Tibetan Sichuan : Jiuzhaigou 1
Before I tell my story let me just quote some details about this jaw-dropping National Park.
If you are traveling around China for landscapes and culture (especially Tibetan) then there is simply no better place to go than Sichuan (or Tibet itself of course, but it is easier and more convenient to travel around Sichuan) and certainly no better location than Jiuzhaigou!
Jiuzhaigou literally means "Nine Villages Valley" taking its name from the nine Tibetan settlements along its valleys (there are actually 4 valleys but only 3 are advertised as being 'open' to the tourist hordes with the 4th being used by those who sign up for hiking & camping with a guide. This remote region has been inhabited by various Tibetan and Qiang tribes for hundreds of years. This UNESCO site (since 1992 and declared a UNESCO Biosphere site in 1997) is beyond stunning. It will make most other wonderful natural sites you've visited, anywhere in the world, pale into virtual insignificance as far as sheer beauty goes, more especially if transparent crystalline-like turquoise, emerald & sapphire coloured alpine lakes and powerful stunning waterfalls are your thing - especially so if you are a photographer!
Of course with up to 41,000 people a day (the limit, bookable online) in peak season those are the times to be utterly avoided at all costs ! Despite the incredible efficiency of the whole set-up, the buses every 5-10 mins couriering people to the farthest reaches of the park's valleys, there is no getting away from overcrowding, jostling and fighting for space, both around the lakes and especially in queues and on the buses! Therefore the timing of your visit is absolutely critical to being not overwhelmed and having the experience devalued by extensive crowds. As always in China avoid holidays and weekends like the plague (oops) and instead choose shoulder seasons right at the end of the oft touted Spring or Autumn high points, or indeed even low season (Winter) where the experience will be no less sensational but entirely different with everything dusted (or suffocated!) under a layer of snow and with most waterfalls and many of the lakes, frozen into parodies of their true selves.
As to the amount of time to spend on your trip there - well as a good friend who works at the park said "I could spend a lifetime here" and indeed that is what he's doing, born, raised and with no intention to ever leave. Lucky man ! It is indeed that beautiful and as oft quoted 'Heaven on Earth'. However most of us have limited time, the tour groups rush through trying (and failing) to see and photograph everything possible within 2 days. For me personally this trip was 5 nights and even then that was not enough, for serious photography I'd need at least 2 weeks ! However for a relaxed trip 4-5 days is plenty and then onto Huanglong for another experience entirely. As for expectations of seeing Giant Pandas - not going to happen (though everywhere sells the stuffed toys, the nearest you'll come to seeing one outside of a park in Chengdu!), my friend working there has seen just two in 20 years (in Winter) and spotting the Red Pandas are just as rare. Same goes for Wolves, Black and Brown bears. All keep themselves well hidden in the depths of the mountain range/forest.
Facts & Figures
Which need listing of course ! Jiuzhaigou Valley is located in Zhangzha Town, Jiuzhaigou County, Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Region of northern Sichuan, approximately 540 kms from Chengdu. It varies in elevation from 2,000m to 4,500 m (6,600 up to 14,800 ft). The Jiuzhaigou valley lies within the Min Mountains at the heart of this stunning national park.
It consists of 108 plateau lakes with the forest itself covering an area of around 30,000 hectares (about 74,000 acres) with the Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historical Interest Area covering over 600 square kilometers (about 230 square miles). Plants There are 2,576 higher plant species (including 24 species of nationally protected plants) and over 400 other plant species (including 212 species of algae). Around 40% of all seed based plant life found in China in fact.
Animals There are more than 170 species of vertebrates inc. 60 species of mammals, 223 bird species (which rises to 789 in the province of Sichuan as a whole) and 17 types of rare animals. Including Giant Pandas, Takins and Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys, Blue Sheep, Red Pandas and Marmot. A beautiful site to visit to find out more about Jiuzhaigou (after reading my blog, looking at my photographs and surfing my website of course !) is : https://en.jiuzhai.com/
Photographically this was not only expected to be the highlight of my proposed month-long sojourn into the Tibetan highlands of Sichuan but indeed that's the way it turned out !
This stunning UNESCO site isn't exactly 'wild' even though it is remote - being a 5 Star Chinese National Park that attracts huge crowds in high season - but I arrived in shoulder season and there were very few people still visiting with temperatures plummeting.
Jiuzhaigou consists of 3 long valleys containing hundreds of sensational coloured sapphire, emerald and turquoise transparent lakes, rivers cascading over wide falls, Tibetan villages and the entire surrounded by snow topped mountains. It is undoubtedly one of the top, if not the, natural crown jewels of China.
Day 1 (31st October) : Shanghai - Chengdu - Jiuzhaigou
Arriving in Jiuzhaigou (flights Shanghai - Chengdu and change for Jiuzhai-Huanglong airport, around 110 kms from Jiuzhaigou (I grabbed a shared taxi for 3 people at 90 rmb each) at this time meant that the valleys had not yet fully shed their Autumnal attire of golden yellows, burnt amber and shades of oranges & reds and the mountains were dusted in fresh snow, whilst the crowds had long gone.
