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Getting Away: Huanglong

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High in the mountains of northern Sichuan, the skies are blue, the air is clear, and the landscape is the stuff of legend. Tucked away in a mountain crease, Huanglong National Park (黄龙国家地质公园) is one of southwest China's most spectacular and yet still relatively lesser-known natural areas.

Huanglong, literally 'yellow dragon', is made up of a beautiful mix of geological phenomena, the most celebrated being a chain of travertine landforms and pools stretching over a 3.6-kilometer portion of the Minshan Range. It is said that the chain of pools and accompanying scenery resemble a golden dragon, hence the park's name.

Our interest piqued by everything we'd heard about this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we hopped on a bus from Songpan and paid Huanglong a visit. We arrived at 8am when the park had just opened and everything was covered with a thin layer of frost. The sun was rising and the mountains were veiled in a pinkish haze.

A well-maintained park, Huanglong has oxygen bars and restrooms every few hundred meters, and the walking path is a boardwalk without railings that hugs the curve of the pools. There are side paths off of the main paths that go into the woods that surround the pools. For those who worry about altitude sickness, there is a cable car which will take you up the mountain for 80 yuan - coming back down runs another 40 yuan.

We decided to avoid the cable cars in favor of walking up Huanglong's main boardwalk where we had an excellent view of the pools. The boardwalk is unobtrusive, but close enough to the pools that you can dip your fingers in the otherworldly waters.

We started counting all the colors we could see in the water, and then gave up when we could no longer find names for them—yellow green, cerulean, aquamarine. The water in Huanglong's pools is so clear you can stare into their depths and read the histories written on the bottom—smooth sand in one, felled trees like bleached bones at the bottom of another.

Huanglong's pools must be seen to be believed—prior to our visit, we thought some of the photographs we'd seen had been Photoshopped, the aquamarine reminded us of swimming pools, too bright to be natural, and the dozens of colors surely had to be the work of some sort of dyeing agent. We went, we saw, and we came away utterly dazzled.

But Huanglong is more than just pretty pools. There are bulbous mineral formations with clear water running over them, which as horizontal waterfalls are visually appealing in their own way. Near the top is a temple where visitors can contemplate the tranquil environment. All around Huanglong are the mountains, high and snowcapped, and the pools themselves are surrounded by woods, full of moss and lichen.

On the way down we wisely elected to take the side paths we had skipped in the morning. Now that it was later in the day, the main paths were full of tourists and difficult to navigate. The side paths took us through the woods, letting us enjoy the scenery we'd missed earlier in the morning while we were taking in the pools, but also provided a different perspective on the pools. Furthermore, they were quiet and allowed us to enjoy Huanglong at our own pace. By 3pm we'd arrived back at the entrance – a nice bite-sized day of unforgettable mountain scenery.

Getting There
The closest airport to Huanglong is Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport in Songpan. The 240-kilometer flight from Chengdu to Songpan takes 40 minutes.

Entering Huanglong is easier than leaving it. Huanglong is a three- or four-hour bus ride from Jiuzhaigou and tickets can be obtained for 40 yuan. We took the early morning bus from Songpan for 25 yuan. The trip took two hours. Once you are in Huanglong all buses go back to Jiuzhaigou. Taxis are available, but most drivers live close to Huanglong so prices are high.

Most visitors choose to make Huanglong a day trip en route to/from Jiuzhaigou since Huanglong can easily be hiked in a day and has very little in terms of lodging. Food options are limited and overpriced.

Tickets cost 200 yuan during peak season (April 1st-November 15th) and 60 yuan during offseason. Students and seniors can purchase tickets for 150 yuan using their IDs.

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