Visiting Jiuzhaigou: A magical valley on the edge of the Himalayas
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There were coloured flags everywhere.
About six hours after we’d left Chengdu in Central China, the landscape started to look notably more mountainous and rural. It almost seemed Alpine, with long roads winding up mountainsides and deep valleys with water running through. But then we drove past a Buddhist temple, adorned with prayer flags, and I was reminded that we definitely weren’t in Switzerland. We were approaching the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
Four hours later, after a drive through picturesque villages, past fields of yaks and goats, and around the most stunning religious buildings, we arrived at Jiuzhaigou. The Jiuzhai Valley is nestled amongst the Min Mountains and is named after the nine Tibetan towns that are located within.
Although I could have spent days learning about Tibetan Buddhism, fascinated by the prayer flags and the gorgeous architecture of the temples, this isn’t why most people come to Jiuzhaigou. Tourists flock to the region to marvel at the stunning waters of the hills above the valley, which are always a perfect shade of aqua, interspersed by crashing waterfalls and lively rapids; they’re a must visit for nature lovers and travel photography enthusiasts.
But don’t worry if you want to get your fill of Tibetan Buddhism as well; there’s local villages on the mountainside and a Buddhist temple which welcomes visitors. Prayer flags adorn the landscape, making the area seem eternally happy.
Jiuzhaigou is a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Chinese cities, and maintains a very Tibetan air while not actually being in Tibet (meaning that you don’t need a special visa). It’s a gorgeous place to hike and experience a side of Chinese culture that is not often explored; and is a must-visit for any fans of travel photography – the place is definitely one of the most photogenic spots that I’ve ever visited!
Visiting Jiuzhaigou National Park
Jiuzhaigou isn’t the easiest of places to get to, but it’s without a doubt worth the journey!
Getting to Jiuzhaigou
The nearest big city is Chengdu. We took a bus there for 138 yuan one way, which takes 10 hours. We had a few hair-raising moments; our bus driver seemed to have an obsession with overtaking people, even on very tight bends, and the constant horn-sounding didn’t make for a relaxing trip!
If you decide to take the bus (bearing in mind that only other way to get to the valley is to fly into Jiuzhaigou airport from Chengdu – which I think is about 10x the price!), make sure that you bring tissue (the toilets probably won’t have loo roll), some cash to buy snacks on the way and nerves of steel! Also do consider that you might be delayed; sometimes the mountain roads can get very blocked with cars and there’s not much to do other than sit and wait.
Jiuzhaigou is home to many reasonably-priced hotels. We stayed at Caiyun Hotel, where a room for 2 cost about 130 yuan/ £15/ $19.50 per night. All in all, it was a good hotel, with clean rooms offering great views, en-suite bathrooms and great wifi – each room had its own router!
There is one hostel in Jiuzhaigou called ‘The Friendship Hostel’, which offers beds for 46 yuan / £5.30/ $7 per night.
Remember that many hotels in Jiuzhaigou are for Chinese residents only, so it is wise to book your accommodation before getting to Jiuzhaigou!
Eating in Jiuzhaigou
Like any touristy mountainous town, there are plenty of places to eat in Jiuzhaigou. Restaurants sell all sorts of Chinese food, often cooked in delicious Tibetan spices (I don’t know what the Chinese do to the humble aubergine, but it’s absolutely unreal).
There’s also a market which sells cheap street food. I got a little obsessed with these tortilla/ pancake/ omelette things that made a great lunch and there’s a great deal of the Chinese speciality of ‘things on a stick’.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan visiting China, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem in Jiuzhaigou. Although the area is Buddhist, Tibetans do tend to eat more meat than southern Buddhists, but vegetables and potatoes on a stick are readily available, and the mystery tortilla/ pancake/ omelettes are very filling (I’m pretty sure that they contain egg though, so vegans would have to avoid). Most of the menus have pictures which makes ordering vegetable dishes easy!
