After travelling around Chengdu area we flew on to what is described as a Tibetan area – but still in Sichuan, not in Tibet on the map. In the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture there are – or were as of 2000 – a narrow majority of ethnic Tibetans in the area.
Han were the next most common (and almost certainly will be growing in percentage terms) and there is also a population of another minority, the Qiang. No-one debates that this area is part of China, but Tibetans at least have a hard time to get a passport, so it's not like all Chinese people are treated the same.
The Tibetan villages in the area are still present and many continue with a traditional lifestyle, but increasingly the work is turning to tourism. In Jiuzhaigou, the villages that were within the national park when it was formed had to stop agriculture as that was no longer allowed, and so essentially had to change to tourism.
Of course, this was done to protect the environment – though the impact of the massive number of tourists flowing through is arguably much greater. There are however a huge number of staff in these two areas tidying it up continually. Up the main walkway in Huanglong there was one every few metres!
We flew in to Jiuzhaigou Huanglong Airport which is roughly halfway between the two areas. It is high in altitude – well over 3400m – and so when you get off the pressurised plane you suddenly feel the pressure drop and the air get thinner.
This always makes me feel terrible so I invested in some oxygen before we went on to Huanglong.
First though, lunch at the Big Girlie Restaurant Tang - including sliced yak! Tasty, kind of like very dry roasted beef, but even meatier in taste.
The organised lunch was far too much food (we asked for no more to come but couldn't get the memo through!). They even served us fish which was silly given the difficulty of sustaining that so far away from where it would come from – apparently it's very highly prized by Chinese which I can understand, but it didn't make me feel any better about being served it when we weren't told it was coming and couldn't eat it. I don't think people really understood us in China when we said we didn't want to see unnecessary food be wasted on us when others need it…
That afternoon, we visited Huanglong, a UNESCO World Heritage area.
Already on the drive we could see how different this area is to most of china – much less built-up, much less crowded, and much less polluted. The scenery was at times spectacular as you could look through miles of clear air to the mountains around. This may not seem notable until you go to China!
The pass was higher still and when we got to Huanglong and took our cable car up the mountain we could really feel the altitude. As well as the oxygen-in-a-can that we brought, they have ranger stations dispensing oxygen balloons (you pay them a few yuan for the disposable nose-piece so you do get a clean one) which my partner made use of several times as the altitude took its toll.
I could feel it (slight headache, definite spot of nausea), but was thankfully ok this time around – took a few breathers of oxygen though to be on the safe side.
The main attractions in Huanglong are the terraced and colored pools and waterfalls that cascade down the hill.
You can walk up but most take the cable car up, walk around to go around the loop up the top, and then walk down the slope (which takes a couple of hours). There are colorful blue/turquoise pools (yellow-green if the algae is winning) in a number of spots on the way, several smallish waterfalls, and a lot of green cold-climate trees.
Take it easy if you go – altitude sickness is not fun and if you've flown in direct to the area, it can be quite sudden and it may not affect who you expect. Jiuzhaigou the next day is quite a bit lower so that's much easier going.
There are however lots of nice spots to stop and take a rest while enjoying the view :).
Jiuzhaigou is also a UNESCO World Heritage area and is a national park. If you don't speak Mandarin you will probably need a guide in here as we had no idea how the busses etc. you use to get up and down the valleys work. You can walk yourself though you'll need a lot longer to see it all.
The attractions basically form a Y as the one valley lower down splits into two higher up, and there are things worth seeing in both branches. Our Tibetan guide took us to the most popular bits and we went for a walk down the side of one of the valleys between attractions, which was good.
Here too there are beautiful colored lakes and lots of trees. There are also Tibetan villages with colorful flags (and market stalls), sunken trees piled up under the clear water (too cold to decompose I think), swarms of fish swimming in some of the lakes, big waterfalls, and the occasional bridal party.
Jiuzhaigou was one of the things I most wanted to do in China and I'm pleased we made it. Huanglong wasn't a must-see for me but was nice too and we were happy we went along with the travel organiser's suggestion to see both – one day was enough to see all the major parts of Jiuzhaigou though you would need two days if you wanted to walk it instead.
Both are packed full of people and all the paths are well-maintained. There are places to buy drinks and in Jiuzhaigou in particular there are a selection of places to get food – affordable noodles and overpriced restaurants. Neither area resembles what you might think of as a national park in somewhere like New Zealand, but the scenery is great.
The airport is only 40 minutes flight from Chengdu but the drives take several hours. Hotels in the area seemed ok for comfort (hard beds as usual) but we really struggled with the breakfast food. It was worth it though!
After Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou we flew on to start a cruise down the Yangtze river.