Around 100km northeast of Songpan, the perpetually snow-clad Min Shan range encloses Jiuzhaigou – “Nine Stockades Valley” – named after it was settled by Tibetans several hundred years ago. The reserve forms a Y-shaped series of valleys clothed in thick alpine forests and strung with hundreds of impossibly toned blue lakes – said to be the scattered shards of a mirror belonging to the Tibetan goddess Semo. Jiuzhaigou’s landscape looks spectacular in the autumn when the gold and red leaves contrast brilliantly with the water, or at the onset of winter in early December, when everything is dusted by snow.
Despite its remote location, Jiuzhaigou is the target of intense tourism – packages are offered by every travel agent in Sichuan – so don’t come here expecting a quiet commune with nature, as the park clocks up over a million visitors annually. The best you can do is to get in when the gates open at 7am and try to stay one step ahead of the hordes.