Travel guide: Exploring the clear lakes of Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou Valley is situated north of Sichuan, part of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Since the park opened in 1984, tourism numbers have soared, from just thousands of visitors in the first few years to more than a million every year. This comes as no surprise, because the colors and landscapes are simply beautiful.

The park is on one of the highest tablelands in the world, between the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and Sichuan Basin. Jiuzhaigou was named a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. 

High altitude karsts formed by tectonic, glacial, and hydrological activity characterize the park. It is situated on major faults, primarily on the diverging belt of the Yangtze and Qinghai-Tibet Plate. Its ecosystem is under the temperate woodlands and broad-leaf forest classification. The core scenic area is characterized by a mix of virgin forests that take on yellow, red, and orange hues once autumn comes, making it one of the most beautiful and popular destinations in Sichuan.

The park's notable features include its many turquoise and blue-tinged lakes. The local Tibetans call these Haizi, which translates to "Son of the Sea." The water of these lakes is very clear, which makes seeing the bottom possible, even when they are several meters deep. The color may change, depending on a lake's surroundings and depth. I think two of the most beautiful are Five Flower Lake and Five Color Pond, which both have glass-like waters that shimmer in different colors. But despite the enticing mirror-like waters, visitors can't swim or come in direct contact with the lakes. 

The park has beautiful waterfalls as well. The most notable, in my opinion, is the Pearl Shoal Waterfall. It is 310 meters wide and has the surrounding mountains and lush landscape as its backdrop. 

How to get to Jiuzhaigou

The fastest way to get to Jiuzhaigou is by plane. A number of cities operate nonstop direct flights. Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport is the closest, making it the main transfer hub. The flight from Chengdu takes approximately 40 minutes one way. Other cities that provide routes to Jiuzhaigou include Guangzhou, Shanghai, Chongqing, Beijing, and Xi'an. 

Jiuzhai Airport is in Songpan County, which is 88 kilometers from the valley, so plan your trip accordingly because you still have to travel to your hotel and the scenic area. Plane tickets may cost you around RMB 1,000 one way.

The cheapest and most popular way to get to Jiuzhaigou is by bus. It takes around 8 to 10 hours, but you get views of the mountains and changing landscapes during the long trip. The ticket costs around RMB 140 one way.

How much will you need?

Jiuzhaigou is far and can be an expensive trip, but the views of the mountains, landscapes, lakes, and colors make it worth it. If you're on a tight budget, you might spend around P1,500 to P2,000 or approximately RMB 250 to RMB 300 per day. Your biggest expense here is visiting the park and exploring it; a one-day ticket costs RMB 220. You can get a 50% discount if you're a student. The ticket that takes you to the tourist center inside the park costs RMB 90. Stay at hostels and eat at local restaurants to reduce your expenses. I would recommend Friendship Hostel – they provide good advice about the trip and can get you tickets in advance to avoid the long queues and waiting times.

Best time to visit

The best time to visit is during autumn, when the trees and plants are in full bloom and their colors perfectly complement the clear, blue waters of the lakes. However, it is also the busiest time of the year.

Spring and summer are still good times to visit because of the lush greenery. But for these two seasons, check the weather as it can make or break your trip. If it is rainy, you won't see as much color and it will be cold.

Winter is off-peak season because most of the lakes, waterfalls, and plants are frozen, and some of the walkways and bus routes are closed.  

What to wear

As Jiuzhaigou Valley's altitude ranges from 2,000 meters to approximately 4,300 meters, it gets really cold at night and in the first few hours of the morning. The temperatures will vary depending on the season. Bring warm clothes, such as thermals, jackets, bonnets, and gloves, to stay warm during the cold times of the day. Bring a raincoat or umbrella just in case there'll be rain. On sunny days, it gets warm, to around 30°C or more from midday to late afternoon, before getting cold again at night. Wear light clothes under your jackets and warm clothing, then take the layers off once it gets hotter.

Suggested itinerary

Almost all tourists take the bus from the entrance to the tourist center. If you want to avoid the crowds, walk from the entrance to the tourist center – doing this can take around 4 to 6 hours, depending on your pace. Chances are, you might find yourself alone or just your group of friends walking. You'll have the scenic spots to yourself; you don't have to worry about selfie sticks, people, and other items that may obstruct your view or prevent you from taking a good picture. Once in the tourist center and restaurant, you can take the buses that go to the different sections of the valley.

If you have a few days more to spare, plan a visit to the nearby Huanglong Scenic Area and spend a few days exploring Chengdu. The latter is a good place to see pandas and to go on a day trip to see the Giant Buddha in Leshan.

Jiuzhaigou may be far, but the time and cost to get there are worth it. The views are stunning and nothing short of spectacular. – Rappler.com

Joshua Berida is a full-time writer and part-time wanderer with insatiable wanderlust. He plans his next trip during a current one. He plans on exploring the Philippines and beyond. Read about his adventures on thewanderingjuan.net.

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