Jiuzhaigou

May 18-20, 2009

From Jiangyou we turned back north, taking a bus towards a park called Jiuzhaigou.

We were still traveling with our new friend, Toni.  At one point during the bus ride he looked down at his feet and noticed a chicken hanging out:

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The chicken seemed to belong to the guy sitting one seat in front of Toni.  Anyhow, being the good Samaritans we are, we pulled out a shallow plastic plate, filled it with water, and set it down for the chicken to drink.  She seemed pleased (or was it he? I don’t know).

By the way, the views along the way from Jiangyou to Jiuzhaigou were fantastic – deep valleys, green hills, high passes, etc.  But I didn’t bother to include any photos because this post already has way too many photos down below.

About the Park

Jiuzhaigou is pronounced like “Joe Zygote”, minus the “t”.  It’s a huge park located in northern Sichuan province.  The park is famous for its unbelievably clear water.  The water runs through the valley, collecting in pools that take on the kind of turquoise blue/green colors you’d expect to see next to a white sandy beach in the tropics, not in the middle of a forest.

When you reach Jiuzhaigou, you have to be a little careful because there are actually two different towns with the same name.  One, Jiuzhaigou Town, is actually 25 km east of the park.  The other, Jiuzhaigou Kou (AKA  Zhangzha) is right there at the entrance to the park.  We went to the latter, and it was definitely the right choice.  Our Rough Guide recommended a backpacker place called Langjie’s Home, but Langjie’s is a few km’s outside the park gate, so we opted for a simple 80 yuan/room hotel closer to the entrance.

The park itself is shaped like a ‘Y’.  The entrance to the park is at the base of the ‘Y’.  From there the valley runs north to the main visitor center at the branching point (Nourilang).  From there the valley splits into two, one valley heading northwest to Long Lake, and another heading northeast to a Primeval Forest.  Either branch is roughly another 25 km.  As you go deeper into the park you reach higher and higher elevations.  Long Lake is above 3 km altitude – it’s pretty chilly up there.  And all along these valleys you have lots and lots of beautiful sights: fantastic lakes and waterfalls.

The park is pretty expensive (totally worth it, but expensive).  It’s 220 yuan to enter, and for this price you get a 2-day pass.  In our experience 2 days was just barely enough to see everything at jogging pace; we would have gladly spent a third day in the park.  On top of that you need to pay 90 yuan per day for an all-you-can-ride bus pass, which is necessary to reach the further out parts of the park.  It’s a good idea to bring a student card if you have one.  First off the entrance is 170 yuan instead of 220 yuan, but more importantly you can ride the bus for free.

We found that there are some ways to cheat the system and save money.  First off, the park authorities only seem to check your bus pass at the entrance.  Once you’re inside the park they assume you have a bus pass and let you on the bus no questions asked.  So, one option is to hike from the park entrance towards the first major bus stop (near the Tibetan village), then get on the bus and ride all day for free.  Another option is to sleep in the park.  You’re not officially allowed to stay in the park after close, but we heard that if you head to the larger Tibetan village (just before the fork) and search for the “business monk”, he can set you up with a simple bed in the village for 50 yuan per night.  It’s not particularly cheap, but the benefit is that you can get an early start the next day and you don’t have to hike in to get on the bus for free.  By the way, around closing time (5-7 pm) you’ll see a lot of park “ushers” walking around trying to shoe people out of the park; so if you’re planning to sleep in the Tibetan village, it’s a good idea to stay out of sight during those hours.

Now, before coming to Jiuzhaigou we heard some bad things about it.  Some people said that it gets so incredibly crowded that it’s impossible to enjoy.  We didn’t have that experience.  Maybe it’s because the place is so freakin’ beautiful that it would take a pretty large crowd to destroy it.  Maybe it’s because we came in a relatively low season (fall time is peak).  We can say that while we only saw a few foreign tourists, we saw hundreds and hundreds of local Chinese tourists.  All these Chinese do a fairly standard cheesy tour: the drive into the park on big bus-fulls, get off at a viewpoint to take photos, get back on the bus, etc.  Usually they take photos with the fancy sign reading the name of the lake, as opposed to the beautiful beautiful  lake itself.  Crazy.  Anyhow, we spent relatively little time on the bus and a whole lot of time on the footpaths, and  we ran into very few other tourists.

