Ah, Jiuzhaigou (Jiǔzhàigōu, 九寨沟): clean, crisp air; frigid, fast-paced Himalayan snow-melt rivers; vivid lazuli waterfalls; calm, age-old freshwater basins the color of tortoise shells; the natural wonders of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are innumerable. So it is no surprise that the wooden walkways lining the most famous lakes, reservoirs and waterfalls are elbow-to-elbow crowded during the peak tourist season. Since the region was named a National Park in 1982, what was initially a logging destination has since become one of the most popular tourist destinations in China for urban-dwellers (and country bumpkins, I'm sure) looking for a piece of that fresh, nature goodness.
The Jiuzhaigou Valley has been inhabited by Tibetans and people of the Qiang minority for centuries, and is today part of the Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province. The area takes its name from the nine villages that have long thrived in the harsh, majestic climate (seven survive today, with limited authenticity; farming is prohibited in the protected park, so the remaining population relies mainly on tourism for income). Jiuzhaigou is part of the Min Shan mountain range (Mín Shān, 岷山), and is on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, and is stunning year-round. The site sees more than 10,000 tourists (!) on a busy summer day, but winter has its own set of advantages. Read on for more information about the nature preserve and some mid-winter deals on tours to Jiuzhaigou....
It's still possible to see Jiuzhaigou without the crowds during the late spring, summer and early fall, if you're willing to sacrifice some of the more famous landmarks and put a little work into it. All it takes is a little extra effort to get away from the bus routes that shuttle tourists, wielding cameras like guns, between the most easily accessible and photogenic locations in the park. The park is shaped like a Y, and at the confluence of the three valleys (Rize, Shuzheng and Zechawa) you'll also find the confluence of the various bus routes, a situation which, on busy days, can make even the most relaxed nature-lover anxious and crabby. After all, what good is gazing thoughtfully across the landscape if you're surrounded by hundreds of people doing the same, posing and snapping away on their camera phones?
So you'll need to head out in any direction from the major sites. As many visitors rely on the bus system to get around, walking from site to site will give you the opportunity to seek out tranquil nooks and crannies of the otherwise bustling park. But another way to avoid the crowds is to go in the dead of winter. It's a different Jiuzhaigou from the summertime Jiuzhaigou, for sure, but the jarring landscape lends itself well to the jagged, ice-coated winter that bears down on the region every December.
In the winter, the crowds dry up much as the rivers do; fed almost entirely by snow-melt, the gushing rivers of summertime slow through the fall and then completely or partially freeze through the winter. The bigger lakes, including the deep and tranquil Long Lake, generally maintain a center of cool, blue water all year round. The high elevation of the park--its low points hover around 2,000 m (6,562 ft), and the peaks reach up to 4,500 m (14,764 ft)--intensifies the climate, and the strong sun of the Tibetan plateau is matched with snowfall, ice storms and high winds. Be prepared, but don't worry too much; the temperature usually hovers just below freezing, so staying warm is relatively easy. Wear layers, stay moving and please don't go for a swim, no matter how blue that water is. You will probably die. And we wouldn't want that. Just appreciate the natural beauty and take a dip later at your Jiuzhaigou hotel.
Winter is truly a wonderful time to Chengdu and Leshan in addition to wintry Jiuzhaigou, there is a six day regional tour that includes a round-trip flight for RMB 6,748. And if you're looking to do some hiking on a budget, look into this three day tour that includes a whole day of hiking through the valley and the Tibetan villages, and is a mere RMB 1,738. Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy yourself; take a moment to appreciate the scenery, peacefully devoid of tourists, wrapped in a thick winter blanket.