The town of Jiuzhaigou, a part of the Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of northwestern Sichuan Province, lies near the southern extremity of the Min Mountain Range, which itself is situated about 330 kilometers north of Chengdu , the provincial capital. The town of Jiuzhaigou (note that gou means "valley", a reference to the valley that predates the town - in fact, the town of Jiuzhaigou administers a collection of nine villages since Jiuzhaigou means "Valley of Nine Villages") lies on the world's highest tableland on the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with the Sichuan Basin lying farther east (in geological-tectonic terms, the area lies along the faultlines that separate the Qinghai-Tibet Plate from the Yangtze Plate). The topography of Jiuzhaigou ranges from roughly 2000 meters above sea level on the floor of the valley to more than twice that on the summit of the highest peaks, at 4300 meters above sea level.
Like many other tourist towns in China, Jiuzhaigou is overshadowed by - if not entirely defined by - the landscapes that surround it, which, in this case, is Jiuzhai Valley. Jiuzhai Valley, in turn, consists of three primary valleys that form an upside down (viewed from south to north) "Y", but with several smaller valleys branching off from the upside down "Y", one of the main smaller valleys being Zharu Valley. All of these beautiful valleys are nestled in the embrace of towering mountains (Shuzheng Valley itself, being the south-to-north oriented "trunk", or main part, of the upside down "Y", is surrounded by a dozen snow-capped peaks, some of which reach the aforementioned height of 4300 meters above sea level). Rize Valley forms the southwestern fork, or leg, of the upside down "Y", while Zechawa Valley represents the southeastern leg of the upside down "Y".
The town of Jiuzhaigou serves as the seat of Jiuzhaigou County, which, prior to 1998, was named Nanping County.
A Dual UNESCO Role
In many respects, the Jiuzhai Valley area (Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area) resembles its nearby cousin, Huanglong Valley (Huanglong Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area), lying some 130 kilometers south of Jiuzhai Valley, except that Jiuzhai Valley is a gentler, plusher, less stark version of Huanglong Valley. Like Huanglong Valley, Jiuzhai Valley is marked by a karst landscape that is dotted with travertine pools (note that travertine is a light-colored, slightly porous calcite (CaCO3), aka calcareous alabaster, or calc-sinter*), but Jiuzhai Valley is also marked to an even larger extent by the bigger-picture tectonic processes - not to speak of the subsequent glaciation - that produced the mountains, valleys, pristine lakes (yes, real lakes, or natural reservoirs (catchements), not just travertine pools) and magnificent waterfalls of the area. The lakes of Jiuzhai Valley eventually feed into the local river, the Jialing River, an important local tributary to the Yangtze River .
Both of these famous valley systems are UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites, while Jiuzhai Valley is additionally a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The two valley systems are also home to the Giant Panda - still an endangered species - and the Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey, though Jiuzhaigou's population of Giant Pandas, numbering only about 20 individuals, has long since been transferred to Wolong National Nature Reserve some 250 kilometers farther south, since the pandas' needs can better be met by the special facilities that are set up for them there as well as the special facilities set up there for other, similarly endangered species. Jiuzhai Valley is also renowned for its many varieties of bamboo and rhododendron, as well as for its its over 140 different bird species.
Jiuzhaigou's Demographic History
Jiuzhaigou has for centuries been inhabited by Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups. The Tibetans have traditionally been more numerous and more organized; the nine villages of Jiuzhaigou, for example, all have a Tibetan origin, while the Qiang people live in enclaves in and around these Tibetan villages. In fact, the area was so remote that it was only "discovered" by the Chinese government in relatively recent times, namely, in 1972 (in spite of being located in Sichuan Province, which was a base for the Chinese Nationalist forces while neighboring Yunnan Province was a Chinese Red Army base, Jiuzhaigou played no role whatsoever in the Chinese Communist Revolution (1946-1950), which was the final stage of the Chinese Civil War (1915-1949)).
