Zechawa Valley

Zechawa Valley represents the easterly fork of Juizhai Valley's main upside-down "Y" tri-valley system. Of the three main valleys, Zechawa Valley has the least number of scenic attractions associated with it, which can be interpreted either as a good or a bad thing depending on whether the tourist is looking for a densely-packed series of photo-ops or the quantum of quietude that an encounter with pristine nature can offer.

Besides its main tri-valley system, Juizhai Valley has lesser valleys that branch off from the three main valleys such as Zharu Valley and Changhai Valley, the latter more commonly – and perhaps more properly – considered as a part of Zechawa Valley. This is because Changhai Valley does not "branch off" from Zechawa Valley but is more of an extension of Zechawa Valley, though technically speaking, the northerly end of Changhai Valley/ the southerly end of Zechawa Valley is "plugged" (i.e., the valley floor ends abrupty), otherwise the lake that runs the length of Changhai Valley would continue northward down into Zechawa Valley (which it actually does, indirectly, as will be explained in the following).

However the case may be, to get to Changhai Valley – or to Changhai Gully if one wishes to call it that (note that Juizhai Valley consists as well of numerous lesser valleys/ gullies... and note that some writers call the larger ones valleys while they call the lesser ones gullies, while still other writers refer to them all either exclusively as valleys or exclusively as gullies) – one must first traverse the length of Zechawa Valley, so for this reason, we will choose here to treat Changhai Valley not as a separate valley, but as an integral part of Zechawa Valley.

If one thus treats Changhai Valley as an integral part of Zechawa Valley, then Zechawa Valley is roughly as long (17 kilometers) as Juizhai's other long valley, Rize Valley (18 kilometers). In the following therefore, we will no longer refer to Changhai Valley but will include its features as part of the collection of features that belong to Zechawa Valley, and, as with the treatment of the other valleys, we will begin from the valley's farthest, or most southerly point (which, for the entire tri-valley system, is also synonymous with each of the three valley's respective point of highest elevation).

Chang Hai ("Long Lake")

Chang Hai is in the shape of a fat worm (though "snake" sounds more dignified and though the overall zig-zag shape is the same for both the snake and the worm, "fat worm" is a more accurate depiction of the lake in question). Some sources list the lake as being 7.5 kilometers long while others list it as being only 5 kilometers long, and of course both can't be right, but since 7.5 kilometers corresponds to 5 miles, roughly, it is quite likely that some sources have confused the two. Moreover, the actual lake would seem to be longer than a mere 5 kilometers, therefore we will hazard the guess that its actual length is closer to 7.5 than to 5.0 kilometers, but without declaring that the lake is definitely one or the other.

Long Lake is a natural catchment, or reservoir, that collects runoff water from the surrounding mountains. Moreover, it is not drained by a stream, which would cause one to wonder where all the water goes if it doesn't evaporate rapidly (which would be quite difficult in late spring, when the seasonal runoff is greatest, but note that the summits of the surrounding mountains are snow-capped even during summer). The logical answer is that the water of Long Lake seeps underground. In fact, much of this seepage resurfaces in what is called Five-Color Pond immediately "downstream" from (north of) Long Lake, which also explains the extreme "purity" (transparency, or the state of being devoid of particles) of the latter lake, since the trip underground filters out even the finest particles (this is one of the reasons why natural spring water, where it hasn't been polluted by man, often can be drunk, as-is (think: the mountains of Norway and Finland).

In its widest places, Long Lake measures roughly 600 meters, and at its deepest parts, it is over 100 meters deep – downright spooky! Little wonder then, that a local legend has it that there is a loch monster living in the murky depths of Long Lake (swimmers beware!). The lake, whose waters are described as possessing an indigo-blue hue, is lined on either side by tall cedars. This pristine image of Long Lake is not surprising, since the southern end of Zechawa Valley where Long Lake is situated, like the southern end of neighboring Rize Valley, belongs to the primeval forest that covers much of the greater Jiuzhai Valley area. In winter, the lake, thanks to its tranquility, freezes in winter to a depth of 60 centimeters, making it an ideal venue for skating.

