Jiuzhaigou National Park is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. And I almost did not go there. After looking at pictures of the place when deciding on whether or not I should go there, I thought the scenery was nice, but not amazing, and I dreaded the nine hour bus ride from Chengdu. For some reason, I still see kind of China as a third-world place with horrible roads, uncomfortable buses, and unreliable services. Nonetheless, nearly all experiences so far have told me otherwise, from the modern cityscapes to the efficient (albeit busy) transportation services. The nine hour bus ride from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou was certainly not the most enjoyable experience of my life, but it was overall, pretty comfortable, and, more importantly, most definitely worth it.
Shortly after getting out of busy and flat Chengdu, the landscape started to drastically change. We started going through numerous tunnels and roads hugging the sides of mountains. On the way, there were several signs of the damage of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, which killed nearly 90000 people, including rock slides, destroyed cars, and on the other side of the river, the original road between Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou, much of it broken up and covered in rocks.
The landscape certainly felt hostile, but it made up for it in beauty. The relatively painless and comfortable nine hour ride there would be a prelude to the wonders of Jiuzhaigou itself.
Jiuzhaigou, meaning “Nine Village Valley”, is home to the regions nine Tibetan villages. Local legend says that a jealous devil caused a goddess to drop her magic mirror, which was a present from her lover. The mirror dropped to the ground and shattered into the shimmering lakes that are now the main draw of Jiuzhaigou National Park. A charming story for sure, but after seeing the lakes themselves, it is not hard to imagine that they are created from another world.
After an expensive entrance fee, approaching the equivalent of $50 per person for just one day, even with a student discount, we took a bus ride for an hour or so to the very top of the western valley, called Rize Valley. Along the way, we started to get glimpses of the turquoise water in the morning sun. We started with a short walk in the Primeval Forest, which was pleasant, but certainly not the main draw of the park.
We continued walking north down the valley, watching the water in a small stream next to us. The water was a different color from anything I had seen before. This stream was just a small indication of what was to come.
The first lake to come into full view was the Grass Lake. The color and beauty was truly extraordinary. The water was so clean and clear too, one could see all the way to the bottom, with the sunken logs and whatever else floated to the bottom. It is hard for any pictures to do it justice, which is why I original thought I could skip Jiuzhaigou after looking at pictures of it.
One of my favorite lakes in the park was what I think was Panda Lake, named so because apparently there are wild pandas in the area, although sadly, none have been seen there in years. There was a very nice wooden walk way just over the lake, which complemented the natural scenery nicely. It was just gorgeous, and with the alpine scenery all around you in the background, it was like heaven.
Jiuzhaigou is not the perfect experience though. The hordes of Chinese tourists which start to come later in the day really detract from the serenity of the place. Also, the ubiquitous loudspeakers the tour guides use are never ending. It is important to stay on the trails on the sides of the lakes away from the main roads. These can still become crowded, but are not as bad.
Jiuzhaigou has three main valleys, and while it is possible to see most of all three of them in one day, you really have to move at a blistering pace. Although it is illegal to stay overnight in the park, other travelers told me it was easy (and cheap) enough to get a bed with a local Tibetan to spend the night, thus giving yourself two days in the park without having to buy another full price ticket for the second day.
I do, however, think one day in the main park is enough. As beautiful as the lakes and waterfalls are, I couldn’t help but think they all started to look the same by the end of the day. The best valley is definitely Rize Valley, and even if this is all you get to see, I think you still will have properly experienced the park.
I think Jiuzhaigou is a place to take your time with and enjoy. If you can find any pleasant, shaded spot near one of the beautiful lakes and away from the crowds, it is probably not a bad place to spend some time, have a picnic, and just relax.
For an altogether different experience, we opted to spend our second day on a so-called “eco-tour” in a part of the park only recently opened to tourists in 2009, but only for those specifically on these eco-tours. Although even more expensive than going to the main park itself, it was definitely worth it to go on the eco-tour which took place east of the main park, in Zharu Valley.
Our guide, Jack Li, who can be seen on this video introducing the eco tours here, was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the local flora and fauna, as well as the local Bon Tibetan Buddhist people. We were taken on a beautiful hike, essentially all alone, through Zharu Valley, learning about the plants and animals and the Tibetan people.
While Zharu Valley has none of the lakes that the main Jiuzhaigou National Park is famous for, it was still a beautiful, special place full of sacred Buddhist grounds and stunning vistas. It was all topped off with a fun visit to a Tibetan family’s house in the valley. The tourism and government subsidies to the people have allowed them to do well for themselves, as their houses were practically mansions, full of modern appliances and electronics, all with a Tibetan twist. We were given some walnuts, apples, and tea while we waited for a bus to take us back. If you make it to Jiuzhaigou and can spare the cash, the eco-tour is really a great experience.
China is truly a place of amazing contrasts – remembering being in Beijing and experiencing the unbelievably stifling pollution and dirtiness of the big city and then coming to Jiuzhaigou and experiencing what surely must be one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Being in the beatiful Sichuan province now and heading soon to Yunnan province south of here, China is starting to take on a new light for me. China is, no doubt, coming into its own as a very modern, civilized place, but it is easy to forget, just as it can be in America, that not too far away from those thoroughly modern places, there is incredible natural beauty just waiting to be explored.
As I write this, I am in Baoguo Village at the foot of Emei Mountain, yet another place of natural beauty in Sichuan. I will head to Yunnan province in a few days, to a place called Shangri-la. Yunnan province is supposed to be the most beautiful province in China.
The large, polluted industrial towns of China are starting to become a distant memory. I am liking this China. Before coming to China, I remember telling my friends I wanted to come here because “It is almost as big as the U.S., I like the culture enough, and there surely must be a lot to explore.” I think many people think of Beijing when they think of China, but China is so very much more.
I have started to study Mandarin again since coming back from South Korea. I am progressing nicely and am even able to have some simple conversations with people, which some of the older people I have conversed find to be especially charming.
I will fly back to the U.S. in December to visit my family and friends for the holidays, but at the end of the January, I will come back to China. At this point, I will probably not be traveling around so much, and try to focus more on my language abilities and some other projects I have been wanting to work on.