Beijing fed up with the madding crowd in one of the country's most populous cities, I wanted to get closer to nature. So, I was happy when two friends from Beijing asked me to go with them to Jiuzhaigou earlier this month.
Located in Jiuzhaigou County in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, Jiuzhaigou is close to the border of Northwest China's Gansu Province. It is about 480 kilometres north of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu.
Jiuzhaigou is a breathtaking alpine valley discovered by lumberjacks in the 1970s. On the World Natural Heritage List and the list of Man and Biosphere of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, it is a nature reserve with takins, snub-nosed monkeys and giant pandas.
Starting early in the morning in Chengdu, we passed Dujiangyan City, Wenchuan, Maoxian and Songpan counties to reach the entrance to Jiuzhaigou after nightfall.
Our car driver said he hates driving along the roads of Jiuzhaigou. "Many sections of the roads are narrow and rugged. Every year there would be several major traffic accidents as well as landslides," he said.
Unfortunately, he was right. Soon after we reached Songpan, we found a truck loaded with petroleum had collided with a bus full of tourists. The truck driver had died on the spot and several students on the bus were injured.
Once on the road from Chengdu, we found the air refreshing and the sky incredibly azure.
One of my friends kept putting his new digital camera out of the car window to shoot white clouds in the sky. "Big, white clouds are a rarity in any city," he said. Nearing the valley, we stopped for the night in the Wooden House Hotel and we woke to a sunny morning. I left my room early and found the hotel's surroundings to be quite scenic and enjoyable. Bird songs could be heard above the gushing of a creek running through the trees.
Meaning "nine stockade gully" in Chinese, Jiuzhaigou is named for the nine Tibetan settlements in the 720-square-kilometre mountain valley, 2,000 to 3,100 metres above sea level.
It is spread over a Y-shaped ravine about 30 kilometres long.
We climbed into a minibus of the Jiuzhaigou Administrative Bureau and reached the entrance to Jiuzhaigou early in the morning. The minibus took us from one scenic spot to the next .
Autumn is the best season for visitors to Jiuzhaigou when the timber-clad mountains display an array of colours. The trees flame with the autumn hues of crimson and yellow.
Although we felt it a pity to come to Jiuzhaigou one month before autumn, we did find the valley's natural beauty unparalleled.
What we found particularly fascinating was the transparent and multi-coloured water in its 108 lakes. A local geographical record compiled in the 19th century says: "Water here is bright green like an emerald, reflecting trees and mountain peaks."
The description is apt. Many who have been there share the view that the beauty of its water defies description.
Wondering whether I had reached a fairyland, I kept taking pictures and became lost and found myself separated from my two friends.
Because signals for mobile phones could not get through in many parts of the valley, they had a hard time trying to find me before finally succeeding.
Lake at 2,000m
Despite the lakes' seeming tranquility, we found that they were full of life. In Panda Lake there are thousands of fish and Liang Feng, our young guide from the Jiuzhaigou Administrative Bureau, said the fish can never grow too big because the lake is more than 2,000 metres above sea level.
What impressed us most - apart from the valley's natural beauty -was its sound management and its staff's sense of environmental protection.
In the valley, we did not see any children misbehaving by trying to catch the fish nor was there any rubbish thrown away by visitors.
When the driver of our minibus passed Mirror Lake, he saw a visitor smoking.
Immediately, he stopped the minibus and chased the smoker on foot for a long distance to get him to stop. There is no definitive explanation of how the lakes in Jiuzhaigou were formed, although most geologists agree that they are barrier lakes created by dykes of calcium carbonate deposited and brought down by mountain streams.
Tibetan folklore has it that the lakes were the panes of broken glass from the Goddess Wonuosemo's mirror.
Many Tibetans believe that in ancient times Jiuzhaigou suffered such disasters that its mountains collapsed, trees and flowers withered and inhabitants fled.
The Goddess Wonuosemo and God Dage decided to restore the valley to its former glory, performing the miracle from their mountain abodes.
Rivers flowed again, forests sprang up, birds returned to nest, and abandoned villages were filled with people once more.
Wonuosemo and Dage eventually fell in love and lived in celestial bliss after foiling an attempt to separate them. United at last, the lovers pledged their affection with an exchange of gifts. Dage gave Wonuosemo a bright, gleaming mirror to show his sweetheart her beauty.
In her delight, Wonuosemo loosened her grasp and the mirror slipped from her hand. They searched the valley in vain, but they kept coming across luminous pools of water, throwing back at them mirror images of trees, mountains and clouds. Suddenly they realized that the pools were the mirror fragments, and they have remained in Jiuzhaigou ever since.
On the way to Jiuzhaigou, we found the sacred symbols of Tibetan Buddhism.
They include a white or orchre-painted cone surmounted by a tapering spire and standing on a square pedestal. Most ubiquitous were the prayer flags - long strips of printed cloth hoisted on poles - wafting mantras to heaven.
During our stay in Jiuzhaigou, we met some Tibetans in their national costumes. Liang Feng, who is a Tibetan, said that last year, 2.6 million people visited Jiuzhaigou. With the influx of so many tourists from all around China, many Tibetans are influenced by them and dress like Hans.
It is also thanks to outside influence that Tibetans, who used to be poor in Jiuzhaigou, began to dabble in business. Thanks to booming tourism, many have become millionaires, Liang said.
The night before we left Jiuzhaigou, we watched a two-hour performance of songs and dances by young Tibetan men and women. Many troupes in Jiuzhaigou offer these performances at night for between 100-to-200 yuan each performance.
Their show was superb, justifying the saying that "Tibetans are born singers and can dance soon after they learn how to walk."
In addition to their professional performance, what impresses visitors - men and women - is the beauty of the women singers and dancers. They marvel at why there are so many charming beauties in Tibetan troupes.
Leaving Jiuzhaigou for Chengdu the next day, we were held up by a landslide in Wenchuan County which blocked traffic for nearly three hours.
Although frustrated by so much time spent on the road and by many other "hardships" we had to endure on our long journey, all of us felt it worthwhile visiting Jiuzhaigou.
The most scenic spots are always in the least accessible locations. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The two sayings best describe many visitors' memories of their trip to Jiuzhaigou.
It takes about two hours to fly from Shanghai to Chengdu.
It takes about 12 hours to reach the entrance to Jiuzhaigou by bus from either the Xinnanmen Bus Station or Ximen Bus Station in Chengdu.
( Shanghai Star August 29, 2002)