The first time I saw pictures of Jiuzhaigou in the Sichuan province of China, I was convinced the colours had been enhanced. I could believe the flame-hued trees of autumn as I had spent several years in New England in the United States, a region famed for its Fall colours. But the intense blues and greens of Jiuzhaigou's lakes seemed too perfect to be real and it was only when I saw them with my own eyes that I fully appreciated Nature's genius.
An emerald-coloured lake against the snow at Shenxianchi. In early April the snows had not yet melted, thus the lakes were shallower than in the summer, but that did not detract from the beauty of the crystal-clear waters in all different shades of blue. Indeed, at some of the lakes, the sparkling azure water against white snow on the pebbled shore presented a truly exquisite landscape.
According to local legend, Jiuzhaigou's lakes were created when a goddess dropped her mirror, which shattered into pieces and became 114 jewel-coloured 'seas'. The people at the sanctuary say Jiuzhaigou is beautiful in all four seasons. No wonder then that the area is a favourite shooting location for movies, for example, Zhang Yimou's Hero as well as the latest re-make of the popular Condor Heroes series, much of which was apparently shot there.
Getting around the Jiuzhaigou National Park is relatively easy as the roads and wood-planked pathways are mostly on level ground or gentle slopes and so user-friendly that even the 70- and 80-year olds of the group I travelled with had no trouble with them. For visitors tired of walking, the environmentally-friendly 'green' buses that shuttle around the main thoroughfares provide a welcome alternative.
In view of the age of some of our group members, we were advised to avoid Huanglong, which was 5,000 metres above sea level and instead, spend a day at the nearby 'fairy pools' of Shenxianchi.
Early the next morning we drove to the Shenxianchi park entrance and boarded a shuttle to get to the pools. For an hour we wound our way up the mountains, passing meadows with grazing yak and goats and Tibetan farmhouses. The slopes at the higher altitudes were still blanketed with snow.
After countless hairpin turns we finally reached the pass. At 3,600 metres above sea level we had a panoramic view of the mountain range with snow-dusted, craggy peaks. Looking down over a barrier at the road's edge, I saw our road snake up the dark slopes, a reminder of how far we had travelled.
Shortly after we left the pass we arrived at the Shenxianchi visitors' centre, a stylish low-slung wood, stone and glass building which is said to incorporate Tibetan architectural elements. After a winding trip up the mountain it was a welcome facility that surprised us with free coffee and a decent buffet lunch.
But we didn't expect that lunch would be interrupted by a thunderous herd of yak passing within a few metres of the glass walls that separated them from the dining room. The powerfully-built animals were mostly jet-black and reminded me of bison. Close on their heels, Tibetan herders clattered by on shaggy ponies, chasing down any errant yak that veered off the road.
From the visitors' centre, electric buggies shuttled us to the fairy pools. We alighted at a wooden bridge that spanned a brook flanked by dozens of colourful Tibetan prayer flags. Our guide had warned us that Shenxianchi would be challenging and that we would have to climb steps. What he did not tell us was that we would have to climb a couple of hundred steps just to get to the first pool and more than a thousand to get to the top. Mercifully, sedan-chairs were available for those who needed them.
Just as at Jiuzhaigou National Park, the wide wooden steps and viewing decks of Shenxianchi had been carefully designed around the environment.
However, at 3,000 metres above sea level, the Fairy Pools are several hundred metres higher than Jiuzhaigou and I found myself stopping for breath after nearly every flight of steps.
Nonetheless, it was worth every bit of the effort. As we headed up the wooded slopes, spectacular vistas opened before us - emerald lakes so clear one could see the fossilised trees lying at the bottom; stands of Chinese red birch, their rust-coloured bark glistening in the sunshine against a backdrop of white snow and deep blue skies; terraced mineral ponds in pale peacock blue and green. The park's Baima guides invited us to sample the water of a mineral spring and it was pure and naturally sweet.
The crisp mountain air, fabulous scenery and exotic ethnic minorities of Jiuzhaigou are a truly exhilarating experience. The lakes are indisputably a masterpiece of Nature and I can now understand why my Chinese friends say: "Huangshan is best for mountains; but for waters, there is no better place than Jiuzhaigou".
Ziying travels frequently to China in support of a school in a rural village. The country's rich culture and history are her lifetime passion. She can be contacted at email@example.com.