Solitude was the last thing I expected to find in Jiuzhaigou national park. The 72,000 hectare reserve is renowned for its fairy-tale landscapes, drawing tens of thousands of visitors every day from all corners of China and beyond.
Located in Sichuan province, 400km north of Chengdu, Jiuzhaigou – named after the nine Tibetan villages scattered throughout the park and, since 1992 a natural Unesco World Heritage site – is lauded as being heaven on Earth by some of those who have seen its crystal-clear lakes and travertine waterfalls.
Photos of stranded travellers inside Jiuzhaigou during the recent “golden week” holiday are fresh in my mind as I stand in the entrance queue at 6.50am, caught in the middle of a group of brightly dressed retirees. Apparently everyone has read the same advice: arrive at the park before it opens at 7am to get a head start on the crowds.
The recommended route for exploring the three main valleys in Jiuzhaigou involves hopping on and off shuttle buses – the only transport authorised within what, in 1997, became a World Biosphere Reserve. Aware of the typical tourist’s preference for motorised transport, I decide instead to dodge the shuttle queue after entering the park and hike the first 14km, heading south along the Shuzheng Valley. And less than 500 metres past the shuttle bus depot I find it: solitude, and paradise. Kilometre after kilometre of immaculately maintained wooden boardwalk guide me alongside the Zechawa River, past azure lakes with ancient fallen trees clearly visible above and below the water line.
As the path and I meander together through birch forests and alongside cascading streams, the magic of the park gradually unfolds. And it is not until I’ve gone more than 10km that I encounter a handful of other walkers, near the log houses and colourful prayer flags of Shuzheng, one of the busiest villages in the park.
The spectacular Nuorilang Waterfall marks the end of the Shuzheng Valley sights, and my unexpectedly peaceful morning. Here, tour groups, photographers and families crowd along the 320-metre-wide face of the alpine waterfall to gaze in awe at its beauty. During the rainy summer season, the sound of the rushing water adds to its drama; in winter, the waterfall has been known to freeze, creating a glistening wall of ice.
The other two valleys accessible to tourists – Rize and Zechawa – are to the southwest and southeast of Shuzheng Valley, respectively. My time is limited so I must choose – Rize Valley, and its many noteworthy lakes and riverbeds, or Zechawa Valley, which boasts the largest and highest alpine lake of them all. Plumping for quantity, I board a shuttle bus to the far end of Rize Valley, about 18km away.
Rize is Zhang Yimou country. From the main juncture of the three touristic valleys, the first of several lakes you encounter is Mirror Lake, named for the perfect reflections it displays during the early morning, when the waters are still. So captivated by the sight was Zhang that he filmed scenes for the Academy Award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) here, before returning to film a key scene for his historical epic Hero (2002), at the equally striking Arrow Bamboo Lake.
Taking in the sweeping vistas and unclouded waters, I feel transported into Zhang’s fantastical world of lovers and assassins – until I’m brought back to reality by a fellow tourist’s selfie stick.
The boardwalks surrounding three of the more dramatic sites in Jiuzhaigou, Five Flower Lake, Peacock Riverbed and Panda Lake, are heaving with sightseers and couples in full wedding attire, jostling for photographs against the ethereal backdrops.
It’s 6.20pm by the time I catch a shuttle back to the park’s main intersection, where I find to my disappointment that every bus is headed back towards the entrance. I’d hoped to see at least some of the Zechawa Valley before 7pm: closing time. Then, as if by magic, my fairy godmother – in the form of a northern Chinese driver behind the wheel of a privately chartered minibus – arrives, offering me the last lift of the day to the far end of Zechawa Valley.
The road climbs steadily for about 20km, snaking its way through winding mountain valleys until our minibus, bearing a small Mongolian group and me, arrives at the unimaginatively named Long Lake. At 3,100 metres above sea level, this is the highest accessible point for visitors to Jiuzhaigou.
As the friendly Mongolians step away from the viewing platform to take a group photo, I am treated – for the second time in one day – to solitude, at one of the most renowned tourist sites in China. The vista is of screensaver quality; a cobalt-coloured alpine lake surrounded by dramatic mountains as far as the eye can see and totally worth the risk of being locked in the park overnight with nothing more than a camera and a near-empty packet of biscuits.
All too soon, though, the metaphorical clock strikes midnight and the spell is broken, our minibus soon racing us back down towards the park entrance, out of the valleys and away from paradise.
How to get there: several airlines fly from Hong Kong to Jiuzhaigou via Chengdu or Xian