Jiuzhaigou is scenically one of the most spectacular landscapes I have ever seen, however I have realised I need to qualify this a little. I grew up in an area that was very flat and dry, so in a way I find mountains, snow and the whole alpine scenery thing to be all quite exotic.
Jiuzhaigou is Chinese alpine scenery, a world heritage and world biosphere protected area in mountainous northern Sichuan peppered with brilliantly coloured lakes and waterfalls ensconced amongst dense forest.
It is also an absolute tourism hotspot – apparently visitor numbers are restricted each day during the high season (maximum 12,000 last I heard).
I was totally blown away by this place when I first visited in 1997. It was early October and with the magnificence of fall turning the trees all shades of crimson, orange and yellow the contrast against the jewel coloured lakes was stunning. There was little infrastructure in terms of park organisation, so the only way to get around was to walk with cheap rooms available at one of the Tibetan villages inside the park.
By the time I returned in 2002 there had been some major changes; boardwalks around the lakes almost formed a path which needed to be followed and small electric cars plied the roads as a park bus service getting the crowds from place to place. The villages inside the park no longer formally allow tourists to stay overnight, with tickets being on a strictly “day only” basis. We did still stay in the park at a small guesthouse attached to a monastery – if you want to do this it is best to be as inconspicuous as possible by just taking a small daypack and perhaps not asking at place when lots of people are around. Facilities are limited in the evenings however the monastery also cooked up a great meal.
My biggest tip for negotiating the place if crowded, is simply to go the other way or lag way behind. Most tourists seem to arrive in groups, with their guides all herding them in the same direction so it is not impossible to get around and have a few moments of peace among the beautiful surrounds.
Getting to and from Jiuzhaigou is much easier these days, there is even an airport. There are public buses from Chengdu, although the road was once one of the most treacherous in China it has been improved dramatically. If you don’t manage to stay inside the park there are plenty of places on the road in town and around the entrance. This is a place that I would avoid at all costs during the major Chinese holidays – May 1st and October 1st; Chinese New Year is often too cold with perhaps much of the park inaccessible.