KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
How can I possibly describe this tiny corner of China? We first heard of Jiuzhaigou (Nine Village Gully) from a new acquaintance we met in Beijing. The Lonely Planet describes it as a national treasure, with heart-stopping ticket prices and too many tourists, but says, "go anyway - you'll never forget a visit to this place". Jiuzhaigou is now a UN World Biosphere Reserve Natural Heritage and the Chinese have done an amazing job at developing the walking trails and handling the millions of visitors who make their way here each year.
Legends tell us that Jiuzhaigou was created when the goddess Wunosemo spurned a jealous devil. He caused her to drop her magic mirror and when it struck the ground it shattered into 118 glimmering turquoise lakes. The 'Nine Village Gully' name refers to the nine Tibetan settlements that can be found in the valley. The original residents have been forced to move in order to 'protect' the park; a new town has sprung up outside the park gates to house the Tibetans and service the needs of the countless visitors.
The Lonely Planet says Jiuzhaigou is worth the splurge in "yuan and time" so we bit the bullet and flew the forty minutes north of Chengdu to spend a few days in a natural setting instead of the large cities we have been seeing so far. Once again, the mountain air was cool but the minivan we rode in from the airport was heated and we met some delightful Chinese tourists on the ride. The airport is located 85km (altitude 11,000 ft.) from the Reserve, on the only area large and flat enough to land a plane. There was a skiff of snow in the forests around the airport and the surrounding mountains were all snow-capped. The road led constantly downhill and the vegetation changed throughout the one-and-a-half-hour trip. One of the passengers in the minivan helped us find a mid-range hotel not far from the park gates. She negotiated a great rate for us and even gave us her mobile number so we could ask her to translate for us if the need arose. We are always surprised how the few English speakers we meet are willing to give out their mobile numbers to complete strangers.
We settled into our hotel and then went in search of a restaurant for dinner. Most places were virtually empty as the main season is over but we did spy one small place full of diners. It's always a good idea to eat at a busy restaurant; the food is bound to be more fresh and it allows us to look around at what others are eating and choose something that looks appetizing. The menus are almost always in Chinese and very few people in China speak even basic English. I walked around the restaurant and stopped at one table with mostly young Chinese-looking travellers. A tall black man pointed to one of their dishes and said in British-accented English that it was delicious. To our surprise we discovered the group was from Calgary. They were foreign students studying in Alberta, the black man was from England and his wife was Japanese. They were stunned to meet three middle-aged travellers from Edmonton.
The next morning, Nov 1st, we walked to the park gates to find that the entrance fees had just been reduced for the slow season. The tickets were now $30.00, very reasonable for us but still expensive for Chinese tourists. The good news was, for an additional $3.00, we could have our photo taken and come for free on the second day. The only other fee was $12.00 for hop-on hop-off bus transportation within the park. We purchased all the necessary tickets and joined the queue for the next bus. To our surprise, the large, modern, low-floor buses were heated and had large panoramic windows to ensure a great view of the amazing scenery as we entered the 41km long valley.
The photos that I took really tell the story of this unforgettable place. On our first day we stayed on the bus as it climbed up the valley and rode to the very top. Then we started walking along the boardwalks through ever-changing eco-systems and beside brilliant turquoise lakes. The morning air was completely still and the lakes were like giant mirrors reflecting the sky, mountains, and fall foliage perfectly on their surfaces. As we descended along the wooden paths, we came to what seemed to be a large meadow with scattered trees throughout. What was strange was the entire meadow was tilted and the water from the lake above was spilling across the entire width of the meadow in gentle, gurgling, rivulets. We were all alone on the walkway and all we could hear was the sound of the flowing water, moving southwards along with us. Here and there, trees appeared to grow up out of the boardwalk; they had been accommodated instead of cut when the path was built.
Suddenly, the meadow ended and we found ourselves looking down on the Arrow Bamboo Lake, with its peacock blue water. I have never seen anything like it in my life. This lake was just the beginning of dozens of similar lakes of different depths nestled in the narrow valley. The water is so clear that fallen trees are visible in the cold waters and we watched entranced as small fish swam between the leafless boughs. The sun overhead in the cloudless sky shimmered on the water's surface. I wanted to stay forever in this enchanted place.
Our park map told us that a huge waterfall lay further down the valley so we boarded the bus to rest our legs for a while and disembarked at Pearl Shoals. Here, we finally encountered the tour groups that were starting to arrive. Our peaceful time was at an end. We sat for lunch and watched the groups pass by us, each with their own guide holding a flag up high, and all wearing matching coloured caps. We were the only non-Chinese tourists in the area that day, but we didn't attract even the slightest interest. The scenery and the digital cameras were the focus of all the attention.
We spent the entire day moving from one amazing vista to another until our weary legs couldn't carry us another step. While not as high as Lhasa, Tibet, we were walking at about 8,000ft above sea level and the cool, fresh air was thin. We boarded the bus at the visitor centre near the middle of the valley and descended to the main gate. After dinner at the same restaurant we collapsed into bed for a long, well-deserved rest.
On our second day, Monday, we were surprised to find the park relatively deserted. The throngs of other tourists were nowhere to been seen. Many of the buses were now parked in long rows near the visitor center. We decided to visit some of the lakes and waterfalls we were too exhausted to walk past the previous day and then spend our last hours in the most southerly sections of the valley. We expected that it would be a shorter visit for us as we thought that we had seen the majority of the reserve already. Much to our surprise, there was still so much to enjoy that we spent the entire day exploring little nooks and crannies and marveling at how so many different types of mountain scenery could be packed into this narrow valley. It's like taking some of Canada's most beautiful scenery and packing it all together so that one wouldn't have to travel far.
Near Shuzheng Falls there is a series of nineteen turquoise lakes, one flowing into another as the valley floor drops away to the south. This is the most photographed region in Jiuzhaigou. Fertile pockets of calcium in the shallow lakes provide 'flowerpots' where trees can grow unexpectedly out of the middle of the water. Here, the colour of the water varies from deep aquamarine to the greenest of green. Add the fall foliage along the banks of the rivers and the surrounding hills and you have one of the most magical places on earth.