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Huanglong

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Twinned with Yellowstone National Park in the USA and famous for its colourful limestone ponds, Huanglong, which means Yellow Dragon Mountain, lies in the south part of Min Shan in Songpan County. Situated in the northwest of Sichuan Province and 128km south of Jiuzhaigou, the Huanglong Valley is edged by snow-capped peaks and glaciers. An incredible bio-diversity of flora and fauna thrives here alongside spectacular limestone formations, waterfalls and hot springs. The area also has a population of endangered animals, including the giant panda and the Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey.


Making it onto the UNESCO World Heritage Site listings in 1992, Huanglong is sectored into two gorges, Huanglong and Muni. The Huanglong part of the park is watered by tributaries of the Fujiang River, which run down Snow Mountain Ridge, feeding hundreds of small lakes and ponds. The rocks on the valley's sides have been twisted into bizarre shapes by snow and rain but so too have the rocks lying beneath the clear lake water. Most visitors first concentrate on the Huanglong section of the park. Dotted with ponds and patterned like a dragon, Huanglong Valley cuts its way through Min Shan.


More than half of the Huanglong zone is forested, with mountain pines mixing with broadleaf trees, flowers, shrubbery and meadow grasslands. Sitting atop the parkland, Snow Mountain Peak is permanently snow-covered and looks a daunting climb. Equally daunting are the spectacular cliffs overhanging the Fujiang River's drive through the Danyun Gorge. Algae and growth in the little lakes below turn the water a rainbow of colours: orange, yellow, green and blue. Other karst features include long limestone shoals and fan-shaped slopes of limestone deposited and covered by a thin layer of flowing water.


The Muni Gully subdivision consists of two small parallel gullies, Zhaga and Erdaohai. The hot springs in Pearl Boiling Lake simmers at 21°C in what amounts to being a massively sized swimming pool. The waters of both springs have high mineral contents and are said to have important medicinal properties. Muni Gully also contains a number of very attractive lakes and the Zhaga Waterfall.


Because of its relatively pristine state, the forests at Huanglong are home to hundreds of bird species. On a walk into the higher reaches of the hills, away from the hordes of tourists below, one hears a cacophony of different birdcalls. Pandas meanwhile are found at four to five specific locations within the site, though visitors should tread carefully and slowly if they're hoping to catch a glimpse. Much harder to spot is the Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey, an endangered species that hides out in Huanglong's more undisturbed woodlands.


As in Jiuzhaigou, but in perhaps a more low key presence, there are also plenty of indicators of Tibetan religion, culture and folklore in Huanglong. A pair of small stone pagodas stands near the entrance to the park that dates back to the Ming dynasty. