DOTTED with lakes reputed to be fragments of a goddess's mirror, Jiuzhaigou Valley in Sichuan Province looks especially magical when coated with ice and snow. Holin Wang walks out to winter.
Snow-covered mountains; ice encrusted cascades of waterfalls; and shining waters in vibrant colors. This is the winter landscape of Jiuzhaigou Valley in Sichuan Province in southwestern China, a place so beautiful that the word fails to do it justice.
"You must see it!" was my innermost feeling after I returned home, for I'm sure everyone who loves traveling will be amazed by this winter world. Although autumn is regarded the best season to visit, Jiuzhaigou Valley ornamented with snow and ice brings its own special charms.
Jiuzhaigou Valley - literally, "Valley of Nine Villages" - is a nature reserve and national geo-park in northern Sichuan. Part of the Min Mountains on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, it covers more than 72,000 hectares with elevation from 2,000 to 4,500 meters.
The valley is best known for its green, blue and turquoise-colored lakes. Local Tibetans call them "Haizi" in Mandarin, meaning "son of the sea."
Altogether there are 114 lakes, five shoals and 17 falls in Jiuzhaigou. And with them comes a beautiful legend.
It is said that a long time ago, Jiuzhaigou's goddess Semo fell in love with god Dago, who made a precious mirror for her as a token of his love.
However, a demon had a crush on Semo, and when she rejected him, he flew into a rage.
He created a fierce wind which lifted the precious mirror into the air before casting it back down to the earth. The mirror broke into 114 pieces which became the lakes and the rays of light shining from the broken shards became the 17 waterfalls.
A less romantic version of the creation of the stunning Jiuzhaigou Valley is that it is formed from high-altitude karsts, shaped by glacial, hydrological and tectonic activity.
It lies on major fault lines on the diverging belt between the Qinghai-Tibet Plate and the Yangtze Plate. Earthquakes also shaped the landscape.
Three valleys arranged in an inverted "Y" shape make up Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park.
Rize Valley and Zechawa Valley run from the south and meet at the center of the area with Shuzheng Valley, which runs north to the opening of the Valley.
Beautiful scenery abounds in all three valleys.
I'd set aside two days for my trip so I could travel at a leisurely pace and fully appreciate my surroundings.
I arrived at Jiuzhaigou Valley just in time to catch a stunning sunset. After dinner at a small restaurant I'd chosen at random, I stocked up on biscuits and other supplies.
Then I returned to my hotel to get a good night's rest before venturing into the winter wonderland.
Fragments of a goddess's mirror
Long Lake and Five-Color Pond in Zechawa Valley - according to legend, fragments of goddess Semo's mirror - are highlights of any trip.
Located in Zechawa Valley, at 7.5 kilometers long, up to 103 meters deep and at an altitude of 3,101 meters, the crescent-shaped Long Lake is the largest, deepest and highest lake in Jiuzhaigou Valley.
Long Lake is said to be the first in the park to feel the coming of winter. In autumn, it begins to freeze over, and by the depths of winter its surface can have a layer of ice 60 centimeters thick.
A strange-looking cypress tree standing near the lakeside is known as the "one-armed aged cypress." One side is covered with branches and, in summer, leaves. The other side of the trunk is bare, leading some people to say the tree resembles an old man with one arm. This distinctive cypress makes Long Lake all the more spectacular.
Climb the steps up the slope facing the lake, from where you can just sit back and admire the snowy expanse around you.
Taking a bus down Zechawa Valley will bring you to Five Color Pond, one of the smallest but most spectacular bodies of water in Jiuzhaigou Valley.
The pond has a high concentration of calcium carbonate, making the water so clear that the bottom is visible.
In the middle of the pond, the water looks deep blue, gradually changing to green and light yellow, according to the depth, sediment and other factors. Just looking at this multi-hued body of water, I had the illusion that I was in a spring landscape.
Other lakes you should visit include Panda Lake, Five-colored Lake in Rize Valley; and Tiger Lake, Reed Lake in Shuzheng Valley.
Each one of them has its own story waiting for visitors to discover.
Film focus on magnificent scenery
At an elevation of 2,618 meters, Arrow Bamboo Lake in Rize Valley features green waters that are 6 meters deep.
The 170,000-square-meter lake is surrounded by arrow bamboo, an evergreen favorite food of the giant panda - a resident in the park.
With snow-capped peaks in the background and a little ice on the lake surface, the scene is so quiet that I almost thought that time had stopped.
Arrow Bamboo Lake's elegant and magnificent scenery also caught the eye of famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou. He selected it as a major location for martial arts drama "Hero."
The 2002 film, starring Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi features a thrilling sword fight between Li and Leung against the backdrop of the lake.
And before that, television drama "Journey to the West" was filmed in Jiuzhaigou Valley.
The popular Chinese series, adapted from the classic novel of the same title - one of the "Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature," was first broadcast on China Central Television in 1986, becoming an instant classic itself.
