Jiuzhai Valley- Huanglong Scenic Area

Jiuzhaigou Huanglong-8

My final day in the Jiuzhaigou area was a full one since my flight out of China wasn’t until 2130. I decided to hold off on seeing the Huanglong Scenic Area for this day. Huanglong is located about a three hours’ drive from Jiuzhaigou, and you actually pass the airport on the way to the area. Considering how long, tedious, and at times harrowing, the drive from Jiuzhaigou can be, I didn’t want to make it a day trip on my third day, and spend around six hours on the road.

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So the very helpful front desk manager at my hotel booked another day taxi for me. The cost for a day trip to Huanglong with a drop off at the airport on the way back cost me 600 yuan. Yeah, that is pretty pricey, but ultimately it was worth it for me, because it allowed me to go at my own pace and set my own independent schedule and stop off at the airport when I was done.

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Like I mentioned, the drive there was a bit tedious and at times, gut checking. The main roads in this part of the country are wide enough for two vehicles, maybe a bit wider. But the curves on this roads are numerous and at times, very windy. There also seems to be a very free wheeling attitude toward rules of the road. Truthfully, I don’t know what the rules of the road are in China, but judging what I experienced through a Western driving prism, I was often tense and at times afraid for my life. Passing on all sides of the road seemed de rigeur, passing on tight curves happened all the time, along with passing on narrow, mountain roads with a very steep drop off on one side, so more than once I imagined myself dying or being seriously injured on this trip. I hoped that my driver was skilled enough to avoid all that (even if his driving often scared the crap out of me), and thankfully he was.

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We left Jiuzhaigou around 0700 so we arrived at Huanglong around 1000. Thanks to him passing every bus and slow moving vehicle we found ourselves behind, I beat the tour groups. Sure there were people on site already, but the lines were very minimal. Admission fee for Huanglong is 210 yuan, plus an additional 80 yuan for the cable car up. Purchasing a ticket for the cable car is purely optional, though I elected to do so, and am glad I did. Sure you can walk up and down the Huanglong Valley, and I saw many groups do so. However, I wasn’t really in the mood to walk up 3.6 kilometers in the valley in that altitude, so I took the cable car up the mountain.

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To get to the cable car, you take a shuttle bus about 10 minutes away. Since it was still early in the morning, the line for the cable was nil, and I was able to immediately ascend the mountain. The cable car lets you off about 2.2 kilometers  from the Huanglong Valley, and it is an easy walk from the cable car station. Like everything else in the national parks in this area, the trails are well benched with wood planks and the trails are easy to walk. It makes for a very pleasant stroll to a beautiful lookout of the Huanglong Valley and the surrounding mountains.

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Once I arrived at Huanglong, I walked further up the path to the apex of the trail which overlooks the Multi-Colored Pond. This was another set of travertine pools, very similar to what I saw at Fairy Pond Scenic Area. The water were shades of blue and green set among the golden travertines. The clouds were gray and overhead this day (though thankfully no rain), so the colors weren’t as bright as they would be on a sunny day, but they were still beautiful nonetheless.

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The trail down the valley is 3.6 kilometers and is another wood planked trail. The path heads downward and it passes some local temples and even more travertine pools. The trail is filled with viewpoints to stop and stare at the nature around you.

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The calcium deposits built up more and more as you descend the valley, and towards the bottom, it starts to resemble the Gold and Silver Beach at Fairy Pond.

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Waterfalls also become more numerous, with the most unusual looking waterfall to be Flying Waterfall very near the bottom. The waterfall reminded me of some of the waterfalls I saw in Jiuzhaigou National Park, such as Shu Zheng Waterfall .

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I took my time walking down the valley, since I had plenty of time and I was on my own schedule (the benefit of paying for independent travel rather than going with a tour group). Even then I had so much time at the end. My taxi driver dropped me off at the airport on the return journey, and the airport is about an hour’s drive from Huanglong.

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Jiuzhaigou Huanglong-19

I think Huanglong is a must do when visiting the Jiuzhaigou area. If forced to choose between Fairy Pond and Huanglong, I recommend Huanglong, just because there is a bit more to see. If you choose to travel to Jiuzhaigou, I recommend staying no less than three days, which will allow you two full days in Jiuzhaigou National Park, and a trip to Huanglong. This will give you the greatest opportunity to see the astoundingly beautiful and unique nature in the area at a leisurely pace.  Also if possible, I recommend taking a late flight out of Jiuzhaigou, and there are plenty of opportunities, since there are about 23 flights a day to various Chinese cities during high season (basically spring through fall). This will allow you to visit Huanglong on your leaving day and go to airport on your way out. But if you love beautiful nature, this place is not to be missed.

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Jiuzhai Valley- Fairy Pond Scenic Area

 

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I made the deliberate plan to stay in the Jiuzhai Valley area for four full days, or basically four full days since my flight out was at 2130 at night on my fourth day in the valley. Since I had my activity planned for my final day, I had an open day for visiting something else in the area. When I was doing deeper research on the Jiuzhai Valley, I discovered the Fairy Pond Scenic Area, which wasn’t mentioned in my China guidebook. Upon further investigation, it sounded like a beautiful place to visit and an ideal day trip from the Jiuzhaigou village I was staying.

