Jiuzhai Valley returns, better than ever
Four years after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, Jiuzhai Valley in southwestern Sichuan Province is ready to move on. Now with the comeback of colorful lakes, grand waterfalls and snow mountains, 12 new spots in the area are also welcoming visitors for the first time.
In the newly opened zones, visitors can enjoy classic Jiuzhai Valley lake views as well as a primitive natural reserve, boasting giant pandas, snub-nosed monkeys and Tibetan antelopes.
The Shenxianchi Scenic Area is perhaps the most anticipated among newly opened spots. More than 2,000 ponds and lakes of various sizes and colors are dotted along a deep valley stretching 3 kilometers. Shenxianchi literally means "immortals' lake," a name reflecting its awe-inspiring beauty.
"My family drove to Shenxianchi from Jiuzhai Valley during the recent National Day holiday," said Zhang Shaojia, an outdoor enthusiast from Shanghai. "The driving was tiresome but everything was absolutely worth it."
The official name of the Shenxianchi is Nen Ensangcuo, which in Tibetan means "where fairies bathe." Unlike Jiuzhai Valley and nearby Huanglong, extremely popular tourist destinations, Shenxianchi, of no less beauty, had remained obscure even before the earthquake, perhaps because of its inconvenient location.
The journey to Shenxianchi is indeed arduous. Although the area itself is about 2,200 meters above sea level, visitors must drive at an elevation of 4,000 meters during the 60-kilometer journey from Jiuzhai Valley.
Originally there was only a single highway that led to Shenxianchi, but it was almost completely destroyed in the earthquake. When Jiuzhai Valley underwent restoration in the past few years, a new highway was built to connect the two areas. Its nickname is "28 Turns" as drivers must maneuver, in succession, 28 dangerous hairpin turns.
"It was a great challenge for people suffering from altitude stress," said Zhang, the outdoor enthusiast. "Nonstop turnings worsened the dizziness."
But the road was beautiful.
"It was painted red and looking from above, it looked like a fiery ribbon threading through green mountains," Zhang said. "It is recommended to take some bottled oxygen with you though."
Similar to those in Jiuzhai Valley and Huanglong, ponds and lakes in Shenxianchi were formed by calcium carbonate. As the air and water in the area is super clean, the scattering of light – technically called "Rayleigh scattering" – makes the water appear in different shades of blue and green; Qinglong Lake resembles sapphire, Liantai Pond has a turquoise hue; and Xiannu Lake is navy blue.
"The Liantai Pond is in my opinion the most beautiful," Zhang said. "Calcium carbonate divides the pond into smaller pieces, making it look like a terraced field full of blue quartz."
Shenxianchi accepts 2,000 visitors daily to protect the environment. People can walk along a plank passageway to each lake and cave. The whole tour takes one to three hours.
On August 8, 2017, the earthquake took 25 lives, hundreds were injured, and the scenic area was severely damaged. Two years ago, part of Jiuzhai Valley was reopened, while other parts were under restoration.
"But now you can't feel any trace of disaster," Zhang said. "The scenery is as beautiful as I remember. And local people have apparently started a new life."
Sparkling Lake, popular among tourists, was almost fully destroyed. One side of its bank collapsed completely. Sticky rice mortar (a traditional Chinese construction material), along with existing calcium carbonate soil, was used to rebuild the bank.
After four years' efforts, with the underground and surface water flow system being brought back to its original status, beauty of the lake reappeared.
The earthquake ironically created a new gorgeous view. Sparkling Lake is now connected to nearby Double-Dragon Lake with a new, magnificent waterfall.
"Restoration of Sparkling Lake is a scientific research project, and it does not end here," said Xiao Weiyang, an engineer with the Jiuzhai Valley Scenic Area Administrative Bureau. "We are continuing to monitor the lake's condition, including the stability of the bank, the deposition of calcium carbonate, recovery of the plants around it and diversity of species."
The new waterfall amazed Zhang. "The earth is always changing, sometimes a result of human activity, sometimes not," she said.
"We don't know what such changes will bring about in the end; all we can do is respect Mother Nature."
If you go:
Shanghai has direct flights to Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport, and from there, visitors can hire a guide to travel to scenic areas. Visitors need to book entrance in advance at www.abatour.com with their passport number.
New scenic spots around Jiuzhai Valley
The Yunding Mijing
Literally meaning "Mysterious Realm on Cloud Nine," the Yunding Mijing in Baohua Town features a tranquil mountain lake by a meadow. The water, clearly reflecting the blue sky, along with grazing meadows, creates picturesque scenery. When the weather gets cold, the realm becomes a natural snow resort with various winter activities. Skiing and snowmobiling are available.
The Baihe Snub-Nosed Monkey Reserve
The reserve is probably the best place in Jiuzhai Valley to appreciate wildlife. Located 4,400 meters above sea level, it has a dense forest, home to more than 1,900 snub-nosed monkeys.
Comprised of four ancient villages, Luoyi Town sits in a deep valley far away from the outside world. Nowadays, fewer than 3,000 people, Han and Tibetan, remain. They live in brick and wooden houses adorned with delicate carvings and paintings. If you want to learn about traditional life in Jiuzhai Valley, a visit to the town is a must!