Getting Away: Jiuzhaigou

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There is a valley in northern Sichuan fabled for its incomparable mountain forests and bizarre aquamarine lakes. Earlier this month we decided to investigate and jumped on a plane to Jiuzhaigou National Park.

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) is known for its amazing iridescent pools and unblemished mountain forests. The park lies 450km north of Chengdu and runs through the valleys of the Min (岷) mountain range. Established in 1984, the park’s protected status spared the surrounding area from logging and industrial development. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992.

After paying the hefty 310 yuan entrance fee (90 yuan of which pays for unlimited bus rides throughout the park), we clambered aboard a bus with 50 other visitors.

Jiuzhaigou’s main road forks about midway through the park and we took the left fork first, screaming through the turns until arriving at that road’s terminus, Long Lake (长海). There, everyone spilled out of the bus, snapped a few photos, and caught the next available shuttle. We lingered for a bit and discovered a cobblestone path to the right of the main viewing area that led down to the lakeshore and a small, deserted dock.

Hopping on and off tour buses is an expedient way to see Jiuzhaigou but seems to ignore the park’s subtleties. For those more inclined to walking, there is a well-maintained boardwalk that snakes through the entirety of the park. We left the buses behind for good at Arrow Bamboo Lake (箭竹海) and walked the remainder of the trail back to the park entrance. This took five and a half hours of brisk hiking.

When we visited, the sun was blazing and Jiuzhaigou offered scenery that was part alpine forest and part tropical lagoon. The trail winds through old growth forest covered in lichen, moss, giant ferns and rhododendrons. Other hikers were few and far between and the silence was nearly complete save for the ever-present sound of birdsong.

Punctuating the hike were Jiuzhaigou’s famous lakes and waterfalls. Streams and springs from the surrounding karst mountains feed the lakes, occasionally flooding them during spring. This runoff is high in calcium carbonate, which imbues the lakes with otherworldly shades of turquoise and blue. Fallen trees resting on the lake bottoms resemble coral reefs. The lakes are connected by a series of waterfalls and ponds, which shine luminously in the sun. The largest and most impressive waterfall is Nuorilang (诺日朗瀑布), which cascades over multiple tiers and through dense, fast-flowing wetlands.

Preservation seems to be high on the park administration’s priority list. Trashcans were everywhere along the paths and bathrooms were numerous as well. Smoking is punishable by a 500 yuan fine except in designated areas and this prohibition is largely observed by tourists. Foot traffic within the park is restricted to the boardwalk and observation decks although we did see several locals dart furtively off the path to collect wild mushrooms and lichen.

The tourist center in the heart of the park is the only place to buy food, beyond instant noodles, and the fare is what one would expect: expensive and bland. The tourist center is undergoing a massive expansion that, when finished, will boast new restaurants and a performance hall. Near the park entrance are the nine Tibetan villages from which Jiuzhaigou derives its name. These too are being rebuilt and are notable mostly for their ingenious, water-powered prayer wheels.

The park closes at 6pm and although the town to the north is growing rapidly, dining and nightlife options remain limited. However, any hotel or guesthouse can arrange travel to one of many nightly Tibetan performances. The five-star hotels offer both Western and Chinese menus and Chongqing-style hotpot restaurants are ubiquitous. Lodging options run the gamut from dormitory guesthouses to lavish, and somewhat outlandish, resorts.

Getting there: Daily flights from Kunming to Jiuzhaigou connect through Chengdu and prices vary with demand. Our tickets cost around 4,000 yuan round-trip but expect to pay as little as half this price if planning ahead and avoiding holidays. The airport is 88km from the park entrance and bus tickets cost 45 yuan or a car can be hired for 100 yuan. A daily 7am bus (130 yuan) leaves Chengdu’s Xinnanmen bus station for Jiuzhaigou and takes between 8-10 hours depending on road conditions.

Map: There’s a map (not to scale) of the trails in the park here (PDF).

[Source: http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1834/getting_away_jiuzhaigou]