). We had never heard of this place before and there was very limited information about it on the internet. We decided to take the plunge and hoped that this area would be worth venturing out to.
We hit the hay once again, this time on snuggly electric heating blankets (which I later learned are a godsend and I really should invest in one). We slept extremely soundly that night and were ready for tomorrow’s unexpected adventures that would be awaiting us.
Day 2: Blackwater Ancient Glaciers in Aba, Sichuan and Traversing the Tibetan Plateau
This day was definitely the highlight of our trip and was the most perfect way to spend New Year’s Day on a clean slate. We woke up and headed downstairs for our complimentary breakfast at 7:30am. The food was apparently a Chinese version of shitty camp food, according to Chengye. We then headed for the bus station and were pleasantly surprised at how empty the bus was with just four people (the driver, a bus monitor, Chengye and I), virtually having the entire bus to ourselves. The bus monitor (who we later learned was born in 1993, lol) and Chengye quickly became acquainted, exchanged Wechats, and he was nice to offer us some tips on worthwhile attractions to visit. For the purpose of this blog, I shall refer to him as “little boy.”
The drive yet again was incredibly stunning as we went our way up, with picturesque 360 degree mountain views, bright blue skies, gorgeous rocks and running streams. The driver warned us, however, that these views were nothing compared to what we were going to experience on the other side, which we had a hard time believing.
The bus dropped us off at a station and we needed another lift to get us further out to Blackwater. At this point temperatures have dropped significantly and I thought my toes were going to get frostbite. Poor Chengye was still sans coat, but thankfully I brought enough heating pads, or “Nuan Bao Bao’s,” which offered her some warmth. Little boy organized a car for us and I was surprised to see the driver was a rugged and burly Tibetan man, adorned in a snug fur hat with a thick long army jacket. His car interior was extremely cozy, lined entirely with fur seating. During the car ride, he had mentioned (in his broken Chinese) that he could arrange another car for us back to Maoxian through one of his friends, which we were incredibly grateful. He was also telling us about the local Tibetan villages and a bit about his family life. It was riveting listening to his story and my inquisitive nature was intrigued.
Call me geographically impaired, but it later dawned on me how close to Tibet we actually were. The first hint was seeing some signs as we were driving through the mountains, written in Tibetan characters. It was also fascinating to see some local Tibetans going about their days and loitering the streets as we drove through the villages, observing their local customs and culture while dressed in their traditional garb. Another interesting fact I learned was that out of the 56 different ethnic groups in China, where 90% are made up of Han people, a staggering 90% of the population in Maoxian are Qiang people, an ethnic minority group on a national level. Come to think of it, I realized I have not seen a single foreigner in the past two days. Chengye joked that I was probably the first “laowai” to ever step foot in the region.
We finally made it to Blackwater. There were many shuttle buses running up and down at regular intervals, dropping people off at various scenic spots. The sun was shining brightly and the clarity that day was absolutely pristine, allowing for the colors to become unusually vibrant. It was no longer freezing and it was a balmy winter’s day – I even got some color!
Saying Blackwater was breathtakingly beautiful is an understatement. Out of the many hikes I’ve been on, this would probably fall in my top 3 most scenic views. I can’t stress enough how lucky Chengye and I were to have ended up here. Every scenic spot we hit was picture-perfect and filled with luscious charm from every angle we looked. There were crystal clear creeks, distinct red rocks, snow-capped ridges that reminded us of the Swiss Alps, and we even had the chance to take some pictures on a frozen lake covered in a blanket of fresh snow. Little kids were running around laughing and making snow angels – they seemed to be in heaven.
Flora and fauna were also one of a kind, with unusually tall and lean trees, unique red plants, monkeys, mountain goats, horses, and yaks. Little boy even told us there were bears and tigers lurking in the area. Being there was like being in a dream, a majestic utopia in complete isolation off the tourist radar. Everything looked immaculate and completely preserved in its most natural state. Chengye and I were both shocked that such an idyllic landscape could be so unknown, even to the many locals that we’ve asked, but maybe that’s what makes this place so sacred. My vivid imagery and flowery descriptions won’t do all the eye candy we witnessed any justice, so I’ll let some of the photos we took below to speak for themselves (no filter!):
We decided to make our way down after reaching about 3500 meters above sea level. I was relieved neither of us experienced any form of altitude sickness. Apparently the Tibetan plateau is amongst the highest region on earth and Tibetans inherit a special gene that allow them to live and survive at such great heights, providing them greater boosts of oxygen to their tissues. You learn something new everyday!
