Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve
Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟 Jiǔzhàigōu)  is a nature reserve in the north of Sichuan province in south western China. It is officially known as Jiuzhai Valley in English. It is known as the habitat of giant pandas and for its many multi-level waterfalls and colorful lakes. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. It belongs to the category V (Protected Landscape) in the IUCN system of protected area categorization.
Jiuzhai Valley is a major feature of the Sichuan Scenic area, located 100 km area due north of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Jiuzhaigou is at the north eastern end of this Scenic area in the Min Shan mountains. It is part of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. The main scenic area stretches 80 km long in the form of a letter Y comprising of three main valleys - Shuzheng , Rize and Zechawa covering 720 sq km and offering stunning views of lakes, waterfalls, and mountains. The name means "Valley of Nine Villages", and derives from the fact that there are 9 ancient Tibetan villages within it. Its highest point is 4,700 metres above sea level, with the main sightseeing areas between 1,980 and 3,100m.
The remote region was inhabited by various Tibetan and Qiang peoples for centuries, but was not officially discovered by the government until 1972. Extensive logging took place until 1979, when the Chinese government banned such activity and made the area a national park in 1982. An Administration Bureau was established and the site officially opened to tourism in 1984; layout of facilities and regulations were completed in 1987. The site was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1992 and a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997.
Since opening, tourist activity has increased every year: from 5,000 in 1984 to 170,000 in 1991, 160,000 in 1995, to 200,000 in 1997, including approximately 3,000 foreigners. Visitors numbered 1,190,000 in 2002. In 2007, over 2.5 million people visited Jiuzhaigou. The site averages 7,000 visits per day, with a cap of 12,000 being publicly reported, however this is never enforced. The desire to balance environmental protection and mass tourism is becoming an increasingly acute and a considerable challenge for park management. Exploitation of natural resources for financial gain in the form of mass tourism is the upmost priority.
Landscape, geology and hydrology
Jiuzhaigou's landscape is made up of high-altitude karsts shaped by glacial, hydrological and tectonic activity. It lies on major faultlines on the diverging belt between the Qinghai-Tibet Plate and the Yangtze Plate, and earthquakes have also shaped the landscape. The rock strata is mostly made up of carbonate rocks such dolomite and tufa, as well as some sandstone and shales.
The valley includes the catchment area of three gullies (which due to their large size are often called valleys themselves), and is one of the sources of the Jialing River, part of the Yangtze River system. The area covering 720 sq km of the Minshan mountains provides the catchment for the water system of Jiuzhaigou.
Jiuzhaigou's best-known feature is its dozens of blue, green and turquoise-colored lakes. The local Tibetan people call them "Haizi" in Chinese, meaning "son of the sea". Originating in glacial activity, they were dammed by rockfalls and other natural phenomena, then solidified by processes of carbonate deposition (travertine). The waters of Jiuzhaigou have a high concentration of calcium carbonate, the water is so clear so that the bottom is often visible even at high depths. The lakes vary in color and aspect according to their depths, residues, and surroundings.
Flora and fauna
The park is the natural habitat for two of China’s most treasured endangered species – the Giant Panda and the Sichuan Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey (金丝猴). However, due to the park's size, and the many tourists, the chances of seeing them are very small. About 20 Pandas are thought to live within the boundaries of the park. There is probably more chance of seeing them in the Zaru Valley, which is the valley dedicated to eco-tourism as of July 2009. In the main valleys you're likely to see birds (140 species have been recorded here), insects and fish.
Despite all the lakes in the park, Jiuzhaigou is amazingly free of mosquitoes.
Nearly 300 km² of the core scenic area is covered by virgin mixed forests. The flora changes greatly with altitude. In the lower regions of the valley, grasses and reeds abound. These are quickly replaced by bamboo forests which in turn give way to deciduous trees and conifers at the upper end of the valley. Beyond them the rocky slopes and snow-capped peaks of the Min Shan range dominate the view.
The scenic area of the park is situated at a height of between 2,000 and 3,000 metres. In summer the winds blow predominantly from the south and in the winter from the north. The following table shows the average monthly temperature and rainfall .
Umbrellas and wet weather clothing as well as sun protection and hats are highly recommended as the weather at these altitudes is fickle.
The main departure points for a visit to Jiuzhaigou are Chengdu - the capital city of Sichuan, famous for its Panda Breeding Centre - Chongqing and Xian. Although Jiuzhaigou is only around 350km from Mianyang, and 460km from Chengdu (as the crow flies), the journey takes between 8 and 11 hours due to the winding mountain roads through some spectacular scenery along the valleys of the Fu or Min rivers. Many tour companies break the journey into two components with overnight stops either at Mianyang or Maoxian.