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The Fairy Pond Scenic Area is only about 49 kilometers (30 miles) from Jiuzhaiguou village, but it takes about 90  minutes to get there by car. It is certainly possible to take a bus to the area, but it honestly seems like more trouble than it is worth. So your two basic options to visit the Fairy Pond are to do a tour group trip, or hire a taxi on your own to take you. I chose the latter since it gave me freedom of movement and the ability to set my own schedule. Since I don’t speak Mandarin, the front desk manager was kind enough to book a taxi for me. She didn’t really speak English, but she spoke better English than I did Chinese, and combined with some basic phrases and Google Translate, we were able to communicate.

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So my taxi driver for the day showed up at the pre-arranged time (400 yuan for a full day) and we headed off for Fairy Pond Scenic Area. Even though the actual distance isn’t that far, it still takes a while to get there. The road is narrow and winding, and we had to cross a very high mountain pass (3604 meters or 11,825 feet) to get to the Fairy Pond on the other side of the mountain. We stopped for a few minutes at the top of the pass to marvel at the beautiful mountains below us. Some of them were laced with morning fog, and some of them were peeking out.

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Admission to the Fairy Pond Scenic Area is 100 yuan and then you are pretty much free to roam about. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the entrance area to the start of the scenic area. There are stairs on both side of the scenic area and you can walk up either side and walk down the other. At the base of the valley is the Gold and Silver Beach with is a wide trickling waterfall built up with calcium deposits and a blend of gold and silver colors, hence its name.

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I elected to walk up the right side of the valley so I would walk down the left side of it and get the most comprehensive view of the valley’s sights. As I walked up the stairs, I followed the gently flowing water. The bottom of the valley was a very wide, golden calcium carbonate travertine and the water rippled slowly over it and produced a delicate, beautiful shimmering effect.

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The first travertine pool was Jasper Lake and it was easy to walk among and over the lake via the wood planked boardwalk. These pools weren’t the first travertines I’ve visited (that would be Pammukkale in Turkey), but that didn’t stop me from appreciating their unique beauty. The calcium deposits were a delicate golden color and the water was an iridescent turquoise blue, and I marveled that such stuff can exist in nature, and took thousands of years to get to the point they are at now.

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The path was a wood planked set of stairs and kept going up and up, with occasional stops for different sights. The path itself is very easy, and the ascent is rather gentle with plenty of sights to see along the way. The lakes were beautiful colors of blue and green and they were so clear. I imagine the area would be even more beautiful in full overhead sunlight, but even with the smattering of clouds, Fairy Pond was still colorful and beautiful. Blue Dragon Pool was a beautiful blue and the still water was  a perfect reflection of the trees resting underneath the water’s surface.

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About midway up the stairs, the view stops at Multi-Lotus Reflecting Pools. The travertines were a beautiful contrast of pure white or bright golden calcium deposits and very bright turquoise blue water, all set among the green trees and looking out over the faraway mountains.

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The path ends up at the top of a colorful flag pavilion. It’s a small open air pavilion festooned with colorful prayer flags. The pavilion provided some shade and welcome coolness from the hot air and a good place to rest.

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The path downward was easy with more sets of stairs. This way allows you to see the same sights as the hike up, but on the opposite side to provide a different perspective.

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All told, I was at the Fairy Pond Scenic Area for a leisurely couple of hours. All the sights you want to see are clustered in this valley and the park is set up real well to facilitate an easy visit.

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Fairy Pond Scenic Area makes for a great day trip from Jiuzhaigou village. Now if you are only in the area for a few days, I suggest you spend two days in Jiuzhaigou National Park and another day at the Huanglong Scenic Area. But if you have another free day, Fairy Pond is very much worth your time.

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Jiuzhaigou National Park- Peace and Solitude in Shu Zheng Valley

 

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Shu Zheng Waterfall

My second full day in Jiuzhaigou National Park dawned like the first day-early and crowded. Yep, another mad rush to the breakfast buffet and lots of crowds at the park. This day for crowds was even worse than the first day, because it was a Saturday. Rather than the orderly line to get entrance tickets, it was sort of a rugby scrum, with the numerous group tour guides pushing their way to the front and then hogging up the line getting 20+ entrance tickets. But soon enough I had my ticket in hand and boarded the bus for the long ride to the valley. This time I picked a different line for the bus, assuming that one side went to Ri Ze Valley and the other side went to Ze Cha Wa Valley, which was my first desired stop of the day. Nope. Yes, there are buses that go to different valleys, but the destination is labeled on the bus sign, which just happens to be in Mandarin with no English translation. But after some scrambling, I managed to get on the right bus and headed to Long Lake and Five Colored Pond, which were pictured in my first blog about Jiuzhaigou National Park.

