Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou Valley (lit. "Valley of Nine Villages") is a nature reserve in northern Sichuan province of China. It is known for its many multi-level waterfalls and colorful lakes, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. It belongs to the category V (Protected Landscape)in the IUCN system of protected area categorization.

Geography and climate

Jiuzhaigou lies at the southern end of the Minshan mountain range, 330 km north of the provincial capital of Chengdu. It is part of the Jiuzhaigou County (formerly Nanping County) in the Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of northwestern Sichuan province, near the Gansu border.

The valley covers at least 240 km2, with some protection organizations giving the area as 600 to 720 km2, with buffer zones covering an additional 400 to 600 km2. Its altitude, depending on the area considered, ranges from 1,998 to 2,140 m (at the mouth of Shuzheng Gully) to 4,558 - 4,764 m (on Mount Ganzigonggai at the top of Zechawa Gully).

The climate is cool temperate with a mean annual temperature of 7.2 °C, with means of -1 °C in January and 17 °C in July. Total annual rainfall is 661 mm, 80% of which occurs between May and October.

History

The remote region was inhabited by various Tibetan and Qiang peoples for centuries, but was not officially discovered by the government until 1972. Extensive logging took place until 1979, when the Chinese government banned such activity and made the area a national park in 1982. An Administration Bureau was established and the site officially opened to tourism in 1984; layout of facilities and regulations were completed in 1987. The site was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1992 and a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997.

Since opening, tourist activity has increased every year: from 5,000 in 1984 to 170,000 in 1991, 160,000 in 1995, to 200,000 in 1997, including about 3,000 foreigners. Visitors numbered 1,190,000 in 2002.[1] As of 2004, the site averages 7,000 visits per day, with a quota of 12,000 being reportedly enforced during high season. The Town of Zhangzha at the exit of the valley and the nearby Songpan County feature an ever-increasing number of hotels, including several polished five-stars.

Population

Jiuzhaigou takes its name from the nine Tibetan villages along its length. Few of them remain today, depending on what classifies as "a village inside the valley". The main agglomerations are Heye, Shuzheng and Zechawa along the main paths, plus Rexi and Heijiao in the smaller Zaru Gully. Maps also indicate villages named Jianpan, Panya and Guwa near the end of a small gully opposite Zaru. Finally, the Penbu, Panxing and Yongzhu villages lie along the road that passes through the town of Jiuzhaigou/Zhangza outside the valley.

In 1997, the permanent population of the valley was about 1000, made up of about 130 Tibetan and Qiang families. Due to the protected nature of the park, the residents are forbidden from agriculture activities and rely on government subsidies as well as tourism.

Ecology

Jiuzhaigou's ecosystem is classified as temperate broad-leaf forest and woodlands, with mixed mountain and highland systems. Nearly 300 km2 of the core scenic area are covered by virgin mixed forests. Those forests take on attractive yellow, orange and red hues in the autumn, making that season a popular one for visitors. They are home to a number of plant species of interest, such as endemic varieties of rhododendron and bamboo.

Local fauna includes the endangered giant panda and golden snub-nosed monkey. Both populations are very small (less than 20 individuals for the pandas) and isolated. Their survival is in question in a valley subject to increasing tourism. Jiuzhaigou is also home to approximately 140 bird species.

Geology and hydrology

Jiuzhaigou's landscape is made up of high-altitude karsts shaped by glacial, hydrological and tectonic activity. It lies on major faultlines on the diverging belt between the Qinghai-Tibet Plate and the Yangtze Plate, and earthquakes have also shaped the landscape. The rock strata is mostly made up of carbonate rocks such dolomite and tufa, as well as some sandstone and shales.

The valley includes the catchment area of three gullies (which due to their large size are often called valleys themselves), and is one of the sources of the Jialing River, part of the Yangtze River system.

Jiuzhaigou's best-known feature is its dozens of blue, green and turquoise-colored lakes. The local Tibetan people call them "Haizi" in Chinese, meaning "son of the sea". Originating in glacial activity, they were dammed by rockfalls and other natural phenomena, then solidified by processes of carbonate deposition. Some lakes have a high concentration of calcium carbonate, and their water is very clear so that the bottom is often visible even at high depths. The lakes vary in color and aspect according to their depths, residues, and surroundings.

Some of the less stable dams and formations have been artificially reinforced, and direct contact with the lakes or other features is forbidden to tourists.

Notable features

Jiuzhaigou is composed of three valleys arranged in a Y shape. The Rize and Zechawa gullies flow from the south and meet at the centre of the site where the form the Shuzheng gully, flowing north to the mouth of the valley. The mountainous watersheds of these gullies are lined with 55 km of roads for shuttle buses, as well as boardwalks and small pavilions. The boardwalks are typically located on the opposite side of the lakes from the road, shielding them from disturbance by passing buses.

