Since the day I moved to Yibin, people kept telling me how spectacular the Bamboo Sea is during the summer. After spending my first summer constantly wiping my forehead and checking for pit stains (or back sweat, or stomach sweat) by the start of my second summer I couldn’t wait to check out the whimsically named Bamboo Sea. Who better to see it with than my Mom? It was her first trip to China and I really wanted to show her the best parts of China so she’d fall in love with it as much as I had. And, she hates hot weather as much as I do. Perfect.
After my first trip, I was hooked. It was a place that I would return to and happily show guests. I really can’t recommend it enough for anyone looking to experience a little slice of heaven. Seriously. While it is cooler in the summer than the rest of Sichuan, my favorite time to go is winter. In late December my friends and I spent nearly the entire day hiking from point to point and rarely saw any other travelers. It’s so special to have time to yourself, without crowds, at any outdoor park in China and I loved every minute of it.
Note on hiking: For those who have never gone “hiking” in China, you’ll be surprised to see that paths are almost always paved, inclines have cement stairs, and there are snack and souvenir vendors along the way. The Bamboo Sea is no exception, but in the winter most vendors don’t bother setting up shop. Hiking as most Western tourists know it only exists in certain places in China such as Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the target audience is foreigners and few Chinese travel.
What to See:
Honestly, anywhere you go in the park is beautiful. Two of the highlights for me were the cable cars. One cable car brings you up a mountain, where you’ll have incredible views of the park and stunning waterfalls along the way. If you have a driver, he can drop you off at the bottom and meet you at the top to avoid having to make the round-trip. At the top there’s a variety of temples, a tower, several restaurants, and other sights. It’s much better than it sounds.
The second cable car is a bit more difficult to get to (there isn’t signage) but the views are equally spectacular. Take this car across the gorge to visit a Buddhist temple carved into the cliff side. The ride is shorter, and it leads to a passageway carved into the rock face. It’s definitely worth the effort to find this cable car. Keep following the path along the cliff for even more elaborate carvings of ancient Chinese battle techniques.
Don’t miss the large lake. After a short walk through you woods, you’ll emerge into a dreamlike world where you’ll need to cross the lake on a bamboo raft to continue hiking to a long-forgotten fort. Don’t want to continue? Stop at the ancient tea house and sample the local green tea or, if you prefer, you can rent a small boat and paddle to a huge white nymph floating in the water. Too beautiful to be real? Possibly.
The Bamboo Sea has become one of my favorite places in China, and it was super easy to get to from my home. However, for most travelers coming from Chengdu, it’s a bit more complicated. It first requires a bus ride to Yibin 宜宾 (avoid the train as it’s much longer) and then a second bus to the park. The bus from Chengdu will arrive at the Gao Ke Zhan bus station and you’ll have to take a taxi or public bus #4 across town to the Nan An Ke Zhan (South Bus Station) to board a bus to the Bamboo Sea. There are limited daily buses direct to the park from the Xin Nan Men tourist bus station in Chengdu as well. These don’t take you the entire way though and you’ll need to take a taxi to the entrance. Another option is to first visit the giant Buddha in Leshan 乐山 and spend the night there, then take a bus to Yibin. Leshan and Yibin are well connected with buses and you can cut down on travel time if you plan on visiting both.
Keep in mind that the park is huge and has a ring road going around it, with smaller roads leading off to scenic spots like waterfalls, temples, lakes and cliffs. So, if you take the bus or taxi and get dropped at the gate you’ll spend the better part of the day simply walking the main loop. Sadly, there isn’t a shuttle bus in the park, though friendly locals living in the park might offer you a ride. The road is shaded in spots and has lots of nice bamboo, but you’ll be missing the essence of park and will have to dodge cars full of tourists as they drive from sight to sight. A better option would be either hiring a car with a driver for the day as I did, or bringing a bike to make the distance easier to handle. Taxis, both metered and non, line up outside the bus stations in Yibin. Make sure they know that you’d like them to stay with you during the day and take you from point to point.
Another option, and one that I had wanted to try, was to spend the night at a guest house in the park. Once you pay for a ticket into the park (around 100-120 yen depending on the day and season) your ticket is valid until you leave. In fact, some older folks spend a good part of the summer in the park to avoid the horrible Sichuan heat. You can book in advance, or simply stop at one of the restaurants that double as hotels and have lunch. If the place looks decent, ask if they rent rooms. I was offered a room for 100 yen a night and the owner told me that they had foreigners stay once, several years before. This is important since many places in this part of China don’t accept foreign guests. Always make sure to ask, especially if a native Chinese speaker is helping you make reservations.
Tips for a Great Trip:
- Bring mosquito spray and a bug net if you plan on spending the night. At night it can get cold, even in the summer. Accommodations around here won’t have heat, so pack a light jacket at the least. Bring cash for all your expenses.
- The park’s official name is Shunan Zhuhai National Park or 蜀南竹海国家公, but locally it’s just the Bamboo Sea (Zhuhai). Avoid calling it the Bamboo Forest as there’s another major attraction outside of Yibin called the Stone Forest.
- Be patient. Life in Yibin is lived at slower pace that what you’re probably used to. Buses may not arrive on time and stores and restaurants will probably close by 8pm.
- Yibin is known for having its own dialect of Mandarin. Speakers of pure Putonghua might have a hard time communicating. If you don’t speak Chinese, just smile and have fun! The locals will love you if you laugh.
- Smile. You are the tourist attraction here.