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So after fighting the crowd up at the top, I started my next full walk of the day, which was Shu Zheng Valley. I had originally intended to walk Ri Ze and Shu Zheng Valleys the previous day, which is about a combined total of 20 miles of walking. Yeah, my body had a different view and I modified my plan to include just the first two sights in Ze Cha Wa Valley and then spend the rest of the day walking out of Shu Zheng Valley to the park entrance. Shu Zheng Valley is the long winding valley you see on the first part of the drive up through the park.

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Nuo Ri Lang Waterfall

The first stop of Shu Zheng Valley is Nuo Ri Lang Waterfall. This was actually my last stop the previous day before my body rebelled, but I decided to start here again, since it is technically the first stop in the Shu Zheng Valley walk, and I am glad I did. The previous day’s visit was around 1600, and it was hot with the sun high overhead, and the crowds were out in force. However, the crowds had not yet converged on this sight, since they all either had not yet arrived (it was around 0830), or they were located farther up the valley and still working their way down. So I practically had the waterfall to myself. It was such a blissful change from the previous day. I am not one for crowds, but I will fight them if I really want to see something. But this morning, the sun was still rising, so it was pleasantly cool, the waterfall was practically silent of human voices. I could take all the time I wanted drinking in the beautiful sight of this unique waterfall, and I didn’t have to block out the cacophony of human voices or be jostled out of my reverie so yet another person could pose like a model.

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That peace and solitude was found throughout the entire walk. I finally found out how you can get peace and quiet in this park- walk the Shu Zheng Valley starting in the morning. Sure I encountered groups of people, but they were all walking up the park from the entrance and not walking down. For the vast majority of my day, I had the path to myself and it was quiet. I loved it.

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Shu Zheng Valley is probably the second most beautiful valley in the park, after Ri Ze Valley, but not as many people seem to walk it. Like the other two valleys, the majority of the track is planked with wood, so the path is even and easy to walk. No worries about tripping over the stray tree roots or hopping from boulder to boulder like I often do when hiking in Korea. This is hiking as I love it-a well benched trail that allows me to focus more on the beautiful view surrounding me rather than staring at the ground so I don’t trip (which is a common problem with me).

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 The valley is a winding trail of lakes connected to each other by rivers. In fact, if you look on the map, the water flows continually from the top to the bottom of the park. Yes, there are parts where the water widens into a lake, but the water ways are ultimately all connected so the water continues to flow.

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It is quite amazing how much the water does change throughout the course of the approximate 10 miles of the valley. Most of the lakes are iridescent blue and so clear, it is remarkable how deep you can see into the water. Much care has been taken to protect the park’s environment, and it is kept in pristine condition with no hint of pollution.

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About a quarter of the way through the walk, I arrived near Shu Zheng village, which is the busiest village in the Jiuzhai Valley. I had stopped in the actual village itself the day prior and enjoyed some local snacks and did some shopping as I waited for the bus to leave the park.

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Jiuzhaigou Shu Zheng Valley-1

 This day I didn’t enter the village, but did venture out to Shu Zheng Waterfall. Like most of the waterfalls in this park, I hadn’t seen anything quite like it. It is a round, multi-level waterfall with thousands and water streams running through the stems and trunks of the plant life that flourishes around it.

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 That was actually a common theme in the waterways of this valley. It never ceased to amaze me how much vegetation seemed to thrive completely underwater and how the rivers would occasionally grow into basically thick wetlands before flowing into a waterfall and then into another clear lake.

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While there were plenty of people around Shu Zheng Waterfall, the crowds thinned out considerably once I got past the waterfall and further down the path. You might think you would get tired of looking at lakes, but I didn’t find that to be true. I have a personal love of natural running water like rivers and lakes since I was a child, so I couldn’t get enough of the crystalline colors of the water and just how much the land looked like a fairy tale land.

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As I got further and further down the path, the sights became further and further apart, with the final sights being Reed Lake, which is a semi-swamp lake with thick reeds throughout, and Bonsai Shoals, which is a stretch of travertine beaches, on which slow water blankets through the foliage until it runs down through the valley.

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I originally intended to walk the entire valley, but by late afternoon, I was hot and my legs were tired, even after a nap by an old water mill. Luckily this park is well set up with frequent bus stops positioned near scenic views, so you can walk as long and as far as you want. If there were more unique sights downstream, I would have kept walking, but the rest of the way (which was really only a couple kilometers, but my body was ready to quit on me) was just standard woods and river sights I have seen the world over.

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I HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend visiting this park, and I highly recommend taking two full days to see as much of the park as possible. This is such a unique park, and it is stuffed to the brim with beautiful, awe inspiring sights. I have visited many places in the world, but some of the things I saw in this park, I hadn’t quite seen before, and it was just incredible to see more examples of unique natural beauty in this world.