Important note: following the Sichuan earthquake of May 12th 2008, the road to Juizhaigou via Wenchuan and Maoxian is not recommended. The road between Chengdu and Wenchuan is excellent but Mao Xian - Chuan Zhu Si is undergoing landslide prevention and road widening works. As of September 2009, the bus from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou can take up to 17 hours (!) although this is the exception rather than the norm. The regular time is 11-13 hours. It is possible to drive from Chengdu via Mianyang, Jiangyou, Pingwu and Nanping. During National Week 2009 the Chinese government was not allowing foreigners to travel to jiuzhaigou by road in any form. These restrictions were lifted again as of October 10th 2009.
Flights between Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou Huanglong airport (IATA: JZH) are available on Air China, Sichuan Airlines, South China Airways and China Eastern. As of October 2009 direct flights are also available from Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou on Sichuan Airlines. Jiuhuang airport is about a 1.5 hour drive from the park entrance. This can be done by taxi or mini-bus.
Most visitors access Juizhaigou by road.
From Mianyang an early morning start gets you to Jiuzhaigou township in time for dinner and the Tibetan cultural show (120 RMB - 320 RMB). The route initially follows the deep valley of the Fu river then over Longmen shan (Dragon gate mountain) to Qingchuan and Wenxian before reaching Jiuzhaigou County Town nestled in the valley of the Baishui river. The mountain and river views make even the journey a worth while tourist experience.
Public Bus services are available from the Xinnanmen and Chadianzi bus stations in Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou with 2 or 3 departures from each station daily depending on demand. Ticket price is approximately 110 - 145 RMB.
Taxi: If there are a few people, it may make sense to charter a taxi to/from where you're going. We paid 900RMB to Langmusi (later learned the true price is probably closer to 6-700). Also, a cab driver told us you can take a taxi to/from Chengdu for around 1200RMB, which is probably cheaper than flying for 3 people and much more comfortable than a bus.
The Jiuzhaigou Administration centre contains the Ticket Office. Tickets are sold from 6:30AM until 7pm every day. The price during peak season is 220 RMB per person which includes an insurance fee of 3 RMB. Disabled visitors, Seniors between 60 and 70 years of age, students and soldiers get a discount price of 170 RMB. Children no taller than 1.3 m in height, government servants, and seniors over 70 get in free.
A one day bus ticket costs 90 RMB, and this is pretty much mandatory since it is over 30km from the entrance to the top of the park.
Tickets are only valid for one day. Previously there were two day tickets that are no longer on sale during the peak season.
Off peak ticket prices: Entry – 80 RMB
Student / OAP Entry – 70 RMB
One Day Bus ticket: 80 RMB
Winter 2nd day entry ticket: 20 RMB (must be purchased at the same time as the first day's ticket)
There are plenty of taxis in Jiuzhaigou. There are also mini-buses (they really are minivans) to the most popular tourist destinations in the Jiuzhaigou region. Car Rentals are also available and range from 500 - 900 RMB per day.
Perhaps the easiest way to get around without a tour guide is using one of the "self service travel websites" that are really popular with young Chinese tourists who are not looking to travel with a tour group. Unfortunately for people who cannot search the web using Chinese characters (pin yin does not work very well) these sites are near impossible to find. On these sites you can buy tickets to local cultural events, arrange for pick up service, rent cars, arrange for tour guides, and finding Tibetan local host families for a cultural experience. However, they are extremely hard to find with names that are usually just strings of letters and numbers like cq966.com. The mentioned website is actually ran by locals attached to Chang Qing （长青）hotel - one of the two hotels (other is the Sheraton) with the most credibility among tour guides within Jiuzhaigou proper. You can email these websites in English or contact them through MSN and they will be able to respond. Most local hotels are also good sources for advice on how to get around Jiuzhaigou but only a few speak languages other than Tibetan and Chinese
Inside the park
For environmental protection reasons, no personal transport, not even bicycles, are permitted within the park. However, with a bus pass you can take a bus to all of the sites within the park. Your pass gives you access to an efficient hop-on hop-off bus transport system. Every few minutes a bus will come to a site to pick up passengers. The buses are frequent and sometimes crowded during the peak season, running from early morning until the park closes. Don’t miss the last bus or you must walk out! When entering the park you will be herded effectively and politely into one of the many queues waiting for transport. Once in the system you are a free agent with respect to where you go and what you see. An effective way to use the system is to take the bus to the head of Rize valley and walk back towards the entrance and Administration building. Walking is a great option in the park, as wooden-plank trails wind through the lakes and forests. It is best to combine walking with taking the bus as the park is quite large and you won't be able to cover enough ground on foot.
Around the local area
Public buses run from the centre of the town to Chengdu, Huanglong, Chadianzi, Jiangyou and Songpan. For up-to-date bus schedules and travel options from Jiuzhaigou the best place to check is the Jiuzhaigou official website
From Chengdu the public bus costs between 110 and 145 RMB and takes around 10 - 13 hours.
See and Do
Jiuzhaigou is all about seeing! The colours of its lakes, trees and mountains are breathtaking and defy adequate description. The altitude changes within the valley to create continual variations of flora, which give each lake and waterfall a unique quality.