Exploring Jiuzhaigou National Park
Exploring Jiuzhaigou for a day will set you back about 260 yuan / £30 / $39 (including shuttle bus service). This is pretty steep but, as I’m sure you can agree from my pictures, it is well worth it!
We actually spent two days in the park itself, which obviously turned out to be quite expensive but it meant that we weren’t cramming everything in. Hiking Jiuzhaigou can be done in a day, but I would really recommend that you do not skip looking around the local village and Buddhist temple, as they were particular highlights for me.
The park opens at 7am. From the bottom, you can take a shuttle all the way to the top and walk back down. The buses stop at 5pm.
Highlights of Jiuzhaigou
I didn’t know that this much blue was possible…
It’s hard to tire of gazing over Jiuzhaigou’s azure lakes. Known as a place where fairies live, a day at Jiuzhaigou definitely will make you feel like you’ve entered some kind of never-land.
My Favourite Lakes
Legend has it that a panda used to drink from this lake, hence the name. Unbelievably blue and with the backdrop of the high peaks, it is a stunning backdrop for photos.
The shallowness of Arrow Lake means that you can see everything that is underneath its crystal clear waters in perfect detail. Fallen trees and roots lay in the lake while fish swim amongst them. It’s fascinating to marvel at the amazing visibility of the water!
As the name suggests, Mirror Lake has the most fantastic reflection of any in the park. This view is best in the morning, and can be seen as you incline on the bus. Later in the day, Mirror Lake is just as photogenic and an ideal scenic spot for a stroll and gorgeous photos.
The most dramatic waterfall in the park, Pearl Waterfall is every geologists’ dream. The falls are huge and crash down from many different areas on the rock.
Sleeping Dragon Lake
Named after the yellow shape which, from above, looks like a sleeping dragon, this lake is on the Southernly side of the hill and is less frequented by tourists.
If you are visiting Jiuzhaigou in autumn, the leaves on the trees on one of the mountains reflect to give this lake a tiger pattern. Outside of the summer months, it is a more peaceful spot for walking by and admiring.
Other spots to visit in Jiuzhaigou
Tibetan Buddhist Temple
While most people come to Jiuzhaigou for the lakes, the temple was my favourite part. While I was walking through the forest, prayer flags begin to litter the trees around. As I got closer to the temple, more and more of them were around, until I began to feel as if I was walking through a rainbow.
Then I came to a clearing and was graced with this stunning Buddhist Temple. The architecture was marvellous, and I could enter it free of charge, where I was free to admire the Buddhist statues and walk up onto the roof to take some ariel snaps.
Shuzeng Tibetan Village
There are many Tibetan villages in the area, but Shuzeng makes for an ideal break from all the lakes and waterfalls! Just like the temple, it is adorned with prayer flags and offers an insight to traditional mountain life – although there do seem to be a lot more souvenir shops than you’d catch in a typical Tibetan Village! There’s a smaller place of worship where you are welcome to burn some incense while praying to the Buddha, and just outside a colourful prayer wheel.
Which way to hike in Jiuzhaigou?
You can either take a bus to Arrow Lake and walk down to the visitors’ centre, take a bus to Long Lake and walk around and then take a bus back down to the visitors’ centre, or just walk down from the visitors’ centre.
The Arrow Lake – Visitors’ Centre walk is undoubtedly the most scenic, and definitely should be seen by any Jiuzhaigou tourist. However, do be prepared to battle through crowds to see these spots!
Long Lake is a much shorter route as you will have to take a bus down halfway, and can be done as an add-on to another walk.
The visitors’ centre- exit walk is much less touristy, but has less perfectly blue waters. It is still very pretty, with a merge of woodland and mountains, and makes for a beautiful walk, but the main reason I would recommend not skipping this is because the Buddhist Temple and Shuzeng Village are on this trail.
