“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
After a short overnight stay in Songpan and before heading to Jiuzhaigou for a couple days, my companion and I took a bus to Huanglong (黄龙) to see the colorful travertine pools. What we didn’t know was that early spring is a terrible time to visit because the snow hasn’t yet melted to fill most of the pools.
Despite the lack of water flowing down the mountain, there were great moments of beauty along the walk. Some of the pools higher up the mountain were full enough to give the impression of what this park looked like later in the year.
Huanglong, which literally translates to yellow dragon, is a Tibetan religious site known for its colorful terraced pools. The pools cut through the mountains, creating a sort of yellow dragon image — the legend claims that a dragon created the pools. It was established as a national park in 1991 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
It has taken thousands of years for these pools to form and create such natural beauty for tourists. It isn’t easy to maintain the park with millions of visitors every year.
The Hike through Huanglong
We started the day with a quick stop for breakfast. As we were in a Tibetan region, we tried a big bowl of yak butter tea, which is supposed to be filling and warm with plenty of protein. It was not a breakfast I enjoyed, and I really wanted some coffee to get me going after all the hours on a bus. However, it was enough to get me through the day.
While it had been hot and humid when we departed Chengdu the previous morning, it was cold in northern Sichuan. On the bus ride we even saw snow. And there was still snow around the calcified pools as we entered the park. The tourist shops by the entrance to the park even rented winter coats for anyone who arrived unprepared.
Being a national holiday, the park was full of people. We arrived early enough to avoid the majority of the crowd, but there were still a lot of people getting in the way. This also meant that there were ill-behaved tourists who ignored the signs and walked off the path onto the dried calcified pools, which damages nature. I wished for a police officer to come along and make these people disappear.
The trail wasn’t too long — in all it took about four hours. However, the elevation is high at 10,500 to 11,800 feet and can be difficult for those who are out of shape, which is why they sell small oxygen tanks. Seriously, there were a lot of people with these little oxygen tanks throughout the park — I cringed at the thought of all the waste from a lack of recycling. It wasn’t long after my life in Colorado, so I was still in half-decent shape and accustomed to higher altitudes.
There were some great spots to stop, particularly the Middle Temple and Ancient Temple, which, according to the sign outside, is a Taoist temple. As my companion and I were in better shape than most of the visitors, we arrived at the temples before most of the crowd.
While the travertine pools at the start of the plank trail were entirely dry, the larger ones surrounding the temples were not. Once we arrived at the Middle Temple, we gazed in awe at the pristine water surrounded by the holiday crowd.
And the views got better when we got to the Ancient Temple.
Upon leaving Huanglong National Park, more tourists were just entering after lunch (most of them were on tours). We searched in the parking lot for a bus that would take us to Jiuzhaigou, which was more difficult than expected. On our bus we met other travelers who gave us the number for a hotel inside Jiuzhaigou National Park–a great experience as it was (and still is) illegal to stay the night in the park.