Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jiuzhaigou: China's Picture Perfect Slice of Heaven

Jiuzhaigou National Park is a nature reserve located in northern Sichuan province famous for its picturesque almost surreal crystal clear lakes, multi-tier waterfalls and, stunning mountain views. Jiuzhaigou is home to two of China’s most treasured endangered species; the Giant Panda and the Sichuan Golden Snub-Nose Monkey. It’s one of the most visited sites in China with 5,000 visitors in 1984, 200,000 in 1997 and 2.5 million in 2007.
Jiuzhaigou literally means “Valley of Nine Villages” after the 9 ancient Tibetan villages located within the park. Seven of the villages are still populated today with a total of around 1000 permanent residents. Heye, Shuzheng and Zechawa villages located along the main roads cater to tourists, selling food, drinks and crafts.
Visiting the park takes time and money. Park entrance cost 220 RMB ($33 USD) per person per day and doesn’t include the “mandatory” 90 RMB ($14 USD) bus fee. There are two ways to experience the park: the traditional way and the not-so-traditional way. Most visitors stay at one of the 20,000 hotel rooms located in the town of Jiuzhaigou and visit the park by day utilizing the tour bus. The frequent buses are an efficient way to see the park as you can hop off, take a picture and jump back on. The non-traditional route is to stay within the park at a Tibetan Village and hike the 30 km through the park. My friend Liz and I decided to do the unconventional route as we were in need a bit of adventure. Keep in mind it’s against the law to stay in the park and even travel guides like Lonely Planet discourage you from doing so. Our plan was to stay one night in the town of Jiuzhaigou, pack a small backpack for our trip so we didn’t look suspicious to the park authorities, store our large rucksacks at a hotel, and travel into the park for a 3 day/ 2 night hiking adventure.
The park is comprised of three main valleys or “arms” in the shape of a letter Y, the park entrance is at the base of the Y. The lower part of the park is Shuzheng Valley, at the fork in the road Rize Valley is to the south west and Zechawa Valley to the south east. The plan for the trip was to hike the Shuzheng Valley on the first day and secure a room in Shuzheng village; the second and third day would be spent hiking the Rize and Zechawa Valleys.
The hike through Shuzheng Valley was more challenging than we had anticipated but rewarding as we were able to enjoy the tranquility of the park as the buses whizzed by. As we followed the Zechawa River, we first came to a beautiful clearing of wild flowers which of course we had to run. We continued hiking and came across Reed Lake, a 1375-meter long reed covered marsh. We continued on the main road to Sparkling Lake and to the crystal clear string of 18 lakes fed by the Shuzheng waterfalls. We finished off the day with Nuorilang Waterfalls, the widest highland waterfall in China and its string of 19 lakes.
After all that hiking, we decided to call it a day and find a room in Shuzheng Village. We secured a room including food for $10 a night, as long as we didn’t tell the park authorities our location and were out of the park before opening on the third day as we only had a two-day park pass. We agreed to the rules, not realizing leaving the park before it opened meant hiding on the floor of a neighbor’s car with a tarp over you as you pass by security.
After the park closed, we joined the family for dinner in their living room all pretending to watch Chinese soaps together. As we ate grandma watched us intently over her hand-held Tibetan Prayer Wheel. Once Liz and I finished eating, grandma proceeded to pry us with bijou. Every time we got up to leave, she would put her hand up to say “no”, giggle, and point at our tiny cups. The old lady was getting us drunk so we’d go to bed quietly and quickly. But in the middle of the night we realized the only working toilet was in the family house, thus we had to find a natural toilet in the dark of night, without a Tibetan Prayer Flag blowing above our heads.
The next day, we woke up to a torrential downpour and an almost empty park. Since there were so few tourists, the buses were not checking tickets and we used the bus free of charge which was a good thing as we were a bit tired from the hiking and drinking with Grandma the day prior.  We started with Rize Valley and hit all the picture perfect sites along the way. Some of the most memorable spots were Swan Lake, Five Flower Lake, Mirror Lake, Panda Lake and Arrow Bamboo Lake, the main filming site of the Jet Li movie Hero. We then took the bus through Zechawa Valley visiting Long Lake, Five Color Pond, and the Zechawa Village. We returned to Shuzheng Village for our second night and skipped dinner with the family opting for backpack snacks. At 6 am the next morning, a stranger knocked on our door and ushered us to the back seat of his car for our dramatic exit. Luckily we passed the guards without a problem and the man left us on the side of the street to find our way back to town.
Jiuzhaigou is by far the most beautiful place I have ever visited. Exploring the park on foot and staying in a traditional Tibetan Village within the park made it a memorable experience. We experienced Jiuzhaigou the proper way, off the beaten track and off the tour bus (for the most part).

No comments:

Post a Comment