We know that fairytales are fictional. But there are some places on the Earth, where you can see, feel and touch a real fairytale world. Or at least you can enter a fairytale picture. One of these places is Jiuzhaigou- the Nine Settlements Valley, in the eastern frontiers of Tibet, full of waterfalls, lakes, forests, and various colors. Winter and summer, on rainy or sunny days, this place appears in different images and different beauty. Let’s go on a Jiuzhaigou tour and dive into the valley’s fairytale!
Where is Jiuzhaigou
The Great Tibetan Plateau extends from the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan to the middle of the Sichuan and Gansu provinces. It is a vast highland, mainly flat, but saturated with isolated mountain ranges or lonely peaks. Many rivers are flowing eastward from the high zones of the plateau to the neighboring lowlands. And when they reach the eastern frontiers of Tibet, they “dig” deep valleys, surrounded by alpine snowy mountains.
One of these valleys is Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟), notched deep in the Min Mountains. It is located in the Sichuan Province of China, between Chengdu and Lanzhou, at the edge of the Tibetan lands. Its branches descend from 4500 m and reach 2000 m altitude, where the valley merges with Bai River.
Basic facts about Jiuzhaigou
Actually, Jiuzhaigou is not a single valley, but three main valleys with their own names, and several more minor valleys. First, Rize and Zechawa valleys merge in one main valley, called Shuzheng, then the third valley, called Zharu also merges further down, just before it reaches Bai River. The streams flowing on these valleys flow through many lakes and ponds, each with its own unique beauty. There are also several waterfalls, located mainly in Rize Valley. And the whole area is covered by lush alpine forests.
The name Jiuzhaigou, (Nine Settlements Valley) comes from the nine villages located there. This area is populated by mixed Tibetan and Qiang people, as it is located at the edge of the Tibetan cultural region. Two of the villages are abandoned today, and several of them are actually outside of the valley.
Today, the whole valley and its branches are turned into a national park and recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, the nature and the local villages are under special protection. The villages are with museum status, and their inhabitants work for the local tourism. The park has a well-arranged infrastructure for tourists, which at the same time is designed to not harm the local nature.
Our journey to Jiuzhaigou
All of the above was the reason to include a Jiuzhaigou tour in one of our Eastern Tibet itineraries. It was summer, and we traveled from Xining, passing through Langmusi (Taktsang Lhamo) and Zoige Grasslands. And since Zoige was not far from Jiuzhaigou, we reached this fairytale place from there, descending from the Great Tibetan Plateau.
It was a rainy day, and when we entered the national park and started our tour, we explored it wearing raincoats. But the rain was not something bad, on contrary, it turned the whole valley into a mysterious fantastic landscape with ponds, surrounded by misty forest.
We explored the Shuzheng, Rize, and Zechawa valleys, and back to the exit of the valley at Bai River, where we joined a local Tibetan performance party in the evening. On the next day, the weather was sunny, with a bright blue sky. We left Jiuzhaigou and back to Zoige Grasslands, this time to the First Bend of Yellow River, where we spent the night camping on the plateau, just about 100 km away from the valley. It was 8 August 2017 when it happened…
It was strange. Although we were quite near Jiuzhaigou, less than 100 km from the epicenter, we didn’t feel anything. In fact, only God has led us to arrange our itinerary to escape the earthquake, leaving Jiuzhaigou only several hours before the event. We just saw the news on WeChat (the popular Chinese Social platform that everybody in China uses) from the people in the Jiuzhaigou hotel that we stayed during the previous night. They were scared, their properties had more or less damages, some buildings were completely destroyed.
Soon we were informed that the earthquake was with magnitude 7.0. Thank God, our friends that we met there were ok, nobody was hurt or injured.
Jiuzhaigou temporarily closed
From this moment on, we learned that Jiuzhaigou was closed. There were significant damages to some lakes and waterfalls, as well as some minor landslides on the roads. One of the most beautiful waterfall- Nuorilang has almost dried up.
The Five Flowers Lake with its crystal clear waters and crisscrossed underwater chunks now have become muddy, and its waters have become murky. When we learned it, we thought that Jiuzhaigou as we knew it is lost forever…But the nature with the help of the people, soon back its initial beauty.