Although Jiuzhaigou is a great place to visit at any time of the year Spring and autumn are best. Winter provides many magnificent sights with frozen lakes and waterfalls, but the day temperatures are very low and accessibility by road is neither easy nor guarantee-able. Summers can be slightly crowded with beautiful sunshine in the early parts and it often rains in July and August. The fresh air and lack of humidity make it a great break from the city. Autumn is, in many opinions, the pick of the seasons. In late September through October to early November the colour contrasts of red and gold leaves set against the greys of the Bamboo forest and the dark greens of the conifers provide the perfect backdrop to the blue, cyan and vivid greens lakes.
Jiuzhaigou has some 114 Lakes and waterfalls. Here are a selection of scenic locations to visit:
The last three features are the Sleeping Dragon Lake, Reed Lake and Bonsai beach. Sleeping Dragon Lake contains a large travertine shelf that extends across the floor of the lake. Locals say it looks like a sleeping dragon and that the head and tail seem to move as the wind ripples the lake surface.
There are lots of Tibetian trinkets that could entice the younger ladies. There is a shop next to the entrance which sells a good collection of postcards and reading materials about the park itself.
Being a UNESCO World Heritage Park in China does not mean it is fully decked out for non-Chinese visitors. There is a centrally located, sort of a HQ area with a restaurant serving buffet lunch. Typically Chinese stir fry dishes. At the entrance there is a Chinese fast food outlet serving fried chicken, and vendors selling ramen and other types of instant noodles.
A one-day stock of museli bars and a flask of tea of coffee would help, especially if you plan to take in all the heavenly sights on foot, through the wooden planked pathways. In Autumn and spring the weather would be nice to rest along the wooden plank path and have a nice warm coffee while you wait for the lighting to be just right for your next photo shoot.
There are many areas to drink. You will find one of the best local Tibetan tradition is to drink Tibetan butter tea. There is a surprising amount of bars available on bian bian jie (边边街) which is one of the most famous cobblestone roads in China.
Despite whatever they tell you, lodging in the park is illegal.
There are no hotels or commercial accommodation within the park. It used to be possible to stay at the home of a local villager for a small fee. The authorities however do not approve of the practice and as such it is not recommended.
There are now a number of 5 star, 4 star and 3 star hotels just outside the park.
The price for a 5 star hotel such as the Jiuzhaigou Xilaideng International is from 600RMB to 1000RMB, also there is a Sheraton that can be had for about 500-800RMB/night through travel agents.
For 4 star hotels like Chang Qing binguan (长青宾馆), the Geshang hotel, the Chinese Travel hotel, and the Golden Harbour Hotel room prices are from 400 to 900 RMB.
A 3 star hotel such as the Xing Long binguan（鑫隆宾馆), Qianhe Hotel etc. is from 300-800RMb.
A lot of the hotels have different level "rooms" within the hotel which are priced accordingly. Thus you see a great deal of price ranges within the same hotel.
Prices vary according to the season and booking in advance is essential. Provided you speak and read mandarin bookings and purchase of tickets can be done online at [www.jiuzhaigouvalley.com].
There is one authentic homestay  (others are "Tibetan themed" often outside owned) run by a local family a 15 mins drive from the park entrance. They do not have a website but they can be contacted at . There are also two hostels in the immediate area.
Using the local travel websites will allow you to purchase price for cheaper, kind of how the aggregate websites will allow you to get a room for cheaper. However, they are pretty hard to find unless you search with Chinese characters.
There is lodging located in the villages along the street outside the park entrance. For budget travelers the best option is the Jiutong Bingguan (九通兵官) located next to the bus station. Touts crowd around arriving buses and can lead you to alternative budget options.
As of July 2009 hiking and camping have been made available within the Zaru Valley  of the national park. Zaru Valley has an amazing 40% of all the plant species in the whole of China and if you are to see any of the wildlife of the national park, this represents the best chance. The main hike is a 3 day hike, following the pilgrimage of the local Bebbo Tibetan Buddhists around the 4,500m+ Zha Yi Zha Ga Mountain.
The highest tourist destinations reach heights above 3,100 meters (10,000 feet) and altitude sickness is a possibility.
In the winter months the park is extremely cold and it is necessary to dress warmly. Having said that, in the winter sunshine you could possibly strip down to a t-shirt in the bright winter sun shine - in the shade you'll need to layer up again however!
Chinese tourists dread standing in line and there is a lot of pushing and shoving getting on and off buses. Make sure you don't get pushed in front of an oncoming bus. Crowded trails can also be dangerous and if you walk on the edge of a path it is likely a shoulder or elbow with push you off. To really enjoy your time in the park you should walk on the trails on the opposite side of the lakes from the roads. These trails have considerable less tourists and you can really experience the serenity of the national park there.
Everyday there are buses going to Songpan at 7:20AM and take two hours, Chengdu (10 hours) and Huanglong National Park. Bus times vary from time to time. It is best to keep an eye on the Jiuzhaigou website  for up-to-date times.