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Even walking most of the sights, you can easily this park at a leisurely pace. The park is open from 0730-1900 in the summer, which is more than enough time to see a valley (more if you really want to walk fast) at your own pace. I will say this as a tip, but this is a common tip and not some insider knowledge. The entire park moves down, meaning that the end of the valleys are at a higher altitude than the beginning of the valley. So the easiest and most recommended way to see the valleys if you intend to walk them is to take the bus to the end of each valley and start at the first site (Virgin Forest for Ri Ze Valley, Long Lake for Ze Cha Wa Valley and Nuo Ri Lang Waterfall for Shu Zheng Valley). That way you spend the entire hike walking down, which is much easier, particularly since this park is already at a high altitude. Seeing it from a bus as it speeds by is pretty, but nothing can really replicate getting close to nature and experiencing it first hand, hopefully without TOO many tourists around.

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Jiuzhaigou National Park Ri Ze Valley-A Walk of Otherworldly Beauty

Jiuzhaigou Ri Ze Valley-21

I had two days planned to visit Jiuzhaigou National Park, and intended to visit the most beautiful valley the first day. There are three valleys in the park, and two of them are considered the most beautiful. I originally intended to visit Ri Ze Valley and Shu Zheng Valley the first day, but due to circumstances (like my poor aching feet), I decided just to walk Ri Ze Valley, which is about 18km from start to finish.

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Like most of my vacation days, I started the day early. However, unlike most places I’ve visited, an early start did not make me special or alone. Like I mentioned in a previous blog post, the line for breakfast started before breakfast even began at 0630. I intended to start early to maximize my time in the park, and hopefully beat some of the crowds. During the summer season, the park opens at 0700 and closes around 1800. I arrived at the park entrance around 0730, and the hordes of crowds were already milling around.

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My jaw sort of dropped at the number of tour groups, and I pictured a hideously long wait to buy a ticket and get on the bus. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised that the line for tickets didn’t appear QUITE as bad as I feared. Sure, people were just  crowding around all the registers, but it only took me about 10 minutes to get a ticket. Price for one day admission is 220 yuan, plus the 90 yuan for a bus ticket, so one day in the park costs around roughly $50 USD. It’s certainly not cheap, especially in China, but I personally felt the price  was worth it. I mean, I spent several hundred dollars in plane tickets and a hotel room, all to see as much beautiful nature as possible, so why would I quibble about $50 USD per day? This high price is during peak season, but during the winter, the one day admission drops to 80 yuan per day, and a second day ticket for 20 yuan.

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There were many people at the bus stops, but there were so many buses, that it only took me about 10 minutes to get on a bus. Transportation in the park is a well-oiled machine, set up to transport hundreds of visitors per day as quickly and efficiently as possible. Once you get past the entrances, there are two lines for buses. Initially I assumed that one side takes you to the start of Ri Ze Valley, and the other one takes you to Ze Cha Wa Valley. However, as I figured out the second day, that is not the case. There are buses that go to both destinations, but they aren’t separated. The destinations are surely listed on the bus, but since the words were in Mandarin, I had no clue. I just got on a bus and hoped for the best.

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Luckily for me, I got on a bus for Ri Ze Valley. The morning buses take visitors directly to the end of the Ri Ze Valley where the trail starts. The ride itself takes around an hour, and you pass by all the beautiful sites that you will see again on your way back. The final bus stop, or technically first stop of the day is the Primeval Forest. Immediately once I got off the bus, I felt two things: the bracing chill in the morning air, and the altitude. This part of the valley is over 9,900 feet in altitude, and I felt that vague lightheadedness that comes with altitude adjustment. The morning was clear and sunny, and the air very fresh.

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The vast majority of visitors got back on the bus after visiting the Primeval Forest to head back down the valley and stop at all the key sites. I, on the other hand, intended to walk my way out of the valley, which is about 18 kilometers in length. If you have only one day in the park, but want to see as many of the key sites as possible, you really can only ride the bus and stop at all the key sites for pictures. However, visiting two days enables you to see more of the park at a leisurely pace and walk to all the beautiful sites. I chose to come to Jiuzhaigou to walk among the beautiful nature and I wanted maximum amount of time to enjoy it all.

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This park is exceptionally well designed in my opinion. I’m not talking about the beautiful nature, because that just exists, though it is clearly well protected in this part of China. But the way this park is set up, it makes it really easy to enjoy. The paths through the valleys are all wood planked. Most of the path is flat, or some minor stairs, though the trail is always heading down as you descend through the valley. Also interspersed throughout the park are rather nice bathrooms (much better than many I have seen in US national parks), so this ensures the park stays very clean. There are also numerous signs in English, so you know where you are, how far the next sight is located, and where the nearest bus stop is.

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The first few kilometers were in relative peace, as there weren’t that many other walkers. The first sites to visit were Grass Lake and Swan Lake. Grass Lake is a long, narrows, semi-swamp tucked under deep cliffs. Swan Lake is also tucked among dense woods. I was struck by all the different plants that seemed to thrive under flowing water, and I hadn’t seen anything quite like this before. I had intended to walk the entire 18 kilometers, but the trail after Swan Lake was blocked, and I had to take the bus to Arrow Bamboo Lake, but I didn’t miss anything exceptional on the trail, and saved some time, and saved my feet.

