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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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

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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.

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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