Zharu Valley branches off in a southeasterly direction from the northern end of Shuzheng Valley, the latter being the principal valley of the Jiuzhai area's main, tri-valley system (Shuzheng Valley is the trunk of the upside-down "Y" that describes the main, tri-valley system). Of the four larger, developed valleys of the Jiuzhai Valley system, Zharu Valley is the latest to be developed, and as such has profited from the mistakes made in suddenly converting the Jiuzhai area's valleys into a mass tourism mecca; the emphasis at Zharu Valley is on ecotourism, but it is also a welcome watering hole for those who simply thirst for outdoor experiences of the off-the-beaten-track variety.
The valley is only in its embryonic developmental stage, but is very – and very laudably – ambitious. The choice of opting for ecotourism in Zharu Valley is not without reason, for the valley is an unspoiled paradise, where visitors – and these are restricted to a very limited number per day – can overnight in the valley (the typical admission fee is for not less than two days) and thus leisurely explore the valley's many trails through quiet, beautiful landscapes. Zharu Valley, as indicated in the Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area article, contains 40% of all of the plant species that exist in present-day China, making it a half-microcosm of Chinese flora, which, as also previously mentioned, is one of the prime reasons behind UNESCO's designation of Jiuzhai Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area as a World Biosphere Reserve.
There is a series of themed trails in the valley (the Ecological Path, the Scientific Explorations Route, the Explorations in Ancient Cultures Trail, etc.), some running parallel over certain stretches while crisscrossing each other or branching off alone over other stretches, and others that go their own separate ways – for example, the faraway lakes, Black Lake and Dalian Lake in the northeastern part of the valley is a scientific exploration route. There is also a bicycle path along the main valley. There are ancient ruins as well as abandoned villages here that belong to the cultures trail, as well as a trail for those who like to follow the banks of a stream (the so-called Upstream Route), hopping from stone to stone where nature dictates.
If rock climbing (by hand, not the mountain climbing variant with picks, pegs, pulleys and ropes) is your thing, then that can be satisfied here as well, since the valley has, in places, sheer limestone and granite walls that can challenge even the experienced rock climber. A yet-to-be-developed riding trail (though it may already be finished at the time of this writing) is envisioned on the southwest slopes of the main valley, and if the riding trail that is eventually developed there offers views of the valley below, it will likely be one of the most popular to-do activities in all of Zharu Valley.
There are not a lot of dazzling photo-op type attractions in Zharu Valley, very little of the spectacular, in fact. What one will instead find in Zharu Valley is cosiness, ambience, and lots and lots of uncluttered space amidst pristine nature, meaning that you will be able to hear plenty of birdsong here, just as you stand a reasonably good chance of spotting wild animals in Zharu Valley. Since Zharu Valley is unspoiled and since it comprises extensive forests, it is also home to a diverse animal life, including countless birds, some of which are typical game birds such as quail, grouse and pheasants – the latter to include the Green Tail Gloss Pheasant (Lophophorus lhuysii, aka Chinese Gloss Pheasant), the Golden Pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus, aka Chinese Pheasant) and the Blue Eared Pheasant (Crossoptilon auritum).
In short, Zharu Valley is for the tourist in search of an active holiday experience, but where that active holiday experience is imbued with an ecological, cultural or scientific theme. One of the most demanding but rewarding, active-holiday experiences at Zharu Valley is the monthly religious-cultural circumambulation trek (or "pilgrimmage", if you happen to be a Benbo Buddhist) around Mt. Zhayizhaga on the 15th day of the lunar month (more on this event below), known officially as the Mountain Circumambulation Route. There are a few old well-functioning relics here in the valley (not all that is ancient is in ruins here!), such as Zharu Bridge and Zharu Monastery (these will be presented in detail farther below).
To set the stage for the rest of this article, we offer a sketch map (see immediately below) that should give the visitor an idea of the relative positioning of the valley's various parts and scenic attractions. Though the map (done up by yours truly from an actual map, though decidedly not drawn to scale!) is nothing to write home about, it should nonetheless give the prospective visitor a rough idea of the layout of Zharu Valley (I deliberately omitted the various trails as this would have cluttered the map unduly, and would therefore have defeated the map's purpose, which is simply to sketch the rough outlines of Zharu Valley).