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Once I arrived at Arrow Bamboo Lake, I was in for a bit of surprise. By this point, it was mid morning, and the tour groups were out in even greater force. So instead of the peace and quiet I had up on the upper part of the trail, now I had noise and crowds to contend with. Even though this is a place where independent travel is certainly possible, for the most part from what I saw, most people were there as part of a tour group, and these groups tended to be very large.

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So I did my best to block out the crowds and step around them when possible. The beautiful nature made me want to just sit back and take it all in, but that can be a bit difficult at times. The crowds had no compunction about pushing me aside or asking me to move so they could take the umpteenth picture of themselves posing like models. It can get a bit much at times if you don’t like crowds, which I don’t, but honestly, the beautiful nature was worth it. Wait long enough and the crowds will eventually go away (of course only to be replaced with another crowd shortly thereafter). But you can set your own pace and see what you want for how long you want, and there is more than enough time to see it all if you visit the park over multiple days.

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After walking around and admiring the serene Arrow Bamboo Lake, I came upon the first of numerous waterfalls in the Ri Ze Valley. Arrow Bamboo Waterfall seems to be the smallest waterfall in the valley, being only around 7 meters high. This waterfall was formed from collapsed rocks, and is arc-shaped  with a wide span.

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Continuing down the trail, the next stop of beauty was Panda Lake, with its very transparent water surrounded by mountains. You might think that seeing a multitude of lakes and waterfalls would get boring, but I never found it to be so. The national park is pristine, and the colors are bright, and I am very drawn to bright colors. The full visual power of this park is very apparent on a sunny day, like this day was. The blues of the lakes are jewel-toned, and the water is so transparent, it is like a mirror reflecting the landscape around it.

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Right next to Panda Lake is Panda Lake Waterfall. This waterfall is the highest and oldest of Jiuzhaigou’s waterfalls, and it has been forming itself slowly over the past 53,000 years. The sight of the waterfall is majestic, and I’ve read that that the waterfall freezes in the winter to form a solid curtain of ice.

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Five Flower Lake is considered to be one of the most beautiful and colorful of the park’s lakes. The wide variety of colors are formed from the lake bottom travertines and colorful algae. The park in the summer is filled with all range of green and blues, and I kept imagining what this park looks like in autumn, with all the reds, oranges and yellows.

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Walking along the path, I just kept coming up on more beauty, more lakes, and more waterfalls. The head of the final waterfall in Ri Ze Valley is the Pearl Shoals. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it, with the wide, shallow river flowing and bubbling over the travertine surface among the trees and shrubbery.

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These shoals consolidate into the Pearl Shoals Waterfall and form a gorgeous, rushing waterfall. This waterfall is considered the most photographed waterfall. It is gorgeous from all angles, particularly the side view as I descended the path. I have seen many waterfalls in my travels, but I personally think the waterfalls in Jiuzhaigou National Park are some of the most unique and beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. Many times it felt like I was in some sort of fantasy, fairy land, and I had to remind myself that this was real life, a real place on Earth.

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I had originally intended to walk both the Ri Ze Valley and Shu Zheng Valley that first day. I figured it was only 20 miles, and I’ve done more. However, once I reached the end of Ri Ze Valley around Mirror Lake, I realized my body had culminated. The walking was not difficult, since it is either flat or downhill. But I had been on my feet for around nine hours, the sun was hot and shining bright down on my head, and I was hungry (there aren’t really any restaurants in the park, and I didn’t bring a lunch, and was subsisting off the big breakfast buffet). I called it a day and figured I would walk the Shu Zheng Valley the next day. I walked out to the nearest bus stop and gratefully caught the next bus down to town and gingerly walked back to my hotel for a well-needed shower and nap.

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Jiuzhaigou National Park Overview

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Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I am always on the lookout for new and different places to visit, and I come upon different ideas for travel destinations in many different ways. Some destinations are well known throughout the world. Some are recommended to me by fellow travelers.  Some I discover through reading, TV or the Internet. Sometimes I am particularly attracted to something unique and beautiful in general, and sometimes I want to visit some place to experience something very specific.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-1

Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

In the case of Jiuzhaigou National Park in China, I had never heard of this place until about a year and a half ago. Then I stumbled upon this website that showed off some of the most surreal places on this Earth, both natural and man made. I was instantly intrigued by the pictures I saw. They were unlike anything I’ve seen before and I  very much wanted to visit the place. I mean, this looked like a magical fairy land  filled with lakes the colors of jewel tones, strange and beautiful waterfalls, and reflections on the water like mirrors. Lucky for me that I currently live in Korea, so it’s not THAT difficult to travel to Jiuzhaigou National Park (though it still takes more work to get to than some place like Beijing or Shanghai). After some basic research in my guide book and on the national park website, I started planning on when I could make my visit.

