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Siguniangshan, Sichuan Province, China (中国四川省四姑娘山)
Photo Travel Guide

Introduction

Main photographic interest: landscape

Siguniang Mountain (Siguniangshan, Four Girl Mountain, 四姑娘山) is a scenic park located in Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and 220 km northwest of Chengdu (capital city of Sichuan Province). It is comprised of the mountain itself (its highest peak reaches 6250 meters above sea level) and three valleys surrounding it. Covered with snow and ice all year long, the mountain is also known as "The Alps of The East". In 1994 the park was given the status of a national scenic area by the State Department.



Transportation

Fly or take a train to Chengdu(成都)first. After that you will need to take a bus to Siguniangshan from Chadianzi Bus Station(茶店子汽车站). As of the time of writing (June 2005) all of the buses for the mountain leave between 6:30 and 8:00 a.m., which means that you will have to stay in Chengdu overnight. I found that the following schedule allowed me to fully utilize my time: get to Chengdu as early in the day as possible, check in to a hotel, go buy a bus ticket for the next morning and then spend the rest of the day photographing in the city.

When buying a bus ticket you should say that you would like to go to Siguniangshan(四姑娘山). Your ticket, however, will indicate that your destination is Xiaojin(小金), which is the terminus and not far from the mountain. Once on the bus, you need to tell the driver that you would like to get off in the town of Rilong(日隆镇), which is nearest to the valleys surrounding the mountain and will be your base while exploring them.

The bus ride from Chengdu to Rilong is between six and eight hours depending on the road and traffic conditions. Buses are reasonably clean, which is to say that they could probably be cleaner but I have certainly seen worse. A bigger problem that you are likely to encounter, however, is that the Chinese smoke on the bus (sometimes quite heavily). Also, there are no sickness bags and I once witnessed a woman vomiting on the bus (because of the curvy mountain road; this kind of development appears to be a more seldom occurrence, though). There will be one major stop to use the loo and buy water and food.

Transportation in and around Rilong, which you will need to get to Shuangqiao Valley(双桥沟)is provided by local cabbies and at the time of writing they charged RMB20 (one way). You will also need it to go to Maobiliang(猫鼻梁)to photograph Suguniangshan at sunset and/or sunrise (see below). I suggest using one cab during your stay to possibly avoid any slippages and unnecessary bargaining. If you carry a lot of photo and other gear, you might consider hiring a guide with a horse.

You should buy your return bus ticket one day in advance. The tickets are sold by locals (ask for specific location once in town) - you pay the money but instead of a ticket you are given a receipt. I have done this twice and it is perfectly fine - just show the receipt to the driver when you board the bus next morning.

Accommodation and where/what to eat

In Chengdu there are lots of options in terms of accommodation. I suggest having a look at one of the four Youth Hostels as they generally represent very good value for the money. In the town of Rilong choices are plentiful, too - they range from cheap guest houses (RMB10-20/night but conditions are quite strenuous, though) to four-star hotels. For about RMB120/standard double room you can stay in a relatively decent two-star hotel with hot water and air-conditioning. You might also consider calling the local contact (see below) and asking him to arrange accommodation for you in advance. Obviously, he is going to make some money on it but as far as you are concerned the price he can get you is going to be cheaper than walk-in rates you will get otherwise.

As far as food is concerned, it certainly is not going to be a major expense item in your travel budget in Rilong. The only viable option is to eat Chinese food at local restaurants - prices there run between five (vegetable dishes) and ten (meet dishes) RMB per dish. Quality of food does not seem to vary greatly between the restaurants and I preferred eating at the same place every day. This also saved me the hassle of having to bargain all over again in each new restaurant, which was something I certainly did not want to do after a long day of hiking in the mountains.

Photographic tactics

First of all, you will be passing Balang Mountain(巴郎山)on the way to the town of Rilong (roughly five hours after departure). Make sure you get a window seat (on the left side of the bus) and be prepared to shoot as you go.

