Five Color Lake InletView All Sizes
Young Bird near Grass LakeView All Sizes
Road from Huanglong AirportView All Sizes
Entrance and Visitors CenterView All Sizes
Shuzheng Lakes FallsView All Sizes
JOURNAL : September 3, 2012
|Series||Gorgeous Jiuzhaigou Valley in Two Days|
High in the Min Mountains some 400km north of Chengdu in Sichuan is one of the natural scenic gems of China. Jiuzhaigou (means Nine Stockades Valley) is not only a national park and nature reserve, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and World Biosphere Reserve. It is home to numerous lakes tinted by deposits of minerals like calcium carbonate.
Home to rare giant pandas and Sichuan golden monkeys, it is unlikely the average tourist will encounter such exotics. Rather, enjoy the variety of birds and plants that inhabit Jiuzhaigou.
From Chongqing, Chengdu or Xi'an fly into Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport and grab a bus ticket to Jiuzhaigou Valley on the way out. The ride is over an hour but passes downhill from the airport's 3,448-meter elevation through some beautiful mountainous country before arriving at the town of Zhangzha which hosts all the hotels tourists stay at when visiting Jiuzhaigou Valley.
HuanglongView All Sizes
Huanglong is supposed to be a nice destination. On the way back to the airport a Chinese woman raved about the naturally terraced pools, showing me numerous pictures of her visit.
Flags on Road from AirportView All Sizes
Once there, the next task is gaining entrance.
The first day of my visit was Labor Day, so I thought the huge crowds jamming up the entrance plaza, walkways of the most popular attractions, and all the other tourist areas represented the climactic end of the high season. This was confirmed when I returned the next day to find the park mostly empty.
But that first day was teeming with people. Thick, clumps of people in large families or tour groups, and very few individuals. It took some time to locate the ticket booth, which is to the left before the shopping area. Tickets were 200 RMB, plus the optional bus ticket was 90 RMB. Nobody ever checked my bus ticket so it might be possible to pass, but not advised.
Shuzheng Lakes Water TextureView All Sizes
The ticket line isn't so bad once you find the ticket counter. Have your passport ready. While I waited I chatted with a couple of Spaniards. They were two of only a half-dozen luowai I saw during my two days there. In fact, the second day I saw no foreigners at all.
The next line gets you into the park and immediately into a slowly moving stream of people moving towards the buses, which go to several immediate destinations with their own throngs of people.
Bus Stop at Long LakeView All Sizes
By comparison, the second day, Tuesday September 4th, the entire park was accommodating only a small fraction of the visitors. Jiuzhaigou Valley seemed strangely empty that day after Labor Day. The buses were mostly empty, the crowds quite light, and the attractions more accessible.
Three valleys form this fantastic land called Jiuzhaigou. Visitors enter from the north end into Shuzheng Valley, which contains the 19 Shuzheng Lakes and another 18 lakes called the Nuorilang Lakes. Near Nuorilang Waterfall Shuzheng Valley meets the Rize and Zechawa Valleys.
Carved by glaciers, then damned by moraine and geological forces like earthquakes, the Shuzheng Lakes are usually the first stop from the entrance. Little walkways lace through the lakes and waterways, offering an intimate view of the scores of waterfalls.
Shuzheng Lakes WaterfallView All Sizes
Shuzheng is often the first stop buses and this area can get very crowded.
If the road-side of Shuzheng Lakes is jam-packed, it is recommended to find a walkway that heads across the lakes towards the mountains and explore that side of the lakes, returning to see the other side when less crowded.
Shuzheng Village and LakesView All Sizes
Jiuzhaigou is a rather huge place where human installations are relatively few and far between, the roads and walkways narrow strands that link them. It is easy to find long stretches of natural beauty if sought in earnest.
Shuzheng Village StoresView All Sizes
Shuzheng Village EntranceView All Sizes
Shuzheng Village ShopsView All Sizes
Shuzheng Village StreetsView All Sizes
Shuzheng Lakes WalkwayView All Sizes
Across from Shuzheng Lakes, and probably the most visible of the nine villages, is Shuzheng. Colorfully decorated, this village is a nice detour from all the natural beauty. Shops sell traditional crafts or offer refreshments. The steep roads quickly reveal lovely elevated views of the lakes and this end of the valley, or present glimpses into local culture that has existed here for hundreds of years.
Shuzheng Village TempleView All Sizes
Of the nine villages, seven are still populated with about 1,000 people in 112 families. Inhabitants rely on tourist dollars and government handouts due to a ban on agriculture in Jiuzhaigou Valley. These folk are primarily Tibetan, and can be seen around the village or at popular attractions posing for photos in beautiful traditional dress.
Tibetan Women at Long LakeView All Sizes
Although the touristy exterior of Shuzheng Village is open for business, walking into the village reveals it still contains authentic elements like mud-brick and rough-hewn wood houses.