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Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

My first desire was to visit in the fall. Autumn is supposed to be the most beautiful time of the year to visit Jiuzhaigou, and I’ve seen the pictures to prove it. However, the park’s gorgeousness is not exactly a secret, so it’s also the most crowded time of the year. There are no direct flights from Seoul to Jiuzhaigou, so at best you have to take a hop through Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu. I started looking for flights about 60 days out, and much to my amazement, all the direct flights from Beijing and Shanghai were booked, so it would have taken me around 24 hours, and at least two stops, to get to Jiuzhaigou. I decided to put my travel desires on hold, but when I had the opportunity to go on vacation in early July, I figured this was my last, best chance to see Jiuzhaigou before I leave Korea was then. I started planning this trip nearly 90 days out, and luckily for me, there were flights available, and all I had to worry about was one layover on Beijing on the way there, and a stop in Chengdu on the return.

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Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park

I planned for four full days in Jiuzhaigou to give me maximum time to visit the park. Most things I read suggested a minimum two days to see all three valleys. The nearby Huanglong Scenic Area was also high on the list of must do sightseeing areas, and upon further research, I decided a day trip to the Fairy Pond Scenic Area would also be worthwhile. This itinerary allowed me to see everything I wanted to see without rushing, and allowed me to the time to really savor the gorgeous beauty.

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Ze Cha Wa Valley mountains, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I knew before I went that July is not the best time to visit Jiuzhaigou. Sure, it is the greenest time of the year, but that is because it is also the rainiest. I knew this going in, and I hoped for good weather. For the most part, the weather actually held out. Sure, there was some cloudiness at times, but for the most part, I couldn’t ask for better weather. This park is pretty regardless of the weather, but it is exceptionally gorgeous and surreal when it is sunny out.

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Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

The Jiuzhaigou National Park and surroundings are well established for tourist visits, though in some respects, things are easier if you are fluent or at least familiar with Mandarin. However, if you are like me, and completely clueless when it comes to the local language, you can still prevail and enjoy yourself.

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Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Considering that Jiuzhaigou is a small area and is in a very isolated part of China, the modernness of the airport and many of the villages is a tad surprising (though probably not when considering this area is very much about attracting tourists). There are a couple dozen flights a day to and from Jiuzhaigou from around China. The airport is about a 90-120 minute ride from Jiuzhaigou village. If you travel to the area independently, your two choices to get to Jiuzhaigou are bus or taxi. A bus trip is only about 45 yuan, but the schedule is erratic, isn’t posted, and doesn’t seem to run in the evening. Since I arrived around 1900, that left the only option as taxi, of which there are numerous ones. Now granted, none of the taxi drivers speak English from what I saw (or very minimal English), so you have to use gestures and broken phrases to negotiate. The flat fee per taxi is about 300 yuan. That is the same fee if you are by yourself or if you were with other people. Luckily for me, I arrived with two Europeans who also needed to get to Jiuzhaigou and we agreed to split the cab, so I ended up only spending 100 yuan.

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Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

There are a wide variety of accommodations in Jiuzhaigou, from really low budget hotels, to the five star Sheraton resort. However, most of the accommodations available for online booking tend to fall at the higher end of the spectrum. I was tempted to stay at the Sheraton resort, because it looked really nice, but the cost was around twice as high as the next most expensive hotel.

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Shu Zheng Valley trail, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I elected to stay at the Qian He International Hotel, which is located very near the Sheraton, and approximately 1500 meters from the entrance of Jiuzhaigou National Park. Overall, the hotel received good reviews, though I was a bit leery of the fact that nobody on the staff was supposed to speak English, and the hotel only accepted cash, and not credit cards. However, I was very pleasantly surprised when I showed up that the hotel now does take credit cards, which is much better than carrying hundreds of US dollars in local currency around. And yeah, nobody really spoke fluent English on staff, but the staff was very helpful, and the assistant manager in particular went out of her way to assist me using translation software.

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Shu Zheng Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

The hotel itself is very nice and upscale, and I really loved the bathrooms in particular. Breakfast buffet is included in the room price. I wasn’t surprised since many of the reviews talked about how the buffet is geared to Chinese tastes. But there is plenty of options, and it’s all you can eat, and you can never go wrong there.

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Shu Zheng Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Another interesting thing is how much of an early riser the hotel (and presumably all of the hotels) is. Breakfast opened at 0630, and at most hotels, I would have been completely alone when I was up. Here though, there was a line that formed outside of the breakfast room and the room was swarmed as soon as the door opened. In fact, everywhere I went (outside of my hotel room), I encountered swarms of people. China itself is heavily populated, and Jiuzhaigou is a very popular area, so there were crowds of people everywhere. I am not exactly a people person, and crowds of people make me even more antsy, but it’s just one of those things you have to accept when visiting the area.

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Shu Zheng Lake, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Jiuzhaigou is a tourist area, and most of the places to eat are either hotels or one of the many restaurants that line the river. Qian He International Hotel is located only 1500 meters away from the park entrance, and the walk to and from the hotel was very pleasant and cool along the river. There are so many small restaurants that all you have to do is pick one that interests you and enjoy.

