My hostel advised me that flying would be an easier option, “it will be more convenient for you, and quicker”, they said. Sometimes easy just isn’t the best option though, sometimes you get more out of the less convenient, slower option. The journey from Xinnanmen bus station, Chengdu to the entrance of the awe-inspiring Jiuzhaigou national park takes between seven and ten hours, through the Minjiang River Canyon. This journey is one of the most interesting insights in to China I have experienced and is a bargain at just 141 Yuan (GBP £14.10).
The first four hours of the journey by bus is spent driving on a road that was severely affected by the 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake. The earthquake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, it killed around 70,000 people and left 4.8 million people homeless. This impact can be clearly seen, as can the impressive progress made by the government reconstruction plan and public funds raised and utilised by charities. Some reminders of the earthquake – collapsed bridges, flooded villages, shattered homes, landslides along the canyon, grave sites – have been chosen by the Government and clearly signposted, helping to educate the millions of tourists that travel this road about the damage that an earthquake can cause.
As an emergency aid worker myself and someone who has been part of an earthquake response team, I am in awe of the amount of reconstruction taking place along this road. The scale of work is not something I’ve seen before. But then, if there’s something that China can boast in most areas, it’s scale. There must be tens of thousands of workers living in the canyon and working on the projects. We pass many awesome construction projects. Landslides in to the river canyon are being removed to protect the area from floods and the emptied soil is being reused as material to widen and bolster the earthquake damaged road. Concrete is being used to cover landslide sites in an attempt to try and protect people from a repeat earthquake. Replacement tunnels and bridges are being developed.
The bus drives past village after village of brand new houses, each village has chosen an individual housing design that has been replicated for each family. Every house is decked out with solar panels on their roofs. I note that the housing designs change to meet the needs of each community, lower villages have homes with shop space on the ground floor, while the higher villages have homes with open roof spaces, used to dry hay and store tools.
Around four or five hours in to this journey the landscape and feel of the trip changes remarkably. Winding up to and past the town of Songpan you experience what travelling in Tibet, without groups of tourists, might feel like. We pass lots of communities whose houses have large red Buddhist Swastika marks one their walls (representing the foot and heart of the Buddha), and who have drenched their neighbouring forests with colourful prayer flags. These symbols are used to signal that people are trying to search for enlightenment and to bless the countryside respectively.
As the bus passes one collection of prayer flags, five women, all dressed in brightly coloured clothing, drop to pray at the side of the road at every third step or fourth step they take. There is also some kind of festival being celebrated in the villages, firecrackers rumble in the background and cars are decorated with bright wreathes of paper flowers. An experience I would not trade for any budget flight.
Then finally, after a further hour of driving through dense alpine forests, as if all this wasn’t enough, the bus arrives at Jiuzhaigou National Park. I was told by a Chinese friend that there is a saying in Chinese: once you have seen the water in Jiuzhaigou you never need to see water again, any other water would be a disappointment. Just look at the photos above to see why.