If you only have one day to explore the park, I would advise walking around Arrow Lake, Panda Lake and Pearl Waterfall in the morning and walking or getting a bus down to the Shuzeng Village and the temple in the afternoon. If you have two days, the first day can be spent exploring everything above the visitors centre and the second walking down from the visitors centre and seeing the village and temple.
Hiking Jiuzhaigou difficulty
The large majority of Jiuzhaigou has a man-made walkway, making it accessible for almost everybody. Many of the areas have no handrail, so beware that it can get very pushy at times!
Also needing consideration is the fact that Jiuzhaigou is at high altitude. To combat altitude sickness, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and if you feel as if you’re too high, go down! This may cause problems for people with breathing or heart difficulties.
As the hike below the tourist centre is less frequented by travellers, the path is sometimes unpaved and uneven. Generally, it is still fine to hike on but it could cause some problems for the less mobile!
Buses are always an option; they take tourists both up and down the mountain, stopping by most of the main scenic areas and coming every few minutes.
I hiked with six family members aged 14-70, and only the 70 year old struggled with the altitude. For those who are generally mobile and fit, it is fine.
Unlike a lot of China, Jiuzhaigou enjoys all four seasons. It is magical to visit during all seasons; during Spring the beauty of new plants and life is all around, Summer brings gorgeous sunshine, the changing leaves of Autumn give the lakes a colourful feel and the mountains are covered in snow in Winter.
It can be both quite cold and very hot during summer, so take a jacket for the morning and suncream to apply if the sun comes out! Waterproofs are also recommended, as rain has a habit of appearing out of nowhere!
Jiuzhaigou as an eco-friendly park
I was incredibly impressed with Jiuzhaigou’s efforts to keep the park pristine and unspoilt! There are very few people who litter, but anything left on the ground is quickly removed. I also noticed lots of plaques around the resort advocating responsible tourism, with ideas about how to travel in a sustainable manner. The staff at Jiuzhaigou make a real effort to keep the place beautiful, and although the entry fee is a little on the costly side, it is something I am willing to pay for this paradise to be preserved.
Things to do around Jiuzhaigou
As well as being a stunning national park, Jiuzhaigou is a great base for exploring the local area.
After two days in Jiuzhaigou national park, we went to Huang Long (meaning ‘yellow dragon’ in Chinese). Huang Long boasts a series of calcite pools, which offers a different kind of beautiful water view.
The pools are in a valley, which is reached by travelling via cable car up the mountain and then hiking down.
When we were there, the weather wasn’t great, which made the colossal 7-hour round trip not really worth it. I can imagine that the place is magical if the sun is out, but I would recommend checking the weather and maybe not bothering if it isn’t looking great.
Another thing to remember at Huang Long is the altitude is even greater here, so take it easy at the top!
Local Villages and Towns
One thing that I wish we had done is explored the villages and towns surrounding Jiuzhaigou. There are so many interesting places; one town had both a mosque and a Buddhist temple, another had a gorgeous prayer wheel, another contained buildings dating a thousand years. This was all interspersed with scenic mountain views, complete with yaks, goats and local people selling their goods.
You can rent a car with a driver for 400 yuan for a four-seater or 600 yuan for a six-seater for all day. However, these drivers will most likely only speak Mandarin, so if you don’t speak Chinese make sure that you have the places where you want to go to written down.
How you will feel after visiting Jiuzhaigou
I’ve now put ‘Tibet proper’ right to the top of my ‘to visit’ list! I was enthralled by the scenery and the culture and loved the colourfulness of the area. After three days there, I boarded a bus back to Chengdu, but really I wanted to continue down, across the Tibetan Plateau, into the Himalayas and beyond…
If you are suffering from Chinese city fatigue and need somewhere serene to escape to, get yourself off to Jiuzhaigou. It is the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of urban Chinese life, and I’m already planning my return to this area of the world.
If you’re interested in more hikes around Southern China, check out this awesome post about hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge – something that’s on my list for sure!
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