We flew into Shanghai, and were quickly whisked away to Haimen, to (briefly) overcome jetlag, and so Lis could get measured to have a traditional Chinese dress made for her by a local seamstress while we were traveling for the next week or so. Then it was back to Shanghai, to catch a flight to Chengdu, the capital of the Szechuan Province, in western China. We have an album of pictures from Shanghai, Chengdu and Haimen here.
Our first morning in Chengdu we woke before the sun was up to get to the bus station and catch the (12-hour!) bus to Jiu Zhai Gou. Jiu Zhai Gou is the crown jewel of China's fledgling national park system. Quite different from National Parks in the US - there is no backpacking or hiking to speak of (although we were traveling in winter, so perhaps there may be more options for activities in the summer), and you basically see the park in a day.
In the morning you buy a pass for the bus, and then get on a ~12 passenger bus, and get driven around the park all day. You get out every now and then to take pictures, or to walk away from the road to see something interesting, but for much of the time you are on the bus. We were disappointed at first to learn that we weren't allowed to just walk through the park, but in the end had quite a fun time, getting in several snow-ball fights with others on our bus, and just generally having a good time.
The waterfalls really were quite spectacular. Unfortunately because we had to stay with the same bus we weren't able to wait for the best lighting, and the winter light could at times be harsh, but hopefully these pictures will give you an idea of what the waterfalls look like. We can only imagine how impressive they would be in early spring with a lot of snowmelt.
We stopped at a series of little shops before leaving the park, and some of the sales girls greeted us when we came in the door. We just sort of nodded sheepishly and looked around. They apparently started to talk about us, not realizing that Heather speaks Mandarin, and laughed at us since they thought we didn't understand them. Heather looked at them, said, "No, I do understand you" in Mandarin, and then walked out! They looked rather embarrassed.
The next morning we were once again up before dawn to catch a 12-hour bus ride back to Chengdu. Once again a brief stop for lunch, and a rather exciting hour and a half stop to have the bus' permits checked. After an hour of sitting on the bus, Lis and Heather ran off to find a bathroom. Just after they disappeared from sight, the bus driver stormed onto the bus, threw it into gear, and started to drive off. Brian, realizing that he was stuck on a bus knowing no Chinese, and having all three passports and all of our money with him, started yelling. The driver turned around to look at him, but Brian couldn't say anything but "sister" in Chinese! He pointed at the empty seats beside him, and the entire bus erupted into Chinese, with everyone talking back and forth. The bus driver eventually figured out what the deal was, and waited for the girls to return.
We were back in Chengdu for less than 24 hours before heading south to the Le Shan/Emei Shan area. When we arrived in Le Shan, we found out we needed to cross the river to get to the combined Le Shan and Dafo parks. We couldn't find a good cheap cab, and there were some guys riding bikes with little wagons on the back that REALLY wanted to take us, and were offering a pretty good deal. Brian and the luggage went with one, Heather and Lis in the other. I think the guy driving the two of us resented the other dude, because two tall girls are heavier than one tall boy plus 3 backpacks. Several times we got out to help him push up the long hills we were going on. Eventually we caught up with Brian, and when we paid made sure that the two drivers would split the money.
We then entered Le Shan, which has a number of recreations of buddhas from all over China. We spent a long time trying to find the "sleeping Buddha" only to realize eventually that it means that the shape of the hill looks like Buddha lying down. But we weren't far enough away from the hill to get a good idea of what exactly was meant by this. Confusing Chinese pamphlets. We wandered around looking at Buddhas, and eventually made our way to the entrance to the park that holds Dafo.
There were many more tourists here, and we even saw some other foreigners. We climbed to the top of a small hill that we thought had a temple on top, only to find it completely empty. We then made our way to a view of Dafo, the largest Buddha I believe in all of China, if not the world. It's pretty big! Carved into the side of a mountain. Just his big toenail alone is large enough to have a picnic on. So big that it's hard to take a picture that really expresses the size of the Buddha, especially because he sits right on a river.
We then took a bus to the city that's at the base of Emei Shan, a very holy mountain with a monastery on top. We thought we'd try walking to the top, and staying at the monastery for the night. We took a bus partway up the mountain, and started almost before first light on the never ending stairs. After about three hours of literally ALL stairs, we decided that we would never make it, and would instead turn around, spend the night in a hotel, and take a bus all the way to the top the next day. (Note: my calves were sore to the touch the next day from so many stairs, and still sore when stretched for almost 5 days afterwards!).
On the way down we stopped and walked through one of the monastery complexes. Saw some locals get a bag ripped out of their hands by monkeys. We found the monkeys a bit disturbing- they would sit and stare at you. Really made you feel like they could almost read your thoughts.
The next morning we had a lazy morning, sleeping in and having breakfast at a local restaurant that caters to international travelers. Heather had pancakes with bananas and chocolate chips- definitely something she hadn't had the chance to try in a long time!
In a more successful attempt to see the top of Emei Shan, we took a bus to close to the top of the mountain, and then a gondola to the very tiptop. It was amazing- at the elevation that the gondola started at we were completely immersed in clouds. About 200 feet up in the gondola, we rose above the clouds and could see a few mountain other tops peaking out of clouds all around us. Legend says that at the right time of day, a person standing with the sun behind them and looking down onto the clouds can see their shadow on the clouds surrounded by a rainbow. Apparently when people in the past have seen this they believe that they have reached some special enlightenment, and jump off the edge of the mountain to get to the rainbow/shadow. Luckily we were there at an inopportune time to see the rainbow, so we all remained on the top of the mountain.
We poked around for a while, but much of the top was under construction, so we mainly enjoyed the fantastic views of other mountain tops and warm sunlight on the top. We then caught the gondola and bus back to the bottom of the mountain. The next day we were up early once again (Heather complained that she woke up earlier for more days in a row than she ever had her entire stay in China! Guess we're morning people...), and hurried to the bus station to catch a bus back to Chengdu.
We then spent two days in Chengdu, doing tourist-y stuff there. We did some shopping, tried to go to the Szechuan Provincial Museum (only to find that it was in the process of relocating, and, as a guard said, "It's dead"), went to New Years celebrations in parks (with many many lantern displays and lots of good eats), had true Szechuan hotpot (SO SO SO incredibly spicy- my lips hurt just to touch the hot water in the shower after dinner they were so tender from the spices!), and just generally having fun.
Finally it was time to fly back to Shanghai. We got to the airport nice and early, only to find out that our flight had been cancelled. And there were no representatives from the airline available to talk to. We managed to get on a flight about four hours later, which was fine, but the whole situation was still a bit stressful. The flight to Shanghai was uneventful, but we had to make it to Haimen to pick up Lis' dress before the seamstress closed up shop. We did not make it back by then, but had the seamstress' number to call, and she made a special delivery with the dress. That night we experienced the local discotech (loud and smoky, but fun nonetheless), and crashed early so that we could make it back to Shanghai the next day for our flight back stateside.
Our last night in Shanghai was absolutely wild- fireworks (BIG fireworks) being set off by people all over the city, all night long. We almost felt as if we were in a war zone, there were so many loud pops and booms continuously. Next morning it was up early to find baozi (steam buns) before heading to Shanghai International. A teary goodbye with our super wonderful fantastic hostess and tour guide and after a 12 hour plane ride we landed back in SFO.
We were really blessed to have traveled to China when Heather was there. Not only is she great fun to travel with, but her Mandarin skills meant that we were able to go places and see things that we would not have otherwise been able to do. All in all, it was a wonderful trip.