A few years ago while I was surfing the net I stumbled upon the picture of an idyllic natural place: it showed an intense blue-green lake, a lush forest and a cloudy leaden sky. The water was so clear that you could see an intricate net of trunks just beneath the surface. The thick forest seemed to grow directly from the lake into many shades of green. I was so struck by that fairytale place that I immediately added it to my travel bucketlist, dreaming to be there soon and for real. That place is Jiuzhaigou.
The valley of Jiuzhai (Jiŭzhàigōu 九寨沟, literally “valley of the nine villages”: the Tibetan villages located in the region) is a natural reserve in the Chinese province of Sichuan.
Jiuzhaigou’s magical landscape is composed by carsic peaks, karsts, waterfalls and lakes. The blue, green and turquoise lakes are just the most famous feature of this valley: most of them have a high concentration of calcium carbonate, and that makes the water so clear that you can see the bottom of the lakes even at high depths. A legend tells that God Dage fell desperately in love with Goddess Wuno Semo and gave her a mirror made of wind and clouds as a gift. But one day the mirror was dropped by a demon jealous of their love and broke into 118 pieces: they transformed into the colourful lakes of Jiuzhaigou.
There are many shuttle buses that will take you from one main point to another, but you can (and also should) walk anywhere along the valley.
My friend Fan Liying and I got up very early to avoid the crowd of tourists and entered the park while it was still dawning. We followed the wooden path through the forest and along the river Zécháwā. I remember the silence and stillness of the tall trees, the chill air of early morning.
After a while we reached a buddhist temple, a beautiful white and golden building surrounded by dark forests.
Walking further along the valley, the landscape changed and opened into a slightly swampy grassland with an intense green meadow.
At some point we arrived at the main bus stop, where a Y-shaped intersection divides the park into two itineraries: the western path is way richer in attractions, so we started from the eastern path taking a shuttle bus up to the end of it. Going downhill from its highest point, we found the following sites: the Long Lake, the Five-Color Pond and the Seasonal Lakes.
The Five-Color Pond is one of the smallest but most spectacular bodies of water in Jiuzhaigou lakes. Despite its very modest dimensions and depth, it has some of the brightest and clearest waters in the area.
We got back to the intersection bus stop to walk up the western itinerary and enjoy its natural beauties: Nuorilang Falls, Nuorilang Lake, Mirror Lake, Five Flower Lake, Panda Lake, Arrow Bamboo Lake, Grass Lake, Swan Lake and the Primeval Forest. All the lakes are very close along the same travelling line, but you can also take a bus to the Primeval Forest and then hike down from there. The whole scenery displays nature at her best, a world of crystal clear waters and rich greenery which is absolutely amazing.
In 1992 Jiuzhaigou was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site and is today a very touristic place. In my pictures the landscape is quiet and heavenly, but I won’t lie to you: there will always be a crowd of people visiting Jiuzhaigou, in any time of the year. Be patient and try to enjoy this wonderful place, afterall you are a “tourist” too.
I visited Jiuzhaigou during the summer, but I guess in autumn the colours of this valley must be even more extraordinary. If you’re willing to challenge the winter polar temperatures, the iced waterfalls and lakes will reward you with an enchanted landscape covered in snow.
A few years ago Jiuzhaigou started an eco-tourism programme which allows a small number of people to go hiking and camping in the valley off the beaten track. Travellers willing to take this opportunity should contact the visitor centre a few months before the visit of the park.
How to get there
The visit to Jiuzhaigou may seem to you a little expensive compared to many other attractions in China, but this beautiful place is total must-see (no wonder it has sistership with Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia and the Yosemite and Yellowstone Parks in the USA).
There are long-distance buses departing from Chengdu and also flights from Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai (so I heard). There are no trains. When I was in Chengdu all the options to reach Jiuzhaigou were fully booked (or crazily expensive) so my friend Liying managed to rent a private driver with two other people. However, I would suggest you to do this only if you are with a Chinese friend.
Of course it’s better to arrive the day prior to your visit and spend the night there, but you cannot camp inside the park. There are only a few Tibetan-style houses equipped with modern facilities in the valley but they are usually full. Outside the park there’s a range of accommodation, including hostels, 1-, 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-star hotels, it’s up to you.
For further information visit the official website of Jiuzhaigou.