Jiuzhaigou has opened again on 3 March 2018, about 8 months after the earthquake. About 90% of what was before has remained, and the rest was just restored with minor changes. Anyway, its main features and beauty now can impress the visitors as always.
So, let’s make a Jiuzhaigou tour, starting from the town at the entrance of the natural park.
On a Jiuzhaigou tour
The starting point for the Jiuzhaigou tour is the Bai River valley. Today, this valley is a touristy area, a chain of towns and villages turned into resorts- with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and all kinds of entertainment. Here you can enjoy the local atmosphere, the delicious local food, and the exciting nightlife, which doesn’t just consist of nightclub parties, but its best part is the Tibetan folklore performances.
Yes, they are made for tourists, but they still present enough authentic elements and vibes. It can be a great episode of your Jiuzhaigou journey, before or after your tour in the valley.
So, to start this tour, let’s go to the entrance of the valley, where it merges with Bai River, at 2000 m altitude. Here is the entrance of the natural park- a complex of buildings where you should buy your entrance tickets.
Opening hours and entrance fee
The opening hours and entrance fees in Jiuzhaigou are as follows:
From April 1 to November 15: 8:00 – 17:00. Entrance fee: 169 CNY
From November 16 to March 31: 8:30 – 17:00. Entrance fee: 80 CNY
Have in mind that after the reopening of the park, there is a limit for the visitors- 23,000 per day. So, I would advise you to come to the Jiuzhaigou resorts a day before your tour and buy your tickets from the entrance in advance.
Also, check the situation with the Covid-19 restrictions- due to the pandemic, there are occasional closures for foreigners in the natural park.
Inside the park- the structure of the Jiuzhaigou tour
Once you get your ticket and pass through the checkpoint, the first thing you see is the scenic bus terminal. There are tourist buses that travel on the three main valleys of the park- Shuzheng, Zechawa, and Rize. On their routes, the buses take you directly to the highest points of the valley without stopping. And on their way back, they stop at every station on the route.
Thus, once you arrive at the highest point, you can walk on foot from site to site, or you can take a sightseeing bus. The main bus terminals are at the entrance (2010 m), Nuorilang center at the junction of the three valleys (2380 m), at the nearby Mirror Lake (2390 m), at the Long Lake (3100 m- the highest route point in Zechawa Valley), and at the Primitive Forest (2980 m- the highest route point in Rize Valley).
Sightseeing bus ticket price
If you want to use the bus, you have to pay an additional ticket for it. The bus tickets are valid during the day (you can change multiple buses on the route with the same ticket), and the price is as follows:
From April 1 to November 15: 90 CNY
From November 16 to March 31: 80 CNY
Alternatives to the bus?
There is no other transport allowed in the park, not even bicycles. So, if you don’t want to pay for the buses, your only option is to walk on foot. But remember- the valleys are quite long, and you can’t see everything for one day. You should walk 32 km from the entrance to Long Lake, then back 18 km to the central junction (Nuorilang center), then walk another 17 km to the Primitive Forest, and finally back another 31 km to the entrance.
In other words- you can’t walk totally 98 km within one day. There is no accommodation in the park either (unless you are a local Tibetan living in one of the Nine Settlements). Camping is not allowed in these three valleys. Yes, there is an option to spend two days in the park, but spending the night is possible only in Zaru Valley- an additional valley without transport, aside from the main routes. So again, your only option is to pay for the sightseeing bus, in addition to the entrance fee.
From the entrance to Nuorilang center.
Once you get on the first bus, you can enjoy the first lakes on the route- Double Dragon, Reed, Sparkle, Sleeping Dragon, Tiger, and Rhino lakes, as well as some other beautiful places like Potted Rapids and Shuzheng Terrance Waterfall. To see them, try to sit on the left seats in the bus.
The first bus arrives in Nuorilang center, and from there you can take the next bus- to Long Lake in Zechawa Valley, or to the Primitive Forest in Rize Valley. Let’s go to Long Lake.