You will arrive in Rilong in the afternoon. As one is very likely to feel a bit dizzy due to the altitude, I recommend spending the rest of the day acclimatizing, making arrangements for the next day and just checking out the town. You should be alright to start full-scale hiking and photographing on the second day.

Your prime interest shall be the three valleys - Changpinggou(长坪沟), Haizigou(海子沟)and Shuangqiaogou(双桥沟)(first two surround Siguniangshan). All of them look very differently and you would want to spend at least three full days in the mountains allowing one day to explore each of the three valleys. Shuangqiaogou has a concrete road and sometimes gets quite touristy and tedious. The other two valleys are accessible only by foot and horses and are much better in this respect.

Haizigou (entrance: RMB60)

Entrance to the valley is right in Rilong so you will not need to use local transportation. First you will hike to Guozhuangping(锅庄坪), which is roughly three kilometers into the valley and one of the best photographic locations in the valleys. This is likely to take between an hour (if you travel light and/or walk relatively fast) and an hour and a half (if you carry more than just one camera with a zoom lens and/or walk slower). I suggest setting out an hour and a half before sunrise, photographing Siguniangshan at sunrise (also see below) and then spending most of the day hiking and taking pictures in the valley. On the way back you might photograph Siguniangshan again - this time at sunset.

Changpinggou (entrance: RMB70 and RMB50 in off-season, Dec. 1 - March 30)

Entrance to the valley is only a couple of hundred meters from Rilong and, from there, an asphalt road runs for about five kilometers to a Lama Temple (nothing but ruins in actuality; I suggest using the bus service to get to the temple, which costs RMB40 and RMB20 in off-season, Dec. 1 - March 30, return). Only at this point you actually start hiking in the wilderness. There are several scenic spots and quite nice views (including that of Jianzi Mountain, 尖子山)along the track but, quite honestly, if you do go into the valley I strongly recommend aiming at getting to Muluozi(木骡子), which arguably is the only photographic location in the valley seriously worth going to. It is a very nice pasture in the mountains with a river and a view of Siguniangshan from a very different perspective. It is a 14 kilometer hike to Muluozi from the Lama Temple (one way) so if you set out at about 7 a.m. and aim at getting back to the temple some time before 6 p.m. to catch the last bus to Rilong, you should have enough time to photograph along the track and around two hours at Muluozi.

Shuangqiaogou (entrance: RMB80 and RMB50 in off-season, Dec. 1 - March 30)

Entrance to the valley is about 8km away from Rilong and you will need to hire a local cab to get there and back. Shuangqiaogou is 34.8km long and boasts five scenic spots spread along a concrete road which goes through the valley. Obviously, it is too far (and not interesting enough) to walk and bus service is provided in the valley by the management company. The service costs RMB80 (RMB60 in off-season) for a full day. Please note that I wrote bus service, which means that you do not have to take only one and the same bus. I recommend doing the following. Take a bus to the first scenic spot, get off and spend as much time photographing as you wish. Once you have finished start walking towards the second scenic spot and catch the first bus going in the same direction. Get off at the second spot, take your time taking pictures, start walking towards next scenic spot or wait for the next bus, and so on until you get to the fifth site. The bus service is run until 6 p.m. and you can catch one of the last buses back to the entrance of the valley. Ask your local cab driver to wait for you there around that time. I found that this tactics allowed me to concentrate on taking pictures while avoiding wasting time walking between scenic spots.

If time and finances allow you might consider camping in one (or all) of the valleys to fully explore photographic opportunities. For instance, you might think about spending a night at Muluozi. Staying overnight in Haizigou and photographing the lakes and the glacier in the valley might be a very promising prospect, too. If you intend to do this, however, you will need to be fully prepared equipment-wise and self-sufficient. I recommend discussing this with the local contact (see below).

Best time of the year to visit

The best time of the year to visit to photograph is said to be the end of June and July - that is when the weather is nice and flowers bloom. May and most of June is the rainy season and you probably will not find exploring the valleys in the rain too pleasant. Late October and early November is the time to photograph mountains in snow and surrounded by trees dressed in all possible shades of yellow and red. In winter, the mountains put on yet another look which is quite different from what you see in other seasons and certainly worth capturing.

