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Go native -- Tibetan style -- in Jiuzhaigou
Resorts are great for getting away, but when you want to get into the local culture, a home stay in China with a family is an experience all its own
When traveling to Nanjing earlier this year, I met a young man from Sichuan province who told me that if I ever found my way to central China, I should visit the most beautiful place in the country, Jiuzhaigou.
When trekking plans to Tibet fell through, Jiuzhaigou, home of a pristine national park chock full of alpine lakes and waterfalls located in northwest Sichuan province, seemed like a worthy alternative.
Many tours equipped with flag bearing guides depart from Chengdu by bus (11 hours) or plane (one hour) and after the trip, return to the originating city. I wasn't interested in the flag, the tour guide or returning to a city that I had already visited, so I began searching for an alternative route.
A Tibetan experience minus the permit
While in Chengdu, I was tipped off by a local magazine about a home stay with a Tibetan family in Jiuzhaigou. The contact was an Irish man who relocated to the UNSECO world heritage site to promote tourism while preserving the local Tibetan culture.
He told me about two brothers, Zhuo Ma and Ke Zhu, who recently opened their home to guests and provided dinner and breakfast.
As the only family offering home stays in this area, both brothers speak their native Tibetan language as well as fluent Mandarin. Since my Chinese vocabulary had recently surpassed survival level, he said that communicating with the guys wouldn’t be a problem.
His mother emerged in full Tibetan garb including a long black skirt trimmed with a wide band of red and green at the bottom that was fastened by a bright colored belt. This is when I realized that the home stay was the right decision.— Dara DiGerolamo
A few days later, I found myself on an airplane maneuvering around mountain peaks and splicing through thick fog before landing at the small Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport.
Jiuzhaigou, which means Nine Village Valley in English, is a two-hour drive from the airport. I found the most affordable option when traveling solo is the airport shuttle bus (RMB 45 one-way). The only drawback to this form of transportation is you have wait until at least five passengers board the shuttle. In the 45-minute lapse before the others arrived, with the help of my electronic translator, I chatted with the driver of my shuttle and two other drivers taking a break.
When we set off from the airport, the vehicle spiraled its way up and down tree covered mountains draped with waterfalls. Prayer flags sporadically wound up the side of hills and fields of grazing yaks dominated the terrain. The landscape in Jiuzhaigou made for the perfect romantic weekend getaway. I now understood why everyone else in the car was coupled off.
My Tibetan home (stay)
After passing hotels and facades of resorts, the main road came to a cross where a smiling Zhou Ma waited for me in his small grey car. We turned off the main juncture and onto a small rocky road lined with Tibetan style homes and high standing prayer flags. Ten minutes of small talk passed then I arrived at Zhou Ma’s home.
His mother emerged in full Tibetan garb including a fluffy red and white hat, a long sleeved white blouse that necklaces and small braids cascaded over, and a long black skirt trimmed with a wide band of red and green at the bottom fastened by a bright colored belt. This is when I realized the home stay was the right decision.
I found myself in a dimly lit space acting as living room, dining room and kitchen. The light source came from a wood-burning stove, a neon bulb dangling from an extension cord and the glow from a small TV in the corner of the room.
Zhou Ma offered me “milk tea” (nai cha). The soup-like beverage was the first of many things I would consume in Jiuzhaigou containing some part of yak.
No showers. No toilet. No sink. A large bowl of warm water heated by the wood-burning stove was brought outside to use for freshening up before getting to bed. I was shown a toilet that consisted of a rectangle hole with a 4-foot drop off to the ground cut in the center of a small boarded up area adjacent to the house. Not what I'm used to.
Far from a deal breaker but after two days of no shower, myself, and probably those around me, began to feel the wrath.
Yak as a food group
After a day at the Jiuzhai Valley National Park, Zhou Ma drove us to Abuluzi, the Tibetan restaurant of his younger brother, Ke Zhu. There we were served local specialties such as buttered tea made from tea leaves and yak butter, sauteed pepper, onion and yak meat served on a skillet, mashed potatoes in a tasty red sauce, and cold yak meat with a side of dry red pepper and salt for dipping. Sensing a trend here?
The food was authentic and delicious.
In a room with a cord strung around all four walls, the family’s clothes hung as if in a closet. Two queen-sized beds lay low to the ground and a pull at a string near the door turned the room’s single light on and off. I cleared a path before turning the room into darkness, carefully stepped toward the bed, tucked myself in, took a deep breath and lay back on the hay filled pillow. I was in Jiuzhaigou, exactly where I wanted to be.
Zhuo Ma: +86 135 6878 3012
Ke Zhu: +86 139 9042 1118
RMB 180 a night includes, breakfast, dinner and transport to parks (if a group stays longer than one night, the price can be negotiated). Additional activities: cooking classes (RMB 125 per person), hiking and horseback riding
Eat and drink
Abuluzi Tibetan Restaurant and Bar
Bian Bian Jie 2-3/F, Zhang Zha District, Jiuzhaigou
+86 189 9041 1028