From Nuorilang center to Long Lake
Here you take the next bus that takes you directly to Long Lake. It passes by three seasonal lakes- Lower, Middle and Upper, ascending steeply in the narrow valley. Finally, you can see the stunning Five Colors Pond, before you arrive at the Long Lake terminal. On this route, again sitting on the left reveals more stunning views of the valley.
Zechawa Valley (则查洼沟)
So, we arrive at the Long Lake terminal. Here we are at 3100 m, and it is significantly colder than at the entrance. You can buy some snacks or souvenirs from the shops at the terminal and can go to the nearby Long Lake.
Long Lake (Chang Hai Zi- 长海子)
As its name suggests, it is a long body of water with a glacial origin. It is 7,5 km long, with a maximum depth of 103 m. Its waters come from the highest peaks of the surrounding mountains, and outflow from the lake by seepage. The mountain slopes around the lake are covered by alpine coniferous forests, thus reminding a bit of the lakes in the Canadian national parks.
Tourists are not allowed to proceed further high, and the trails (made by wooden boards) are limited only to the lake’s northern coast. Thus, the nature beyond it remains pure, without any human impact (except the visit of some natural park workers and scientists).
Five Colors Pond (Wu Cai Chi- 五彩池)
Only about 10-15 mins downward is the small Five Colors Pond. This is one of the most beautiful and mysterious bodies of water in Jiuzhaigou. Its name means what it really is- a pond with colors. The colors are formed by the specific kinds of rocks on the pond floor. When the crystal clear waters fill it, the result is a fairytale image, combined with alpine forest.
That’s the most beautiful and attractive in Zechawa Valley. From here, you can take the bus back to Nuorilang center. On the way, you can see the three Seasonal lakes again. They are beautiful, but better focus on the Rize Valley because there are more things to see. And before change the bus for Rize, visit the nearby Nuorilang Waterfall- one of the iconic sites of the natural park.
Nuorilang Waterfall (诺日朗瀑布)
Nuorilang Waterfall is one of the main symbols of Jiuzhaigou. It is 20 m high, and more than 300 m wide- the widest highland waterfall in China. The waterfall’s ground is covered by travertine, thus it is the largest travertine-topped waterfall on the Earth. It was partially damaged by the earthquake in 2017, as most of its waters changed their flow, but later was restored with human’s help. Now is a must-visit site during your Jiuzhaigou tour.
Rize Valley (日则沟)
After you enjoy the waterfall, back to the Nuorilang center and take the Rize Valley route bus. It will take you to the highest available point of the valley- the Primitive Forest. On the way, it will pass by a series of incredibly beautiful lakes, each with its own face. This time sit on the right side to enjoy the sceneries in full.
Primitive Forest (Yuanshi Senlin 原始森林)
Once you arrive at the last bus stop, take a walk around the Primitive (Virgin) Forest. The whole of Jiuzhaigou under 3500-3800 m altitude is covered by forests, but this one is significant with its older and higher coniferous trees. Some of them are several centuries old. In addition, there is a 500 m high rock over the forest, making the whole landscape magnificent.
Again, this is the highest point in Rize Valley you can reach, and tourists are not allowed to go further high. So, following the road and trails, you have to descend (on foot on the trail or by bus) to the next site- Grass Lake.
Grass Lake (Cao Hai- 草海)
This lake has its own beauty. It is shallow, partly covered by wetland type of grass, as its name suggests. Combined with the magnificent mountain landscape around it, the lake offers stunning views. Let’s proceed downward. The next place is Swan Lake.
Swan Lake (Tian’E Hai- 天鹅海)
Swan Lake is deeper than Grass Lake, although it also features wetland grass places in its southern shallow parts, where the stream of Rize River turns into a lake. Its name comes from the swans and ducks that visit it.
From here, if you choose to walk, you have to prepare for almost 1 hour and a half hike down to the next place- Arrow Bamboo Lake
Arrow Bamboo Lake (Jian Zhu Hai- 箭竹海)
This lake is bigger, with calm waters, where the surrounding mountain slopes with forest reflect in beautiful colors, especially in autumn. Arrow Bamboo Lake is shallow, and it is known as the site where some of the shots for the Chinese movie “Hero” were made.
