Huanglong, China 2010


九寨溝機場 [jiu zhai gou ji chang], or Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport, is the third highest airport in China at 11,312ft above sea level. We flew in from Chengdu in the morning; a lot of members of our tour group were worried about altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is a common concern for people traveling to Jiuzhai Gou, 九寨溝, so the airport actually supplies small canisters of oxygen and sells Tibetan herbal medicine to cure the sickness.


To-do list: Huang Long, 黃龍 [huang long]. The road to Huang Long was one of the most beautiful I’ve traveled in China–quiet, lush countryside with herds of grazing yak and sheep.


We made a quick pit stop for lunch to eat the local food of Songpan County, which is composed of Tibetan, Qiang, Han, and Hui people. The fresh, woody mushrooms and pan-fried mantou (steamed buns) were some of my favorite dishes from that meal. Was so ready to hike with energy reserves replenished!


Although I certainly didn’t have the stamina that a local we ran into did. The elevation of Huanglong runs between 5500-18300ft, so watching a 50-60 year old man sprint up the trail with minimal oxygen and about 100lbs on his back was awesomely impressive. As we hiked up through Huanglong Valley, which is a little over 2 miles, I felt increasingly short of breath. When concerns about altitude sickness were first voiced, I scoffed at it because, hey, I was young and worked out! But over a mile in and some 11,700ft up…I was tired. Oof. It was then that I understood the necessity of the oxygen cabins that we passed along the way. A few of the senior (70-80 year old) members of our tour actually had to stop in for oxygen.


But man was it worth it! My photography skills aren’t particularly telling of the beauty there, but it’s no wonder that Huanglong was a buzzing hive of tourists. It was nigh impossible to stand your ground and I was thrown around like a rag doll by pushy tourists vying for the same spots to take pictures as I was.


The iridiscent travertine terraces are formed by calcite desposits–limestone deposited by mineral springs (mostly hot springs). Huanglong Valley’s main body of water starts from the ancient Buddhist/Benbo temple at the top of the valley. The Multi-Colored Pond, 五彩池 [wu cai chi], has over 693 pools! Unfortunately, when we went to Huanglong, we saw that climate change had already left its mark: terraces and streams once overflowing with water were dead, dessicated.


Regardless, Huanglong Valley remains one of my favorite places visited to date and I would return in a heartbeat if I had the money and time. Snow-capped peaks and dramatic valleys of verdant flora–and wonderfully clean and refreshing air to boot. A different China from the infamous smog of Beijing and Shanghai.


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