I had so much to look forward to having booked 5 nights at a Tibetan Inn on the outskirts of the park (camping is not permitted except as part of a guided tour in just one of the 4 valleys). This place turned out to have friendly helpful people, free pickups/drop-offs at the park, a warm comfortable room with a hot shower and even a sparse breakfast was included at the ridiculously low price of 125rmb a night! It should be noted that there are set opening/closing times and without private access it means sunrises and sunsets are off the menu. Insert preferred offensive word here : ______
Day 2 (1st November) : Jiuzhaigou
21k steps, 17 kms walked (rounded up and according to my smart-watch)
I think the easiest way to describe Jiuzhaigou is that it'll knock your socks off! There are 108 lakes in 3 valleys each roughly 14 to 18 kms long. But what makes the lakes so special is the incredible array of vibrant colours and the total transparency of the water. Add to them the gorgeous and numerous waterfalls and shoals, the Tibetan villages and the usual Chinese efficiency when it comes to tourist attractions (there must be over 100 kms of boardwalks and busses every few minutes to transport you anywhere within the park - so you don't need boots, comfortable day-long walking shoes/sneakers will do). On this occasion however (due to the Covid pandemic) I did however have to show 3 different health QR codes on my phone (Tianfu, the Sichuan code, my national 14 day dynamic code and a local code I had to scan for Jiuzhaigou) plus my PCR test result from 2 days earlier ! I ensured I had registered for a 3 day entry permit so as to alleviate at least some of that pain !
I started the first day at Jiuzhaigou by concentrating on Rize Valley ... and ended up walking far more than anticipated with the 21,000 steps on boardwalk or tarmac leaving my feet very sore - the boots I was wearing were for trails not constant pounding on hard flat surfaces. The major upside diverting my mind from the discomfort was of course the amazing scenery!
Rize valley contains what for me turned out to be one of my favourite waterfalls, the extensive falls below Arrow Bamboo Lake, which seems to rarely get a mention but is far more photogenic (and has easier access to take photos) than some of it's rather more famous siblings. This valley also contains what is for me the most stunning (colour-wise) of the lakes, the incredible (and wildly popular) 'Multi-Coloured Lake' (be sure to wander around the whole of the figure eight, the vast majority of people do not, concentrating their time on the smaller loop of the figure eight then moving straight on to somewhere else). For the photographer Grass Lake near the top of the Rize Valley is wonderful too but that was on Day 3 for me.
Lakes & falls covered today : Arrow Bamboo Lake & Waterfall, Panda Lake & Waterfall, Multi-Coloured Lake, Pearl Shoal & Waterfall, Mirror Lake, Nuorilang and Waterfall.
Day 3 : Jiuzhaigou - 2nd November
19k steps 15 kms walked
I was waiting / praying for a cold day and snow to fall on the upper reaches/highest altitudes of the valleys, especially Long Lake (Changhai). So since that hadn't happened Shuzheng Valley (the first valley you enter) was today's primary focus - in fact I didn't cover it all (esp. Rhinoceros Lake and and I still have planned shoots to cover at another time !
Access to Reed Lake is difficult and I would love to get my drone up there (not strictly permitted in the park but I noticed a few in use, so be discreet) !
Lakes & falls covered today : Sparkling Lake, Reed Lake, Shuzheng Waterfalls, Village and Lake, Crouching Dragon Lake, Sparkling Lake, Double Dragon Lake & Bonsai Lake.
Day 4: Jiuzhaigou - 3rd November
8k steps 6 kms walked.
I had acquired a wonderful, very generous, new friend, who worked in the park as a manager, and who I was to spend the next 3 days with. He picked me up early, well before the park was officially open, and with his special access and rights we drove up the maintenance /locals track to the top of the Zechewa Valley, to Changhai (Long Lake). With, hurrah (!), a pristine covering of fresh snow.
The sun was just breaking over the mountains and although not a glorious sunrise due to the cloud cover, the mist was still atmospheric and the cloud cover broke long enough to enable views of the surrounding 4,000-5,000m mountains. Drones (now with official permission!) and long exposure shots and close-ups the preferred techniques of the morning.
The rest of the day was spent slowly descending to spots (in his car) that my friend had previously sourced ... and that were decidedly not on the tourist routes!
The light was poor on the smallest but most famous lake in the park, 5 Coloured Pond, though it's beauty still obvious. We then went back up Rize Valley to the very end and walked through the Primeval Forest, alongside Grass Lake, one of my favourites on this day, and Swan Lake.
A repeat of the wonderful Yak meat meal from the previous night, along with green peppers, garlic and onion, and served on a hot sizzling platter, was the ending to a very fine day photographing the lakes.
Lakes & falls covered today : Long Lake, 5 Coloured Pond, Upper Season Lake, Lower Season Lake, Lunch at Zechawa Tibetan Village, Primeval Forest, Grass Lake, Swan Lake.
Although I'd covered most of the lakes & falls within 3 days that was with the perfect knowledgeable local help of my new friend and there are undoubtedly numerous places I'd want to return to ! 5 full days is a good stint for a dedicated photographer, offering a chance to explore all three valleys whilst retaining enough time to return to favourites.
Day 5 : Jiuzhaigou - 4th November
23k steps 18 kms walked
Today my friend picked me up, along with his very sweet young daughter & his nephew (also over the past 2 days his very able assistant, managing his photographic gear and drone), and drove me up above a neighbouring valley to photograph the white horses left to ruminate the mountainside. We then descended and went to the other side of the valley to inspect a derelict Tibetan settlement of crumbling houses ... and a field full of nervous Yaks !
Since my pass was still valid we returned to the park at night (friend's privilege) and attempted some night photography over the waterfalls/lakes, however the single star we'd spotted was not the prelude to a clearing of the cloud cover and it was soon obvious this wasn't going to be a night for stargazing !
Highlights : Standing in the middle of a small herd of white horses. Visiting a derelict Tibetan settlement - even with a particularly aggressive Yak eyeing me up and following me around before stampeding past at high speed - it seems it just wanted to get past !
Next blog post : Huanglong (Yellow Dragon), another pearl of Tibetan Sichuan.