Only 600 m downward is the next lake- Panda Lake
Panda Lake (Xiongmao Hai- 熊猫海)
Panda Lake looks different. It has different colors, with bluer nuances. The name of the lake comes from the local claims that it is the favorite place for local pandas to drink water. Yes, there are several panda families currently living in Jiuzhaigou, but it is extremely difficult to see them since they avoid the main route of the buses and the trails. They haven’t been seen drinking water from this lake either, at least from the last several decades. Anyway, the lake looks fantastic even without pandas!
Let’s go to the next lake, which is iconic- another symbol of Jiuzhaigou- the Five Flowers Lake! On the way down, we can see the Panda Waterfalls- here Rize River divides into many streams descending as many small waterfalls to the Five Flower Lake.
Five Flowers Lake (Wu Hua Hai- 五花海)
This is another bluish lake but looks a bit different than Panda Lake. What makes it unique is the crisscrossed tree trunks on its bottom. It was damaged by the earthquake, but now it is restored, and its waters are again crystal clear, so you can see the underwater tree trunks, probably remained there for hundreds, even thousands of years.
From here, we descend to the last lake- Mirror Lake. But before that, we can’t skip the other magnificent waterfall of Jiuzhaigou- Pearl Waterfall.
Pearl Shoal and Waterfalls (Zhen Zhu Tan- 珍珠滩瀑布)
This is a wide tufa-covered slope where the Rize River divides into multiple streams. On its lower side, they fall from 10 to 20 m height, forming a beautiful waterfall, quite similar to the neighboring Nuorilang Waterfall. Pearl Waterfall is more hidden, therefore less crowded, and not less beautiful than Nuorilang.
Only 10 min further down is the last site in Rize Valley- Mirror Lake.
Mirror Lake (Jing Hai- 镜海)
This is the largest and lowest lake in Rize Valley. Its water color is more like the Arrow Bamboo Lake, but the landscape is a bit different, the surrounding slopes covered with mixed forests are steeper. Here is the terminal for the sightseeing buses descending to the entrance of the natural park, traveling downward in Shuzheng Valley.
Let’s explore the last main valley of Jiuzhaigou- Shuzheng Valley.
Shuzheng Valley (树正沟)
This valley is lower in altitude, and the forest is more mixed and lush. Shuzheng River, formed by Zechawa and Rize is wider, and there is a section of the valley with several lakes, rapids, and even a short waterfall, called Nuorilang and Shuzheng Lakes. All the lakes are 18, and some of them are more significant. This is the most beautiful and attractive part of the valley.
Rhino Lake (Xi Niu Hai- 犀牛海) and Tiger Lake (Lao Hu Hai- 老虎海)
These are the two Nuorilang Lakes. Rhino Lake is the largest lake in Shuzheng Valley. Its landscape and waters are quite similar to Arrow Bamboo and Mirror lakes, but the surrounding forest is more mixed, as the altitude is lower here. Only 100 m below it is the smaller Tiger Lake, with bluer color, compared to the Rhino Lake.
From here, you can proceed 500 m by the Shuzheng Village (one of the Nine Settlements) to the next part of the lake sequence- Shuzheng Lakes.
Shuzheng Lakes (树正群海)
This is a chain of 16 lakes and ponds. Four of them are larger than the others, with their own names and image. These are Sleeping Dragon Lake (Wo Long Hai- 卧龙海), Fire Flower Lake (Huo Hua Hai- 火花海), Reed Lake (Lu Wei Hai- 芦苇海), and Double Dragon Lake (Shuang Long Hai- 双龙海). Sleeping Dragon Lake features calcareous dyke formations on its bottom, reminding of a dragon. Reed Lake is a shallow marsh, adding a specific nuance to the surrounding landscape. And Double Dragon Lake is the lowest one in Jiuzhaigou. From here, you can take the last kilometers to the entrance by bus.
But that’s not all you can see in Jiuzhaigou. Let’s see what else can be found in this amazing paradise.
More of Jiuzhaigou
First, let’s remember why this place is called Jiuzhaigou- the Nine Settlements Valley. It is not just a wild area, but it is inhabited, mainly by Tibetans and some Qiang people.
