Sunday, 01 March 2015 00:00

Jiuzhaigou National Park, China

Written by  Cindy Ross

There is a magnificent valley in the Min Mountains of China that sits on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, stretching for over 180,000 acres. For all intents and purposes it IS Tibet, a Tibet we can legally go visit.

Here is the Jiuzhaigou Valley, a nature reserve and a national park located in the north of Sichuan Province. It was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992 and a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997. Once we see images of the multi-level waterfalls, the turquoise lakes and the snow-capped peaks, my family and I know it is where we want to create a New Year’s Eve memory while we are
visiting China.
The name Jiuzhaigou means “Nine Village Valley” but there are seven remaining Tibetan villages stretching along its length today. Until 1975, tourists did not know this place existed, although the Tibetan and Qiang people have been here for centuries.

Getting there takes a little work. A long 10-hour bus ride from Chengdu drops you in town of Zhangzha, where there are hotels. In the park itself, shuttle buses drive the length of the two popular valleys, 11 mile long Rize Valley and Zechawa Valley, which then lead to the intersection of this Y shaped valley, at the Shuzheng Valley. Wooden boardwalks and small pavilions parallel the shuttle bus roads, allowing hikers to get on and off at will and walk right along the edges of the lakes and waterfalls.
The water that runs through its heart is the most stunning, crystalline blue, juxtapositioned to the ice-armored woods and mountain slopes. It looks like there should be schools of parrot fish, a scene right out of Finding Nemo, but instead, the turquoise depths are as lifeless and luminous as an alien planet.
Dozens of turquoise and green colored lakes can be explored in these valleys, called “hazi” by the Chinese, meaning “son of the sea.” These glacial-created lakes have a high level of calcium carbonate and they are incredibly clear. The floor of transparent Five Flower Lake is covered in ancient crisscrossed tree trunks.
Rather than following a distinct path, the water seeps from the rocks and tumbles over broad terraces like a giant staircase, rushing through forests of bonsai frozen chandeliers, under a rippled skin of ice. It collects in turquoise pools before diving down the next set of ice steps forming palaces and fluted walls.

Nuorilang Falls in the Shuzheng Valley is 20 meters high and 320 meters wide and is believed to be widest highland waterfall in China, the widest travertine topped waterfall in the world and one of the symbols of Jiuzhaigou. Pearl Shoal in the Rize Valley is a wide area of tufa deposits whose waters trickle over and create the shoals of Pearl Waterfalls, a 310- meter wide curtain of frozen water.
In the early morning, the streams exhale clouds of mist which turn to radiant golden light. The waterfalls gasp as the first light strikes them. We follow the boardwalk back to a great but somewhat desolate monastery that is in the process of being built. The forest is thickened with prayer flags, strung between branches like webs, carpeting the floor and stretching between trees like billowing sails. A solitary monk greets us with a shriveled face and sparsely located teeth. He seems genuinely happy to see us and shakes our hands with a surprisingly strong grip for such a little robed man.
There are multiple Tibetan villages throughout the valleys that you can explore, climbing higher on the narrow roads as they reach for the peaks. Here we find their colorfully carved and painted wooden homes, the yellow and blue and red prayer flags flapping everywhere, and sheep grazing in the high pastures. The Tibetans go about their day, in long colorful skirts and sashes tied around their waists, always with that magnificent dark hulking backdrop of Himalayan peaks like a frame around these beautiful images.
Our two magnificent days exploring the valleys and villages of Jiuzhaigou is highlighted with a cultural dinner (arranged by our hostel). Young Tibetans dressed in colorful tribal clothing serve us traditional Tibetan food and drink while they play music on their instruments, sing their songs and tell their stories passed down through the generations. In conclusion, we enter a wide courtyard where we all hold hands and dance in a circle around a great fire. The scenery in Jiuzhaigou is spectacular, but it is the Tibetan people that carve the deepest memory.
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