As can be seen from the above sketch map, Zharu Bridge and Zharu Monastery, along with Priceless Mirror Cliff (which is described here in the Shuzheng Valley article), are both depicted as being at the entrance of the valley, where it meets Shuzheng Valley. In reality, the monastery is a little farther within the valley – about a kilometer into the valley, in fact, but it does stand close to Priceless Mirror Cliff. One of the feeder streams that joins the Emerald River is a feeder stream located just beyond Zharu Bridge, which feeder stream is home to Zharu Waterfall farther upstream, above which lies a campsite. Along the stream that produces Zharu Waterfall are two sacred natural springs: Qubu Springs and Qumo Springs.
A kilometer or so deeper into the valley lies the now abandoned Guoda Village, with Guoda Bridge and the Sika Deer Habitat nearby, followed by yet another feeder stream which, like the feeder stream that gives rise to Zharu Waterfall, lies on a southwest-northeast axis. A few kilometers farther still along the main route lies a campsite on the right-hand (southwest) side of the valley, and trails (not shown, for the reasons given above) extend into the upward-sloping valley wall to another abandoned village on a flattened, terraced hilltop, the village of Heijiao, which can actually be reached more easily via Shuzheng Valley, just north of Reed Lake, on the east side of Shuzheng River.
On the direct opposite side of the Emerald River from the area of the campsite rises majestic Mt. Zhayizhaga in the distance, and a few kilometers deeper into the valley lies the Panda Habitat on the northeast bank of the Emerald River. A kilometer or so beyond this lies Ruoyede Village, also on the northeast bank of the river. One of the terminuses of the Mountain Circumambulation Route around Mt. Zhayizhaga – which route also follows yet another feeder stream in a northeasterly direction, with campsites on both sides of it – is located near Ruoyede Village.
In the following a few of the highlights of the valley will be presented in more detail, but first, a few disclaimers of sorts. Much is made in the written literature concerning Zharu Valley of an ancient 3-kilometer-long horse trail and a 500-meter-long wood trail. The horse trail is supposed to stretch from the foot of Mt. Zhayizhaga to... somewhere or another... though passing alongside 'exotic rocks, hanging old rattans and rapid torrents... fences, orchards, ancient temples, grass slopes, cattle, and in the distance: snowy peaks and floating clouds – everything appearing as in a landscape movie'.
Well, there is no such place in Zharu Valley, though there is much beauty in this valley! Moreover, there is only one temple in the valley, Zharu Monastery, which lies near the entrance to Zharu Valley proper (there are smaller valleys between the mountains – in fact, the Mountain Circumambulation Route around Mt. Zhayizhaga follows just such a valley, or series of short valleys – so it is not suprising that there may be a smaller offshoot valley leading toward the foot of Mt. Zhayizhaga). Worse still, a horse trail (as opposed to a riding trail, which is a Western invention) of a mere three kilometers length makes about as much sense as a bridge reaching 1/10 the way across a river (but note that the planned riding trail is envisioned to be three kilometers long, suggesting perhaps that the person who concocted the story of the old horse trail was fed the wrong information!).
As to the wood trail, there is no single place along the valley – either along the valley proper or its offshoot valleys – that corresponds to a 500-meter-long walk on a bed of pine needles, though there are many trails in Zharu Valley with plenty of pine needles and maybe a few stretches of several hundred meters each with a fir-tree canopy of branches which, in season, shed massive amounts of needles. The point being that Zharu Valley has enough to offer the "naturalist" (not to be confused with the naturalist (i.e., a person who denies the existence of the supernatural, or whose motto might be "what you see is what you get"), the "naturalist" is someone who simply loves the great outdoors) without having to resort to fiction! Moving hastily along...
Zharu Bridge lies near the entrance to the valley where flows the Feicui ("Emerald") River, which river runs the length of Zharu Valley, with smaller feeder streams, as the sketch map shows, branching out from the main stream. Zharu Bridge is a typical wooden, Tibetan-style cantilever bridge of the type depicted below, which crosses the Shuiluo He ("River") near Yading, also in Sichuan Province, about 550 kilometers west-southwest of Jiuzhai Valley (in the picture can be seen the temple, Chonggu Temple, for which the bridge is named). An earlier version of this bridge stood in roughly the same spot when the famous but unassuming, Austrian-born American explorer, anthropologist and botanist, Dr. Joseph Francis Rock (1884-1962), led his first expedition in the area in 1928.
Like Chonggu Bridge, Zharu Bridge is always adorned with colorful Tibetan prayer flags (lung ta, meaning "Wind Horse", but they may also be guoda, as in the deserted Zharu Valley village of the same name, or darchor) that flap in the wind. The Tibetans believe that the motion of the wind against the surface of the prayer flags can release their prayers, which prayers thus float on the wind, to be intercepted and answered by the spirit gods (the local Tibetan form of Buddhism, Benbo Buddhism, being firmly rooted in the Bön religion, an animist religion that predates Tibet's conversion to Buddhism).
