Trip Report: China
October, 2004

10 days in China: Chengdu, Jiuzhaigou, Beijing

Ten days in China! My friend Mark was marrying a Chinese woman with family in Sichuan province, so I jumped at the chance to attend his wedding in so exotic a locale. After a l o n g flight, I landed in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Chengdu is a major city (population 6 million) and ancient printing center — paper money was invented here.

Excitement stirred our arrival in Chengdu when another component of our troupe arrived the next day — and caused a major splash. A purse containing US $3,000 in cash was left in the taxi from the airport! Police were called, the media sniffed a story, and an honest cab driver saving an American tourist’s vacation made the local TV news.

Two health issues afflicted our group. The spicy food, traveler’s stress, and foreign germs conspired to make one sick, requiring a trip to the hospital. Another was briefly laid low by caffeine addiction (coffee is rare in a world that loves tea), requiring a trip to Starbucks.

After a few spicy dinners, foot massages, and a visit to the largest Buddha in the world (carved into a hillside at Leshan overlooking the river), we headed on to one of the most beautiful places in the world.


A forty minute flight transported us 300 miles north of Chengdu to a mountain ‘scenic reserve’ called Jiuzhaigou (“Joe-guy-go”). At first we were upset that snow delayed our early morning flight; but after landing we appreciated the newly dusted panorama. Nestled in the mountains of the Tibetan plateau (the ‘little Himalayas’) in Southwestern China, Jiuzhaigou opened to the world a year ago with construction of an airport, and has gone through a major development boom. We stayed in a 5-star hotel that contrasted a re-created Tibetan village with massive glass domes and modern tent awnings. But this was only a taste of the beauty awaiting in the nature preserve nearby.

The streams flowed with water clear as glass. The peaks wore caps of snow. Good timing rewarded us with amazing contrasts in the color of the trees: red, orange, green, and yellow. The lakes and waterfalls sparkled with water that glows iridescent with calcium leached from the mountains. Every snapshot was worthy of a postcard.

Returning from the center of the Jiuzhaigou scenic reserve, night descended, slowing our bus to a crawl along the winding switchbacks through the mountains. As the fog enveloped us, some of the park staff riding back with us treated us to their rendition of several Tibetan drinking songs.

Jiuzhaigou is so recently developed, that everything is new and modern, including our hotel, the park buildings and tour buses, the airport, and the huge auditorium — where we saw a very modern dance performance, a spectacle of fireworks, laser lights, and a multitude of dancers in costumes ranging from Tibetan Sherpa to Go-Go dancer.


After a lovely wedding in the hotel (it was too cold for the originally planned outdoor ceremony), we headed back to Chengdu. Our party numbered from 30 to 60 at times, and we came up short on airline tickets back to Chengdu. For the convenience of the new bride and groom, I gave up my plane seat and took the bus with a handful of others. Mountainous roads offered both pain and pleasure; while sitting for 13 hours took its toll on my anatomy, vistas of the Yangtze River, Tibetan villages, and the lower Himalayas offered ample recompense. More than once, we spotted lovely terraced hillsides, mountain slopes dotted with precariously clinging herds of goats, and rickety wooden bridges spanning the river.

Along the way we spotted several hydroelectric plants along the Yangtze river. The end of our trip was delayed (big traffic jam) by a detour onto a muddy one-lane rural road. The disruption, we eventually concluded (after we saw monstrous pylons higher than the Golden Gate Bridge), was a huge dam project. Electricity is coming in a big way to China.

I am surprised to note that both of the public buses I took in China developed problems en route that required repair. In the middle of my 13-hour trip, the bus disappeared for an hour to repair a tire problem while we ate lunch. Later in Beijing, on my return from the Great Wall, an electrical problem required us to switch buses.


The food throughout Sichuan was, yes, spicy. Perhaps you’ve had Kung Pao chicken here in America and thought that was hot; in Sichuan it’s cooked with lots of mouth-searing red peppers and a secret ingredient, a spice (it resembles sprigs of pepper corns) which actually numbs the mouth — allegedly improving one’s ability to enjoy the nuances of the other flavors. This took some adjusting to.

One evening in Beijing, walking through a shopping district, I stumbled on a night market where there must have been 20 stalls offering a huge variety of food-on-a-stick: fish, shrimp, squid, crawdads, snake, star fish (!), tiny scorpions, beetles, and ... penis (that’s what the man said, but I was afraid to ask).

