Detailed Introduction to Jiuzhaigou
Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area, aka Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, is a series of interconnected valleys situated in a high mountain range along the northern border of Sichuan Province near the province's border with Gansu Province. Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, or Jiuzhai Valley as we will call it here for the most part (Jiu-zhai-gou means "Nine Villages Gully", or "Nine Villages Valley", so in the following we will eliminate the redundancy and refer to the area simply as Jiuzhai Valley though "on the ground", i.e., in the Jiuzhai Valley area, you will quite likely hear it referred to as Jiuzhaigou Valley), and the city of the same name, lie some 300 kilometers, as the crow flies, almost due north of the provincial capital of Chengdu.
Situated in Northern Sichuan, Jiuzhaigou is one of the most unique and beautiful nature reserves in China. It contains many snow-capped mountains, oxygen saturated forests, massive waterfalls, Tibetan style villages, and dozens of lakes that are different shades of blue and green (caused by calcium carbonate). Jiuzhaigou is also tourist friendly and can easily be seen in one day if you arrive at the park in the early morning. The town outside of the nature reserve also has a lot of charm and beauty. After visiting the park you can enjoy a meal at a restaurant next to a river, get a massage, or walk around and buy souvenirs at the market area.
Jiuzhai Valley is, as indicated, situated in a high mountain range, where the lowest point lies at 1998 meters above sea level and the highest point, Mount Ganzigonggai in Zechawa Valley, lies at 4764 meters above sea level (by comparison, the city of Denver, aka the "Mile High City", located in the U.S. state of Colorado, lies in a 1600-meter-high valley just east of the Front Range Mountains of the Rocky Mountain Range - the latter known in North America as the Continental Divide, since the weather pattern and the topography west of the mountain range is distinctly different from the weather and topography east of the mountain range).
The "nine villages"* of Jiuzhai Valley are spread among the valley's network of five interconnected valleys. Jiuzhai Valley's main framework is a set of three large valleys - Shuzheng, Zechawa and Rize Valleys - that form an upside-down "Y", looking northward. To the north, Shuzheng Valley represents the "Y's" trunk while Rize Valley represents the southwestern fork of the upside down "Y" and Zechawa Valley represents the "Y's" southeastern fork. Zharu Valley branches off from Shuzheng Valley in a southeasterly direction near Zharu Monsastery (Zharusi).
The entrance to Zharu Valley lies about 12 kilometers above (north of) the fork in the main valley system, where Zechawa and Rize Valleys end and Shuzheng Valley commences. The last of the five valleys that make up Jiuzhai Valley, Changhai ("Long Lake") Valley, is an extension of Zechawa Valley (the latter valley being, as indicated, the southeastern branch of the valley system's upside-down "Y") and consists of, besides Long Lake and Five-Color Pond, two large natural runoff lakes - Shangjijiehai ("Upper Runoff Lake") and Xiajijiehai ("Lower Runoff Lake").
Each of the five valleys has its own special attractions (see the links below or click on "Attractions" in the Table of Contents in the upper left corner). The slopes of the mountains that line each of the five valleys are covered in dense vegetation. Since the altitude range goes from roughly 2000 meters to roughly 4800 meters, the vegetation varies accordingly. At high altitudes, conifers and black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) dominate while at medium altitudes deciduous trees dominate. At the lowest altitudes, a much broader palette of plants abound, such as ferns, orchids, rhododendrons, grasses, reeds and a variety of smaller bamboo, with many aquatic plants growing around the edges of the lakes. There are over 2500 plant types that thrive in the Jiuzhai Valley area, some of which are under state or local protection.
Similarly, there is an abundance of wildlife that have made a home in the Jiuzhai Valley area, 27 of which are either threatened or endangered species, including the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), the golden monkey (Cercopithecus kandti, aka, the Sichuan Snub-Nosed Monkey), the white-lipped deer (Przewalskium albirostris, aka Thorold's Deer), the snow leopard (Panthera uncia), the musk deer (family Moschidae), the Asian Small-Clawed Otter (Aonyx cinerea), and water fowl such as the mute swan (Cygnus olor), the black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis), the Chinese Monal Pheasant (Lophophorus Ihuysii), the golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus, aka Chinese Pheasant), and the Sichuan Jay (Perisoreus internigrans). An introduced species, the so-called Fischer's Lovebird (Agapornis fischeri), one of many such parrot species that stem from Africa, is near-threatened.
Alas, most of Jiuzhai Valley's giant pandas have long since been collected and relocated to the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve and Research Center near Chengdu, though a few still roam about in the valleys of Jiuzhai. The visitor is much more likely to run across one of the 141 species of thriving birds (less the above-listed threatened species) of Jiuzhai Valley. The park area proper of Jiuzhai Valley spans some 700 square kilometers, with a buffer zone around the park area that covers an additional 600 square kilometers.
Getting around in the park area is facilitated by a shuttle bus service that continually runs the length of the main "Y", with twice as many buses operating on the trunk of the "Y" as on each of the branches of the "Y's" fork. There are excellent boardwalks throughout the valley system, making it easy to alternate between catching the shuttle bus and sightseeing on foot. Access to the two secondary valleys, however, is strictly by foot. Thus, those who prefer to avoid crowds can easily do so by visiting Zharu and Changhai Valleys. Both have their unique highlights: Changhai Valley has its magnificent lakes, including Wucai Chi ("Five-Color Pond"), a so-called travertine pond whose floor and walls are formed of mineral deposits (for a brief explanation of how Mother Nature produces travertine, read the first footnote of the Jiuzhaigou Overview article) that reflect light in a rainbow of colors; while Zharu Valley has been designated as an ecotourist site for hikers.
Zharu Valley contains 40% of all of the plant species that exist in present-day China, making it a half-microcosm of Chinese flora, which is one of the prime reasons behind UNESCO's designation of Jiuzhai Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area as a World Biosphere Reserve.
Jiuzhai Valley is well-maintained, with as reduced a human footprint as possible while still offering the public the opportunity to enjoy the pristine nature of Nine Villages Valley. The leadership that oversees Nine Villages Valley takes its responsibilities for the sustainability of Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park very seriously, a measure of which is the sisterships that Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park has established with other wild parks abroad, including the Plitvice Lakes area of Croatia, the Cradle Mountain area of Tasmania, and the following national parks in the U.S.: Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Olympic National Park.
Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park came into being in 1982 and was opened to the public two years later, though the influx of foreign tourists would first begin in earnest a decade later still, or in 1992, when the transportation infrastructure (highways and airports) was finally in place, which also corresponds to the period when the park was recognized internationally; Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List in 1992 and was listed as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1997.
In more recent times, the park has been recognized by the Green Globe 21 initiative, part of the 1992 UN Earth Summit Agenda 21 Principles for Sustainable Development relating specifically to eco-friendly tourism. Prior to the area's UNESCO recognition, Jiuzhai Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area became a Chinese National Geological Park and a Class 4A (the country's highest rating) National Scenic Site. To learn more about the highlights of each of Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park's component parts, click on Changhai Valley, Rize Valley, Shuzheng Valley, Zechawa Valley and Zharu Valley.
* The Jiuzhai Valley system actually consists of 9 - 2 + 3 villages, or 10 villages in all. The explanation? Two of the valley system's villages, Guodu and Hejiao, are today uninhabited (their inhabitants have been moved outside of the park area in order to preserve the very delicate, very pristine nature of the area in question), while three additional villages, Penbu, Panxing and Yongzhu - technically lying beyond the valley system proper - are now considered a part of Jiuzhai Valley.