‘Nature does not hurry, and yet everything is accomplished’. High up in the Min mountain range at the edge of the Tibetan-Himalayan plateau lies a place of exquisite beauty, befitting Laozi’s ancient quote.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – mountains so high that the gods must have lived up there, waters so clear I could almost glimpse the reflection of my inner consciousness, and trees so lush, they made me wonder what kind of magical beings made homes in their branches.
Before Jiuzhaigou National Park opened to the public in 1984, hardly anyone ventured there. This was a place so remote that, back in the 70s, giant pandas were safe to roam about, drinking from its pristine lakes.
To preserve this stunning sanctuary, the Chinese government banned deforestation in the area and gazetted it as a national park. In 1992, the Jiuzhaigou National Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and five years later, a World Biosphere Reserve.
JOURNEY TO JIUZHAIGOU
Jiuzhaigou is a district located within China’s Sichuan province. It took me nine hours by road to get there from Chengdu – a typical starting point for sojourns around the province. All along the way, I was treated to views so spectacular, I just couldn’t bear to close my eyes for some shut-eye, loathe to miss a single detail. All I wanted to do was gaze out the windows of the van at the mountains, meadows and clouds. My travelling companions and I passed little Tibetan villages, lavender farms in full bloom, and local farmers herding their yaks.
When darkness fell, we stopped at a hotel for the night, and I eagerly awaited the first rays of dawn. I was not disappointed. What greeted me in the morning took my breath away. Towering mountains shielded hungry eyes from the bright morning light, as crimson coloured China roses whispered hello, and the fresh morning air provided a nourishing breakfast for the soul.
If this was the experience from outside the park, I couldn’t begin to imagine what lay in store for me within.
A SLICE OF HEAVEN
I really was not prepared for the magnitude of the place. Jiuzhaigou’s beauty lies not in a perfectly shaped lake in the middle of a forest, but in the multitude of rivers, lakes and waterfalls that run through its diverse landscape.
The park is so huge that it spans an area of about 180,000 acres, with altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 metres above sea level. It comprises three valleys, forming a Y-shaped trail that starts from Shuzheng Valley. The trail then splits into two, with the Zechawa Gully on the left and Rize Gully on the right. To conserve forest floor and make space for vegetation, elevated wooden walking paths have been built following the flow of the rivers, and all the scenic spots in between. But we opted for the hop-on, hop-off bus service.
PURE & PRISTINE
Traversing the Rize Gully, the allure of Mirror Lake was undeniable. Even from inside a moving vehicle, it was patently clear that its name was no mere exaggeration. This brilliant water body was so pristine that I could see reflected in it the many intense shades of green bouncing off the pine and fern trees in the area.
A must-visit along this gully is the Five Flower Lake, often referred to as the soul of Jiuzhaigou. I learned from my guide that the water’s deep blue hue came from its high content of calcium carbonate. Here too, the visibility was so incredible that I could see down to the fallen tree trunks that formed a criss-crossing pattern some five metres underwater!
At the nearby Pearl Shoal Falls, I descended a staircase and found the perfect spot to take in the power of nature. It was just me and 310-metre wide water curtains that gushed down a 28-metre high slope. The magnificent falls drowned out sounds of other visitors, allowing me to seek solace in its thunderous roar.
Continuing along the creek, I headed towards Pearl Shoal Lake, where its crystal clear waters flowed with graceful force through the landscape. Tried as I might to capture its beauty in photographs, I just couldn’t, leading me to believe that this is the kind of view that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Despite the vastness of Jiuzhaigou, this is the sort of place where one never truly feels alone. Exploring its myriad pathways on my own offered opportunities to connect with nature and make delightful discoveries.
I took paths less travelled, stopping by a mossy riverbank that made me feel like a hobbit on an adventure, and an almost hidden waterfall where little trees stood between streams of water. And right in the middle of nowhere, I found tree branches that bent and twisted, forming a heart against the turquoise lake behind it.
At each unassuming spot, I soaked up a new experience and a timeless lesson. There is a term in Mandarin, sen lin zhi yu, which means ‘forest therapy’, and the peaceful feeling that the lush scenery evoked in me convinced me of the healing power of nature, reminding me to stop and smell the Chinese roses.
VALLEY OF THE NINE
The name Jiuzhaigou means ‘valley of the nine villages’, referring to the nine Tibetan settlements within the area. Today, only seven remain. As I continued my ‘forest therapy’ along Shuzheng Valley, I stopped by Shuzheng village, one of the more accessible settlements. Here, traditional Tibetan houses constructed of mud and wood lined the hillside, and I saw Tibetan prayer flags swaying in the breeze.
Yak herding and farming are still practised by the locals, but many also engage in trade, thanks to the boom in tourism. The high quality of Tibetan craftsmanship may be observed in the exquisitely crafted smoking pipes, delicate combs made from yak bones, string art with bells that are said to clear negative energy, and knives in elaborately carved casings. I was thankful for the cold Sichuan breeze that gave me a good reason to purchase a colourful cashmere pashmina to keep me warm.
LOVE CONQUERS ALL
As I admired the blooming marigolds that sprouted around Shuzheng village, I was startled by a little boy wielding an imaginary sword and duelling with an invisible foe. Watching this swashbuckling scene unfold against fields of gold had me wondering about the local history, as well as the stories that made Jiuzhaigou so magical.
Legend has it that there was once a mountain deity named Dage who was very much in love with the goddess Wonosemo. Entranced by the purity of her soul, Dage crafted a mirror from clouds, wind and raindrops, and presented it to Wonosemo before embarking on a journey.
