Howard Johnson Tianyuan Resort in Rural China

This isn’t some highway motel like you remember from road trips with your grandparents. Howard Johnson Tianyuan Resort Jiuzhaigou has the same logo typography as the HoJos over its 90 year history, but nothing else will look familiar.

This is a luxury hotel — not quite five-star, but definitely in the four-star range. The soaring atrium lobby is nothing short of spectacular with gilt and polished marble in profusion. Full-grown trees flourish year-round under a high glass roof. Original artwork lines the halls.

The guestrooms are plush. Mine had a fireplace (gas rather than wood-burning) in a sitting area a couple of steps down from the room. A large bathtub, separate shower and lots of counter space marked the bathroom (of course there was a separate compartment for the toilet). There’s free WiFi in guest rooms and a buffet breakfast is included in the room price.

Howard Johnson Tianyuan Resort, Szechuan, ChinaThere’s also a fitness center, workout room, swimming pool and lots of free parking. Not that I drove by myself to Zhangzha in the Aba Autonomous Prefecture of Jiuzhaigou County, China. We’re talking rural Szechuan, north of Chengdu — almost to the border with Gansu Province. I was on a tour bus, and we rode for hours to get there — at least eight and probably nine from Chengdu.

Why make the drive? The breathtaking scenic beauty draws busloads of tourists from across China and indeed from around the world (we were there in autumn, and the fall foliage was amazing). Hiking through the valleys and up the mountains, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the most populous country in the world. Jiuzhai Valley was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 — it’s a national park located in the Min Shan mountain range.

The hiking also explained the rhythm of the place. After breakfast, the hotel becomes a ghost town. None of the eateries or shops are open, the lights are either dimmed or turned off, and staff disappears. That’s because all the guests have headed out for their eco excursions.Szechuan, China

I was a bit under the weather, so I waved goodbye to my companions for the day, and spent it in solitude. I napped a bit and explored the town, which is spread out along the main road. The shops and restaurants were deserted — there was not one other Westerner in sight. In fact, the only locals were playing cards in front of one of the storefronts.

The town is in a narrow valley with a small stream; shops, hotels and restaurants line the main drag. Along the water, there’s a park with several shrines and many Buddhist prayer flags, reminding me that the valley also is the location of nine historic villages of ethnic Tibetans.

The town’s tempo picks up again after 5 p.m. when everyone returns, ready to take in the cultural show at the theater complex adjacent to the resort. This isn’t a locally produced folk dance show, but an elaborate production with costumes, lighting and staging worthy of Broadway. After the performance, visitors are funneled through a maze of small shops selling most everything a tourist could desire.

Bhuddhist prayer flags in Szechuan, ChinaYou can rent a car in Changdu and drive yourself to Zhangzha, or book a seat on one of the tour buses. Making reservations at the Howard Johnson’s can be done on their website or via one of the services such as agoda.com, Travelocity or Hotels.com.

I realize that Howard Johnson is a global hotel brand founded almost 90 years ago, but I didn’t know until I checked in here that they’ve been in China since 1999. There are 56 HoJos in 38 cities of China — and, yes, the web address is HoJoChina.com.

Here’s one of the pieces of art on display in the lobby.Howard Johnson Tianyuan Resort, China

(Photos by Susan McKee, who visited Szechuan, China, as part of a tour group)

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