We love China's Sichuan province – not only for the famous panda but some of the best food in the world can be found here. If you love spicy food, this is the place to come. But less talked about is the stunning Jiuzhaigou Valley, located in the north of the province at the edge of the Tibetan plateau near the Qinghai-Tibetan highway.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a nature reserve and national park. It is part of the Min Mountains, stretching over 72,000 hectares with altitudes ranging between 2,000ft (610m) to 4,500ft (138m).
In Mandarin, Jiuzhaigou translates to valley of nine villages because it is named after the surrounding nine valleys, of which 7 are off limits to tourists.
It's so popular, since it opened to tourism in 1984, it received over 2 million visitors each year. These are our 4 favourite things you should aim to do in any Jiuzhaigou Tour.
Colourful lakes in the Jiuzhaigou Valley
Jiuzhaigou is fondly referred to as the Fairyland of Water. According to local legend, the goddess Semo was being chased by a demon and accidentally dropped her mirror which shattered into these 114 shimmering pearl-like lakes.
Today, Semo's shattered mirror means that the Jiuzhaigou National Valley Park is full of colourful lakes ranging from pristine blue to turquoise. The water is so crystal clear that you can get some of the best photographs of the mountains and sky reflecting in it.
Each lake is unique with its own story and significance with quite theatrical names like Mirror Lake, Double Dragon Lake, Spark Lee, Five Flower Lake, Panda Lake, Reed Lake, Rhinoceros Lake and Long Lake. A few highlights include:
- Mirror Lake: a long lake, stretching for around 3,280 feet (1,000 metres) in length.
- Five Flower Lake: interlaced with brocades and many colourful leaves. It is named after the different colours present (mainly yellow, blue and green), which are caused by high quantity of calcium carbonate and hydrophyte in the water.
- Panda Lake: outlined by unique cliffs on its sides. It named after pandas because it is said that they used to drink water from this lake and play in the vicinity.
- Reed Lake: has contrasting colours due to the jade marsh and turquoise waters.
- Dragon Lake: has visible calcareous dykes running underneath. It is called Dragon Lake because it looks like a dragon is resting underneath a lake.
Spectacular waterfalls in the Jiuzhaigou Valley
A waterfall in itself is simply a high vertical drop where gravity is just doing its job. But what makes this natural phenomenon so enthralling are those roaring sound, fierce waters and the simple physics of nature doing what it does best.
There are three particular must see waterfalls you should visit in the Jiuzhaigou Valley: Nuorilang Waterfall, Shuzeng Waterfall and the Pearl Shoal Waterfall:
- Nuorilang Waterfall: in Tibetan, Nuorilang means grand and majestic. Once you get up close to this beast, you'll see why! When you walk south from it, you can see the valley dividing into two paths – Zechawa in the south and Rize in the southwest.
- Shuzeng Waterfall: this is the first waterfall you will see in Jiuzhaigou. It is the smallest but no less beautiful. The lakes in the upper part of the valley form small streams which join at the head of Shuzeng. The force of the falls form a smoke screen of water droplets when cleared, giving quite a spectacular view.
- Pearl Shoal Waterfall: located in the Rize Valley, so requires a bit of walking to reach it, but well worth the effort. It has a drop of 130 feet (40 metres) and forms pretty blue-green pools at the bottom.
Hiking in the Jiuzhaigou Valley
Hiking is one of the best ways to explore the valley. If you plan to hike, we recommend planing at least 2 or 3 days to stay in Jiuzhaigou. The valley park is too big to be covered by foot in a day. There are also shuttle buses that take tourists to all attractions within a limited time.
Jiuzhaigou is made up of three valleys: Shuzeng Valley, Zechawa Valley, and Rize Valley:
- Shuzeng Valley: is 19.5km long and the most popular.
- Rize Valley: is 11km and also very popular with tourists.
- Zechawa Valley: is 18km long and the less visited of the three.
The hiking experience is better in the Autumn months when it's not too hot or cold, and there is golden glow across the whole valley. Practical point: when hiking you cannot camp inside the valley park but at one of the guesthouses outside the valley.
Tibetan culture in the Jiuzhaigou Valley
The valley has many Tibetan villages surrounding it. Although tourists cannot stay in the villages, there are other ways to immerse yourself in their culture:
- Songpan horse riding activity: a local will guide you through the valley whilst explaining the history. He will also set up a small camp for the day and cook traditional food items. You can also take part in the roasted lamb party that is conducted by locals in their villages.
- Mystery of Tibet show: a performance with 80 dancers about what it's like visiting the Tibetan holy city of Lhasa from a female's perspective. The show is almost always a sell out so get your tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.
- Tibetan food: there are plenty of restaurants and cafes where you can try Tibetan food. Some culinary highlights include butter tea, qingke barley liquor, blood sausage, zanba and baba Tibetan bread.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE JIUZHAIGOU VALLEY
- Accommodation: there are a variety of places to stay to suit all budgets ranging from home stays, lodges and luxury hotels.
- Ideal time of year to visit: the ideal time of year to visit the Jiuzhaigou Valley is the Autumn, especially around September and October when it's not too crowded, perfect weather – not too hot or cold, and when the valley has a golden glow.
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