Back in Maoxian, we were ready for round two of hot pot comfort food. The first thing I noticed walking into the restaurant was that it was filled with local Qiang families – from older generation grandparents dressed in traditional costumes to young grandchildren. Unlike the night before, this was a “buffet style” hot pot where all food was served on wooden sticks and you could help yourselves by grabbing anything to your liking from a number of fridges. Although tasty, there was a lot of questionable meat I encountered and I prefer not knowing what I ended up consuming that evening. I learned the locals there eat some pretty whacky meat, including rabbit head, pig snout, and I think I even saw a brain resting on a silver platter at one point.
After dinner, Chengye and I took one last night stroll through Maoxian, a place we were now particularly fond of and found to be incredibly quaint. The town was very clean, well-maintained, safe and with the friendliest of people. We concluded that Maoxian’s incredibly tight-knit community where people formed strong bonds with one another served as a catalyst for everyone’s warm and genuine nature. The locals we had encountered all seemed happy, healthy and always willing to lend a helping hand. Their lives were simple and stress-free, fostering a strong sense of camaraderie.
The town of Maoxian reminded me of a small town called Roseto I had recently read about in the book “Outliers,” by Malcolm Gladwell. Roseto, a tiny little town in the hills of Pennsylvania, was founded by Italian immigrants in the 1890s who were seeking a better life in America. Health physicians and sociologists were constantly flabbergasted at how Rosetans were amongst the healthiest group of people compared to their other American counterparts. They soon discovered that the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet, exercise, genes or even location. It was their deep-rooted sense of community.
Insulating themselves from the pressures of the modern world, Rosetans would oftentimes visit one another, stop to chat in Italian on the streets, cook for one another in their backyards, and many homes had three generations living under one roof where grandparents were commanded a high level of respect. They’ve firmly cultivated an egalitarian society that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures. Ultimately, it’s the values we possess and the people we surround ourselves with that have a profound effect on who we are, and I was beginning to see first-hand that Maoxian was living proof that this notion was no longer just conjecture.
Day 3: Morning hike on Mt. Tu Di Ling and Exploring Chengdu’s Kuanzhai Pedestrian Street
We originally wanted to spend our last day exploring the city of Chengdu and possibly ogle some cute pandas, but I insisted we hang around Maoxian to squeeze in one last hike, not yet ready to head back to an urban environment. Chengye happily obliged and asked little boy through Wechat if he had any trail recommendations. He suggested a mountain a few short minutes from our hotel, Mt. Tu Di Ling.
In the wee hours of the morning, we began our ascent. The hike was a steep climb with patches of slippery black ice. There were also a lot of thorny twigs and branches jutting out in our path, where Chengye and I got pricked a few times. Thankfully we came prepared, dressed in multiple protective layers of thick clothing. During our trek, we couldn’t help but stop in our tracks a couple times to take it all in – everything was so quiet, so calm. Chengye gathered some leaves and acorns along the way and we also ran into some local Qiang people, who were inhabitants of the mountain. They were friendly and wanted to chat, but the language barrier proved to be a bit of a challenge. Working up a sweat, we finally reached the summit where we were surrounded by beautiful panoramic views of the mountain ranges up top. The climb definitely got our blood flowing and our hearts pumping, and we both agreed the hike was an invigorating way to start off the day.
The hike took about two hours and we safely made it down to the base, unscathed. With no transport back to the hotel and check out time imminent, we saw a minivan approaching us just as we reached the roadside. Again, the timing couldn’t have been more impeccable. Chengye flagged it down and the driver said he could take us back to Maoxian. (A short disclaimer: I’ve only hitch hiked once in my life before this trip and promised myself I wouldn’t do it again. But I trusted Chengye’s judgment and I figured this was all a part of the “thrill” when you’re backpacking through unknown lands, and I have 0 regrets!).
