Thursday, January 19, 2012

Jiu Zhai Gou

Dear me, it's been nearly a week since we got back and I put up this pic as a preview of the review I planned to write about our trip. I should be on to other things by now. Instead I will just say that this week has been a very very good one and for all the time I could have been sitting and writing or uploading pictures, I am glad I was present elsewhere, even if it was merely talking with my Man or finishing a chapter of Pollyanna to the kids (she sure had that glad game down, she did).

This trip we took to the Min Shan mountains of Sichuan at a stunning and increasingly well known place called Jiu Zhai Gou, was every bit the winter wonderland retreat I was expecting it to be, with a few little hiccups and standard traveling-in-China mishaps.

I had hired a driver with his car to transport the kids and I on the 8 hour drive to the valley, with the plan to meet the Man there where he had been attending a conference for three days. I wasn't too nervous about the drive on my own with the three little ones and thought in passing that this strange calmness seemed somewhat uncharacteristic of me. Well, I certainly had no idea what was in store.

Forty five minutes into our drive, our poor middle guy unleashed all of his breakfast and dinner from the night before into his lap, my hands, and nearly all his half of the backseat. The driver was extremely magnanimous, and the other two children became half-angel for the remainder of the trip, which was almost entirely filled with a sick little boy dry heaving in the front seat. Yes, I considered turning around-- but not until the point when it would have taken us longer to return than to keep going. It was not an easy day, but somehow we made it through without losing our sanity or our spirits.

After a restful evening in a hotel bed, lots of water and some juice, the little man recovered nicely and was ready to dive into snow drifts and snowball fights the next day. We discovered our room did not come with breakfast as we had expected, and as you soon discover when you head to remote places in China (as in, any city with less than 10 million people), the food options for westerners and especially their children are very limited. We were also housed in a small mountain tourist village, that was entirely closed down for the season. Our breakfast came from a small corner grocery (imagine an unheated storage garage with utility shelves and a few plastic crates of apples) and consisted of crackers, imitation hostess cakes without the cream filling, and apples.

The park itself did not disappoint however. Breathtaking heights of snow-covered peaks, their harsh rocky pinnacles thrusting themselves into a pristine blue sky. The valleys were blanketed with tall, stately pines laced with piles of white that glistened in the sunlight (sunlight!!) and sent such a muted quiet over the landscape that you could hear the snowdrifts falling off heavy boughs, and the crunch underneath your feet, and sometimes the thoughts of the person next to you. I stood there, watching my kids melt snow down each others necks and peg their dad with balls formed in their increasingly frigid fingers, and imagined all our friends sunning themselves on the beaches in Thailand, and did not envy them one bit. I love the mountains, always have, and always will and even if my lifestyle and situation has changed and I can't explore them on a pair of skis, or hike them on the weekends, I will soak up their every gift without remorse. 

Gazing at aquamarine waters and frozen waterfalls, Tibetan villages and prayer wheels nestled in the banks of the cold, clear river, is not always easy for children. They were troopers for the most part, but the misshappen bus schedule that left us stranded high in the park one day and required a several kilometer hike along the road with cold hands and wet feet was a trying moment for everyone. It was nothing that hot chocolate packs and the reward of a hotel pool (even if it was barely tepid temperatures) couldn't fix however, and for me, even these small inconveniences, along with losing a cell phone and the unpleasant breakfast situation, couldn't outdo the goodness this beautiful place was doing for our nature-sore eyes.

One of the best surprises and provisions of the trip was a local Tibetan restaurant recommended by a contact at the hotel. At first the doors were locked, and I was nearly ready to wring the taxi drivers neck thinking he had dropped us off in the wrong spot, but we soon found the lights were on and we merely had to knock on the door (our cell phone, with the owners number on it, had been lost). The atmosphere was absolutely charming and delightful with a large woodburning stove in the center where you gather to drink hot barley tea and warm your fingers and toes. The food was outstanding and some of the best we have had here to date. The children, even the picky ones, all found several things to love and devour, and no one was disappointed when we returned for a second round the following night.

After the debacle of a road trip that got us to the Park, we decided to change plans and fly everyone home, even though the cost made us dig deeper than we had originally planned. Overall, we were still grateful for the option and arrived home intact, with everyone healthy and happy and with another long, many-legged trip under their belts. I was proud of our little guys and the way they have learned to be flexible with food and travel, accomodations and circumstances, even more-so than their parents sometimes, though I was reminded that often their reactions are grounded in those they see in us.

Back home in the gray, damp, cold weather of the city I am still living a little off of the respite of those beauty-filled days. I am seeing the goodness in our choice to stay in country for this long break though. It has been good for our family, for our marriage, for our rest and need to regroup and gather ourselves for the next few months ahead.

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