Jiuzhaigou & Jewel-Colored Lakes

As autumn deepens in Sichuan, the fall weather combines with increasing pollution to make blue-sky days seem a treasure of the past. I’m left reminded of the profound difference a glimpse of pretty sky can make.

As humans, we have an amazing talent for artificially modifying our surroundings.  If our weather’s too hot, we craft machines to infuse our homes with a cool breeze. When we want to work beyond the hours facilitated by the sun, we invent electricity-powered lighting. Even for non-potable water, we have a solution: buy a distiller.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of such creature comforts. My air purifiers are all set on high. Already I’m fantasizing about my favorite winter luxury–our apartment’s in-floor heating.

Nevertheless, there are some things for which man’s best substitutes are a weak approximation. The sunshine is one of these. And if there’s one thing my college-era relocation from sunny South Texas to Indiana taught me, it’s that seasonal depression is a very real beast.

That’s why this time last year, I was very happy to be visiting Jiuzhaigou with my husband and our friend.

Give the term “Jiuzhaigou” a quick Google and you’ll uncover a slew of fantastically gorgeous photographs: achingly blue lakes, flame-hued trees, waterfalls cascading like lace down rock faces. Perusing these images prior to our trip, I assumed (perhaps cynically) that they’d been enhanced, modified via PhotoShop to turn Jiuzhaigou’s beauty surreal.

I was utterly wrong. Just like Ireland (where I was blessed to study for a semester), Jiuzhaigou actually exceeds preconceptions. Its designation as an UNESCO World Heritage Site is well-deserved.

Visiting Jiuzhaigou the first weekend of November, we arrived during the “slow” season. That meant there were only 20,000 people in the park per day, rather than the usual 30,000.

Thank goodness for small crowds, right?

It’s such bits of trivia that make clear why Chinese folks uses terms like rén hǎi (people sea) to describe the literal masses to be found touring Chinese sites during peak seasons.

Despite our 19,997 co-tourists, we were fortunate. Though the main roads held the people equivalent of bumper to bumper traffic, our Jiuzhaigou tactic worked: we rode the tour buses to the top of each trail, then walked down the mountain along the back paths. Hours passed without seeing a party other than our own. That, and the natural loveliness surrounding us, were the perfect antidote to the crowded seasonal gloom of our city life. I’m a city creature at heart, but an occasional bit of quiet is a necessity.

Even beyond the shrinking crowds, though, our trip’s timing offered something special. Jiuzhaigou’s peak season surely possesses its own allure (otherwise, why such popularity?) but I cannot imagine what could surpass our November visit’s offerings: a winter wonderland at the mountain’s top and glorious fall foliage ringing the bottom. And, perhaps best of all, a iron sky that yielded to bright azure by each afternoon.

It was the perfect cocktail: I drank my fill of beauty and Vitamin D–not too shabby for a three day weekend.

An added bonus? Although we splurged on a Western-style hotel for most of the trip, our first night was spent in a Tibetan-style home stay. There, I witnessed an easy, gracious hosting that left me thoroughly humbled.

My mother-in-law is a truly gifted hostess. Whenever my husband and I visit, she makes a point of picking up my favorite foods. She layers the guest bed with extra blankets, knowing what a cold weenie I am. She even makes me coffee, fresh before I wake each morning… even though I’m the only one in the family who drinks it.

I’d love to be just like her. Here’s the unfortunate truth: I am a frantic, haphazard hostess.

Zhou Ma, the proprietress of the Tibetan home stay, is my antithesis. She plied us with aromatic, saffron-colored rice and peppery yak sandwiches and cup after cup of delicious Tibetan tea.

(Though I’d like to point out, in defense of my taste-credibility, that this was not the yak butter tea for which Tibetans are so infamous. I’m an adventurous eater, so I’d give it a try if presented the opportunity. But other westerners’ reviews have left me a bit doubtful about the likelihood of my enjoying it. Yak butter tea is almost invariably described as an “acquired taste”–never an encouraging sign.)

Yet as delicious as our less adventurous Tibetan fare was, Zhou Ma’s food wasn’t what won me over. It was the quiet ease her presence exuded. Though she chatted with our friend (whose Mandarin shows mine up for the toddler-talk it is), she never did that hovering thing that makes one feel more alien than welcome. Instead, she showed us how she dried her chilies, fed and cooped her chickens, lit the fire beneath her cooking pot. She opened her beautiful home–embellished everywhere with boldly carved wooden lintels and jewel-and-gold-toned paintings–freely and fully. Despite the freezing bedroom and hard mattress (often, in Chinese opinion, the “firmer” [i.e.: rockier] the mattress, the better), the combination toilet/shower room and darkened, winding staircases, Zhou Ma’s home stay remains at the top of my Chinese accommodations list, almost a year later. The genuine, easy warmth of the experience was too enticing to resist.

Interactions like those we had with Zhou Ma and her family, and adventures like visiting Jiuzhaigou make the difficulties of living abroad–the language barriers, the distance from family, the longing for home, even smog-provoked seasonal depression–seem small in comparison.

So if you find yourself wearied by smoggy Chinese cities, or simply the victim of melancholy, I’d prescribe a beautiful walk and a drop of sun as an antidote. And if you happen to be in the neighborhood of Jiuzhaigou, don’t pass up the opportunity to stop by. Just don’t forget to extend a hello to Zhou Ma from me.

4 thoughts on “Jiuzhaigou & Jewel-Colored Lakes

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