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My two basic criteria for restaurant selection was an English menu and tasty looking food. I may be a somewhat adventurous local eater at times, but I do draw the line at picking something at random, without even so much as a picture.

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But the restaurants I chose had rather tasty dishes. The first night I had shredded pork with green peppers, fried rice, and spiced yak meat. Yes, yak meat. I have to say that was the first time for that, but it was rather tasty. I guess sort of like beef, or maybe closer to deer. The second night, my choice wasn’t quite so well received. I ordered spicy chicken, forgetting for a moment that in China, anything spicy tends to come covered in red chili peppers. And in this case, the chicken was certainly what I am used to in Chinese restaurants at home. It was more chicken parts with bone, and even claws still in the dinner (needless to say, I didn’t eat the claws).

Chinese dinner

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I’ll cover more specifics about visiting the park and the surrounding areas in coming blog posts. This post was more designed as an overview to visiting the area. I will say that if you love beautiful nature, and want to see unique places in this world, Jiuzhaigou National Park should definitely be on your “to do” list.

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Shu Zheng Valley trail, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Xi’An’s Myriad of Pleasures- Temples, Towers, Pagodas and Dumplings

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As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, Xi’An wasn’t EXACTLY what I expected. Part of me envisioned a Chinese version of Bruges, Belgium, but that is definitely not the case. Xi’An is very much a modern Chinese city these days. However that doesn’t mean that Xi’An doesn’t have its pleasures ready to be explored. It has all sorts of temples, towers, pagodas, restaurants. It’s just that they are spread out around the city and sometimes found outside the city walls.

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-1Bell Tower, pictured above, is located in the center of Xi’An within the city walls. It’s sort of the focal point of all the roads, particularly the roads leading to and from the main gates exiting the city, and a good chunk of the vehicle traffic goes around the large roundabout. Even though it was a completely different setting, I kept thinking of the scene in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” where the Griswolds were stuck in a roundabout all day.

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A few hundred meters northwest of Bell Tower  is Drum Tower. It’s pretty much the same setup as Bell Tower. In both cases, you can pay to ascend the tower and get a view of the city outside. Neither tower is really of any historical value; they’re just attractive viewpoints.

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-12Both towers are beautifully lit up at night and are some of the most attractive sites at night. Both towers are open from early morning to around 2130 at night for a visit. At night, the kites came out in force and swayed beautifully in the wind and the setting sun.

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Located a reasonable walking distance from the East Gate is a small, peaceful, interesting Daoist temple called Ba Xian An, or Temple of the Eight Immortals. The temple is located between narrow alleyways, and is across the street from one of the antique market streets.

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Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-8The colorful walls and decorations are very different than the other temples in town and the courtyard decorations are also really well done.

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Getting to the temple is a lot easier than my guidebook made it out to be. It assumed you would take the bus 4 or 11 from Bell Tower to the temple and walk from the bus stop. These were the directions listed “From the An Ren Fang bus stop, continue east 135m/450 ft before heading south down the first alley on your right; turn right when the road meets the T-junction. Immediately take a left and continue south to the back of the temple, following the incense vendors.”

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However I wanted to walk to the temple, because I wanted the exercise. I was staying at a hostel near the South Gate and tried to fit in an early morning visit to the temple before a day tour. It was about a 30 minute walk from the South Gate to the East Gate. It was all going well, until I tried to tailor my guidebook directions for a walk and it just wasn’t happening, particularly since the maps I had were a bit generic, and there were no signs pointing the way.

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On my second try, I decided to take a taxi just so I could be sure to find it. I discovered that I had nearly found it on my first trip. I just hadn’t walked far enough down the road and turned back in frustration. So knowing this, walking to the temple is very easy. Walk outside of the big East Gate and cross the divided street and keep walking straight down the main road. The road will curve a few times, but keep walking, and soon enough you will arrive at the temple complex on your left. You can’t miss it. The temple is open from 0830-1800, and with the low price of admission of 3 yuan, it is one of the cheapest visits in town.

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On my final morning in Xi’An (I had a noon flight back to Korea), I visited the Da Yan Ta, also known as the Great Goose Pagoda. The construction of this temple started in C.E. 652, and the style is similar to some temples in India.

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Also on site, very near the base of the pagoda is a the Da Ci’en Si or Temple of Great Goodwill. The temple is Buddhist, and is very elaborately and colorful decorations, like most Buddhist temples I’ve visited.

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The Great Goose Pagoda is about seven stories tall, and you can climb the pagoda for a panoramic view of Xi’An. It costs 50 yuan to enter the temple complex, with an additional fee of 20 yuan to climb the tower. I arrived at the pagoda shortly after it opened, so there was no crowd and it was easy (though temporarily strenuous) to climb the stairs to the top.

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However, the view from the top of the pagoda, while nice, is probably not worth 20 yuan in my opinion. The pagoda is located south of the city walls, and the walls aren’t visible from the tower. While attractive, the view is nothing special or particularly breath taking.

