Huanglong, China 2010

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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