Of Jiuzhaigou's nine villages, only seven are still inhabited (the uninhabited villages are Guodu and Hejiao). The most easily accessible villages - and the villages most geared to tourist visits - are Heye, Shuzheng and Zechawa, which all lie along the route through the main valley, Shuzheng Valley, though the village of Zechawa lies at the entrance to Zechawa Valley where Zechawa Valley branches off from Shuzheng Valley. Slightly less accessible are the villages of Rexi and Heijiao - the latter uninhabited, as indicated - located at the entrance to Zharu Valley. Near the farthest end of Zharu Valley lie the villages of Jianpan, Panya and Guwa, as well as several large lakes. Beyond the valley system proper, i.e., beyond the exit-point town of Zhangzha, which lies at the border between Jiuzhaigou and Songpan Counties, lie three additional villages which are also Tibetan and which in fact in all other respects are indistinguishable from the 'Nine Villages of Jiuzhai Valley': Penbu, Panxing and Yongzhu.
Lest the reader get the mistaken impression that these seven remaining Tibetan villages and Qiang enclaves are large population centers, it is helpful to note that the combined population of Jiuzhaigou (all its valleys) numbered 1000 in the 1992 census, and this number is spread across a mere 130 Tibetan and Qiang families. Note also that the villages of Guodu and Hejiao are now uninhabited because the government decided to relocate their residents outside the park area itself (the scenic and historic interest area) in order to preserve the park's pristine nature. The inhabitants of all of the villages of Jiuzhaigou formerly eked out a living cultivating the land, though today, the local populace live solely on the revenue generated by the area's tourism industry, which of course provides them a significantly better standard of living**).
Though first "discovered" by the Chinese government, as indicated, in 1972, Jiuzhai Valley was made into a national park a decade later, while the rapacious logging in the area (see the footnote) had been terminated already in 1979. In 1984, the area was opened to the public, though tourism - and in particular, foreign tourism - would first pick up after the necessary transportation infrastructure was in place. This happened in the very recent past, where the Jiuzhaigou Ring Way linking Jiuzhaigou with Chengdu was built, and where the Jiuzhaigou Huanglong Airport (JZH, serving, as the name suggests, both Jiuzhai and Huanglong Valleys) was constructed, linking both of these national parks with Chengdu (there are long-distance buses that run between Chengdu and these two national parks).
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. Jiuzhai Valley has additionally been recognized of late 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 (Jiuzhai Valley was inscribed on the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List in 1992 and was listed as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1997).
Jiuzhaigou consists of a primary, Y-shaped valley system consisting of Shuzheng, Rize and Zechawa Valleys. The visitor will typically arrive in a long-distance bus from Chengdu or in a shuttle bus from JZH Airport, both of which points of origin lie south of the upside-down "Y" that describes Jiuzhaigou. The first of the three primary valleys to be encountered is Rize Valley, which is the southwestern leg of the upside down "Y". Next comes Zechawa Valley, the southeastern leg of the upside down "Y", then the trunk of the "Y" itself, Shuzheng Valley. Visits to these three valleys are generally part of any standard sightseeing tour to Jiuzhaigou, while visits to the lesser valleys such as Zharu Valley (more on Zharu Valley immediately below) and Keze Valley are less common, since there is no shuttle bus service for these valleys, though a visit to these off-the-beaten-path valleys can be well worth the effort (if you are the type who abhors the beaten path, then you require no encouragement from me to search out these lesser valleys yourself!).
If you are of a hardy constitution, then the area's ecotourism might appeal to you. Zharu Valley has been designated as an ecotourist site for hikers and campers. Interested parties - accompanied by ecotourist guides, who also provide invaluable information on the local flora and fauna - can tailor a trip in just about any length, moving from area to area within the valley and setting up their tents at designated campsites. Zharu Valley, which is home to 40% of all of the plant species that exist in China, enjoys a unique biodiversity that is one of the prime reasons behind UNESCO's designation of Jiuzhai Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area as a World Biosphere Reserve. The main hike through Zharu Valley follows the ancient Benbo Buddhist pilgrimmage that circumnavigates Mount Zhayi Zhaga, a mountain sacred to Benbo Buddhists (Benbo Buddhism is a mix of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) and the ancient Benbo religion that was animistic (recognizes a spirit in all things, inanimate as well as animate) and which involved certain shamanistic practices - indeed, Lamaism, or mainstream Tibetan Buddhism, itself incorporates numerous animistic elements).