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The pagoda itself is located in a central part of an urban planned shopping complex and park. It is very attractively located, though decidedly modern with no real traces of antiquity left. There is a nice park immediately below the pagoda and I could watch couple ballroom dancing in the park (something rather common across China).

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-17Getting to the pagoda complex is easy, particularly if you don’t mind some walking. Since the pagoda is located a few kilometers south of the South Gate, and since I was short on time on my last morning, I decided to take the subway. The subway is very new and opened within the last couple years. It is very clean, modern, and easy to use. I was afraid the subway would only have Chinese signs, but it is very well marked in English. The nearest subway stop for me was several hundred meters south of South Gate, and it was only a few stops. The nearest subway stop is off Line 2, Xiaozhai. Take exit C and walk eastward for about 10 minutes. You can also take a wide variety of busses or a taxi as well to the complex. Tickets will vary by length of trip, and there are self service ticket machines that are easy to use. However, one key point, is that the ticket machines don’t take 1 yuan bills (it does take 5 yuan bills), but does take 1 yuan coins.

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While there are a variety of bars in Xi’An, one of the biggest offerings for tourists is a night dinner and show.  Pretty much all hotels will offer up a tour to a dumpling banquet/show. There are a couple different possibilities, but the best one, or at least the closest to authentic, is Shanxi Grand Opera House (Shanxi Gewu Da Xiyuan). The typical night out is a massive dumpling buffet and a show.

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So many different dumplings are offered for guests to feast on. They were so delicious and JUST on the side of too much, but I didn’t want to stop eating them. The site is a large, beautifully decorated banquet hall.

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After dinner, the show lasts about an hour and shows examples of more traditional Chinese entertainment for the region.

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While Xi’An isn’t a sleepy, traditional hamlet, there are still plenty of interesting, beautiful and historical sites to be seen and experienced in town that can enhance any visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Xi’An’s “Other” Tomb- The Mausoleum of Emperor Jingdi (Han Yanling)

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Xi’An’s Terra Cotta Warriors is probably the most famous and well known historical site in the area, and with good reason. The Terra Cotta Warriors are very impressive in terms of scale of the excavations, the size of the warriors, and the artistic craftsmanship of the work, particularly when you consider that they were created well over 2000 years ago. However, that doesn’t mean it is the only tomb in town to visit (I mean that metaphorically, since both sites are well outside of Xi’An).

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This mausoleum belongs to the Emperor Jingdi who reigned from 157-141 B.C.E. Amazingly enough, even though that was over 2000 years ago, this tomb postdates the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (i.e. the Terra Cotta Warriors) by 300 years. Unlike the militarily turbulent time the Terra Cotta Warriors were built, Emperor Jingdi built his tomb during an economically peaceful and optimistic time, and the nature of his tomb reflects that.

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Like the Terra Cotta Warriors, Emperor Jingdi’s tomb was lost to history for over two thousand years, only to be stumbled upon in the course of other explorations. The Terra Cotta Warriors were accidentally discovered by villagers digging a well in the 1970s, and Jingdi’s mausoleum was discovered in 1990 during the construction of the highway from the Xi’An airport.

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Also like the Terra Cotta Warriors, only part of the tomb complex has been excavated. The main tomb is still a grassy hill, and only about 16 pits to the east of the main tomb have been excavated so far. Remains of the eastern gate are currently being excavated, and the southern gate post has been reconstructed.

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Emperor Jingdi set up his tomb in a sort of similar fashion as Qin Shi Huang’s tomb in the sense that there are a series of pits filled with figurines of persons, horses, chariots and other stuff. However, the figurines are only a third of the size of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

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However, the experience of visiting Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is a different experience than visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors. Both sites are enclosed in  buildings, but Jingdi’s tomb encloses the pits themselves so you can walk over them and see the figurines inside where they’ve rested for a couple thousand years.

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The chariots were made of wood and have long since disintegrated, but the fossil remains of the chariots and the wheels remain, preserved in the dirt. However, there is a model example of how the tombs probably looked like when they were first created.

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Since the timeframe Jingdi created his mausoleum was more peaceful, most of the figurines aren’t of military origin, but rather of a bucolic nature. There are many farm animals in some of the pits along with all the other figurines  from the royal court.

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The setup for the museum is in one building, rather than three like the Terra Cotta Warriors. Also, this is a very peaceful tomb to visit. Even though Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is only around an hour’s drive from Xi’An, and on the way to and from the airport, this site does not receive nearly the same amount of visitors as the Terra Cotta Warriors. Which means that instead of fighting through crowds to get a view of the pits, and having to block out the cacophony created by hordes of tourists, you can stroll through the mausoleum in greater peace and quiet.

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If you are fascinated by historical and archaeological sites, this place is definitely worth your time. All hotels and hostels will offer a half day tour to the tomb, or you can take a taxi there on your own. I do suggest that if you are visiting this tomb and the Terra Cotta Warriors, that you visit Emperor Jingdi’s tomb first. While it is a worthwhile place to visit, it is of a much smaller scale than the Terra Cotta Warriors, and there is the possibility of feeling let down if you see this tomb after.

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