This park is about the scenery, scenery that takes your breath away, scenery that begins with the flight over dramatic snow-capped mountains, forested canyons, rivers, and lakes to land at Jiuzhaigou Airport, itself perched on the mountaintop. It's about an hour's drive along the alpine highway to find the narrow valley outside the park, where all the hotels are to be found. If you're lucky enough to have a local guide, you may be briefly distracted from the scenery by the telling of local legends and stories, and even a song or two.
The Park lies on the northern border of Sichuan Province, and is part of the magnificent Min Shan mountains on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. I can't apologise for the extravagant superlatives, it deserves them all. Jiuzhai Valley first became a Park in 1978, although it would be 14 years before it earned World Heritage listing, during which time work was aimed mainly at restoration and halting logging activities.
It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, and in 1997 awarded the status of UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, and has since received many other, well-deserved listings.
Did I mention the scenery? The high mountains form a backdrop for the pretty, steep-sided valleys (conic karst, for those who are interested in the landform). Clear rivers tumble down through waterfalls and rapids, and form brilliant mineralised pools of blue, green and turquoise on the way.
The sides of the valleys are covered in dense vegetation. The range in altitude (from over 4,600m at the top of the highest mountain in the Park to just under 2000m at the Park entrance) means that there's a range of habitats, thus a wide variety of plants and animals, many of which are endangered, and protected within the Park. Well over 2,500 different plants been catalogued to date, including a lot of conifers, rhododendrons, ferns, fungi, aquatic plants and many beautiful orchids and other flowering plants.
The wildlife here is shy, but the range is equally impressive, including 27 protected rare and endangered species like the giant panda, golden monkey, gnu, white-lip deer, black-neck crane, swan, lovebirds, red-belly golden pheasant, snow leopard, forest musk deer, and otters. However, visitors are more likely to spot some of the 141 bird species than one of the very few pandas remaining in the park. The Park authorities say that the flowering of the bamboo a couple of decades ago led to a big reduction in this staple panda food, hence the need for them to move elsewhere.
The Park did not suffer any major damage during the 2008 earthquake, and is very definitely open for visitors. The Peak Season is April through to mid-November, when it's open from 7am – 6.30pm, and between mid-November and March the Park closes half an hour earlier, at 6pm.
Jiuzhaiguo means ‘Valley of the Nine Villages', and the nine villages remain spread around the valley within the Park, home to about 110 Tibetan and Qiang families. Agriculture is not permitted so the locals mostly work either for the Park itself, or with the nearby hotels.
The Park covers a little over 700 sq km and there's a further buffer zone of just under 600 sq km. No private vehicles are allowed, and shuttle buses run a continuous hop-on, hop-off service. The road is roughly ‘y'-shaped, coming down from the two main valleys, then descending as one road to the main entrance. 70 km of boardwalks link many of the scenic spots away from the road itself. They take you through some attractive areas, and have been built to provide minimum impact on the surroundings. Some people simply take a bus from spot to spot, others walk through the forests and beside the waterfalls between some or all of the spots, depending on their level of energy and fitness, and time available.
The right-hand fork runs about 17km from the top to the junction past more stops than the other side, including many of the wonderful waterfalls, rapids, and ‘5-coloured pools'. The left-hand fork is a 20-minute ride to the top, which is higher and steeper, through jagged, wilder scenery and with a beautiful long narrow lake at the highest point. There are some seasonal lakes (dry at some times of the year) and smaller colored pools on the way down.
It's worth planning where to spend your time, and it is possible to walk away from the larger crowds. Comfortable shoes are obviously vital, and water should always be carried. No smoking in the open air is permitted within the park, and visitors are asked to stay on the designated walking trails, and not to pick flowers or to interfere with travertine or other water life. The Park is beautifully maintained despite high visitor numbers. It takes its conservation and sustainability role extremely seriously, and has sister park relationships with Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Olympic National Parks in the USA.
The climate ranges from a comfortable July mean of 17ºC, although at this altitude it can feel warmer, down to a mean -3 ºC in January, with the heaviest snow falls from December to February.
Outside the Park there's a range of accommodation options, including 3, 4 and 5 star hotels. In the evening the local music and dancing shows are tremendous, and great fun. Usually Tibetan themed, they feature wonderful costumes, song and dance, with a mixture of ethnic performance and popular music. In some cases local audiences can be as enjoyable as the show,(depending on where you go) and often rush up to drape a singer with the hada (a white silk scarf that is presented to everyone on arrival), and pose for photos, with the singer continuing all the while. A truly memorable experience!