A month or so back during the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, Dan and I slammed our weary laptops shut and got our moldy butts out of Chengdu into a bus barreling towards Yibin, a town saddled on the Min and Yangtze Rivers in southeastern Sichuan. Our destination? The steamy green sea of China’s oldest bamboo forest.
Our journey took all day: we bussed from Chengdu to Yibin, where an initially reluctant but friendly driver arranged by our hotel picked us up. Weaving through Yibin and Changning, we picked up and dropped off a few more passengers as we ventured south. It was dark out when I smelled the wet, clean air of trees, the river, and the bamboo-leaf covered soil of south China. I stuck my head out of the car at one point, when we seemed to be lost in the deepness of the dark; the twists and turns and sudden shine of our headlights in the thick of bamboo disoriented me, and I looked up and saw a river of stars above me, framed by the silhouette of bamboo. Weary after 5 hours on a sweaty bus and throwing our fate into the hands of our tired driver, we fell asleep to the dead quiet of a hotel settled deep in Shu’nan.
Our room didn’t have any windows (we had snagged the bargain room for Xiaoyao Valley Hotel on Ctrip before the rush of other Chinese families and couples looking for their own getaway) so we didn’t know what to expect, but when we awoke, the sun was boasting among blue skies, made bluer by the vivid green of bamboo. Since the area isn’t technically a national park (yet), the park’ is named a “scenic area”– businesses, restaurants, and hotels who had the foresight settled in the park to take advantage of travelers looking for a convenient and pretty affordable way to visit and absorb as much bamboo as possible.
We hired a driver for the day– a man with not a lot of teeth (the ones left in his mouth were orange from smoke) a thick Sichuan accent gutted each word, and with an unceremonious mumble, we set off.
The cablecar ride over the valley gave us a breathtaking scope of why they call it a ‘zhuhai’– ‘zhu’ is bamboo, ‘hai’ is sea. The bamboo almost looked like feathers, the delicate ends bending with the wind, tickling the air. If you relaxed your eyes even further, you started noticing the delicate ebb and flow of the bamboo– very psychedelic.
Upon more research, we discovered that this is an area in China that receives the least amount of sunlight: the bamboo breathes clouds into the air, so by the time we started our journey around 11AM, the sun receded behind the haze and fog of the forest.
We visited Longyin Temple. I liked how it wasn’t as well-maintained; it seemed much of the temple campus was abandoned, and the look of peeling paint and weeds bursting through the cement grounds was more exciting to explore than the usual tidiness of usual temples and monasteries.
My favorite experience at Shu’nan was a surprise: Tianbao Village is carved into the cliffside, and winds along the mountain above the zhuhai. Breathtaking views for miles, the caves and carvings offered a cool respite from the humidity of the haze.
Travel tips for Shunan Bamboo Park:
+ Don’t leave your ticket in your hotel room! At certain sights, you need it to ‘enter’ a site. It also has the best map for the sights in the actual park, so don’t lose it!
+ Find a hotel in the actual park to cut down on commute time — it takes awhile to get to the actual park gate from the edge of the bamboo forest.
+ Bring cash, cash, cash. There’s plenty of bamboo and other treats to eat, but WeChat, Alipay, or credit cards won’t help much.
Hiring a driver for a day is cheap and definitely worth your while (200RMB): the park is really big. To take full advantage of a day, plan the itinerary for maximum efficiency– weaving and turning amongst the roads across the park is dizzying and will get you carsick. It’s worth taking a look at the map on your ticket (it’s a bit difficult to find more information on the features in the park online), and doing a bit of research and planning to make the most out of the time and driver.
Take advantage of your hotel manager’s local connections— if you do end up in Yibin before arriving, they’ll be able to help you find the cheapest and most convenient way in (especially if you get there later at night– we arrived around 11:30PM).
If you’re coming from Chengdu, there *are* direct busses from Chengdu to Changning, the smaller town right outside the bamboo forest. From Changning, you can find a bus that costs only 25RMB to ride into most of the hotels/B&Bs in the park.
We stayed for two nights, spending a full day in the park. We got through most of the sights we wanted to see, and had time to return relatively early for a full dinner (that said, the humidity can be exhausting– so a full two days would probably be what I would recommend). Plan ahead and a day at the very least should be very satisfying.
Last but not least, we really wish we had brought our french press and coffee beans. Since hotels have hot water kettles, it would have been a welcome luxury if we had perked up faster in the morning, and the coffee will get you through the heat exhaustion when it gets really humid.
I would highly recommend this visit: while most well-known attractions in China are usually crowded and as busy as Times Square, this park was nice in that you *could* find yourself alone and in the quiet. A very welcome change and a rarity, especially in China.
Budget breakdown for two people:
Bus to Yibin: 130RMB X 2
Driver from Yibin to Changning to the hotel in the park: 150RMB
XIaoyao Valley Hotel for two nights (booked on CTrip): 476 RMB
Driver for a day: 200 RMB
Bus back to Yibin: 25 RMB X 2
Bus from Yibin back to Chengdu: 110RMB X2
Treats and Eats for all three days: ~ 200RMB X 2
Ticket into the Shunan Park: 110RMB