An admirer of Jiuzhaigou Valley could point to specific lakes (called haizi ("sons of the sea", a reference to their bluish-greenish hues that are reminiscent of the ocean... for a Westerner, it can be hard to imagine lakes this pure, and some of the landscapes here are reminiscent of the immense landscapes of the Three Gorges Dam area, except that Jiuzhaigou's haizi are the most placid of waters) by the local Tibetans, even though the term is borrowed from Mandarin Chinese... not so bizarre when one considers that landlocked Tibet had no concept of the oceans) or to specific waterfalls at Jiuzhaigou - and, indeed, they are many and both the lakes and the waterfalls are well-deserving of special mention - but the real pearl of Jiuzhaigou is 'all of it', i.e., the sum total of it, which is so much more than just the sum of Jiuzhaigou's individual parts, for Jiuzhai Valley is nothing less than a little piece of paradise on earth! (except for the temperature, one might well imagine that the Garden of Eden (probably quite warm, since we imagine it to be located somewhere in the Middle East) looked quite a bit like Jiuzhai Valley).
Jiuzhaigou enjoys a temperate climate with a mean January (the coldest month) temperature of -1 degree Celsius (at or about the freezing point) and with a mean July (the warmest month) temperature of 17 degrees Celsius. The rainfall is moderate, with most of it occurring between May and October, and generally evenly distributed throughout the period. Given its cool summer climate, and given the tendency to clear skies and direct sunlight (which provides extra warmth even if it doesn't warm the air appreciably), Jiuzhaigou is an ideal midsummer vacation venue for those wishing to enjoy an active holiday without having to suffer stifling heat in order to do so, though most who visit the area during the autumn swear that this is the very best time of year to enjoy the full beauty of Jiuzhaigou, since the area is blessed with vast mixed forests, some still relatively virgin despite the former logging, with many deciduous trees whose autumn leaves present a veritable symphony of color.
Quite apart from the natural beauty of the area, the cultural beauty of the area is provided by the ethnic uniqueness of the indigenous Qiang and Tibetan peoples, who regularly stage folkloric performances for the benefit of tourists. You will also want to try the local culinary specialties, just as you will most likely hope to find that "just right" locally produced handicraft item as a souvenir by which to remember your visit to Jiuzhai Valley. In this connection, note also that to the local people, some of the scenic sites of Jiuzhai Valley are more than just natural treasures, they are supernatural treasures, i.e., they are considered holy sites, so the best advice is to always comport yourself responsibly, which, in any culture, generally translates to comporting yourself respectfully.
There are a range of star-rated Hotels - including a number of 5-star hotels such as the Sheraton chain - located in and around the city of Zhangzha, itself situated near the exit point of Jiuzhai Valley, which also puts the hotels comfortably close to Huanglong Valley, since the city of Zhangzha marks the boundary between Jiuzhaigou County and Songpan County, which also suggests that a visit to either of these famous valleys can conveniently be combined with a visit to the other.
Indeed, if one has the time for it (most backpackers are probably included here), and if one is planning to take the long-distance bus from Chengdu, then a trip to these two famous valleys can also be combined with enroute visits to some of the other even more famous (but for different reasons) sightseeing highlights of the region, namely: the elaborate Dujiangyan Irrigation Project constructed by the famous Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period administrator, Li Bing, and Erlang Shen, allegedly the son of Li Bing but also at least a semi-mythical figure with god-like powers who was reputed to be the nephew of the mythical Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist (alternatively, Daoist) deity; and Mount Siguniang ("Four Maidens Mountain", home to the Giant Panda Breeding And Research Center), another outrageously beautiful mountain-and-valley scenic site that has for centuries been under local Tibetan-Chinese influence.
