So here we were back in China, our aim being to travel through western and northern China towards Central Asia, for the start of our journey westwards through some of the 'stan' countries and the Middle East.
Our first stop in Western China was Chengdu, the capital city of Central Sichuan province. Now suffering withdrawal from our regular coffee fixes and the amazing Vietnamese food, we were worried that eating and drinking in China was just not going to cut it, but luckily Chengdu and Sichuan are famous for their teahouses and food respectively, so we weren't too hard done by and soon enough we were consuming large amounts of green tea and spicy Sichuanese cuisine.
The highlight of Chengdu was the chance to get up close (but not too personal) to Sichuan's most famous resident - and national Chinese icon - the giant panda. We paid a trip to the world-famous Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, home to 100+ giant and red pandas, where the main aim of the base is to get these 'sexually reluctant' creatures to breed. When they are not being so coy, March to May is the typical mating period, so our visit mid-September meant that we were also able to see some wee panda cubs who were 1-2 months old. It was amazing to see these little fur balls, and seeing them lined up in their incubators - panda cubs are almost always born prematurely - at the 'Panda NICU' was something else. It was just after our visit that photos/a video of 14 newborn panda cubs from the base went viral, if I was a bit quicker with my blog updates you could have said you saw it all here first ;)
Chengdu is a modern and fast-growing city (pop 7 million - include the outskirts and it is 14 million!) and home to an interesting mix of traditional China (pretty parks, temples and teahouses) as well as the usual superlatives - we saw there one of the biggest statues of Mao in China, as well as the world's largest building. The latter, Global City, is home to a fancy shopping mall, hotel, 3D cinema, ice rink and water park…but having spent the best part of a month in China in June none of this really came as a surprise!
We headed north from Chengdu into northern Sichuan, and to the Jiuzhaigou National Park, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 9-hour bus journey was quite something in itself, passing dramatic mountain scenery and our first sightings of Tibetan style villages and plenty of yaks, as Sichuan province borders part of Tibet. We also saw signs of the devastation wrecked by the 2008 earthquake - measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale - which hit the province's central region, killing more than 80,000 people. We could still see signs of the rebuilding effort, rather slow (for China at least) with the region being so mountainous and remote: newly built bridges running alongside older bridges which finished in mid-air, and roads that just ended and disappeared into the mountains.
It was an early 6am start the next day, in an attempt to get into the national park before all the Chinese tour groups descended upon us, but at least by doing this we were rewarded with a (relatively) empty park, beautiful early morning light and a full day ahead of us to take in the parks gorgeous trails and scenery. 'Jiuzhaigou' means 'Nine Village Valley', referring to the region's nine Tibetan villages. Legend has it that the site was created when a jealous devil causes the goddess Wunosemo to drop her magic mirror, a present from her lover, a warlord god, and when the mirror dropped to the ground it shattered into 118 shimmering turquoise lakes. It wasn't quite 118 lakes that we saw, but at least a good dozen - and the amazingly turquoise lakes and beautiful autumn colours made for some dazzling scenery, where you would be forgiven for thinking we were in Canada or New Zealand, rather than China. I think it is the most beautiful national park I have ever been to, and it was great to have a full day of walking, after two weeks spent sitting on the back of a bike in Vietnam!
Our next stop was Langmusi, an Amdo Tibetan village further north which straddles both Sichuan and Gansu provinces. Once again the Tibetan influence was very strong here, as all these areas we were now travelling through were part of old Tibet's traditional provinces. Langmusi was an interesting place, with beautiful surroundings (surrounded by monasteries and mountains) and interesting people (mostly all wrapped up against the cold in traditional Tibetan clothing, dark-skinned and red-cheeked) and it had a sort of wild-west feel to it with horses being a popular form of transport. You had to squint though to see just the charming sides of Langmusi, and to avoid catching sight of all the construction going on to expand the village (for tourism reasons presumably….oops).
We weren't there to hang around Langmusi though, but more to explore its mountains surroundings, and so off we set on a 3-day horse trek through the hills, staying with a nomadic Tibetan family for two nights and exploring on horseback by day. As we headed on horseback further up the mountains that first day, just Simon and I and our guide Tibo (no English), the views got better and better the further up we climbed, leaving Langmusi and the Red Stone Mountains behind us. We walked through grassy plains and across rivers, where we spotted a couple of eagles soaring above us, as well some curious, beaver-like creatures we had never seen before, scurrying about. Up one side of a mountain and down another, into a beautiful valley dotted with black specks which we soon realised were hundreds of very big, shaggy yaks! Having never been close to these animals before I hadn't realised that their young were so cute-looking, or that they all grunted a lot - for a minute I thought I was back in a Zambian safari camp listening to the hippos in the nearby river.
