Touring China's Yellowstone
Nov 1, 2001
David Rich 1000 Words
C h i n a ' s Y e l l o w s t o n e
Similar to our division of the world into Americans and others, the Chinese divide the world into Chinese and foreigners, vividly illustrated when we began a four-day jaunt to China's Yellowstone. We parked on the hotel steps at 7:30 a.m. when the "luxury tour bus" was supposed to pick us up. At 8:15 a slender Chinese lady strolled up with a cell phone glued to her ear. She wore orange tennis shoes with four-inch soles, orange blouse, skinny jeans, and orange hair. I seized the possibility, yelling "Jiuzhaigou", the name of China's Yellowstone. It'd taken me days to learn the name but she studiously ignored us. After five minutes of more pacing and frantic calls on the tiny cell phone, I shoved our tour receipt in her face and she looked elsewhere, fleeing to the hotel desk with us in hot pursuit. The desk clerk blandly answered her, "Those are the people from room 402." She developed a tic. Gringos, on an otherwise completely Chinese tour! The scandal. She reluctantly led us to the bus where irate Chinese had sat half an hour waiting for inconsiderate gringos. We were the single persons of "European descent" among the incredibly many thousands who thronged the national park, though it was a relief not having to repeat umpteen times, "Um, yeah, we're from ____ (whatever state strikes the fancy). Where're you from?"
The orange tour guide spoke no English, relieving us from listening to a single "word" she said. One person did speak English; Vickie, working on her master's degree in psychology from Beijing University, honeymooning with Stephen. Vickie and Stephen were examples of names adopted by Chinese who learn English, though Stephen had basically none, similar to our facility in Mandarin. Vickie kindly clued us in on the essentials after half an hour of Ms. Orange instructing us, "Up at six, breakfast at 6:30, bus at seven," the drill for four days.
The ride into the boondocks of Sichuan Province, near Tibet, took eleven hours of half-hour TV episodes, a tragically hilarious soap opera, eternal triangle converted into an octagon, poor male star. Poisonings followed suicide attempts with English unnecessary and undesired. Bliss was leaving the unremitting air pollution of all Chinese cities and ascending into clear blue skies with puffs of cloud instead of gagging factory smoke.
During our three months in China, we found the best time to visit a Chinese national park, temple, or other attraction was never on a weekend, never during a holiday, and never any other time. There are too many Chinese incessantly attending tourist attractions in ungodly unimaginable droves. Because Chinese were allowed to visit only twenty countries outside China, and then only with a tour guide who keeps their passports lest they abscond, they flocked the national parks like fleas on a hound dog. The byways of many parks were too clogged with Chinese tourists to do anything other than go with the flow. They all wanted to talk to us with what may diplomatically be described as a limited vocabulary, primarily limited to "hello". When we snapped back our fluent "ni hao" ("hello" in Mandarin Chinese), they were convulsed and general merriment was suffered by all.
Juizhuigou was less crowded because it was enormous. The first thirty-mile section flaunted 300-yard-wide waterfalls with dozens of cascades and mirrored lakes from pale fluorescent blue to deep turquoise with strangely shaped underwater trees. The lakes reflected autumn foliage of canary, orange, and scarlet. Tibetan villages flanked rivers and lakes, inhabitants in native dress, restaurants serving yak butter tea and yak fritters next to ornate temples and white stupas gaudily painted in reds and blues.
Hotels were included in the Jiuzhaigou tour according to the rate paid for the tour; the cheap seats followed a pattern: two beds separated by a console for lights and TV, slippers for wading flooded bathrooms, and a thermos of hot water for tea because water was potable nowhere in China. Probably we should have shelled out an extra ten dollars and gone the luxury route. Food was also included, up to fourteen courses with whole fish, mystery meat, and mystery veggies, eaten with bowls of rice accompanied by two mystery soups. Tea preceded the meal for swirling in one's bowl, and then tossed out the window or onto the floor, "cleansing" the bowl. The boardinghouse reach was mandatory, practiced simultaneously by a dozen hands armed with slashing chopsticks. Severing a fish carcass was reserved to the native wielders of chopsticks. I remained fishless for the duration.
Ten peaks over 16,000 feet surrounded the tour's second half, Huanglong, heat economically omitted from the less expensive hotels. The hike ended at 12,000 feet past travertine pools ranging from fabulous fluorescent blue to teal interrupted by Tibetan temples and vendors of dubious snacks with inflated prices from twelve to sixty-seven cents each. Ten of our group rented "air" bladders to breathe at this altitude while others hired chair litters to tote them past the mile-long chain of iridescent lakes. Vickie told me my tour mates thought my neck bed was a foreign air bladder allowing me to breathe the rarified air of Huanglong.
The trip back took one and a half days with six stops to purchase yak meat, visit a Tibetan Temple, select weird Chinese medicines without English subtitles, sample antler velvet, and taste exotic honey aphrodisiacs. The sixth stop escaped my memory in a bus-bouncy daze.
After four days the characters on the bus became vivid: the assistant judge who got a kick when I chanted, "Here come da judge"; the sexpot married to the older man; two guys snacking on raw garlic to cleanse their breath, pressing cloves on me at every meal, failing to mention whether the gift was preventative or therapeutic; the honeymooners; the couple arguing loudly and long; Ms. Five-Star Prissy Pants who turned up late at every stop and the ever present Ms. Orange tour guide, whose outfits changed to purply-blue, really red, and on the last day, ghastly green. Others collected jade, Chinese coins, fancy carved vases, fossils, daggers and Buddhas, all purportedly ancient and all fake. A good time was had by all, especially us, feeling like Marco Polos, two of the few westerners who've experienced the Yellowstone of China.