There is so much to see in this region that the visitor should give him- or herself at least a week to take it all in, or rent a helicopter with pilot and see most of it from the air in a single day, or maybe two... there is a helipad at JZH airport, though I'm not sure that they offer aerial tours (but it's a sure bet that they will be offering them in 10 years' time!). However you choose to view Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area, you will most certainly not be disappointed!
How to get there
Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area is gradually opening up to tourism, with an improved highway system leading from the province's capital, Chengdu, to the Jiuzhai Valley area, which highway also links the closest regional airport, Jiuzhaigou Huanglong Airport (JZH... and, as the full name implies, it is also a convenient jumping-off point for visiting Huanglong ("Yellow Dragon") Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area) with Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area. However, for the present - and for the realistic near to medium-term future, in fact - there are only two realistic choices for outside tourists (foreign or domestic) wishing to travel to the Jiuzhai area: by highway, i.e., by long-distance bus from Chengdu, which is a 10-hour drive (but you can probably rent a car in Chengdu and drive the stretch yourself, or, if you are a large enough group, you can always rent your own bus with chauffeur); or by air, via a flight to JZH, then via a special, direct coach that is a 1½ hour ride.
Our suggestion, if you contemplate visiting the scenic and historic interest area by long-distance bus, is that you combine, if at all possible, visits to other scenic sites along the route, such that you break up the travel a bit, overnighting at one of the other renowned scenic sites along the way, that way you will not face the ordeal of a 10-hour bus ride. Some high-profile scenic sites along the route Chengdu-Jiuzhaigou are the following: the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project, the stunningly beautiful Mount Siguniang ("Four Maidens Mountain") Scenic Area, and of course there is Huanglong Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area, though all of these sites are either clustered near to Chengdu or near to Jiuzhai Valley.
A better solution, apart from opting for the flight into JZH from Chengdu (and note that there are now direct flights to JZH from Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou), would be to visit the famous irrigation project north of Chengdu, then choose to spend the night at the Qiang ethnic minority village of Maoxian, which is a little more than 1/3 of the way to Jiuzhai Valley, or to skip the visit to the famous irrigation project/ Maoxian and head directly to Songpan County, Aba Prefecture (the county's seat is the city of the same name), which is about 2/3 of the way to Jiuzhai Valley. The city of Songpan has a wide variety of hotels and hostels in a range of price classes, and is additionally blessed with an Old Town that itself is worthy of a visit irrespective of the convenience implied here - you will also not be the first visitor to Jiuzhai Valley who decided to spend the night at Songpan in order break up the long bus ride to and from Chengdu.
The long-distance bus from Chengdu to Jiuzhai Valley can be caught at the Chengdu Ximen Bus Station.
* Calcareous alabaster, or calc-sinter, is formed when spring water rich in carbonic acid dissolves the calcareous (calcium-rich) parts of limestone rock, carrying the dissolved calcareous matter farther "downstream" (eg., down the slope of a mountain) where it is eventually deposited as crystallized calcareous alabaster, or calcium carbonate as it is also sometimes called. Because the source of the dissolved calcareous matter is a natural spring, and if the spring-fed water runs down the slope of a mountain, then the deposits will typically form a step-like, or terraced, series of fanned out pools, each lower elevation pool generally being broader (wider) than the one above it, though each terrace level might well consist of a jigsaw puzzle of smaller pools. Note also that travertine is similar to but not the same as tufa, a calcareous deposit formed by cooler spring water as opposed to the geothermally heated spring water that produces travertine.
** Extensive logging had earlier been permitted in the Jiuzhaigou area until the state quickly (relatively speaking) figured out that it was in its own best long-run interest - as well as in the best long-run interest of the local populace - to develop this unique natural treasure as a tourism venue.