Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟), Sichuan Province
Jiuzhaigou National Park is the most beautiful place I’ve been in China, and possibly the most beautiful place I’ve seen in the world. Snow-capped mountains shadow long chains of lakes, whose water is tinted in shades of azure and turquoise. At the southern end of one of its forks, an old-growth forest is still standing — not all that common in China. The park is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and the Chinese government is also acting to protect its natural beauty. There’s not a scrap of garbage on the ground at Jiuzhaigou and the entire tourist experience is marvelously well-designed. The ticket and transportation costs make it a splurge, but it is a worthy one.
Visiting the Park
A one-day entrance ticket for the park costs 220 RMB (students 170 RMB), and the 90 RMB all-inclusive bus ticket is mandatory, practically-speaking. During the low season, the ticket price drops to 80 RMB (students 70 RMB). With judicious use of buses, it is possible to see almost all of the lakes in one day without feeling like you are on a package tour. The buses drive along a road on the opposite side of the lakes from the walking paths, so you don’t experience the park to the sound of passing cars.
The park is laid out in a Y-shape and is more than 30 kilometers long. The park entrance is at the north and forms the base of the Y. The western branch has the most to see, as there are lakes running all the way from the farthest end (the Primeval forest) to the point where the two branches come together at the Nuorilang Waterfall. The eastern branch has two large lakes at its far end, but not much in between.
I recommend starting early and taking the bus from the entrance to the Primeval Forest. From there, boardwalk paths run past Swan Lake, Bamboo Lake, Panda Lake, Multi-Colored Lake, Mirror Lake and more. It will probably take all of the morning to work your way down to the Nuorilang Waterfall. From there, get on another bus to see Long Lake and the Five-Colored Pool. Return by bus to Nuorilang, then use the last few hours of the day to see the lakes in the “stem” of the Y, such as Tiger Lake and Sparkling Lake.
Extending Your Stay
Getting to Jiuzhaigou is either time-consuming or expensive, depending on whether or not you fly. The park itself is worth the journey, but there are a few other things to do in northern Sichuan to extend your trip. After we visited Jiuzhaigou, we spent one night doing a homestay and cooking class in a nearby Tibetan village. You can also stay there during your visit to the park, as it’s only a 15-minute drive away. Read my full report on Zhuo Ma’s Tibetan Experience. To make a reservation, e-mail JiuzhaiCooking@gmail.com.
Huanglong National Park is just a couple of hours away from Jiuzhaigou and features terraced pools of mineral water tinted crazy shades of blue, green and yellow. Unlike Jiuzhaigou, these pools dry up in the winter, so it may not be worth going between November and April. In Songpan, two hours away, you can arrange multiday horse treks out into the grasslands.
Eating in Jiuzhaigou
Inside the park, there are surprisingly few dining options. We occasionally came across stalls selling packets of food, instant noodles and bottled drinks, and there is one restaurant near the Nuorilang Waterfall. To give yourself the most flexibility in your schedule, it’s best to bring your lunch and snacks along with you. When you’re not in the park, there are plenty of restaurants in the village. But prices are generally inflated. Your best bet for a cheap meal is to look for one of the restaurants advertising 小吃, or snacks. There, you can get a bowl of noodles or a bowl of dumplings for under 10 RMB.
For most visitors, Jiuzhaigou is a one-day experience. You will probably need to spend at least two nights in Pengfeng Village, near the entrance. There are at least two hostels in the village in addition to plenty of hotels (reportedly with a total of 20,000 rooms). Recently, the park opened an ecotourism program offering two day trips for around 760 RMB. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
MIGU International Youth Hostel
This is an unexciting hostel, and one that still needs work on some of the basics of hostel management. Staffers were friendly, but their English was poor, and they got totally flustered any time there were more than two guests at reception at a time. The room and bathrooms were clean, but the comforter covers seemed not to be changed between guests. I kept finding long black hairs in my bed — ick! The locks to the dorm rooms also malfunctioned, such that only the latest guest to check in could actually use his or her key to open the door. The basement rooms are windowless. We chose it, however, because it had the top rating on Hostelworld for Jiuzhaigou. Maybe it’s just not a hostel town.
A bed in a 6-bed dorm cost 40 RMB per night. There is a small discount for Hostelling International members. Rooms can be booked at Hostelworld. The hostel is about 1 km from the park entrance.
There are two ways to get to Jiuzhaigou: expensive and comfortable, or cheap and decidedly not comfortable. There are direct flights to Jiuzhaigou from Chengdu and several of China’s other largest cities. They will cost a pretty penny, but will almost certainly get you there in one piece, no worse for wear. The base price from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou is around 900 RMB, but check Elong or Ctrip for up-to-date pricing.
A bus to or from Chengdu costs 140 RMB and takes about 9 hours. From Jiuzhaigou, buses leave between 7 and 9 a.m. — check with your hostel for exact times. The first part of the ride is very slow and very twisty, since you are going across mountains — victims of motionsickness, beware.