In addition to the appeal of Long Lake to the average tourist, Long Lake – as well as the seasonal lakes of Zechawa Valley and the lesser and rarely visited gully, Keze Gully – appeals to birdwatchers. Some rather infrequently observed birds such as the Grey-Headed Bullfinch, the Oriental Turtle Dove, the Siberian and Slaty-Backed Flycatcher, the White-Winged Grosbeak, the White-Throated Redstart, the Vinaceous and White-Browed Rosefinch, the Fork-Tailed Swift, the Chestnut Thrush, the Rufous-Vented, Coal, Pere David’s and Songar Tit, Bianchi’s Warbler and Blyth’s Leaf-Warbler can be observed in the pristine, and primeval, forests of Jiuzhai Valley, and especially around the southern extremity of Zechawa Valley/ the Long Lake area, due to the area's somewhat lessened traffic, though more and more "ordinary" tourists now frequent Long Lake, drawn to its pristine beauty (if you want to see birds, then you will have to arrive before the day's tourist busses begin to descend on the area at around 9:00 AM).

Wucai Chi ("Five-Color Pond")

Wucai Chi is renowned for its colorful, perfectly clear water, which, as we now know, is cleansed of particle impurities as a result of having seeped into the ground below neighboring Long Lake, draining downhill in a northerly direction only to surface at the base of Five-Color Pond. Most of the travertine lakes of Jiuzhai Valley are very transparent, but the visibility in Five-Color Pond is so extreme that even fine details can be seen clearly on stones at the bottom of this 6 ½ meter deep lake.

At the northern end of Five-Color Pond a stream drains the lake northward, yet the 6 ½ meters average depth of Five-Color Pond is unchanging. This is also due to the underground seepage from Long Lake that ends in Five-Color Pond. The stream that runs the length of Zechawa Valley – less the extremity where Long Lake is situated – is the Jiuzhaigou River. The Jiuzhaigou River thus connects Five-Color Pond to the south with Lower Seasonal Lake to the north, in passing Upper Seasonal Lake. Due to the flow of water through Five-Color Pond, it never freezes over, even in the severest of winters.

The colors that characterize Five-Color Pond are produced by the travertine at the bottom of the lake, causing a refraction of light which, depending on the angle of refraction and the specific makeup of the travertine, appears as blues or greens as well as various shades of yellow. But because the perception of the lake's colors is due in large measure to refraction, when the lake is perturbed under windy conditions, the troughs produced by wave action on the surface of Five-Color Pond can appear in bright red or stunning golden hues.

Jiuzi Tongxin ("Nine-Trees One-Base") Rock

Jiuzi Tongxin Rock is a large boulder from which grows a set of 9 trees of different species – fir, spruce, birch and cypress – all of whose trunks have partial, above-ground root systems that intertwine and lead down to the same spot, as if these many, and wildly different, trees have emerged from the same set of roots! It is truly an unusual sight that bears witness to the presence of nutrient-rich soil here.

Shangjijie Hai ("Upper Seasonal Lake/ Sea")

Shangjijie Hai is one of the two lakes which, as the name suggests, eventually dry up during the course of a normal summer. They can be considered as seasonal catchments, or runoff reservoirs. The life that inhabits such a seasonally-influenced lake, both plant life as well as bird- and animal life, is peculiar to such places, especially the plant life (for the non-aquatic birds, the water-filled lake is a watering- and bathing hole, whereas the dried up lake is a place to forage for food). Many grasses and reeds that would otherwise only inhabit the shallow edges of a normal lake begin to grow in the seasonal lakes of Zechawa Valley as soon as the water level in the lake falls to a given threshold. Some rare plants even grow here in winter, along the water's edge. Other plants abound in and near the Lower Seasonal Lake, but here at Upper Seasonal Lake, grasses dominate once the lake begins to dry up.

Xiajijie Hai ("Lower Seasonal Lake/ Sea")

Xiajijie Hai is situated near the northern end of Zechawa Valley. The scenic sites of Zechawa Valley are largely clumped at one end of the valley or the other (however, Middle Seasonal Lake, which will not be treated here because it is even more "seasonal" than the other two lakes, is situated roughly midway between the upper and lower seasonal lakes... Middle Seasonal Lake is surrounded by dense pine forests whose above-ground roots and trunks are covered in colorful, soft lichens, as are many of the larger stones and boulders strewn about the landscape of Middle Seasonal Lake).

