Sichuan Province, 450km (280 miles) N of Chengdu, 102km (63 miles) NE of Songpan

Photographs of this World Heritage nature site look retouched. The lakes are too "jewel-like," the pools too "limpid," the fall colors too "flaming." Surprisingly, the brochures aren't lying; they aren't even exaggerating. For sheer scenic beauty and variety, Jiuzhaigou has it all: dense forest, green meadow, rivers, rapids, ribbon lakes in various shades of blue and green, chalky shoals, and waterfalls of every kind -- long and narrow, short and wide, terraced, rushing, and cascading. Of cultural interest are the six remaining Tibetan villages of the original nine from which this valley gets its name. Some 1,000 Tibetans, of 130 families, live within the site. And to facilitate sightseeing, so-called "green buses" run along special highways within the valley delivering passengers to all scenic spots. Another aid to tourism is a network of raised plank paths and wooden pavilions that afford visitors a proximity to natural wonders that would otherwise be unapproachable.

Still, you may lose your will to visit just getting to Jiuzhaigou from Chengdu; you must then face the honking, belching traffic along the strip of hotels outside the main gate, not to mention the contagion of avarice that seems to have infected the town. Cabbies are in cahoots with the hotels; hotel managers beg bribes; the PSB is on the take.

Jiuzhaigou (Valley of Nine Villages) gets three stars for its scenery and is docked four for everything else. But despite the cons, few places on earth have prettier scenery, and except for a few photo-taking forays, the majority of tourists stay on the bus, so it's not hard to find solitude along the plank paths. In the end, as much as I loathed the 12-hour ride on a smoke-filled bus and the tacky town outside the gate, the 2 days spent inside the reserve were absolutely worth it. Jiuzhaigou can be seen in 1 day, but 2 days is optimal.

The best time to go is from September to November, when all the lakes are filled with jewel-like water and leaves change colors, and before the weather cools down significantly. Even at the height of summer, have a jacket on hand for rain and sudden temperature drops. To avoid crowds and get the best hotel discounts, come midweek. Busy times are Chinese New Year, Labor Day week (first week of May), and National Day week (first week of Oct). Some hotels close between November and March.