It was a packed van filled with Qiang people: a young man, a mother and her baby, and an older woman in the passenger seat wearing a traditional head piece. The mother asked us where we were from and we engaged in small talk with her. We asked if all Qiang people had to wear their traditional costumes, to which she said, “Mostly the older folks do, but the younger folks in modern times don’t because it’s too ‘ma fan.’” The mother and adorable baby got dropped off in a local village, and I sat there in awe people watching from the van’s rusty window. The driver then dropped us off at our hotel, which cost us a whopping 5 RMB.
Chengye and I had just enough time to pack up our things and check out. After another scenic 3 hour bus ride towards the capital of Sichuan, we then hopped on the Chengdu metro towards the touristy Kuanzhai Pedestrian Street. Although the metro system was very similar to that of Shanghai, we were surprised to learn how strict the security was there. Every individual had to line up at security check and put their bags on the belt (whereas in Shanghai they just don’t give a shit). Guards would also be seen walking up and down patrolling the metro. It was impressive to see such tight security in a second-tier city, but hey, I’m not complaining!
It was a surreal feeling being back in civilization, after two full days of being in completely unexplored lands tucked away in the mountains. I felt like I was going through reverse culture shock. Chengye and I stopped to grab some lunch and enjoyed some delicious coffees, a beverage you definitely take for granted living in the city. We meandered along the pedestrian street filled with food stalls selling bizarre looking meat, cafes, vintage and antique stores, and countless panda souvenir shops. We later ended up in a market area which gave me a hipster-y vibe. There were countless tables selling hand-crafted artisanal items and little trinkets. While Chengye was doing her shopping, I was pleasantly surprised to see some foreign buskers attracting a large crowd. From a jazz band to an indie guitarist to a saxophonist, I was completely mesmerized and it made me wonder why we don’t have more live street performances in a bustling metropolis like Shanghai.
Our last stop was at a sweets store where we picked up some local delicacies for our colleague’s/friends back home. After offering us a myriad of tasting samples, the lady working there gave us two free bags of goodies to munch on while on the road. We both showed our sincerest gratitude and the locals’ unwavering generosity never ceased to amaze me.
Chengye took great advantage of her unique shopping experience and ended up with countless bags stocked with edible treats, souvenirs and gifts. We then decided to take an hour long commute via metro and bus bound for Chengdu airport to catch our flight back to Shanghai. We had another transport snafu on our way there. After realizing we had missed our stop by two stations, we had to jump out onto the platform and head backwards. When we finally reached and made our way out of the subway station and onto the streets, we saw our bus in the distance driving away. We chased and screamed after it like maniacs, with poor Chengye holding onto her bags upon bags of goodies for dear life (she’s a trooper!). Thankfully the bus driver saw us and stopped to let us in. Barely catching it by seconds, we boarded a packed bus with only two seats left! (Seriously, were the Gods looking down on us?).
Relieved, we safely made our way to Chengdu airport but with this time, a much smoother check in process, recharged minds and higher spirits. And with that, we made it onto our flight back home. Back to reality…
I am now sitting in my Shanghai apartment wrapping up this long ass novel (if you’ve made it this far, congratulations!) and reflecting about our memorable excursion in Sichuan. After such a tumultuous 2**6, I am now feeling more rejuvenated and hopeful for 2017. This trip was definitely the epitome of a peaceful retreat away from the daily grind and everyday stresses city life can bring (and not to mention away from our smartphones and digital devices!). We dove right in with very few expectations, which probably contributed to the wonderful time we had there. Chengye and I felt completely zen, living in the moment and experiencing pure bliss while our worries took a backseat. I’m finally beginning to understand how certain escapades can be so healing for the soul.
I also need to take this moment to give huge kudos to Chengye for being a remarkable travel companion. Her positivity, patience, resilience and not to mention her meticulous off the cuff planning and networking skills had saved our asses on multiple occasions. This trip would have been nowhere near as smooth and enjoyable without her there by my side (and don’t worry y’all, Chengye got her coat back!!!!!!).
With that being said, this unparalleled voyage to the sweet Southwest is definitely one for the books, and I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect way to kick off the new year.*