In the case of Lower Seasonal Lake, it lies just south of Keze Gully, one of Jiuzhai Valley's lesser but more interesting gullies as regards birdwatching, while beyond Keze Gully lies Zechawa Tibetan Village itself (note that all of the nine villages of Jiuzhai Valley are Tibetan).

The lower part of Zechawa Valley, thanks to its lower altitude, abounds in the picturesquely beautiful birch tree, whose fiery colored, rapidly changing leaves during the autumn are the very essence of autumn in Jiuzhai Valley. Since the altitude here fosters the growth of deciduous trees, which, by definition stand relatively far apart, allowing in plenty of indirect light through the sparse canopy above, it also fosters the growth of wild strawberries and other wild berries as well as mushrooms (most certainly many mushrooms that are edible, but all it takes to kill you is one wrong mushroom, so don't try eating them!) that grow in the sparse grass that lines the forest floor in between the birch trees. The sapphire blue waters of Lower Seasonal Lake are slighly less dark than the indigo blue waters of Upper Seasonal Lake, but beautiful to behold nonetheless.

Keze Gully

Keze Gully is a narrow gully that branches off from Zechawa Valley in a southeasterly direction, roughly 1/3 the way up the valley, i.e., from the entrance to the terminus of Zechawa Valley, where Long Lake also ends. Put in more measurable terms, Keze Gully branches off from Zechawa Valley about 3 kilometers south of Zechawa Tibetan Village. The gully is almost exclusively a venue for birdwatchers which, in its way, is a blessing, since ordinary tourism and birdwatching just don't mix well. So, unless you are a serious birdwatcher, meaning that you are prepared to walk quietly through the gully keeping your voices down so as not to frighten off the shy birds, it is kindest of you to leave Keze Gully to those who come to Jiuzhai Valley primarily – if not exclusively – for the chance to spot (hear), a rare bird (birdsong).

Of course, you don't have to be a dedicated birdwatcher to appreciate a quiet, off-the-beaten path gully, and if you proceed quietly through Keze Gully, aka the Kezegou Trail, you will surely not be resented even by the most diehard birdwatchers. Early morning is generally the best time to spot birds, and since the first tourist bus (the shuttle bus) up the valley departs from Nourilang Tourist Center at 9:00 AM, you are best served reaching Keze Gully on foot, which you can accomplish from Zechawa Tibetan Village in about an hour's walk if you have chosen to overnight there with a host family, whereafter you can disappear tracelessly into the gully long before the first tourist bus drones past, provided that you departed from Zechawa Tibetan Village no later than 7:30 AM (many tourists take the bus up the valley, then walk part or all of the way back along the boardwalks).

Alternatively, you can overnight at the Nourilang Tourist Center and catch the first bus for service workers and other service personnel, which departs Nourilang Tourist Center at 7:00 AM and heads toward the terminus of Rize Valley and the Primeval Forest, but of course, you cleverly ask the bus driver to let you off at the fork in the road where Rize Valley goes off to the right (west) and Zechawa Valley goes off to the left (east). This is a longer walk – about 5 ½ kilometers to reach the entrance to Keze Gully – but it is pure serenity, especially at this hour. Zechawa Stockaded Village, as all of the nine villages of Nine Village Valley (Jiuzhaigou) are called, has a small store where one can purchase basic foodstuffs and beverages, as well as other essential items.

Many visitors to Jiuzhai Valley who come here in search of an off-the-beaten-path experience swear that of the three main valleys, Zechawa Valley is the best. If this is your ticket, as the saying goes, i.e., if you are into off-the-beaten-path experiences, then you should consider visiting Jiuzhai Valley in autumn when the seasonal lakes have dried up and the Jiuzhaigou River has been reduced to a mere trickle, since Zechawa Valley, except for Long Lake at its terminus (which lake, as we know, is in fact not directly connected to the rest of Zechawa Valley, except for Five-Color Pond, and then only indirectly so) at this time of year is very dry and thus very hiker-friendly, and, in addition, is at its most stunningly beautiful – as is Keze Gully too, of course.

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Zechawa Valley represents the eastern fork of the upside-down "Y" of Jiuzhai Valley's tri-valley system.

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