Zharu Monastery sits within an orchard ringed with a picket fence of sorts. The orchard and monastery face Priceless Mirror Cliff. Sections of rope, on which hang colorful, noisy (in windy weather) prayer flags, are stretched between various sections of this simple monastery that is made of wood and clay brick. The interior of the monastery is similarly simple and consists of six parts: the Main Hall, the Guest Hall, the Scriptorium, the Music Platform, a Tea Hall (a teahouse, which typically serves tea and vegetarian dishes to the paying public, though it is not certain that this one does), and lastly, the living quarters of the abbot and the monks (lamas).
The four-sided Main Hall is in three storeys, with roofs with upturned eaves and distributed here and there on the roof – though not randomly but arranged symmetrically – strange-looking adornments, many spire-like in shape and having a golden hue (the more expensive ones are made of gilded copper while the cheaper ones are simply smeared with "golden" paint), their purpose being to house large, woodblock-printed prayer scrolls, meaning that the purpose of these strange-looking roof adornments, like the prayer flags, is to ward off evil spirits.
In front of the Main Hall is a golden wheel, the Dharma Wheel, which symbolizes the eternal cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth until nirvanna is achieved. A pair of divine deer flank this golden "wheel of mortality" (for a typical example, click here). The Statue of Sakyamuni (the founder of Buddhism) is located in the center of the Main Hall, with religious instruments resting on the altar and woollen meditating blankets on the floor. Early every morning, the procession of oil-lamp-bearing lamas arrive to the sound of the gong to meditate and to perform the first of their several-times-daily (but differing depending on the time of day) prayer rituals. Tibetan Buddhist religious services are accompanied by much music and chanting.
In autumn, the monastery is at its most picturesque when the brightly colored leaves contrast pleasingly with the muted hues of the buildings.
The Mt. Zhayizhaga Circumambulation Pilgrimage
Each month, on the 15th day of the Chinese lunar calendar, local Tibetans from Jiuzhaigou as well as Tibetans from nearby Nanping and Songpan counties, come to pay their homage to Mt. Zhayizhaga by walking around the mountain on foot, saying prayers and performing religous rituals. The assembled adherents – in smaller or larger clusters, some on foot and some on horseback – make the pilgrimmage around the mountain in a counterclockwise direction, spreading kha-btags (ceremonial silk scarves, slightly akin to hada, the strip of silk offered to strangers) and chanting religious songs.
The pilgrimmage around the mountain is quite long, lasting upwards of three days. Near the end of the trek, the pilgrims arrive at the site of Zharu Waterfall, beyond which (in the direction of the Emerald River, since the pilgrimmage is in a counterclockwise direction) one sees the aforementioned sacred twin springs, Qubu and Qumo, whose waters are so pure that they can be drunk without boiling or without the use of a chemical additive. The Benbo Buddhists of Jiuzhai Valley naturally believe that these waters cleanse not only the body but the spirit as well. May 15th – corresponding to the Mazi Festival – is the climax of the annual circumambulation ceremony around Mt. Zhayizhaga, when large flocks of Benbo Tibetan Buddhists descend on Zharu Valley to participate in the circumambulation ceremony and the following Mazi Festival at Zharu Monastery. Visitors to Zharu Valley are naturally welcome to participate in these circumambulation ceremonies as well as the annual Mazi Festival.
If the administrators of Zharu Valley stick to their plan of limiting the daily number of visitors to the site, then this ecotourism venture will sooner or later be financially sustainable, though most beginnings involve a short-term loss. One can only hope that this venture will succeed, but if it doesn't, it will not be for lack of ambition. As indicated in the introduction, most of the scenic sites of Zharu Valley are in fact quite unpretentious in character, their allure being a combination of their individually modest intrinsic value and the appealing setting in which they coexist, which setting is preserved precisely by the limitation on the number of daily visitors to the valley.
The overarching emphasis at Zharu Valley is on quality, not quantity, which means that Zharu Valley is not for everyone, since the visitor to Zharu Valley must be prepared to pay a premium for the privilege of experiencing pristine nature without the crowds. In the long run, such an initiative can always "pay off", it is only a question of whether the initiative can weather the losses of the short run. This should inspire you to plan a visit to Zharu Valley under all circumstances, for you will either be among the select few who experienced it before it buckled under, or, by visiting it, you will have contributed to its longrun success – a win-win situation, when you think about it!