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Travels: Sichuan Province Part 4, Jiuzhaigou National Park, China

Cotton-like plants are found all over Jiuzhaigou Park, with one of the colourful lakes forming the perfect backdrop Jiuzhaigou is one of those places in china where it is said you can never miss and you have not been to a certain place if you have never seen it. It has definitely appeared many many times in pictures. First time I heard of it was a few years back when it was said it was very difficult to get to. I don't know when they went or heard about it, but I see there are airports near the park, and there are official tourist buses going from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou with daily bus (yes, singular) and in the parks are roads going to all sights and mini buses plying the route. Surely not in accessible, but nevertheless, still a place not to be missed. We shall see if this is a boast or truth.

16 November 2008: Taking the 8 am bus to Jiuzhaigou from Chengdu's Xinnanmen station. The bus station looks like a special station for tourist areas, but on the inside other than the metal detectors and xray machines, it looks like any other station. The buses look newer and the windows are fixed, so naturally I was afraid of the species known as the smoking chinese. But looks like the locals going to tourist places are a special type. During the whole trip, the guy in front of me had a half burnt cigarette in his fingers for hours but kept the urge to light it. In fact, no one smoked on this trip in the bus. Amazing show of patience. The only two things that irritated me were some passengers playing their songs on their mobile phone speakers and a guy eating process meat that smelled like coffee flavored chicken and a hint of chloroform. Smells nauseous. Overall, the trip was a lot nicer than the 12hrs bus to Xiaojing in part 2. Bearable.

Reflection on Arrow Bamboo Lake

How long? 10 full hours. We would get to see all sort of terrain. Highways first, boring and time for the ipod to keep company. Then valleys with slow flowing river, which is nothing like the ones from Xiaojing or Rilong last week, so it was about awe inspiring as cooking instant noodles to me. Then we started climbing and that's when it started to get interesting, soon we were up in the clouds and it started to look white. Snow were everywhere, trees, ground, everywhere. The GPS was not acquiring any signals so I had no idea where we were, and afraid that Jiuzhaigou is on top of the plateau, meaning that I will have some problem with my plan since I didn't bring any thermos. The view up there were quite spooky, and I was tempted to get the driver to stop the bus so I can set up my gitzo and take some photos up there.

Before long the road started to go down from 3200m altitude to just around 2000m. Some mountain range to cross, the snow started thinning down and soon it was back to normal terrain. Normal except the trees look redder signalling autumn time. The river at the bottom of the valley seems to be flowing faster probably meaning there is some more climb to come, long but a climb nonetheless.

Throughout the trip it was possible to see the effect of the recent earthquake here in Sichuan province. There are many tents along the way, some with Chinese Red Cross emblazoned on it, and others normal. In the town of Pingwu, there was a small area of the town made of temporarily materials with schools and sport facilities, I'm guessing for the victims of the disaster.

At 6 pm we arrived at Jiuzhaigou bus station. First thing first, bought the ticket back on wednesday right away, and there is only one bus in the morning. 7 am I believe. On the way, I saw the hotel I booked and walked there, a total of 400m or a little more in the darkening skies and cold weather.

Cheated this time and used my SPG points to stay at the Sheraton Jiuzhaigou. Since I have a platinum card which forces them to upgrade me if possible, I am staying with my backpack in a suite. Its nice to very pampered for a night before going to look for a local family to bunk tomorrow in the park. Ordered room service and just sat down to type this blog out. Will go for a nice long warm shower and long sleep in the nice Sheraton bed and will wake up tomorrow at first light to beat the standard tourists going into the park.

17 November 2008: Woke up well before first light, but as I love Sheraton's bed, I left the hotel well after first light. Seems it makes no difference as there are no fog in the morning and being on a valley floor, Jiuzhaigou's sights are not bathed in morning light till around 11am. Stacked on powerbars and snickers for breakfast and soon boarded a taxi for the 5 minute ride to the entrance.

This week is the first week of the off season. Tickets cost 80RMB and for 20RMB more you get a second day included. That and 80RMB shuttle bus ticket puts the day's damage at 180. Everyone had to take the shuttle bus as some of the roads are not for walkers although it should be possible to walk on it anyway. There is a reason why they call it off season, that's when they close some of the paths for fire hazard, they say... I guess its more for crowd control during off season. So it is not possible to walk all the way from one attraction to another in the forests, though it is possible to see path, they are sealed.

The tourist buses today goes directly up to Rize Valley right away and drop all passengers there at the end of Arrow Bamboo Lake. There is a pickup point just a walk away, and there is a shuttle there every once in a while so there is no need to rush.

