Sprinkled with an incredible palette of natural colours, Sichuan's UNESCO listed nature reserves are home to rare animals and plants as well as the Baima Tibetan minority.
Jiuzhaigou Valley's patchwork of shimmering lakes was discovered when scientists trailing some pandas, observing their habitat and migratory patterns, followed the pandas into this scenic wonderland. Scientists believe the lakes were formed because of the calcium carbonate in the flowing water when the earth was between ice ages. When the global climate warmed up, the calcium carbonate became active and attached itself to obstacles in the water, forming the milky white, lunar shapes in Jiuzhaigou's lake water. The scenery in the area leaves most breathless as the sheer beauty of the lakes and the vibrancy of the colours defy explanation.
Cut into the mountains in the shape of a "Y," three valleys, Shuzheng, Rize and Zechawa, extend over 50km into three main zones. Pathways and roads have been laid in the valley areas and buses ferry tourists from one section of park to another. The average height of the hills overlooking the valley is around 1,800m, but the elevations here are gentle, making for easy strolls as well as strenuous, longer hikes. Nearest to the park's entrance lies the Shuzheng Lakes (only Shuzheng, Rize Valley, Zechawa and Zharu Valley are open to tourism). Shuzheng is the largest of the lake areas, so if time is limited, this is where you should spend your time.
Legend says that the lake water is coloured by the make-up of fairy maidens. The amazing hues of the lakes vary from blue and green to light brown, dark grey and light purple. According to science, the dazzling colours are due from the aquatic plants in the lakes, the different temperatures of the water, how it refracts light and the amount of calcium carbonate in the water. Whatever the reason, there's no doubting that the gods and nature have been exceptionally kind to Jiuzhaigou.
Jiuzhaigou is indeed all about colour. Set in the Aba Autonomous Region, it may be more effort than most of Sichuan's other sights but any understatement is impossible when it comes to describing this piece of natural scenery. Listed by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage Site, there is an airport in nearby Songpan, cutting the journey to less than an hour from the provincial capital of Chengdu. Thanks to the direct air connection, tour numbers are rapidly rising but Jiuzhaigou is large enough to allow the hiking paths to be more beaten by the increased sized tour groups.
The name Jiuzhaigou comes from the nine Tibetan villages scattered throughout the valley. The Baima tribe of Tibetans live here as farmers and hunters; they grow corn on terraced mountainsides and farm bison. The Baima are distinct from other Tibetans in that they have their own script for their language. They have their own religious writings too and worship mountain gods as opposed to being part of the broader spectrum of Tibetan Buddhism.
It's impossible to pick a favourite from the many lakes considering the natural beauty of Jiuzhaigou. Shuzheng, the largest and most accessible of the three lake-specked valleys is an ideal place to begin your exploration. Spread out over hundreds of acres, the main attractions in Shuzheng Valley are the Shuzheng and Nuorilang Lakes, Dragon Lake and Spark Lake. The first two are stepped lakes, dropping in stages over mountain ledges with crystal clear water cascading from one tier to the next. Water music rarely sounded as sweet.
The milky yellow dyke at the centre of shuzheng lakes is clearly visible through the clear water, looking like a dragon crouching below the lake. Shuzheng Waterfall meanwhile bangs and crashes its way down the hillside before plummeting into the lake.
All around, forests of many colours are reflected in the water. Many endangered animals such as the giant panda live in these woodlands, out of the reach of all but the most energetic tourists. Tastefully created wooden paths cut through the lower slopes of the valley and comfortable pavilions offer respite to weary legs. On less crowded days they're also perfect picnic points.
Calcium carbonate coatings on dead trees on the bed of the lake resemble abstract art creations in their twisted, yellow shapes. Add to the colour mix, the turquoise, saffron and crimson colors of vegetation in the lake and the tree leaves reflected in the lake and you've got an image more colourful and pretty than a George Seurat painting. We spotted several sketch pads, mostly on the knees of foreign visitors but there's plenty of justification for taking an easel and box of paints up here.
Worthy of at least a photo are the small pockets of wildflowers, mostly rhododendrons, which cluster in Jiuzhaigou's forest lands. There's also an abundance of wild fruit: apples, haw, apricots, strawberries and exotic-looking berries. The plentiful bamboo shoots feed a precious resident, the panda. Walking through the lower forest areas jealousy is a reasonable reaction to the idyll enjoyed by the panda and his hundreds of neighbours who live on protected ground here.
Leaving the lakes we followed the trails leading to the Shuzheng stockade or village, home to a settlement of Baima. The paths were lined with prayer flags of variously coloured cloth with Buddhist religious scripture printed on them. At the end of a day's walking, a bowl of noodles and several cups of Tibetan buttered tea, made with yak milk, will give you a shot of energy, enough to view the setting sun as the day draws to a close.