Most visitors will first take the shuttle bus to the end of Rize and/or Shuzheng gully, then make their way back downhill by foot on the boardwalks, taking the bus instead when the next site is too distant. Here is a summary of the sites found in each of the gullies.

Rize Gully

The 18 km long Rize Gully (pinyin: Rìzé Gōu) is the south-western branch of Jiuzhaigou. It contains the largest variety of sites and is typically visited first. Going downhill from its highest point, one passes the following sites:

    * The Primeval Forest is a preserved ancient woodland. It is fronted by spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and cliffs, including the 500 m high blade-shaped Sword Rock.
    * Swan Lake is a 2250 m long, 125 m wide picturesque lake named for its visiting swans and ducks.
    * Grass Lake is a shallow lake covered in intricate vegetation patterns.
    * Arrow Bamboo Lake, covering an area of 170,000 m2, is a shallow lake with a depth of 6 m. It lies at an elevation of 2,618 m, and was a main feature site for the 2002 Chinese film Hero.
    * Panda Lake features curious color patterns of blue and green. It empties into the multi-stream, multi-level Panda Waterfalls, dropping 78m in 3 steps.
    * Five Flower Lake is a shallow multi-colored lake whose bottom is criss-crossed by ancient fallen tree trunks.
    * Pearl Shoal is a wide, gently sloping area of active calcareous tufa deposition covered in a thin sheet of flowing water. It empties into the famous Pearl Waterfalls, where the shoal drops 28 m in a 310 m wide broad curtain of water. A scene of the television adaptation of Journey to the West was filmed there.
    * Mirror Lake is another quiet lake casting beautiful reflections of the surroundings when the water is calm.

Zechawa Gully

The Zechawa Gully is the south-eastern branch of Jiuzhaigou. It is approximately the same length as Rize gully (18 km ) but climbs to a higher altitude (3150 m at the Long Lake). Going downhill from its highest point, it features the following sites:

    * Long Lake is the highest, largest and deepest lake in Jiuzhaigou, measuring 7.5 km in length and up to 103 m in depth. It reportedly has no outgoing waterways, getting its water from snowmelt and losing it from seepage. Local folklore features a monster in its depths.
    * Five-Color Pond is one of the smallest but most spectacular bodies of water in Jiuzhaigou lakes. Despite its very modest dimensions and depth, it has a richly colored underwater landscape with some of the brightest and clearest waters in the area.
    * The Seasonal Lakes are a series of 3 lakes (Lower, Middle and Upper) along the main road, that change from empty to full during each year.

Shuzheng Gully

The Shuzheng Gully is the northern (main) branch of Jiuzhaigou. It ends after 14.5 km at the Y-shaped intersection of the three gullies. Going downhill from the intersection to the mouth of the valley, visitors encounter the following:

    * Nuorilang Falls, near the junction of the valleys, are 20 m high and 320 m wide. They are reportedly the widest highland waterfall in China, and one of the symbols of Jiuzhaigou.
    * Nuorilang Lakes and Shuzheng Lakes are stepped series of respectively 18 and 19 ribbon lakes formed by the passage of glaciers, then naturally dammed. Some of them have their own folkloric names, such as the Rhinoceros, Unknown, and Tiger lakes.
    * Sleeping Dragon Lake is one of the lower lakes in the area. With a depth of 20 m, it is notable for the clearly visible calcareous dyke running through it, whose shape has been compared to a dragon lying on the bottom.
    * Reed Lake is a 1375m-long, reed-covered marsh with a clear turquoise brook zigzaging through it. The contrast is particularly striking in the autumn when the reeds turn yellow.

Others

    * The Zaru Gully is a smaller valley that runs southeast from the main Shuzheng gully; it begins at the Zaru Buddhist monastery and ends with the Red, Black, and Daling lakes.
    * The Fairy Pool lies 42 km west of Jiuzhaigou and features travertine pools very similar to those of the nearby Huanglong Natural Reserve.

Access to the site

Jiuzhaigou, compared to other high-traffic scenic spots in China, is notoriously difficult to access by land. Most tourists reach the valley by a 10 hour bus ride from Chengdu along the Minjiang River canyon, prone to frequent rockslides and mudslides that can add several hours to the trip. As of 2004, further delays were incurred by the construction of a new highway which, when completed, should greatly facilitate the journey. Since 2003, it has been possible fly from Chengdu or Chongqing to an airport on a 11311 ft. high mountain side near Songpan County, and then take an hour-long bus ride to Jiuzhaigou, or a two-hour bus ride to Huanglong. From 2006, a daily flight to Xi'an had been opened in peak season. There is also a new helipad near the valley.

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