Yes, I had Peking duck in Beijing. Except at the airport and major shopping areas, none of the restaurants I enjoyed in China had English in their menus, and nothing to point at. A couple of times I was able to rely on the kindness of strangers who spoke enough English to help me order.


Despite a wake-up call that never came, I made my flight from Chengdu to Beijing. (The only other flaw was the taxi driver who short-changed me, helping himself to a 50% tip!) Like other major airports I’ve been to, first I hit the ATM then headed for the hotel reservation desk and booked a cheap room (265 yuan, $32) in the city center. After complaining about night-time noise (my room faced the street), they reduced my rate to 200 yuan a night ($25).

It was tough to cover Beijing in 3 days, but I had a great time. The Forbidden City offers scenes of beautiful pagodas and gardens dotted with ancient rocks and trees. The Lama temple portrays the future Buddha, a huge sculpture carved from a single tree. The Temple of Heaven (a huge park) included stunning shrines. The Great Wall delivered a lesson in the folly of expensive military defenses; what good is a wall if invaders can breach it by bribing the guards? (Which is just what the Qing armies did.) And, no, it can’t be seen from space.


Prices throughout China were dirt cheap, especially in the mountains of Sichuan. When our bus stopped to take in a monument marking the headwaters of the Yangtze, we were suddenly swarmed out of nowhere by locals selling yak horns and huge amethyst crystals. I bought a sheepskin scroll for 200 yuan ($25), a bracelet of ‘silver’ and colored stone beads for 5 yuan (60 cents), a small ‘silver’ and fake-ivory knife (letter opener) for 20 yuan ($2.40), a beaded necklace for 10 yuan ($1.20), and a fake amber necklace (with embedded insect) for 15 yuan ($1.80). Chinese currency is called yuan or RMB (Renminbi); one US dollar is worth about 8.25 yuan.

In Beijing, taxis were cheap at 10 to 50 yuan anywhere I went ($1.20 to $6). Meals cost me between 20 and 50 yuan ($2.40 to $6).

A half block from my hotel, I noticed a tailor shop that specialized in down jackets. Having read that these were a good deal, I ordered a custom-tailored down vest for 180 yuan ($22). When I went to pick it up, I found that the zipper worked from the wrong side (left-handed). Took a lot of effort to convince them (and a note from an English speaking clerk at my hotel) that I really did want them to switch it.

I followed a tip in my guidebook and took in an acrobatic performance for 100 yuan ($12.50). It was a fabulous performance of gymnasts, jugglers, and contortionists on bicycles, on poles, on a ‘rope’ of silk fabric, and on the high wire. Beautiful costumes, lighting, and music made for an elegant performance.

To its credit, Beijing seems to be cleaning up its act (literally, perhaps for the 2008 Olympics); I was never bothered by the air pollution I’ve heard other tourists complain about.


One morning, I rode in the elevator to my room on the 4th floor with a member of the hotel staff. As he got out on the 3rd floor, he turned and said “Just a moment.” Perplexed, I held the elevator for a minute until I realized that he probably just got his English phrases mixed up. He probably meant to say “Have a good day” or the like.


  • no tipping!
  • if you use an APS camera (as I do), film is hard to find.
  • I saw very few coins; small denomination bills seem to have displaced them.
  • most amusing dish: spicy cuttlefish meatballs
  • new favorite souvenir: a haircut ($2.50)
  • Beijing has many ‘duck restaurants’
  • any major building here has the main entrance on the south side (for good luck).
  • the kiwi are huge and tasty!
  • seat belts are rare here; I saw them in use by one taxi driver on my whole trip.
  • McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut are popular.
  • in Chinese symbolism, the square represents earth, the circle represents heaven.
  • I’ve seen calculators used before as a helpful way to communicate prices when bargaining without words; this trip, cell phones were more commonly used to type numbers.


  • monopod (one-legged camera tripod) for 200 yuan ($25)
  • bounce card (collapsible foil reflector) for 25 yuan ($3)
  • dragon kite for 25 yuan ($3)
  • nice black T-shirt with gold designs on front and back for 15 yuan ($1.80)
  • crappy “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt for 25 yuan ($3) — oops!

Happy travels,

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