Arrow Bamboo Lake

Arrow Bamboo Lake: Seems that during off season it is not possible to go farther to Swan Lake and the forests. I got off the bus at about 830am, and it was still close to 0C at that time. So cold the security guard had to run in circles to keep warm. Funny guy, we would chat for a while. The lake is blue green and tree trunks are visible in it. When I was there there was just shadows so the pictures were not too saturated. Polarizers are very useful here, and not anything that casts colours as the lake is already very colourful. Must have spent 30 minutes there.

Panda Lake: This lake has a walkway built along the cliff that surrounds one side. But off season, so it is closed. It is possible to be a contortionist and get thru but I asked a chinese man getting out of it if there is anything worthwhile and he said no. Panda Lake has some nice photo opportunities, again due to the multicoloured lake bed. Locals hang around the bus stop end of this lake to rent out traditional clothes for couples to take photos. I don't bother.

There are three types of photographers there at Jiuzhaigou. There's the serious ones. Then there's the point and shooter, and third category are the boyfriends that go all the way there to shoot their girlfriend posing. I suggest they either get into the first two categories and shoot their girlfriends at home and do some photoshop masking tricks.

Again, there is a path downhill where it winds from Panda Lake past some waterfalls to the next lake, but they are closed for winter, time to hit the bus then,

Five Flower Lake

Five Flower Lake: This one is more colourful, probably because it is shallower than the other 2 and thus, it is possible to see the whole lake contents and the transition between blue and green that is the hallmark of water features in this park. There is adequate paths to find different photo vantage points and again polarizers are essential to get the most of this lake. When I was shooting this lake around 11am, the sun starts to fill the valley.

View from top of hill over looking Five Flower Lake

Five Flower Lake

I would then notice a vantage point uphill between this lake and the previous Panda Lake, and walked on the main road for half hour uphill to get there. Was hoping to see a nice view from there, and although it was ok, was missable. Loaded my 105mm and started shooting crop shots.

Taking the bus next, we would have to skip Peacock Riverbed and Golden Bell Lake as the paths are closed and there are no bus stops. Next stop, Pearl Shoal.

Pearl Shoals

Pearl Shoals

Pearl Shoal & Waterfall: Here the bus would tell you to all get off and walk. Actually in every bus there will be a driver and a girl whose job it would be to tell passengers what's next. More often than not they will be shouting to see whether they should be stopping next.

But at Pearl Shoal, everyone gets off. It starts off as an oversized dam. Water is slowing on the surface of a slope and there are small trees and round rocks breaking the smooth flow of water, giving the look of a slope with sound of crashing water. There are two walkways, one goes straight down and the other branches left. Take left which cuts across the shoal itself. Tried to take some photos there but nothing dramatic. The path drops by way of stairs and I realised this is the famous waterfall. There is almost no way for the sun to be shining on the waterfall, always in the shadows and when I was there, there was a strong backlight and the wide waterfall was in the shadows. Saw in the distance a mountain covered in snow and whipped out my gitzo to do a hard core 5 stops HDR. The waterfall would deposit the water into a fast flowing stream, by which the path then continues all the way to a car park a few hundred metres away where the park buses would be waiting to go to next destination.

Mirror Lake: To tell the truth this one is a disappointment, it is late at noon by the time I got there and noon is not the time to look for mirror reflections. I got off the bus anyway, and snapped a few as creative I can. Next...

Nuorilang Waterfall

Nuorilang Waterfall: The bus stops at the Nuorilang terminus, which is nothing more than a glorified bus stop with some buildings near it. I was hoping there are buses to go to Zechawa Valley but seems that section of the park is closed too. A path leads under the road and into the forest, and soon after a few minutes walk past toilets and a junction, I'm at the Nuorilang Waterfall. Almost like the Pearl Waterfall, this is a long waterfall about 2 storeys high and you are very close to the waterfall. Again we are in the shadow of the sun, so any pictures that includes the sun will have blown up skies. I took a few pictures sans the skies and to add some warmth by using my Singh-ray gold and blue polarizer. It was not that easy as it is easy to get water sprayed onto the filter and bright sunlight made water droplets visible at small aperture openings.

Smaller waterfalls are everywhere at Nuorilang Falls

The waterfall runs about a hundred metres, then the path leads into the woods along the river for a few hundred metres of nice cool walk before reaching the bus stop again, and the routine continues. Its 4pm but the time I got to the bus stop.