Shuzheng Village BuildingView All Sizes
Bright colorful flags decorate stone walkways, and I came upon an apple tree laden with fruit. One maroon building was decorated with a swastika. Remember that swastikas are an ancient symbol found on artifacts thousands of years old.
Shuzheng Village Apple TreeView All Sizes
So, if you have time, do check out Shuzheng Village, or pick one or two of the other villages to explore. It's a great way to still see these ancient towns before they are completely converted to plastic and manufactured in Dongguan.
That is exactly what I wondered when I planned this trip. The valley is over 30 kilometers in length and covers over 700 square kilometers, seeing it all can be difficult. Yet, it is actually quite easy.
First, see as much as possible by taking buses between major destinations, then strike out on foot. From the main entrance take the bus to Shuzheng, then walk south towards Nuorilang Waterfall and the main visitor's center at the junction of the Shuzheng, Rize and Zechawa valleys. This will take a coupla hours but is amply rewarding.
Next, catch a bus to the top of one of the two remaining valleys. Long Lake and Colorful Pool (a.k.a. Five-Color Pond) crown Zechawa, while the Primeval Forest sits aloof at the apex of the Rize Valley. To either end point is about a half hour ride up curvy mountain roads. Along the way is some spectacular scenery.
Once at either destination, walk north towards the visitor center again and pick up a bus when you get tired, or when the walkway you tread upon suddenly disappears between the surface of a lake.
Shuzheng Village Colorful FlagsView All Sizes
Interested in adventure off the beaten track? Check out Zharu Valley. Purportedly the best to see flora and fauna, it only opened recently and is mostly unknown. Zharu branches off to the east near the main entrance.
Nuorilang Waterfall from PlatformView All Sizes
Nuorilang WaterfallView All Sizes
Just south from Shuzheng Lakes are the Nuorilang Lakes which include Rhinoceros Lake and Tiger Lake. Just around the corner from the main visitor's center is Nuorilang Waterfalls. At 270 meters wide and 20 meters high, Nuorilang is quite a sight to see up close and almost in it, or from above and farther back on the viewing platform across the road. It is said to be the widest waterfall in China.
Walking through the forest and happening suddenly upon Nuorilang Waterfalls is an exciting and refreshing experience and not to be missed. This is unlikely anyway, as Nuorilang is centrally located and near to a major transportation hub.
Nuorilang Waterfall Up CloseView All Sizes
Panda Lake Tree IslandView All Sizes
Shuzheng Lakes Fallen TreeView All Sizes
Colorful PoolView All Sizes
One of my favorite aspects of the lakes are these little islands that sprout up from the surface. The water is so exceedingly clear even into the depths that many fallen tree trunks can be seen on the bottom of most lakes. Some of these trees get propped up by other debris, or one end of the waterlogged log will float to the surface. And eventually the old trunk will either sprout a new tree, or catch floating seeds and vegetation so that a little floating island begins to form. If the entire tree trunk is horizontal on the surface of the lake its length might be covered with grasses, flowers, little trees and bushes. Birds can often be seen amidst these little habitats.
Five Color Lake TreeView All Sizes
These tree islands were in such abundance that they became another charming aspect of the Jiuzhaigou Valley... at least for me.
Depending on where the name is seen or who is translating it, many of the attractions in Jiuzhaigou Valley have multiple names. Maps, official sources and signs on location often contradict each other, and it is difficult to find consensus. Thus, I have tried to use the names which appear on signs in the park.
Colorful Pool (from a sign right in front of the actual body of water) is just north of Long Lake at the terminus of the Zechawa Valley. Long Lake, while large and beautiful, was not nearly as interesting as Colorful Pool. Upon arriving at the station, the thick crowd slowly disgorged from the bus and moved as an entity towards this small but famous attraction. However, the walkway directly in front of the pool was submerged and the mass of disappointed people inched passed the attraction on a higher walkway that nevertheless provided a spectacular view of the crystal clear water below.
Colorful Pool and Long Lake comprise my excursion up the Zechawa Valley. Also available are the three Seasonal Lakes, which may be empty depending on the time of year.
Primeval Forest Walkway Pine TreesView All Sizes
Eagles Claws CaveView All Sizes
Bus PassingView All Sizes
Grass LakeView All Sizes
Swan LakeView All Sizes
Other names include Primitive Forest and Ancient Forest, but the basic nature of the place is the same. Jiuzhaigou Valley was logged extensively before such activity was banned in 1979. The Primeval Forest had apparently avoided this fate so many of its trees are hundreds of years old.
Primeval Forest TreesView All Sizes
A brief walk into the forest is a large wooden pavilion with some benches here and there. Taking a cue from other weary travelers I laid down on one and rested.
