Camera dies, Tibetan massage revives

Trip Start Jul 22, 2011
Trip End Aug 12, 2011

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Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Friday, July 29, 2011


The streets are deserted as we make our way to the airport at 5:50 AM. Olivia tells us about an early morning market of fruits and vegetables that is within the city walls.  That's another idea to consider on a future visit - wake up early to see the city wake up – visit a fruit & vegetable market and see locals exercising in the parks.

These past 7 days I have been fortunate to find a western toilet in the public restrooms and they have been clean.  The Xi’an airport is the first that didn’t and the bathroom is disgustingly dirty.  I decide to hold it until we get to the next airport and hope it’s better there.  I am not sure if anyone else has a "need to know", but the experience was memorable so I’ve chosen to include it.

Stepping off the plane in the Jiuzhaigou airport, we can feel the temperature is considerably cooler.  Refreshing!  We can do without the rain, but that’s what we have today.  We watch other passengers open their luggage, take out warmer clothes and go into what we figure out is a  “changing room”.  I pull out all-weather pants, hoodies and rain jackets for us.  As I undress among the other women in the room, I try to avert my eyes and not look at anyone.  I am certain they are looking at me, but when I do look up we all smile at one another. 

The weather in Jiuzhaigou is highly variable.  We were lucky that our flight was able to land.  We later learned that we were the last flight for the day because of fog and driving rain; we met some people who had to spend another day in Chengdu waiting for the weather to clear.  I guess we’re lucky that we had an early morning flight, even though it was painful getting up so early! 

We are greeted by our guide, Helen.  She is quick to point out that our driver has 10 years experience and asks if we really want to go to Huanglong with the weather as it is.  We figure we have traveled so far that we might as well.  I am not really sure why she is telling us about the driver’s years of experience, but within five minutes I figure it out.  We’re in a mountainous area, the two lane road follows the contours of the mountain, there are few guardrails along the side of the road, the fog has reduced visibility and it’s raining!  The only scenario I can think that might be worse is snow and ice.    Even so we are a “go” and decide on an early lunch before going to Huanglong.

We stop at a town called Chuan Da Sa Temple that was severely damaged in the 2008 earthquake.  It has been largely reconstructed and as we drive down the main road we see all new buildings, some just getting their finishing touches.  There is quite a bit of construction underway.  There is no one shopping in the stores and we wonder if it is the rain or who comes to this town – perhaps it hasn’t recovered economically from the earthquake.  We settle into a restaurant called Fuanglong Guo Ji  and at this early hour of about 11AM we are the only customers.   From our seats we can see the poring rain and an artificial palm tree.  A palm tree?  What’s that all about?  I never did find out. 

Four ethnic groups live in this area called the Sichuan Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture:  Tibetan, Chang, Han, Wei.  The women who serve us are very friendly, but apparently speak another dialect such that Mandarin isn’t understandable.  They also have different facial features that you can see in the photos that are different from the Han that predominate in Xi’an and Beijing.  Helen made the food choices for us and we had a virtual feast of 9 dishes presented to us, in a different style than we have had elsewhere:  pork; eggplant; pico (a little spicey); tomato, cucumber & pork, egg omelet; sichuan vegetable; vegetable soup; rice.  Delicious!

The airport is at about 9,500 feet and although we have been at altitudes far higher before, we are starting to feel the effects of the elevation with headaches.  Neither of us saw very much as we kept our eyes closed and tried to nap in the car as we drove the  mountain roads to the Huanglong Preserve and World Heritage Site.   With the fog there was nothing to see and we figured we would try to rest.  I would guess that it’s a really scenic road to drive!  Oh well.

Huanglong means “yellow dragon” and was named after the shape of the park.  It is long and narrow with elevations from 5,500 – 18,265 feet, although I think the walking path doesn’t go any higher than 11,000 feet.   We take the cable car up to a high altitude viewing platform where the views are nonexistent today.  From here it is basically a level walkway that connects to a walkway to the upper temple.  Then it is a short walk up to the upper colorful pools.   We take photos at the top colorful travertine mineral pools and small waterfalls that are much like Yellowstone.  The site feels crowded because everyone has to walk the same boardwalk.  We can’t help thinking about the enormous amount of work put into constructing the miles of boardwalks.  It seems that in China projects are constructed and created with lots of manual labor.   We pass a man who is carrying 100 kilos of drinks up to the snack bar at the top.  We couldn’t believe anyone could carry that much weight for any period of time and especially at this elevation and up stairs.  What our bodies are capable of is amazing.

We start our four-hour descent fully decked out in our rain jacket and rain pants.  My camera has its raincoat on as well.  Drum roll.  We duck into a covered pavilion and all of a sudden my big DSLR decides to take photos on its own, without me touching the shutter button!  I am calm, but distressed.  I put the camera in a plastic bag in my backpack and try to put it out of my mind.    

The walk down to the main gate is an almost 5 km walk over planked wood paths and steps. Believe me, it is much easier going down than up and if you want to fully enjoy all the areas of Huanglong, hope you get lucky with the weather, are okay with high elevations and allow ample time to truly enjoy the scenery (I’ve seen photos on the internet and the vistas look beautiful!).

By the time the car pulls into Jiuzhaigou both Harvey & I are out of sorts.  Between being totally soaked with rain, the elevation related headaches, Harvey has a back and stomach ache, and I’m upset about the loss of so many photo opportunities – we are only 1 week into a 3 week trip and my best camera has died.

Helen comes up with an idea of a Tibetan massage at a place called Dream Jiuzhai.    Harvey thinks it’s a good idea and looks forward to some back relief.  What a find!  What an experience!  For over 90 minutes we were both rubbed and dubbed.  I had a foot massage included.  That started with a soaking of my feet in really hot water made black with some secret ingredients.  We ended with a Tibetan cleansing back rub of yak butter and scrapping.  Our headaches were gone and we both felt relaxed again.  All for $25 per person, plus 30 RMB per person for the back rub of yak butter.   What a transformational experience.  We were both feeling better afterwards.  Thank goodness!  And we thank Helen for being sensitive to how we were feeling and caring enough to suggest this experience.    

Now relaxed again, Harvey tries to salvage the camera situation by using a hair dryer.   We determine that it isn’t turning on and Harvey remembers we have a super duper gold diamond three-year warranty.  We get on the internet and submit a repair request for when we get back home.  Slowly my distress has faded into resignation.  I’m not going to bore anyone with my self inflicted wounds of what I should have done to avoid this situation, but eventually I started thinking about what I could do with my iphone and a small point and shoot camera.  I talked to myself about the creative challenge of making the most of these cameras and how to turn this into an opportunity.  Fortunately my iphone had died about a month before the trip and I now had the iphone 4 with several apps recommended by friends. 

The Tibetan massage revived me so that I could put things in perspective and think creatively about the opportunities after my camera died.   Quite a day.   Who knows what the effects will be on my image making process.  I am on a new path.  We’ll see.

After our hotel check-in, we go to our room to settle in for the night.  As we get off the elevator and walk down the hall, we notice a tall muscular man in military uniform in front of one of the rooms.  He is standing at attention and observes us as we walk toward our door.  Later when we leave our room, there are two military men doing a changing of the guards routine.  A hotel manager is sitting near the elevator and we ask who is staying in the room and we learn it is the mayor of Beijing!   Our local city government officials get all sorts of perks, but I’m glad we don’t have to pay the bill for 24 hour military guards.

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