There are schools of people out there that will tell you that the best time to visit Jiuzhaigou,(pronounced Joe-Jai-Go) the famous Tibetan valley region in Sichuan, China is during the fall. Sure, the foliage is at its peak and contrasts beautifully with the famous translucent-blue lake water. The weather is also ideal, having just cooled past the horrible summer swelters. I’m sure it’s lovely, but I refused to go then. I, like many people, hate crowds. I can’t handle being sandwiched between 200 people on a small bus made for 45 or elbowed in the ribs standing in a line (which is never actually a line in China). It stresses me out and that’s the opposite effect of what I’m going for when I travel.
I’m also terrified of traveling anywhere near Juizhaigou in the fall after learning about the extreme traffic jam that happens every year on the roads leading up to the park. One year, the traffic during the “Golden Week” holiday was so bad that people were stranded on the road for 11 hours. 11 HOURS! For trying to get to a mountain to enjoy some peace and nature.
So, when is the ideal time to travel to Jiuzhaigou?
The last two weeks in March.
The Advantages of March Travel
First, while it’s cold, the weather is starting to warm up and while you certainly won’t freeze you won’t sweat either. In my world, anytime I’m not sweating and not shivering I’m pretty content. In the morning you’ll need a jacket with a hat and gloves and layers so that once the sun comes out you can start removing those layers. With the altitude, the sun is more intense and I even got a March sunburn on my face.
Second, the price increases from low-season to high-season prices on April 1. This means that for adults, you’ll save 50%, while students save even more. Student tickets increase from only 40 yuan to a whopping 110 yuan after April 1. Many hotels in the area also increase their prices for the high season. Go when it’s cheap!
Third, the crowds are minimal. Let’s face it- this is a key tourist destination and it’s always going to be busy. But, if you time it right you’ll be seeing a fraction of the visitors that would be there on an average day in the summer or fall.
I actually thought it was busy when I went last year on the last Saturday in March. I mentioned this to one of the couples at my hostel who had been there before and they pretty much laughed in my face. They were in shock at how empty it was. Having been there in the summer they knew how bad the high-season crowds could be and were thrilled that they came in the early Spring. They stressed to me that it’s much better to deal with the cold than be packed in with other people and not able to feel relaxed in nature.
When my bus was arriving to the station, it took us almost an hour from when we actually entered the city proper to when we pulled into the station. It’s not because the city’s large. Even in March there was so much traffic on the one major road leading through town that we sat in place and barely crawled along. Friends have told me about the epic traffic jams leading up to the park in the summer and fall, so I considered this slight set back to be lucky.
Even though you avoid the heat, high prices and crowds, there are still some downsides to traveling in March.
The Disadvantages of March Travel
The biggest downside of visiting in March is the lack of foliage. It’s the end of winter, so the leaves have dropped from the trees and many plants have taken on unappealing shades of yellow-brown. There also isn’t enough snow and ice left to make the park look sweetly sugar coated. If your main goal is photograph, this isn’t the right time to travel. It’ll be easier for you to photograph (with room to even set up a tripod!) but you won’t get the colors that you want.
Personally, when I travel, the photos are an afterthought. I want to be in the moment and enjoy the scenery. If I get some great photos that’s wonderful; but it’s not my goal. If you’re like me, I think you’ll enjoy visiting the park in the late winter/early spring when you can still walk around and take in the natural beauty without having a herd of people on your heels the entire time.
The only other downside I noticed is that some park trails may be closed, especially if it’s been a dry winter. This is done to prevent forest fires on less visited trails and also to repair the walking paths. When I visited, some of the lower trails on the East side of the park were closed. It’s unfortunate since hikers had to walk along the main road for that stretch of the park, but it seems that very few Chinese tourists hike the entire park trail and most buy bus tickets. It may also contribute to the park feeling busier since there’s less area to spread out.
The famous water of Jiuzhaigou is stunning no matter what time of year you see it. If you’re fortunate enough to have some flexibility in your schedule, or if you’re in China now and wondering if it’s worth vising this time of year, know that the end of winter is the absolute best time to visit. So get on it!
Second day tickets
Want to really save during the low-season? Take advantage of the low-season second day ticket policy where you can buy admission for the next day for only 20 yuan. To make it really worthwhile, skip the pricy bus ticket. Instead of paying 80 yuan (90 yuan during high-season) for the park bus, buy the second day ticket instead. Hike the west side of the park and back one day and the east side the other. That way, you won’t have to rush to see the sights and you can have a nice picnic during the midday crush when most of the tourists are in the park.
Another advantage of traveling during the low-season is the airfare. I purchase a last-minute one way plane ticket from Chengdu to the Huanglong airport for about $51 USD. Keep in mind though that during the winter the public transportation to the airport stops running. Most people book shared cars online and all the hotels know about specific message boards where you can join others to save on the ride. Just make sure to book in advance- I tried to book the night before and no one had any spaces left in their car.
Pack a lunch
If you’re taking the bus from Chengdu, pack your lunch and some snacks for the next few days. Your bus will stop at several restaurants along the way where they gouge tourists. The food also looked very unappealing. Water was selling for four times the normal price and fresh fruit was at least five or six times the price. Yet, I found restaurants in the city surrounding the park to be on par with prices in other parts of Sichuan (probably because of the competition). They do sell food in the park as well, which was expensive but not extreme.