China, by bus: Jiuzhaigou to Huanglong (Sichuan province)

One my first morning in Jiuzhaigou, my thirty-fourth birthday, I decided instead to visit Huanglong, in northwestern Sichuan province, near the southern portion of the Min Mountains (Min Shan). Huanglong is home to giant pandas, the equally endangered Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey, and dramatically colored (blues, greens, yellows, browns) and brilliant pools of water formed by calcite deposits. Huanglong is Chinese for “Yellow Dragon,” and I’ve learned that if any landscape in China twists and turns, it will be said to resemble a dragon.

Huanglong, from Jiuzhaigou, is three or four hours by bus, and maybe two hours by taxi. I caught a ride to the bus station with two other travelers (one Japanese, one British) traveling to Huanglong, but when we arrived we learned that there was only one bus ticket left. I wasn’t overly concerned about price (45 RMB for bus ticket, 300 RMB for taxi) so I agreed to split a taxi with the guys. After 30 minutes of driving in circles, it was clear that the driver had no intention of taking us to Huanglong for the agreed upon price, not unless he could find a few other passengers to squeeze into the car. I didn’t want to play games, so I said goodbye, and decided to buy a bus ticket for the following morning. When I arrived at the bus ticket window, the woman behind the counter motioned to the driver, and I understood enough Chinese to understand that she was saying there was still room for one more, today.

So I got on the bus, and I spent my birthday at Huanglong.

During one of the rest stops on the way from Jiuzhaigou to Huanglong, I was able to use my limited Chinese language abilities to tell a woman that her peanuts were too expensive; being hungry, I bought them anyway, but those around her laughed, probably at my pronunciation but also perhaps because I was able to awkwardly express my disdain, in their native tongue. At one rest stop, I was surrounded by curious Chinese women, all pawing at my tattoo and speaking to me in Chinese. At one point, I understand a woman who asked me, “True or false?” in Chinese, and then she proceeded to mimic the motion of needles penetrating the skin. I was excited to have understood even just one basic phrase, in a live context.

While on the bus en route to the park, I made friends with Wang Fuwei, a Chinese man sitting next to me. Fuwei spoke limited English, and when the driver’s assistant made what seemed to be an important announcement, my friend explained via technology that the warning was for potential high-altitude sickness. Huanglong is about 12,000 feet above sea level. Unsure how to prepare, I drank some more water, shrugged my shoulders, and smiled. While on the mountain, I saw more than a few travelers carrying portable oxygen tanks. Once or twice, I felt tight in the chest, but I can’t say that I ever really felt uncomfortable.

An old man whom I met at a rest stop en route to Huanglong; he was curious about my tattoo, so I let him take a look.

Betty (her English name) is 10 years old, and a bit shy, so her Mom asked me if it would be OK for her daughter to take a photograph with me: “She is interested in foreigner.”

Jervis (his English name) is a University student who wishes to one day study in the United States; we met at Huanglong, where he shared with me some chocolate (Hershey’s, Dove) and Chinese candy.

I sat next to Wang Fuwei on the bus from Jiuzhaigou to Huanglong. He spoke a bit of English,  and with my even-more limited Chinese, we were able to engage in a bit of small talk. He asked me how old I was, and I told him in Chinese that I was 34, and that it was my birthday. Fuwei was the first person to wish me a happy birthday.

Huanglong is more than 4,000 meters above sea level. As we approached the park, an announcement, a warning, was made on the bus. When it was clear that I did not understand, Fuwei did his best to translate the dangers of high-altitude sickness.

A free oxygen station near the top of the mountain; Huanglong, China.

I took a photo of the license plate of my bus, so I knew to which bus to return; this proved to be helpful because there were hundreds of buses, nearly all of which looked similar.

One of the thousands of Chinese men, women and children posing at Huanglong.