A famous scene in the end titles featuring Buddhist monk Xuan Zang and his three protectors walking on the top of a mountain was filmed at Pearl Shoals Waterfall, also in Rize Valley.
Above the falls is a wide, gently sloping area with a thin sheet of flowing water called Pearl Shoals.
Its bed has calcified into wave-shaped scale, and water passing over forms into waves, said to resemble gleaming pearls in sunlight.
The water empties into waterfalls, dropping 28 meters in a 310-meter-wide curtain of water. I could feel the full of power and grandeur as I walked along the plank road nearby.
Like the Nuorilang Waterfall, snow, ice and water are found at Pearl Shoals at the same time, so it's a perfect scene for shutterbugs. And don't forget your tripod for spectacular long exposures.
Flying fish and falling for Nuorilang
After doing my research, I had roughly arranged my itinerary with the aim of covering one and a half valleys each day. On the first day, I mainly stayed in Rize Valley and covered part of Shuzheng Valley. For the second, I explored more of Shuzheng, plus Zechawa Valley.
At the entrance of the park is a large stone bearing the name "Jiuzhaigou National Geo Park" and saying that the world inside is a World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO in 1992 and a China National Tourism Administration 5A scenic area.
Entering the park, a green shuttle bus was waiting for visitors. The park has 55 kilometers of roads for shuttle buses and wooden boardwalks for walking.
These buses are the only vehicles in the park. If you want to visit all the sites, taking the bus is a must. Reaching the longest valley - Zechawa Valley - is an 18 kilometers trip. Even the first sightseeing spot - Heye Village or Lotus Leaf Village - is more than 5 kilometers from the entrance gate.
Some sights only can be seen at a particular time, such as Mirror Lake. If you reach the lake in Rize Valley before 8am, you may see "fish flying in the air while birds swim in the water."
This poetic image conveys how tranquil and transparent the Mirror Lake is in early morning; like a reflection in a mirror, as its name indicates.
Usually after 9am, with the wind coming up, the water surface ripples and the spectacle disappears.
Some beautiful scenery is worth seeing more than once - and from different approaches.
Into this category comes Nuorilang Waterfall, reportedly the widest highland waterfall in China and the widest travertine limestone topped waterfall in the world. Nuorilang is "god" in Tibetan and also means stalwart and dignified.
Located near where the valleys meet, Nuorilang is 20 meters high and 320 meters wide.
The first way to admire the fall is from a wooden walkway running from the Nuorilang Center, 210 meters away.
Even through the icicles and snow, the water still flowed strongly, splashing over me. The winter sunshine was warming, while at the same time the icy water chilled me.
Then looking up, I saw a colorful rainbow over the waterfall.
Winter is a good time to admire Nuorilang: snow, ice and cascading waters surrounded by pine trees.
The best view is from a viewing platform set at a distance. Get the bus to Nuorilang Waterfall station.
I found the platform perfect for appreciating the waterfall. Visitors can pose there to feature in panoramic pictures with the fall.
If you go
How to get there:
In high season, there are direct flights from Shanghai to Jiuzhaigou Valley, but at the moment you need to fly to Chengdu in Sichuan Province and transfer there.
In Chengdu there are two options: continue to the valley by air or get a bus.
Every day, several shuttle buses go to the valley from New South Gate bus station and Chadianzi Bus Terminal Station in Chengdu at around 8am. The eight-hour journey costs around 150 yuan (US$24) per person.
Tickets to enter Jiuzhaigou Valley during the low season (16 November to the end of March) are much cheaper than for the remainder of the year.
At the moment it is 80 yuan for entrance and another 80 yuan for the green bus fee per person. In April, this soars to 220 yuan for entrance and 90 yuan for the bus fee.
If you want to return to the valley the following day, you only need to pay 20 yuan more. This offer only applies during the low season.
Where to stay:
Everything from international standard star-class hotels to youth hostels can be found outside Jiuzhaigou Valley.
If you are on a solo trip, a youth hostel is your best choice. Guest houses within 20 minutes walk of the park are popular with larger parties.
At low season, the average price for a night at a guest houses is 100 yuan per person, a rate that triples during the peak season.
Where to eat:
For it's off-season, only several local restaurants outside the valley open. Fried dishes are not traditional. Wonton-like dumplings known locally as "chaoshou" and noodles are worth trying.
Sichuan is famous for its spicy flavor, and even wonton in broth is spicy and hot. Noodles are made by locals and are smoother than other varieties.
Bring some biscuits or other snacks with you to the park, for there's only instant noodles on sale inside - and at a pretty high price. Also take a thermos flask, as you'll be thankful of a hot drink on a cold day.
There's Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean tourist information on boards and every green bus has at least one tour guide, so it's no need to hire one.
Tickets can be used as postcards. So send your "wish you were here" messages from Jiuzhaigou Valley.