Dujiangyan Day 1: Climb Every Small Mountain

This weekend I am on vacation. It’s a long weekend for the school – it’s Tomb Sweeping Day, the equivalent of Memorial Day back in the States.

I am currently in Dujiangyan, a “small” town about an hour from Chengdu. I made this decision based almost entirely on a posting on the Chengdu Living forums. A Frenchman had an apartment he and a friend rented out during the off season, and based on his photos I decided that is where I’d go. As of right now I am quite content with the place – the landlord Mr. Zhou (who I refer to as Mr. Joe), had food and snacks ready on the table, the wifi password on a whiteboard, and the two bikes I asked for set up in the dining room.

Today I went to the Dujiangyan scenic spot – home to a historically significant irrigation system and a collection of mountainside temples. It is a UNESCO heritage site in addition to being a National Cultural Heritage Site in China. This is how the ticket describes the significance:

“Dujiangyan Irrigation System, built in 256 B.C., located in the west of Chengdu Plain, is the oldest ecological engineering in the world. By taking advantage of the special landforms, it functions without dam, integrating irrigation, water distribution, flood and sand discharge into a whole, and gives full play to comprehensive benefits, such as flood prevention, irrigation, and water transport. The irrigation system lasts for over 2,250 years and irrigates 668,700 hectare farmlands.”


The site is sort of everything I want – there are temples up in the heights of the mountain, and the base level is all bonsai gardens and really gorgeous landscaping. It’s green and blooming and no longer raining. I do get suckered into a photo with a giant goat, from the Chinese cartoon “Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf” which winds up costing me 10rmb. Turns out the Pleasant Goat is deaf/disabled, and all “voluntary” photos cost 10 – never mind that the stupid goat grabbed my hands and posed me. I thought it was a game. I bet Goat is not even handicapped…

Anyway, I decide I want to go to the building at the highest point on the mountain – Yulei Pavilion. To get there, Vega and I must climb. This starts out great – temples everywhere! Incense and candles and statues of men beating up tigers! But at some point – maybe around halfway up the mountain – it hits me that I never really stretched at all. That my arch is starting to hurt and I’m getting a little winded with the sharp incline. Then it hits me that I haven’t actually been exercising since I got here. I’ve been eating a lot, teaching, and playing video games, but not exercising. By the time we reach the ancient ramparts and I see it’s nothing but stairs straight up, I’m questioning my gung-ho attitude.


I count stairs in Chinese – each set. Yi, er, san, si, wu, liu…Vega teases me when I can’t remember a number, but he’s winded too. I sometimes forget youth doesn’t mean invincibility – this boy plays a LOT of Minecraft after all. I’m sweating a little – I can feel it when I adjust my backpack. But damn it – I am getting to the top of the mountain! It’s a matter of pride, of completion of goals. I want to visit Tibet, after all – how will I survive there if I can’t handle this little mountain? Don’t look up, just take it step by step…or do look up, because it’s really pretty.

Just before we hit the last 100 stairs or so, there’s a ticket booth and some commotion. It’s another 40rmb to visit the Pavilion. I think that’s a little steep, pun intended. Have I not just climbed up ancient ramparts to see this place? Am I not hundreds if not thousands of feet above the ground? Vega is angry at the extra charge as well, but he is more upset that the money is…the way he describes it, it sounds like the money goes to the town government, not to the upkeep of the site. He thinks it’s a poor practice, but he also doesn’t want me to leave him behind as I ascend. I find this funny. He won’t let me sit still to draw statues or read descriptions (after ten seconds, he chirps “Ok, let’s go!”), but he doesn’t want me to leave him while I go stare at the scenery.

The view is worth it. 830 meters (that’s about 2500 feet) above sea level, and another 70 feet to the top of the pavilion. Across the river are the Misty Mountains (or mountains with a lot of mist around them – don’t disrupt my imagination!). The air is clear, there aren’t too many people. And yet, just on the other side of the river, Dujiangyan stretches out as a large expanse of dirty white buildings, and modest skyscrapers. It’s huge and industrial looking, and nothing like the small, antique places just below me.

It’s a discrepancy I see a lot of in my limited travels in this country. In Chengdu, there are ancient sites brushing against modern buildings. I can see the struggle between trying to preserve and trying to maintain. My books say that when Chengdu built its impressive three ring expressway around the heart of the city, it did so by tearing down all the buildings in its path, regardless of age. And here, at the top of Yulei Pavilion, I can see it again. The vista on one side is condensed buildings stretching to the horizon, and on the other is the river, residential living, and the mountains. Perhaps the reason that this particular spot – the Irrigation/Scenic spot – has maintained such a pleasant calm and age about it is because it is protected.

The mountain hides the reality of the "small" town of Dujiangyan
The mountain hides the reality of the “small” town of Dujiangyan

Of course, we find out when we start our descent that our ticket – the 40rmb extra – gets us a ride on the escalator. The what, now? Yes, there is a hidden escalator going down the steepest part of the mountainside. I can’t be chagrined, however – I have conquered a mini-mountain, after all. And sure, my feet hurt and my calves hurt and my neck hurts and I’ll regret my enthusiasm come tomorrow, but I did what I set out to do.
Not even the Pleasant Goat can take away my sense of satisfaction.

Other things of note:

  •  I had some delicious hard-boiled quail eggs on a skewer, as well as a sweet potato
  •  I saw live dinners – chickens, rabbits, pheasant, frogs, snails, clams, fish, and crayfish – all in cages, looking worried (except for the clams. They were pretty stoic.)
  • I found a Chinese embroidery store – maybe I will pick up a new pattern while I’m here
  •  Vega offered to punch the next person who stared at me. I told him that he should wait until I was actually offended. He also asked if people would stare at him in America. I said no, and he was relieved. He doesn’t understand that strangers don’t tell each other I’m in the city, so they all see me as something new. I have to remember he’s not even in college yet, and as a teenager he’ll probably be prone to more emotional responses.


Quail eggs - delicious!
Quail eggs – delicious!

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