The Nine Settlements
These mountain villages have existed for hundreds of years. The local people have made their living by agriculture and some husbandry in the high alpine tundra of the mountain. But since the area became a natural park, its inhabitants live only from tourism. Two of the villages were abandoned, and only seven of them are inhabited today.
Seven of the villages are located along Shuzheng and Zechawa valleys, and tourists can visit Heye (Lotus Village), Shuzheng, and Zechawa villages, where they can try the local food and buy some souvenirs. The other villages are far from the main routes and more difficult to access.
One of the villages is Rexi, located in Zharu Valley. Let’s visit this valley too.
Zharu Valley (扎如沟)
Zharu Valley merges with Shuzheng Valley just a kilometer southeast of the main entrance of Jiuzhaigou. It doesn’t feature fairytale lakes and waterfalls like the three main valleys, but it is the only area in the natural park arranged for more adventurous visitors. Here is the place where you can go hiking, camping, and horse riding.
There is a Buddhist Monastery at its entrance- this is Zharu Monastery. Beyond it, you can visit Rexi Village, and another village called Heijiao (Black Horn). Then, the trail proceeds higher and higher, reaching three small glacial lakes. Here you can reach the alpine zone of Jiuzhaigou. Finally, you can even go on a multiday trek around Mt. Zhayi Zhaga (4528 m). Finally, it is known that 40% of all the plant species in China can be found in Zharu Valley.
Where are the terraced pools?
Yes, that’s what I was wondering when we visited Jiuzhaigou. Before our trip there, I have seen a lot of amazing photos of the natural park, and some of them showed stunning pools, naturally dammed by travertine, surrounded by the same mountain forest, filled by crystal clear water. But I didn’t found them anywhere. So, where are the terraced pools from the photos on the internet?
Huanglong Scenic Area (黄龙)
That’s where these pools are located! If you see the physical map, you can trace the watershed summit, surrounding the valleys of Jiuzhaigou from the south. In other words, Jiuzhaigou is located north of this watershed. But Huanglong Scenic area (again consisting of several valleys) is located on its southern side, thus bordering Jiuzhaigou.
And although it is another natural park, its terraced pools are “deceivingly placed” in Jiuzhaigou- first, because both places are often combined in one itinerary, and second, because the nature is similar. In other words, Huanglong is the “little sister of Jiuzhaigou”
However, the only way to reach Huanglong is by 90 min trip by bus from Jiuzhaigou to Huanglong, through Songpan City. From there you can go to the entrance of the area, paying 170 CNY during the high season, or 60 CNY during the low season.
Mounigou Valley (牟尼沟)
Mounigou is another fairytale valley, worth mentioning. It is more like Jiuzhaigou, without terraced pools, but with all of its main features, just smaller than it. Sometimes its beautiful lakes, waterfalls, and ponds are also shown in photos under the label “Jiuzhaigou”, although it is beyond Huanglong Scenic Area, on the southwestern side of Songpan City.
To explore it, you have to pay an additional 100 CNY during the high season, or 60 CNY during the low season. Finally, there is a cable car for 80 CNY upward, and 40 CNY downward.
Fairy Pool (神仙池)
If you anyway want to find terraced pools closer to Jiuzhaigou, there is an alternative. This is Fairy Pool, located 45 km northwest of Jiuzhaigou. It is the same type of natural park, with a similar kind of nature, and with terraced pools. In fact, it is like Huanglong Scenic Area, but just smaller in area. For this reason, it is considered as a part of Jiuzhaigou too, like its other “little sister”.
Its entrance fee is 100 CNY in the high season, and 80 CNY in the low season. There are sightseeing buses and electric cars, and their tickets are as follows: 90 CNY for a sightseeing bus and 40 CNY for an electric car. Its working hours are from 8:00 to 18:00.
Transport to Jiuzhaigou
Jiuzhaigou is a popular tourist destination, and there are a lot of transportation options to reach it. The most common starting point for a trip to the natural park is Chengdu. So, here is how you can travel from Chengdu:
There is an airport, located around 85 km from the entrance of the natural park and 53 km from Huanglong Scenic Area, near the road to Songpan. Currently, there is only one flight daily for about 210 USD. The flight is just 40 min, and from there you can take a taxi or a shared van to the scenic areas.
