Glaciers carved the two valleys that join the Shuzheng Valley—the Zechawa and the Rize, which climb to around 10,000 feet—into the classic U shapes one knows from Yosemite, Jiuzhaigou's "sister" park in the United States, with walls that discourage casual scrambling yet do not tower severely enough to distract from the extraordinary limy beauty of the modest waterways underneath. The geology in this part of the Tibetan Plateau is not granite, like the Sierras, but seabed, like our Rockies, so its limestones, dissolving, color the waters emerald or turquoise in a certain light or enhance the mirroring of an azure sky. Avalanches, in blocking the creeks, sculpted the lakes, but by legend, sky goddesses dropped their cosmetics into several, and mermaids swam in others. Calcium carbonate deposits on the bottom sometimes assumed fanciful shapes—sleeping dragons or whatnot.
The road ascends from about 6,000 feet at the valley entrance, splits at Nuorilang, where a tourist shopping center and cafeteria are set up, and terminates in the case of the left fork at a wilderness lake, wiggly and long, and in the case of the right at a "primeval forest," in the language of the brochures, which translates as groves that were not leveled by loggers before the area's tourism possibilities were recognized. Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, China's flagship of its type, was designated a World Heritage site in 1992 by UNESCO, after logging sprees threatened to degrade it.
Costumed Tibetans sell trinkets and postcards at the end of each fork, and the boardwalks loop more ambitiously than usual. Along the bus route there's a Golden Bell Lake, Grass Lake, a Pearl Shoals Falls, Arrow Bamboo Falls, a Five Flower Lake and Five Colored Pond, a Sparkling Lake, Tiger Lake, Bonsai Lake, Swan Lake, Rhinoceros Lake, Double Dragon Lake, Reed Lake, Panda Lake, and Mirror Lake, which reflects, as the others do, the menagerie of the clouds, the birches, willows, and pines, the tinctures and hues of sunrise and sunset on rock faces and cliffs. Five shades of green, three of scree. Although the names sound promotional, Buddhist mysticism, and certainly the Bon religion that predated it and underlies it for many Tibetans, animated these lakes and rivers with spirits that the mineralized waters might fortuitously personify, whether mermaid or monster.
A flyer explains that the myriad lakes and tarns of Mount Wonuosemo and Mount Dage resulted when "the goddess Wonosmo dropped a mystical mirror, a gift of love from the god Dag." The true Tibetan narratives no doubt had more intriguing meanings attached to them, a spectrum equivalent to the colors this upthrust seafloor's chemistry bestows upon the waters flowing through. The Baihe, or White River, rustles by the park's entrance to join the White Dragon River (named for a bluff), and then the mightier Jialing, and finally the gouged and mangled, gigantic Yangtze itself.