Sunset and sunrise

There are two places to photograph sunrise and sunset - Guozhuangping(锅庄坪, about three kilometers into Haizigou Valley) and Maobilinang(猫鼻梁, a place at the main road which is about five kilometers away from Rilong in the direction of Balang Mountain). Both locations overview the mountain from the same angle but offer different perspectives and foregrounds. These two locations are best to photograph both sunrise and sunset.

Allow yourself an hour and a half to hike to Guozhuangping from Rilong. To get to Maobiliang, you will need to use a local cab. The usual arrangement is that a driver takes you there, waits while you photograph sunrise or sunset (on one occasion I was up there for an hour and a half) and then drives you back to Rilong (this should cost RMB20-30).

Local contact(s)

I recommend contacting Mr. He Sange(贺三哥)on (+86) 13618143017 or (+86) 13882497220 - he is a nice person and I found him very trustworthy. He runs a restaurant in Rilong and provides services related to a wide range of activities from hiking to mountaineering. (Please read Disclaimer here.)

UPDATE: Kenzo Okawa (see below) has advised that you can also get in touch with Sun and Moon Cottage in Rilong on 0837-2791389 if you need assistance with backpacking, hiking or mountaineering.

Photo and other gear recommendations

Weight is of great importance when hiking over twenty kilometers in a day so choose your equipment carefully. As most of the work is likely to be scenic slower but lighter lenses are probably preferable. I used a standard lens most of the time in spite of the fact that I had lenses with focal lengths effectively ranging from 17mm to 300mm (and I pretty much regretted lugging my 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom around). Tripod is a must. Make sure you have enough batteries for a full day (or two if you choose to camp in one of the valleys) of shooting; also be sure to have enough recording media (film or digital) for the whole trip. All your equipment should be carried in a weather-proof bag(s).

Issues to be aware of

  • You are very likely to be approached (read annoyed) by quite a few people making recommendations as to where and when to go as well as offering all sorts of services. I strongly recommend ignoring them (in a polite way, of course). Make your plans in advance and do not be distracted by all the offers. On the last day of my second trip to the mountain I met a Chinese couple who were so confused and irritated by local guides who kept approaching them that they preferred to trust my advice (and Chinese do not turn to foreigners for advices often, especially in their own land!). They even came to see me again later in the day to make further enquiries. If you do need any of the local services, I suggest talking to the local contact mentioned above first.

  • Although during the summer it is possible to buy water and some basic food (e.g., instant noodles and biscuits) in Shuangqiaogou and Changpinggou, you will have to be fully self-dependent when traveling along all of the valleys most of the times.

  • Make sure you do not loose entrance and bus tickets until you leave a valley or stop using bus services.

  • Be sure to have proper mountaineering water-proof boots as, otherwise, hiking might prove quite difficult.

  • Whereas in summer you can probably get away with usual sports wear, in autumn, winter and spring you will have to have proper mountaineering equipment and be fully self-efficient.

  • Quite often the weather changes rather rapidly and unpredictably - I advise being fully prepared for the rain (or snow for that matter) at all times. When the sun is or comes out, though, do not forget to use an UV protection lotion.

Other notes

  • Internet is available in Rilong in the bar which is just above He Sange's restaurant.

  • Do you need a guide to hike in the valleys? Quite honestly, in most cases no. All tracks are pretty straightforward and it is rather difficult to go astray (in Changpinggou there are red marks on the trees all along the pathway). You might want to hire a guide, though, if you need to use a horse to carry your equipment or do not feel entirely comfortable staying alone overnight in one of the valleys.

  • There is a small Kodak shop in Rilong and, believe it or not, they even sell Kodak 120 transparencies - and at reasonable prices!

  • A Japanese photographer Kenzo Okawa (more info here) spent about ten (!) years photographing in the mountains. I was told that he even had a stone shack built in one of the valleys to serve him as a photographic base. In 2002 Mr. Okawa published a photo collection which can be bought in Rilong for RMB80 - I recommend at least having a look at it at the above-mentioned bar.