Unbeknownst to Dage, the devil Shemozha had been waiting for the right moment to abduct Wonosemo. To defend herself, Wonosemo threw the mirror at the devil, breaking it into 118 pieces.
Fortunately, Dage returned just in time to defeat Shemozha, imprisoning the devil in one of the mountains. The mirror shards that fell to the ground turned into the many glistening pools that bejewel Jiuzhaigou. As for the two lovers, they lived happily ever after, guarding this lush paradise.
For me, this tale of divine love enhanced the romance of Jiuzhaigou. And, hearing that its mountains, as well as the surrounding peaks are believed by Tibetans to be the dwelling place of the gods, made my visit almost a spiritual one.
PROVINCE OF ABUNDANCE
After bidding farewell to Jiuzhaigou, I took a little detour to the city of Dujiangyan, famed for the ancient Dujiangyan Irrigation System that has played an integral role in making the Sichuan province an important producer of agricultural products like rice, sugar, corn and potato. My plan to sleep in the car was once again foiled, as I was treated to views of flowing rivers throughout the seven-hour journey.
Upon arrival, I was greeted with the sight of senior folks dancing merrily to a 1950s melody that came from an old jukebox in what was barely a park. Apparently, when they’re not dancing, they can be seen practising the gentle and graceful meditative martial art of tai chi here. I spotted children blowing bubbles, young adults snapping selfies and tourists leisurely browsing shops selling trinkets, souvenirs and panda memorabilia, while locals chit-chatted over Chinese herbs, yak meat and citrus fruits. Like in Jiuzhaigou, the people here seemed to understand the importance of an unhurried appreciation of life. This is one of those places where you just feel at peace, where you feel the importance of living in harmony with nature.
I could imagine how such a harmonious approach helped influence the formation of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. About 2,000 years ago, during the reign of the Qin Dynasty, then governor Li Bing was tasked with coming up with a solution to the overflowing of Min River that had been causing flooding in the area. He was advised to build a dam, but decided against it, as he felt it would disrupt the natural process. Instead, he devised an artificial levee that would separate the water into two streams – one flowing out and another flowing towards the inner part of the city. This controlled flow has been instrumental in the development of agriculture in Sichuan, earning it a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 2000.
Today, the system still works perfectly, and has become a popular tourist attraction. The walkway that leads to its main observation deck is decorated with pretty flowerbeds, statues of past rulers of Sichuan, replicas of a traditional-style irrigation system composed of wood and rocks, and little pagodas where people can take a breather.
Crossing the 261-metre-long Anlan Suspension Bridge, which spans the inner river, I found little temples perched on the hillside offering great vantage points from which to take in the views.
At the Erwang Temple here, I took a moment to revel in the beauty of the sprawling cityscape. I watched tiny humans moving about below, and then, gazed up at the majestic mountains that towered over Dujiang-yan, seeming to guard it. It was then that a realisation dawned upon me; although small in comparison to the peaks, we are their guardians. No matter our contribution – great or small – we all have a part to play in protecting our home and its treasures. And like all great symbiotic relationships, this mutual care and dependence will reward us in turn. How? Well, I just had to think of the pure beauty of Jiuzhaigou to believe in this truth.
Nature does not hurry and yet everything is accomplished. How true those words ring even thousands of years later.
GEMS OF JIUZHAIGOU
Don’t miss these stunning watery attractions when visiting Jiuzhaigou National Park.
Named for the giant pandas that were spotted here decades ago, the 90,000-square-metre lake is a shimmering sliver of paradise surrounded by bamboo forests and fern trees.
This 1,375-metre-long brook that zigzags along a reed marsh is especially stunning in autumn, when the bronze reeds take on a burnished hue in dramatic contrast to the turquoise waters.
FIVE COLOUR POND
Also known as Jade Pool, it is one of the smallest lakes in Jiuzhaigou. What is lacks in size, it makes up in its striking beauty, with intense shades of blue and green water.
Standing 20 metres high and gushing approximately 320 metres in distance, this is one of the biggest waterfalls in China. Its cascades flow into the Nuorilang Lakes, which comprises Rhinoceros Lake and Tiger Lake.
This stunning lake was the location where the sword fight scene with Jet Li and Tony Leung Chiu Wai was shot for the film Hero.
WHERE FAIRIES FROLIC
Located about 40 minutes from the entrance of Jiuzhaigou National Park is Fairy Pools, which is named for its association with these mystical creatures. It is said that fairies used to descend from heaven to bathe in the turquoise pools here. Although still part of the national park, an additional entry fee (approx. USD15) is imposed.
WHEN TO GO
Gorgeous autumnal hues of yellow and tangerine make September, October and November the perfect months to visit. Temperatures range from seven to 15° Celsius.
For travellers who prefer a warmer sojourn, the breezy summer months of June, July and August are pleasant with temperatures of about 18 to 22° Celsius.
The average temperature between March and May is 10 to 18° Celsius. Although the shrubs are not as green as in summer, this non-peak period is a good time to visit if you wish to escape the crowds.
With temperatures dropping below 0° Celsius, some of the lakes would be frozen in December, January and February, but the sight of soft snow falling on the ground is undeniably pretty.
ENTRANCE FEE IS APPROX. USD34 FOR A ONE-DAY PASS. en.jiuzhai.com
GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies to Chengdu from Kuala Lumpur. For flight info and lowest fares www.airasia.com.