Seven hours after our departure from Langmusi, we started to approach a few scattered 'yurts' in the distance, and we tried to guess which one would provide our lodgings. Unlike some of the nomadic homes we had passed along the way, which were made of the traditional yak hair, these were made of a thick cotton sheet, and out of one of them emerged Laka, our host for the next few days. With a welcome smile she showed us into her home, which included her 3-year old son sleeping in a corner, a pile of yak dung (fuel) in another, a big stove in the middle and some bits of unidentifiable meat hanging above it - we later found out it was yak meat. We were welcomed with a cup of yak yoghurt - its all about the yaks here - which we tried with some trepidation after sampling the extremely pungent camel yoghurt in Mongolia, but luckily it was actually quite good …although Simon's face barely hid his fear as he clearly didn't believe me when I told him it was nice!
The next few days were fantastic - our hosts (Laka, her husband and son) were the loveliest family, who we somehow managed to communicate with despite zero understanding of eachothers' language, every conversation turning into a comical game of charades, with varying degrees of success. In a typical Tibetan nomadic household, women are the most important part of the workforce, carrying out the majority of the household chores - milking the yaks first thing in the morning, making yak butter, collecting dung, cooking the meals and herding in the yaks at the end of the day - oh and looking after the children. We tried to help as much as possible, when we were not exploring the surrounding hills on horseback, again with varying degrees of success - I never knew churning milk was such hard work, or that making noodles that were long and flat was not as easy as it looked. The men traditionally are in charge of herding the animals, and protecting their sheep and yaks from wolves…although some just spend all their time in Langmusi, drinking tea with friends, while their wives work throughout the day. Our man seemed a bit more hands-on, although we couldn't help but notice that his attempts to untie the yaks in the morning were less than successful, with a few yaks running off with ropes still tethered to their hooves, and we interpreted Laka's shouts to him as: "You stupid oaf, stop pretending you do this all the time just because the tourists are here."
These nomadic families have such a rustic existence, even more basic than their counterparts in Mongolia, those yurts now feeling like five star hotels and the long drop toilets a luxury compared to our attempts now to find an area of grassland, far away from any yaks, to relieve ourselves, noting a distinct lack of shrubs for such purposes. I obviously chose the wrong spot one morning, as one yak came quickly trotting towards me while I was mid-pee, looking like he had no intention of stopping. FYI, if anyone else ever finds themselves in the same situation, trying to shoo away a large yak while squatting is not very effective, and soon I was surrounded by three large yaks, evidently very curious as to what I was doing on their patch of grassland.
It was as interesting seeing how they lived as it was seeing how a three year old boy entertains himself in this remote part of the world, away from iPads, television, and any toys. The one concession to entertainment was his pink bike, which we tried to teach him to ride but he seemed content to just wheel it around, ramming it into and over large piles of yak dung. After an afternoon of herding in the family yaks a few kms away, we found a yak skull to bring back, which he was overjoyed with and loved chasing us around the outside of the tent with it. Otherwise he entertained himself by roaming around the grasslands with his bike, or playing with the family dogs…but that was pretty much it - such a very different playground here. I vowed that one day we would return with our kids, to show them a different life away from our mod-cons, and let them see how much they have compared to what other children make do with.
We absolutely loved our few days posing as Tibetan nomads - witnessing a way of life so removed from what we are used to, with some stunning scenery and fun horse treks thrown in for good measure (Simon now wants a horse). What will always stay with us is the genuine warmth and hospitality of our hosts, always so full of smiles and laughter, where language was not necessary to convey a sense of humour or kindness
PS - as I think probably most of our readers know, we are not actually stuck in a time-warp, where it is still September and we are in China somewhere…I am just very behind on getting the blog up to date! So bear with me, I will get there…but just a note to say that we are in Guatemala, having come over a few weeks ago for my step-sister's wedding, via the UK. We are now planning to stay here for Christmas, to make the most of being with my family as well as putting our brains to use: Simon is learning Spanish and I am volunteering at an education charity which puts kids from one of the poorest communities in Guatemala through school. I would love to tell you all about it now, but will save our time in Guatemala for another post, hopefully sooner after it has happened than this last one…