Huanglong is a Chinese national park in Sichuan province, 150km (90 miles) north-west of Chengdu. It sits in the southern end of the Min Shan mountain range, where the easternmost glacier in China in located. Huanglong has been an important site in Tibetan Buddhist culture for centuries; it has had government protection since 1982 and was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. In June 2012 I visited this beautiful park for the first time.
The massive travertine cascade in Huanglong valley includes pools, waterfalls, and wide swaths of limestone bumps. The narrow sections are still 30m wide (100 feet), and the wider sections are up to 70m across (230 feet). Travertine, by the way, is made by limestone deposits caused as mineral spring water drops calcium carbonate on the land while flowing downhill. It’s the same proces that creates stalactites in caves. In Huanglong, melting snow meets water heavy with calcium-carbonate flowing from underground caves; they mix and flow down together, creating the incredible travertine formation the area has been famous for for centuries. (My other experience with travertine was at Buatong Waterfall outside Chiangmai in northern Thailand).
In Part 1 of my Huanglong story, Esther and I drove out of Jiuzhaigou valley onto the plateau, past the town of Songpan, over a 4,000m (13,000ft) high mountain pass, took cable cars from the valley floor up into the park at an elevation of about 3,500m (11,500ft), and walked 1km of wooden walkways through old forest. Then we emerged into the travertine beauty of Huanglong valley itself. Clouds had rolled in, obscuring the bright sunshine – which we were thankful for, now that we were away from the shady trees – but this didn’t take away from the spectacular colours Huanglong is known for. The name huáng lóng gōu (黄龙沟) literally means “yellow dragon valley”, referring to the bright colours of the travertine landscape as it winds its way 3.6km (2.2 miles) downhill.
Anyway, after leaving the forest we took the walkway that crossed the travertine and turned south up the hill toward Xuebaoding (at about 5,600m/18,000ft, it is the highest peak in the Min Shan mountains). As we climbed I was struck by all the white rhododendron flowers blooming beside (and even in) the water. It was an unexpectedly beautiful sight, to my eyes, at least. We walked up to the Tibetan Buddhist temple below the top series of pools. Huanglong Temple is one of three temples on the main site; it is the best kept, with 5 halls in which pilgrims worship the mercy goddess known as Kuanyin in Chinese.
After a short break at the temple, we walked a clockwise loop around the top pools. The sound of water was all around us, as the wooden walkways took us right over and through the water and trees. Sometimes the view opened up into a clearing, where layer after layer of pools flowed into one another in small waterfalls. Much of the time we were hemmed in by a waterlogged forest. It’s hard to explain – trees growing in the crystal clear water, surrounded by walls of travertine. Beautiful!
As we rounded the top segment of the looped walkway, we came closer to the stepped travertine pools. The still water produced incredibly clear reflections. The water itself is utterly colourless – the colours come from algae and bacteria.
As we reached the top a light rain began to fall, giving the water in the pools a slightly milky appearance, compared to the crystal clarity they had otherwise. The contrast of pure white, mustard yellow, and milky aqua was astonishing.
On the way back down we took a path higher up the hillside, and the view looking down on the pools was amazing. This was the highest altitude of our hike, over 3,600m (12,000ft) above sea level. Cloud rolled over and around snowy peaks above us, including Xuebaoding, as the light rain fell.
The rain continued steadily as we descended back to where we’d first crossed out of the forest, and made our way further down the valley. There were more beautiful scenes of water, travertine, and trees all together. The water was so incredibly clear it was easy to assume the streams by the walkways were quite shallow, whereas testing showed they were often much deeper than they appeared.
Just as we reached the next big scenic spot, the rain ceased and the sun reappeared! The bright blue of the water was even more obvious with the sun shining on it. .
As we descended, a greater variety of trees graced the edges of the travertine. At the lower altitude, tall pines and deciduous trees abounded. The mix of greens – dark for the pines, and very bright on the deciduous – was fascinating to me. Equally stunning were the pools of water, both bright aqua and perfectly clear.
We continued to have fantastic fortune with the weather. When walking down long pathways where the scenery was less dramatic the clouds would hide the sun and cool us down; when we arrived at particularly pretty spots the sun burst out and sparkled on the water.
As we continued down, the snow-capped peaks of the Min Shan mountains to the south slipped away behind clouds and lower hills. Soon the northern hills loomed large, and it was fun to watch how the angle changed as we descended steadily down the valley.
We passed a final large section of big circular pools, and the water spilled over onto a long downhill section, where the steep incline meant the water flowed too quickly to form the large deposits needed for pools.
As the hillside leveled out we saw several empty travertine pools to the side of the walkways, where the water flow had clearly shifted over time. We came to a section of quiet, tree filled pools and then a series of waterfalls.
Near the bottom we came across a wide field of travertine in a range of colours – from white, to yellow, to brown. The travertine covered a vast area, where faster-moving water deposited calcium carbonate without forming full pools. Toward the sides the slower water created a series of gorgeous pools, sparkling in the late afternoon sun. I’d gone a little pink in Jiuzhaigou the day before but accustomed as I am to the grey smog of Beijing I was revelling in the sunshine!
As we continued down, we saw more dry travertine pools – the travertine walls in place, but no water in them. Then the walkway suddenly leveled out, and after a few minutes’ walk through pine forest we emerged at the front gate, very close to the hotel. We took a nap, got up long enough to snack, then went back to bed to sleep until our early car out of the valley and up to the airport. It was a long and physically tiring day (especially having walked all through Jiuzhaigou National Park the day before) but absolutely worth it! I would love to go back at a different time of year; I think going in Spring, when more of the flowers in bloom, would be amazing…