Little waterfalls connect different lakes in the Shuzheng valley

Rhinoceros Lake: Next stop on the way to the entrance of the park, is this lake, large as is, starts to look like any other lakes in this park. Next to it is Tiger Lake. These two are connected together by series of mini waterfalls and overflows with trees growing out of it, creating a nice sound of water rushing thru obstacles. Getting sick of taking yet another lake shot, I switched to micro lenses and started shooting plants with colourful lake backdrops. This seems to work!

On the periphery of Rhino Lake

Before long it seems its getting late and the wardens are starting to clear the park. Not having time to look for park accommodation, and not really sure they exist now in off season, I took the shuttle back down to the entrance and looked for a hotel near the exit.

Flowers are everywhere on the banks of the lakes

For dinner, walked into a bright local restaurant in an evening of blackout in town (restaurant runs their own generator!) and ordered rice with Sichuan chilli yak and a dish of local vegetable that looks like black twigs. The yak dish was really good, as was the vegetable. This is china so expect it to be oily, but the cheap tea is free flow to compensate.

Will be an early night tonight while I make it back to Jiuzhaigou tomorrow morning to continue my adventure.

18 November 2008: There is not a reason to start off early today. Got out of the hotel at 8 am, and proceeded procedurally to Jiuzhaigou gate and bought a bus ticket only. I already have the second day ticket from yesterday. The crowd seems to be thicker than yesterday but maybe it is because it is now later than when I started.

Zechawa Gully: Now this trip to Zechawa valley is what I really wanted to do today. I tried listening attentively this time but didn't hear anything about the gully being closed. The 3 valleys are Zechawa, Shuzheng and Rize valley/gully. I have done Rize yesterday and top part of Shuzheng. To get to Zechawa, take the tourist bus to Nuorilang terminal and get off and hang around the police booth on the road up, first bus seems to be at 9:30am and I waited 30 minutes for it. It should be possible to ask at the gate and get omitted board the bus that goes only to Zechawa valley. Most buses goes to Rize as this is where most of the attractions are.

Long Lake at the end of Zechawa Valley

Long Lake: This is the last stop on the road to Zechawa and is a full 15 minutes away uphill. When we got there, we were probably the first bus of the morning and there were again locals with local costumes for hire. But my attention was fixed on the lake. The sun has not really affected the lake and the wind has not blown hard yet. There was cold morning water vapours rising, I ran to the viewing gallery above the lake next to the carpark and started shooting with wide angles and short telephoto.

Long Lake is just that. Largest lake in this park and perched on top as remains of a glacial lake. The path to the next lake closeby is closed, so I am forced to take the shuttle to it.

Multi-coloured lake bed

Multi-coloured Lake: This little lake is no bigger than a large fat swimming pool and is not too far downhill from Long Lake, but is the most cozy and colourful lake in the park. There are shades of blue and green in high saturation here, and before the wind started to come in, I shot with polarizers with minimal ripples. Very nice place.

The path leads the herd of tourists into the forest downhill to a pick up area a few hundred meters away. Efficient and relatively quick if not for those noisy and slow Hong Kong tourists.

The other lakes in Zechawa are all empty of water so the bus do not stop there. The next stop will be the Nuorilang stop at the centre of the Y shaped park valley. It comes to around 11 am by the time I get to the Nuorilang Centre, lunch time.

I didn't see the size of the Nuorilang complex yesterday. The bus would stop close to the center and I would have to walk right through it to get to the bus going through the Shuzheng valley to the other sights I want to go to on the way to the entrance. Outside are the cattle class restaurant, chinese eating instant noodles. Inside, there are many stalls selling souvenirs though I don't think most are made in this place. They just look too manufactured. I don't bother. I then saw the restaurant and the scale of the place. One would buy a ticket for 50 RMB and then go through a turnstile into the restaurant, I believe serving buffet style meal. Looks like everyone in this park has to eat here. I took out my soy joy and mars bar and decided to continue my trip while the masses chow.

Nuorilang Waterfall: Oh yes. I have been here yesterday buy I was hoping to get a better view from the road viewing platform today. A wide angle nicely frames half the waterfall without taking the road. I don't know if I took a better shot but surely today's muted weather was making it a little easier than yesterday's strong backlight.

After this quick stop revisiting the waterfall, I backtracked to Nuorilang centre and took the bus back down Shuzheng valley.

