The bejeweled lakes of Jiuzhaigou: Mind-altering bus ride no longer required

Jiuzhaigou is now a carefully managed tourist attraction that, during the high season, sees over ten thousand visitors a day. It wasn’t always that way and as Sascha Matuszak reminisces about his first visit there a decade ago, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Read on for his story plus useful travel tips on visiting Jiuzhaigou today. The first time I went to Jiuzhaigou Valley in northern Sichuan, I got dropped off in front of the Chengdu’s Traffic Hotel. I believe it was 2000 or maybe 2001—like I said, it was a tough trip that changed the chemical make-up of my brain forever. Anyway, the road to Jiuzhaigou (which means Valley of Nine Hamlets) was not paved back then and it was “the old road” i.e. the same road that could have been built by Mao-era revolutionaries. We wound through the increasingly arid and mountainous landscape and stopped for a short time in Songpan—back then a tiny town with a wall, horses and a few Tibetans and Hui Muslims lounging about. The traffic jam on that trip was, I think, what irrevocably changed my gray matter. There is a series of tunnels somewhere between Guangyuan (Tang Empress Wu Zi Tian’s hometown and the side of the Sword Gate Pass) and Songpan that burrows underneath the rock like a mouse wriggling through a fat lady’s long skirts. It’s a one lane road for the most part and our bus met with a convoy of those big, blue construction trucks. Everybody stopped, got out and did one of two things: 1) cursed 2) smoked That stop lasted for a long time. I don’t know… maybe two hours? Longer? Somehow we managed to slip through the tunnel, churning up mud and rock and moss as we went and as night fell, we reached the mouth of the valley. By then everyone had got off of the bus except for me and a couple that lived a few villages down. Villages in the valleys to either side of Jiuzhaigou are so isolated from the millions of tourists that visit this area every year that they still stare a bit, even today. Back then, that couple held onto each other and never took their eyes off of me. They stayed like that throughout the entire 12 (or was it 15?) hour long trip.

No need to camp anymore… unless you want to

 So when we reached Jiuzhaigou the bus driver kicked me out by the Sheraton and that was that. There were no hotels in sight. No touts waiting. It was pitch black except for silver pinpoints in the sky that shone through sleeping trees and the great machine glare of the Sheraton’s massive sign. I walked into the Sheraton with high hopes, but one look a the prices and I turned and ran for it. Not sure what to do, I wandered the dark alleys of the little town just outside of the mouth of the valley. I walked past a government building and noticed tables and chairs and a light. I asked the old woman mopping the floor if there were rooms anywhere. She looked me up and down and said, “yeah, we got rooms here.” I can’t remember the room which probably means it was OK. The government building was actually the county seat restaurant and hotel. Officials came down to visit the valley every now and then, and when they did they ate and drank here, slept upstairs with their mistresses and then slipped on back home in the morning. The next day I walked past the Jiuzhaigou Valley mouth and hiked up into the park via a different valley. There were too many people lined up and the entrance fee was RMB 80 and well beyond my budget at the time. No one noticed, even when I walked out a couple days later, muddy and sprouting spruce needles, smelling like a doused campfire. The entrance fee has risen since then to RMB 220 + RMB 90 for the eco bus that takes you up and down the valley. The bus ticket from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou was around RMB 100. I left with RMB 600, so you see, I’d had little choice but to camp.

Jiuzhaigou today

What I did back then is still possible today, in 2011. But what’s also possible is a somewhat more comfortable and convenient direct flight from Chengdu to Huanglong—a striking airport amidst the stone and clouds—followed by a slick bus ride to the valley along the new highway that links the capital with the valley. You can stay at five-star, three-star or no-star hotels, live with Tibetan families, see Tibetan dancing troupes and cruise up and down the park on eco buses. Booking a tour to Jiuzhaigou is a good choice if you are new to China and want to see the valley in peace. Organizing everything yourself can be a hassle: if you take the bus you will still get dropped off in front of the Sheraton at around 8:00 p.m. and need to find your accomodation. If you fly, you’ll still have to get a taxi (anywhere from RMB 150-300) from the airport to Jiuzhaigou Valley. If you want to take your sweet time and do some serious hiking, then you’ll have to go DIY.  Flights from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou are awesome because after you punch through the dome of fog and pollution that blankets the city, you quickly reach the crisp air of the mountains. The trees on the stark mountainsides look as if they are just a few feet away and before you begin your descent, the plane hovers for a moment on updrafts, which is a very discomforting albeit exciting experience. Coming back feels like you are leaving the real world behind just to fly into a murky maelstrom from which there can be no escape. It’s hard to leave Jiuzhaigou. Those pools you saw in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon really do exist and no you don’t need photoshop to make them look like that. The whole park is a fairy land and as long as you avoid the first week of May and the first week of October, it’s quite likely that you’ll be walking around alone. In fact, I think I should make it clear here that the majority of visitors to the park only stay a few hours in the park itself. The valley goes on for 17 km and is shaped like a Y. At the junction of the Y is a beautiful lake and anyone who has been to the park is sure to have a picture from that lake. Very few people continue on after the junction because they’re unsure if they should go right or left and even if they do, where they can sleep. You can sleep with some Tibetans, that’s what you can do. Or just slip off into the trees and camp. This is not only illegal but also potentially eco-unfriendly but if you are camping, then hopefully you know the rule that you “carry out what you carry in” and you know how to keep warm without burning an entire forest. Anyway. Very few people choose to risk camping out alone anymore because the park is patrolled and you can’t very well hump a tent through the entrance. Instead, the best option is to join a hiking and camping tour with a guide via the valley’s eco-tourism initiative launched in 2009. Though this may quell the sense of adventure for many, the obligatory guide does two very important things: provides all necessary food, cooking and camping equipment so there’s no need to lug your own gear from Chengdu or elsewhere, and ensures you don’t get lost! There once was nothing but darkness outside of the park’s mouth (except for the alien light known as Sheraton and the yak poop fires of the locals). Today there are dozens of hotels in Jiuzhaigou, hundreds of restaurants and karaoke joints and countless souvenir hawkers. Along the river leading out to the right of the park (if you are coming from inside the park) is a “tourist street” with cafes, a few small hostels and trinket shops. It’s convenient, but still beautiful. No matter that the daily average is now up to 10,000 tourists per day—Jiuzhaigou Valley is still one of my all-time favorites because once you leave the chaos of the tourist scene around the mouth of the valley, you will find a place to reflect and let your mind wander… I know this because after that mind altering bus trip from hell, sitting by a lake playing with twigs and listening to the wind blow put me back together again.

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