OK, on with the photos…

First Day – “The Trunk”

We spent the first day going up and down the “trunk” of the Y-shape that defines the park.  We didn’t know that it’s possible to get on the bus for free once you’re deep in the park, so we spent all day on foot.  It was a pretty exhausting day – I think altogether we walked about 35 kilometers.  We started around 8 am, shortly after opening.  But the trouble was that the park was so stunningly beautiful that we stopped for photos every 10 steps.  Before we knew it, the time was 4 pm and we were 18 km into the park, at Nourilang, with the park closing at 6 pm.  We proceeded to speed-walk our way out of the park, and we reached the exit at 7 pm, an hour late and totally exhausted.  If only we knew we could ride the bus for free!  🙂

Anyhow, I would say that the prongs (which we saw on day 2) have the more spectacular sights.  So if you’re going to spend two days in the park, it’s a good idea to do the trunk first.  Another benefit is that you see very few tourists in this area until you reach Nourilang Falls.

Our path on the first day:

map day 1

Panda bear statues at the entrance to the park:

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Pnina and Toni as we enter the park; the path followed this river upstream along the valley:

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The majority of the trail was a well maintained boardwalk in the forest – this was five star “hiking”.  We really liked the way these trees poked through the boardwalk:

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This was the site of a Tibetan Buddhist temple called Zaru.  The site was under construction so there wasn’t much to see.  We thought it was an interesting statement that the police had taken over this beautiful side building for their purposes:

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Tadpoles in the water – we saw hundreds of them:

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A Chinese snack with peanuts coated in a crispy covering.  It reminded us of an Israeli snack called “kabukim”.  This was one of our favorite trail foods in China, though it wasn’t always easy to find:

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The Heye Zhai Tibetan village.  In general we found that the Tibetan villages here in Jiuzhaigou were similar to the ones we saw in Tibet, but just a little too perfect.  Also, the villages in Tibet are generally surrounded by completely arid land, not green forest:

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The first of the crystal blue lakes along the way.  Of course our cameras can’t capture the true colors, but it’s impossible to miss how easily you can see logs submerged under the water.  It might looks like I photoshopped two photos together, but I assure you, it really looks like this:

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The photography frenzy begins.  Over the two days we spent in the park, Pnina and I together took 794 photos.  Actually we took more, but we managed to get rid of a few:

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Walking around a marshy area:

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More beautiful boardwalk in the forest:

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A tree leaning way over the water.  The sign said not to climb it, but I mean, come on…

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Whenever we saw a tree trunk that was only partly submerged, it always had new plantlife growing out of it:

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A shallow ring in this lake, and a waterfall in the back:

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It may be a little hard to tell, but here we’re standing on top of a waterfall that spills onto that blue lake below:

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Close-up of the water spilling over:

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More submerged logs.  I’ve seen some pretty clear water in my life, but never this clear:

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Sun shining through leaves:

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There were areas where the river became very shallow and wide.  The park people were very good about having boardwalks that criss-cross all over these areas:

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The first big waterfall (Shuzheng Falls):

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Kind of trippy – you’re looking at submerged branches.  After a while they start to resemble corals, right?

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Looking at blue blue water through green green trees:

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The boardwalk leads us further into the valley:

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More sparkling blue water and green forest:

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Some trees above water, some trees below:

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Second Day – “The Prongs”

On the second day we splurged for bus tickets.  We started by driving up the left prong all the way to Long Lake and the nearby sites.  Then we took more busses all the way to the tip of the right prong, from where we started walking back.

On this day we were lucky to have sun and blue skies.  Actually, we didn’t know how lucky we were; after this day it was more than a week before we saw blue skies again – turns out it was rainy season in Sichuan.

And on this day we saw what are probably the best sites in Jiuzhaigou: Five Color Pool (at the top of the left prong) and Five Color Lake (half way up the right prong).  I guess you know you’ve found something good if it’s called “Five Color”.  For Five Color Lake there’s a viewpoint along the road that gives you the best perspective.  The trouble is that the bus doesn’t stop there.  So, the thing to do is to get off at the next downhill station (at the base of Five Color Lake), and then walk 20 minutes uphill along the road.  It sucks to walk on the road after all the wonderful boardwalks, but the views at the top are totally worth it.

