Autumn is perhaps China’s most precious season, a respite between sweltering summers and fatal winters. But it is only in the northern Sichuan highlands of Jiuzhaigou, China’s natural wonderland, where fall can be witnessed in blazing splendor.
Approaching Nine Villages Gully near the Gansu border, one may at first be daunted by the chaos of tour groups and ceaseless convoys of busses not unlike diesel prisons bullying their way through the crowds with deafening blasts of the horn. Be reassured, however, that anyone in a red hat following a flag and megaphone most certainly does not have the same itinerary as a more independent-minded visitor.
While Jiuzhaigou is a massive 720 square meters, you can feel the full force of the nature reserve on a two-day pass. Keep a keen eye out for the seldom-used paths veiled in vegetation located on the opposing side of the main thoroughfare in Zaru gully near the park’s entrance.
With the growl of the tour buses segueing into a score of birdsong and black exhaust becoming crisp breathable air, the nature reserve quietly proceeds into a Y-shaped canyon of virgin woodland that would make a ChongQing girl blush. Not unlike vertical forests, the verdant broadleaf palisades dripping with lichen and turning a muted crimson and gold for the coming fall ultimately dissolve into the heavens as one is led deeper into the forest.
Drinking in the damp sweetness, the dense woods of the Nuorilang gully are suddenly pierced by the region’s star attraction: prismatic lakes ranging in size from small to dragon-sized pools and covering a color spectrum of ice blue to fall apple green. Formed by glacial erosion and fed by underground springs, the phosphorescent phenomena is attributed to algae and mineral concentration, though a poet laureate might otherwise be inspired to write of the mint-blue waters as the mouthwash of the gods.
As dusk approaches, the park is promptly evacuated of all visitors. While most will return to the neon-lit tourist circus outside the entrance, the assiduous traveler can skirt the rules (and security guards) by staying the night with friendly locals living on the grounds. Home to the Qiang and Aba Tibetan minorities, the autonomous villages of Zechawa and Schuzheng in the park center, and the smaller Rexi and Heijia villages to the north, are themselves a cultural draw.
Dawn before the crowds is rather like an epiphany, gentle winds whispering through the lakeside reeds as revelations from nature herself. Readers with an affinity for tranquility may especially appreciate the walkways behind the seldom-traversed Swan and Grass lakes in Zangmalonghe gully, though the tranquil beauty of the area is in fact no secret at all; Jet Li’s ‘Hero’ was filmed at Arrow Bamboo Lake.
The teal twilight of the water then disappears into placid marshland before dramatically debuting into pearly shoals cascading in a series of multi-level falls so dazzling that any passerby might exclaim wosei! without even realizing.
The resonance of the cascade becomes a murmur as the voyeur descends from the rushing waters into vivid pastures of lavender, purple and yellow wildflower. Moving from Rize gully for the park’s exit gate, take a last breathe of JiuZhaiGou’s pristine autumn air.
How to get there:
Connecting flights from Beijing/Shanghai-Chengdu-JiuZhaiGou airports.
Where to stay:
The Sheraton is located 1.5km from the park entrance.
Where to eat:
Eat with the friendly locals living in Jiuzhaigou – Tibetan yak meat is a must try.
Where to play:
The nature reserve, of course!
At once subtropical and temperate, there are over 2000 endemic varieties of flora, including the stunningly obvious blue-green algae, vibrant rhododendron and orchid. Species of pine, maple, spruce and birch are especially spectacular in the autumn. JiuZhaiGou’s altitudinal range and rich vegetation directly contribute to the region’s unique animal life, with 140 species of birds and mammals such as deer, the elusive golden snub-nosed monkey and Ailuropoda Melanoleuca, known to most as the giant panda. An innately isolated creature requiring an undisturbed habitat, spotting a wild giant panda feeding in the park’s bamboo groves is difficult but not impossible for anyone choosing to walk instead of taking a tour bus.