IF YOU visit Jiuzhaigou, China's best-known national park, there's a fair chance you'll fall to your knees at the wonder of 'a fairyland on Earth' - or so says the official guide book. A group of Unesco officials did just that, when they first saw the 72,000-hectare park's mountains, forests and blue and green lakes, the book says. The scenery is breathtaking. Look across a lake and you can see a perfect reflection of the surrounding beauty in its still, clear waters. But there's a catch. Whenever you visit the park, people will tell you that you've missed its most spectacular beauty. Go in the spring, and you'll be told of the wonder of its autumn colours. Visit in the summer and be told the leaves have yet to sprout and temperatures are too high. Autumn? It's got nothing on winter, when the landscape is coated in snow. Winter? No leaves, and too cold. What's a visitor to do? Ignore the hype and take long, deep breath as the alpine scenery unfolds. Located in Sichuan province, 435km north of Chengdu, Jiuzhaigou has been 'on the map' only since the late 1960s, when its resource potential was first spotted - not by environmentalists, but the timber industry. A 1975 Agriculture and Forestry Ministry investigation led to the discovery of rare animal and plant life. Three years later, it was declared a National Natural Reserve. From there, the titles started piling up. In 1984, Jiuzhaigou became a National Key Place of Scenic Interest. In 1996, Unesco put the park on its World Natural Heritage list. In 2002, the organisation's Man and Biosphere programme granted Jiuzhaigou Biosphere Reserve status. The park consists of a Y-shaped series of three valleys, which are dotted with streams, lakes, deciduous and coniferous forests and, in the distance, snow-covered mountain peaks. The name translates as Nine-Village Valley, and the settlements are collections of Tibetan buildings that, in their surroundings, evoke the ski villages of the Swiss Alps. Development in and around the park in recent years has been extensive. Its well-paved access road is traversed only by a phalanx of natural gas-powered buses. There are 60km of boardwalk trails and, halfway up the valley, there's a 12,000-square-metre service centre that offers meals and souvenirs. Outside the park's gates, hotels ranging from spartan to five-star populate the surrounding valley, an enormous theatre hosts song-and-dance shows nightly, and 85km of smooth and shiny highway away is Jiuzhaigou-Huanglong Airport, cutting to 40 minutes a journey that used to mean a gruelling, 12-hour bus ride from Chengdu. According to the head of the park's marketing department, 800,000 people have made their way to Jiuzhaigou via the tiny airport since its opening in late September. 'We capped visitors at 12,000 people per day in 2001,' says Wang Yen, who works in the park's research department. 'But this number isn't suitable for today's situation. We're deciding what the maximum number should be now.' During this year's peak periods - the Golden weeks of May and October - some 28,000 people per day passed through the park's gates. They're drawn by films and television shows that have used many of the park's 114 lakes as backdrops, and by the chance to pose for a photo in front of a flowing stream or a crashing waterfall. But this doesn't worry Wang. 'Sometimes, I think that there are too many people coming here, especially this year, with all of the recent development,' she says. 'But we can't control the development outside of the park, and we're doing a good job inside.' The hordes of tour groups are as much a feature of Jiuzhaigou as mountain ranges and multi-coloured lakes. The crowds threaten the park rangers' best efforts. Typically, they ignore the smoking and littering bans. 'Most of the time, we're telling people that they can't smoke,' says one ranger stationed on the bank of Arrow Bamboo Lake, which most recently played a supporting role in Zhang Yimou's epic film Hero. 'They don't understand the fire risk.' To say it's a challenge to visit Jiuzhaigou other than in a tour group is an understatement: from the airport, taxis to the town outside the park's gates cost 215 yuan. Although minibuses are only 50 yuan, they won't leave the airport with fewer than five people - a number hard to come by in a plane full of tour groups, despite the regular flights coming in from Chengdu and Chongqing. And many complain about the 235-yuan entrance fee to the park. Two-day passes are available at a two-for-one discount for day two of the visit. Solo travellers receive a promotional booklet instead of a reduced-price ticket. The fee is a shocker for the seasoned China traveller, but reasonable compared with national parks around the world. It's buried in a multi-day full-service package for most park visitors. 'It's mainly foreigners who are reluctant to pay the park fee,' says Wang. 'But that's only before they go in the park. After they come out, they generally understand.' She explains the tickets' costs: 90 yuan buys an optional bus ticket that allows the visitor to step on and off the bus at any of the stops along the highway - a tour guide at the helm of each vehicle continues the tour-group theme. Given the 17km trip up the first valley - Shuzheng - to the fork in the road dividing the two upper valleys, and the further 16km and 18km to the end of the Rize and Zezhawa valleys, respectively, the ticket is worth its weight in gold. Of the remaining 145 yuan, a portion goes to the Aba Prefecture government, a portion goes to protecting the park, and a portion goes to the park's 1,007 residents, who, since the mid-80s, have been forbidden to continue the farming that used to define their existence. 'The tourist industry has been a real gold mine for local residents,' says Wang, who echoed statements in the park's literature of the so-called 'Three Understands' relating to ensuring residents participate in and benefit from the park's development. The park employs more than 600 local people as rangers, shopkeepers, bus drivers and guides. And although villagers are officially banned from hosting visitors in their homes, offers of beds and meals are the norm. Park admission used to include a night's stay in one of three villages. Homes were converted into hostels with no shortage of bedrooms. 'And the children have often moved out of the villages to the cities, so there's even more room,' one Zezhawa resident says. A bed for the night in a Tibetan version of a no-frills ski chalet and a couple of meals can be had for about 50 yuan. And starting off inside the park in the morning is a great way to get a head start on the crowds. Another tip: start your day at the areas closest to the gate. Most visitors tend to make their first stops at those sites farthest inside the valley. So, while the hordes hit the Virgin Forest and Long Lake - the uppermost points on the park's two inner valleys - you can check out the Zharu monastery. Although it's closed until the afternoon, a stroll through its grounds in the silence of an alpine morning makes a far more spiritual experience than an afternoon jostle with tourists. You may encounter the toothless monk who, in a heavily accented mixture of local dialect-laden Putonghua, Tibetan and grunts and groans, will eagerly point out each of the animals of the zodiac whose likenesses are said to have been left by nature in the cliff face opposite the monastery gate. Try as you might, you won't spot them, but you could walk away feeling good about having tried. From the monastery, walk along the plank path into the valley. You'll be able to count the number of people you come across on the fingers of one hand. The gurgle of streams and rush of rapid rivers will provide the only noise. But be sure to take all of it in while you can: the crowds can't be beaten or their effects avoided. Perhaps you'll see discarded instant-noodle packets or curse the traffic jams at each scenic point along the path. Even so, you won't come away from Jiuzhaigou with a bad taste in your mouth. Crowds will be crowds, but what you'll most remember is the sheer natural beauty - regardless of whether you visit in spring, summer, winter or autumn. 'Fairylands', after all, work their magic all year round.