Our path the second day:

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This is Long Lake at the top of the left prong:

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Ah, Five Color Pool, so beautiful:

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Pnina standing in front of Five Color Pool.  It’s a little strange to see her bundled up like that in front of tropical-looking water, but it really was a bit chilly up there:

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Both of us at Five Color Pool:

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Moss grows over one of the lakes on the right prong:

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Arrow Bamboo Falls:

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In some places they put the boardwalk right below the falls, so you can look over the perfectly still surface of the lake from which the water fell:

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The viewpoint at the top of Five Color Lake.  Oh my god:

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Same viewpoint, can’t get enough:

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A random local tourist sitting near Five Color Lake.  Looks like a swimming pool, right?

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Plantlife growing under the surface of Five Color Lake:

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A popular location for wedding photography, no surprise:

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Branches partly inside the water:

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On the way back, the boardwalk crossed this wide area with water flowing underneath:

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Must we leave??

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Thank You Wayne!

In my opinion, Jiuzhaigou is easily the #1 best place we’ve visited in our 7 months of traveling, so far.  And I don’t even have to think about it that hard.  For Pnina it’s not so clear cut, but she would definitely place it in the top five.

So, at this point I’d like to pause to thank the guy who made me aware of Jiuzhaigou in the first place – Wayne Liu.  Wayne and I worked together at Microsoft years ago.  One day he came back from a vacation in China and he sent around an email to share some of his best photos.  His shots from Jiuzhaigou really floored me; I just couldn’t believe you could find green-blue lakes like that in the middle of a forest.  And in his case the photos were even more spectacular because he visited in the fall season, when the colors of the lakes contrast with the yellows, oranges, and reds of the deciduous trees.  Because of those photos I put Jiuzhaigou way high on my list of must-see places, and now that I’ve seen it I’m not disappointed at all.

So, in short, thanks Wayne!

By the way, Wayne has also left Microsoft and now works on a Facebook application that helps non-profits raise money.  If you’re interested, check it out: Causemunity.

Jiuzhaigou, The Song?

A few times during our trip we came to associate a song with a location.  For example, in Nepal (especially in Kathmandu’s Thamel neighborhood) you can’t walk 10 feet without hearing this new-age song with monks chanting a Buddhist prayer: Om Mani Padme Hum.  Every time I think about Nepal, that song comes to mind.  The same thing happened in China – we kept hearing this one song all the time, on every bus ride, in most restaurants, etc.  After about five listens I had the tune down, so whenever we met a local person I would hum or whistle the tune and ask them what it’s called.  Everyone recognized the song, but oddly enough, I never managed to learn the song’s name.  One person said that it’s a song about Jiuzhaigou, but we’re not so sure.  So here’s the challenge.  I managed to take this snapshot of a karaoke version of the song playing on one of our bus rides:

chinese song karaoke

If you know Chinese and you can track down a version of this song online (e.g. YouTube) you win some prize TBA.

Sichuan Cuisine

Jiuzhaigou was the first place where we got a chance to taste real Sichuan cuisine.  We stopped at a small hot-pot restaurant that was full of local tourists (always a good sign), and we asked for what they were having.  We got a huge pot full of various chicken pieces and vegetables, all drowning in hot oil.  Now, we’d heard that Sichuanese food is spicy, but we weren’t fully prepared for this dish.  After the first few bites we felt a funny sensation in our mouths.  First it felt like a sour bomb explosion, and then it felt like nothing – our mouths went numb.  The culprit, it turned out, is this little pepper called Waja (or something like that) – it gives the sour bomb plus numbness effect.  It’s usually coupled with a standard hot chilly pepper.  The combination is called “Na La”, and it’s a staple of nearly all Sichuanese dishes, not just hot-pot.  Once we figured this out, we spent a lot of time fishing those pesky waja peppers out of our dishes before we proceeded to eat.  Pnina called them “danger zone”.  🙂  Waja aside, we found that Sichuanese food was frequently just way too oily for our taste.  But there were a few occasions where the food happened to be not that greasy in which case it was very good.

The surface of our hot pot dish.  Yup, that’s a chicken foot.  Nope, we didn’t eat it:

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Here is the red chilly pepper and the “waja” (Sichuanese) pepper that make the “Na La” combination.  It’s amazing that this little waja pepper, about the size of a regular black pepper, can pack such a punch:

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