Among the evergreen pines you'll see no multicolored lakes or cascading waterfalls. No spectacular vistas filter through the dense trees either. In fact, this spot is rather devoid of eye candy. Instead, Primeval Forest is a tranquil place of calm relaxation high above the valley, and one of the remote points from the entrance. For those reasons, it is also one of the least crowded places in Jiuzhaigou Valley.
Old Tree SignView All Sizes
ChipmunkView All Sizes
Upon completing the Primeval Forest loop I headed north on the walkway to Grass Lake and Swan Lake. During a day of battling endless crowds and being stuffed into buses, the shock of not seeing a single soul only grew over the few kilometers to the bus station near Eagles Claws Cave. The path followed and sometimes crisscrossed the stream. Flowers, birds and forest critters made an appearance in the lush green forest. Why was nobody else enjoying such exquisite natural beauty?
Well, the answer is pretty obvious: most people tend to grab the bus to an attraction, stroll around within 50 meters of the attraction and take a bunch of photos, then get on the bus for the next one. To find some much-needed peace all you must do is stroll out beyond their comfort zone.
Empty WalkwayView All Sizes
Out in the forest the only reminder of the massive crowds held entranced by the colorful lakes was an occasional bus that passed swiftly along the road.
Grass Lake BirdView All Sizes
This lake is aptly named, as many names in Asian languages tend to be flatly descriptive. Other accurate descriptions might be “flooded meadow" or “grassy marsh" due to the fact that the lake is very shallow and filled with hydrophilic grasses.
At Grass Lake the lonely walkway spawned a companion rest area that extended to the edge of the lake. While I sat there, chipmunks scouted about, birds pecked at crumbs, ducks went bottoms up on the water, and a brown mouse swam between floating clumps of algae. Life abounds in this place where people are rare.
Mauve FlowerView All Sizes
Another kilometer downstream is Swan Lake, at an altitude of 2,900 meters above sea level. Despite being much larger, and its depth varying from 2 to 13 meters, Swan Lake is very sluggish due to heavy silting and carbonate deposition. Its many algae-covered logs are frequented by birds and waterfowl, and adorned with verdant plants and beautiful flowers.
After walking the length of Swan Lake the walkway ended at a bus stop in front of Eagles Claws Cave. From Swan Lake I caught the bus back to the visitors center. Although it was late afternoon and my feet were sore (one foot swollen from a huge blister from walking many miles every day) I decided to check out the opposite side of Shuzheng and Nuorilang Lakes that I hadn't seen earlier, and make my way back to the entrance.
Five Color Lake TreeView All Sizes
Five Color Lake at Inlet BridgeView All Sizes
Five Color Lake from ViewpointView All Sizes
Variously titled Five-Flower Lake, Multicolored Lake, Peacock Lake, and Five-Color Lake, the sign at the location calls it Five-Colored Lake. The sign further describes the lake as being 90,000 square meters, elevation 2,472 meters, and 5 meters deep. Furthermore, geologists attribute the spectacular colors to mineral concentration, and the view is crowned as a wonder of Jiuzhaigou. That's what the sign says. Its Engrish is above average.
And the sign is right. The view is pretty amazing. Witness the clarity and vibrance of the water. Note strange deposits on the many submerged tree trunks. Feel your eyes bulge from their sockets.
Five Color Lake Mineral DepositsView All Sizes
Walkways encircle the lake. On this visit, however, the walkways towards the south side of the lake were closed off. Five-Colored Lake can be approached from Pearl Shoal in the north, Panda Lake in the south, or via bus. A nifty bridge crosses the lake when the water flows out towards Pearl Shoal.
The best views are from the south end, on the road high above the lake. No buses stop there, many steps must be climbed to attain this viewpoint, and it's a round trip. Despite the crowds around Five-Colored Lake only a few people were on that walkway.
Sheep on Highway from AirportView All Sizes
When planning this trip I had thought of taking a train from Chengdu or Chongqing, but due to the current inability to purchase train tickets on the internet in advance, the best option for planners is to fly in. As noted above, only a few nearby cities have flights to Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport. Many Chinese tourists take the 10-hour bus ride from Chengdu, but screw that.
Hotels here are easy to book but expensive. A high-end Sheraton is in the vicinity, but quite far from the entrance. I stayed at the very nice Chian He (Chon-HUH) International Hotel which, although one of the most expensive places I stayed while in China, was nonetheless one of the least expensive lodgings in this area. Overall, Chian He receives a recommendation. Their staff was attractive and very nice. The morning buffet was awesome and the dinners delicious too (except for some fatty yak meat).
If you are used to speaking English with locals in Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong, remember that the more remote the locale, the less a chance anyone speaks English. This was particularly true in Jiuzhaigou and the town of Zhangzha. Although I did meet an occasional traveler from the big cities who spoke some English, a pocket translator proved invaluable. You can also pantomime your intentions.
About this day
September 3, 2012
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