Rhino Lake on the second day

One of the many waterfalls interconnecting the lakes together

Shuzheng Village: Took the bus to Tiger lake where I left off but again looks like other lakes I saw yesterday. Took the broadwalk down the lakes and shoals with trees growing out of it. Took some photos but nothing to shout about once you have seen the rest. Soon I would be at the village, looking around realising that in this down season, nothing is opened. Wondering if I really wanted to look for a place to stay here if it was possible. It looks as though either everyone here are working for the park and minimal agriculture happens in this village, or the real villagers have been removed and only some or only workers live here. I believe it is a combination of the two. Definitely sparse and probably difficult to find accommodation in here. I spent 10 minutes here.

Shuzheng Lakes

Shuzheng Lakes: Just at the front door of the village are a series of small lakes. It looks to me like a large area with natural dams and barriers making it look like many lakes. Water flow from one lake to another downhill. Maybe it can be easily said to be a flat looking rice terrace with trees growing on the barriers. At this time the trees are in autumn configuration, yellow and red colour, while blue transparent water filled the lakes with gradients. Wide angles do not do too well here, but short telephotos do. The platform is elevated and one side of the lakes so telephoto lens helps to isolate the autumn leaves and just enough transparent blue water to make scene. The area is so vast it is possible to stay on the platform and shoot telephoto and normal lenses the whole day if you are into that sort of thing.

Shuzheng Lakes

Shuzheng Lakes

The lakes are so clear, they make good backdrops for tree shots!

After this would be the Shuzheng waterfalls, denser groups of trees and small waterfalls rotting the landscape.

Reeds on the banks of reed lake

Reed Lake

Other Lakes: I continued walking down the park towards the entrance all the way to the reed river. There are many macro opportunities shooting plants and small fruits and cotton plants. The reed river is now brown waiting foe winter, and photo taking into account the brightly coloured reeds with the dark coloured blue water. Anyway, I took a couple more shots and noticed my D300 battery is below 10% with more than 600 shots in 2 days. As it is approaching 4 pm and already tired, I then took the next available bus to the entrance of the park, ending my 2 day trip before winter arrives.

After checking into Sheraton (again, free nights based on my SPG point exchange) its time to go out to the restaurant I went yesterday. Arriving there the owner recognised me right away and came to me without the menu. I then told him, ok I want local chilli chicken today, a plate of mountain mushrooms whatever that is and an ordinary plate of vegetable knowing here in Sichuan everything comes with dried chilli and Sichuan peppercorns. Asked also for a small portion of their self roasted peanuts. Since I did not have a proper lunch, thought it was appropriate to eat more for dinner! The meal was excellent as usual, and I have the GPS coordinates for this restaurant and once I finished and paid for the meal, we chatted a little about cooking and when is the best time to visit. Incidentally it was this year during summer when Jiuzhaigou is a little cooler than the coastal areas, and because of the earthquake, not many tourists were here. Too bad I missed it and coming at the border of autumn and winter.

In terms of purity I would prefer Siguniang shan, but Jiuzhaigou has a different feel to it. The part is run like a machine, and I can see how amusement park it can get in summer. It is possible to walk the whole park but I don't see how to do it in 3-4 days to cover the whole park. Taking a combination of walking some part and taking buses where there are no attractions, 2 full days would be required. 1 day is enough if you stop on every stop, take the obligatory photo and bus to the next stop. It should be. I took the slow, take my time approach, taking time to setup tripod and photo and walk when needed and it took 2 days to finish the 3 valleys. But seriously why rush it? If a triage is required, I suggest doing a quick Rize and Shuzheng Valley. Actually Zechawa and Shuzheng Valley is ok too. Obviously you down miss Shuzheng Valley as you will see what is essentially Jiuzhaigou if you visit only this area. Start uphill and go downhill. Unfortunately this is what most people do. At high altitude don't bother being a hero and move uphill.

Whatever it is, it's a one of a kind scenery here. Very graceful the way water flows up from the mountains to the lower rivers. I'm guessing from zero geological knowledge that this is because of the high mineral contents causing the water to be colorful and calcify easily. But I leave the explanations and all the myths of naming the attracting to wikipedia.

Tomorrow I will take the slow 10 hrs bus back to Chengdu at 7am. My trip starts to get easier as it goes on! Soon it will be a panda trip in Chengdu. Unless there are anything interesting along the way, its over and out from Sheraton Jiuzhaigou tonight.

19 November 2008: After a nice American breakfast before 6 am, it is time to go to the bus station just next to the Sheraton before the sun comes up. Like most days, sleep early and wake up early. This time I get seat number 3 right in front to the right of the driver. In 10 hours I will be back in Chengdu.

Verdict: when in Sichuan, never miss Jiuzhaigou, but come with plenty of money!

Next part: Guilin, China