The Yellow Dragon
Ascending the Huanglong Nature Reserve, we are greeted with multi-colored pools, travertine waterfalls, and ancient temples. But what lies at the top, the lair of the Yellow Dragon?
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By Kevin McFarland
Visited February 2017
The mighty Yellow Dragon, with its iridescent scales and impenetrable breath of fire, towers above the Min Mountains forever guarding its secrets. For a millennium the Yellow Dragon has been revered and esteemed by the natives as the ruler of the mountains. In reality, this "dragon", or Huanglong as it a known locally, is a series splendid, tiered travertine pools of all shades of yellow, green, and orange. The moniker Yellow Dragon derives from the resemblance of these tiered pools as the back of a dragon and also the steam hovering above reminiscent of a dragons fiery breath. Nearly 1000 years ago, the local Tibetans discovered this unique paradise and erected a mighty temple to honor the Yellow Dragon. To this day, hundreds of monks call this temple their home despite the freezing winters and high-elevation.
This place, Huanglong Nature Reserve, is often compared to Yellowstone National Park, and for good reason. Both places contain an abundance of marvelous multi-colored pools, but Huanglong also showcases primeval forests, mighty snow-capped peaks, and the colorful Tibetan ethnic customs. Both are also UNESCO Heritage Sites and certainly unique to their respective continents. The geological processes of Huanglong consists of large-scale karst formations and calcified landscapes in the form of travertine falls, hot springs, and thousands of colorful pools. Bacteria and algae inhabit these pools, giving a wide-range of colors to the calcified deposits. The many sights here have been given adequate names, such as beauty-competing pond, mirror pond, golden-sand beach, body-washing cave, and the five-color pool.
Getting to Huanglong Nature Reserve is an adventure in and of itself. The only road leading to here takes you through high elevation plateaus and peaks. We spotted several eagles, and the sightings of the endangered snow leopards are not unknown. The desolation and barrenness here is overwhelming - not even trees are able to grow in high altitude. But once we reach our destination, and hence driving slightly lower in elevation, the terrain is engulfed in impenetrable forests of countless species, mostly untouched and uncharted. The entrance to the reserve is served by a large hotel and a grand visitor center. However, we arrived in the winter and not a soul was in sight, literally. The visitor center and ticket booths were closed, but a small cabin beyond the entrance was staffed by a local to collect tickets from us - a bargain of 60 yuan compared to the 200 yuan ticket in the busy season. We had this World-renowned Heritage Site basically to ourselves.
To reach the splendid Yellow Dragon pools, several hundred meters of elevation had to be gained first - 433 meters to be exact, all the way up to 3,580 meters above sea level. There is a cable car that operates in the other end of the valley, but of course not in the winter. Anyways, the climb up the beautiful valley is perhaps the highlight. The entire ascent is greeted by simmering pools, travertine waterfalls (albeit a bit frozen), sweeping panoramas of the Min Mountains, and ancient Tibetan temples. The sights and sounds here are completely different to that of Jiuzhaigou which is only a couple hours by drive North. Instead of immaculate lakes and waterfalls we see here pools and springs of impossible colors and shapes.
The views at the top of the Yellow Dragon actually exceeded our expectations. This is due to the fact we were the only ones there. Sure, we saw some other visitors going up the mountain, but we had the scales of the dragon to ourselves. I've seen pictures where hundreds of tourists are fighting to get a view of these pools. For us, we sat down on the boardwalk, cooked some instant rice, and enjoyed the perfect and peaceful views. Traveling in the winter off-season really has its benefits. But the only thing that interrupted our lunch was the weather, as it suddenly dropped several degrees and began to snow, a common occurrence in every season besides summer in the highlands of Tibet.
Huanglong really evokes the truest sense of adventure, especially when considering what else lies hidden in the mysterious Min Mountains. The Tibetans have been worshiping and guarding the secrets of the Yellow Dragon for a millennium, only to be recently discovered (that is within 50 years) to the outside world. Perhaps one of my greatest affections toward the Tibetan regions is the uncharted sense of adventure it offers. Sure Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong are now rapidly becoming the top tourist destinations in China, but there still remains a vast number of places of incredible beauty that still sees very little visitors. I'm blessed to have traveled to several of these sanctuaries of nature and geology. Chasing these mountains and valleys has become addicting, and I can't wait to get back out there and explore more of this part of the planet.