There are several buses traveling from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou. All of them depart in the morning as follows:
- Xinnanmen Bus Station- 8:00, 8:05, and 8:20
- Chengdu General Bus Station- 7:10
- Chengdu East Station- 7:00
- Shiyangchang Station- 8:45
The whole trip is between 10 and 11 hours, and the price is between 140 and 160 CNY.
Soon there will be a train from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou. It is still under construction, but you can expect it in the middle of 2021!
By shared van or private car
You can easily find a shared van or just a car with a driver (you can’t drive in China without a Chinese Driving License!). Every hostel in Chengdu, as well as most of the hotels, can help you to arrange this. You can find shared vans near the bus stations too. A trip to Jiuzhaigou is between 1000 and 1500 CNY per day, and the cost is shared between the travelers.
By organized tour
There are a lot of organized tours to Jiuzhaigou, not only from Chengdu but from all over the country. And usually, they include the Jiuzhaigou “sisters”- Huanglong, Fairy Pool, and Mounigou Valley. Take a look at some tours with English speaking guides below:
From other cities in China
Of course, you can reach Jiuzhaigou from other places, but just have to change more ways of transportation. You can find buses, shared vans, or private cars from Xi’an, Lanzhou, and Xining. And you can just include Jiuzhaigou as a part of your longer Eastern Tibet itinerary, as we did.
Once you arrive in Jiuzhaigou, the only way to explore the main natural park is by scenic bus (for the main valleys) or on foot (in Zharu Valley). No other transport is allowed inside the park. It is the same in the Jiuzhaigou “sister parks”- in Huanglong you can walk only on foot or by cable car. In Mounigou Valley- only on foot, and in Fairy Pool- on foot, by scenic bus or by electric car.
Between the parks
You can easily travel between Jiuzhaigou, Huanglong, and Mounigou by local shared vans and taxis. The buses from and to Chengdu also travel on this road. But Fairy Pool is more isolated- there are no buses to this scenic area and you can go there only by shared van, taxi or private car.
Accommodation in Jiuzhaigou
As I mentioned above, there are no hotels or any other accommodation inside the natural park. There used to be Nuorilang Hotel near the center, as well as several other options, but they don’t work now. So, the only option to stay overnight inside the park is by camping in Zharu Valley. Some people say there is a possibility to sleep privately in one of the Tibetan villages, but this is considered illegal.
But there are a lot of hotels, hostels, and guesthouses outside of the park, very close to the entrance. As everywhere in China, check first whether they can accept foreigners. To do this, use Booking or Agoda. Of course, you can find a place to sleep just when you arrive there, but in the high season, it can be difficult.
Seasons in Jiuzhaigou
Summer is the best season for visiting Jiuzhaigou. Everything is lush and green, and it is warm. But this is also the wettest season, so be prepared for rain. Anyway, rainy weather there can be nice too, because the lakes and the forest with rainy mist bring a unique and specific atmosphere that is really worth experiencing.
Fall is cooler but drier. And most importantly, the mixed forests in this season are incredibly beautiful- this is the most colorful time of the year in Jiuzhaigou!
Spring is similar, but not as colorful as the fall. And winter is very cold and snowy. Lakes are usually frozen and you can’t see their colors and what is underwater. But the frozen waterfalls can show another beauty to the travelers.
For these reasons, late spring, the whole of summer, and the first half of fall are the high season. The rest is the low season, which is cheaper and much less crowded. Thus, every time of the year has its pros and cons.
We left Jiuzhaigou and the whole area around it, proceeding to another fantastic place in Eastern Tibet- Nyenbo Yurtse. There were thoughts of depression in us, fearing that this paradise is lost forever by the earthquake, and we will never ever see it again. But it was restored, and it is here now. And it will attract us to visit it again, like everybody else who has been there and has enjoyed its fairytale image.
Get more Jiuzhaigou impressions from the video below!
Check some travel books about Jiuzhaigou and Tibet:
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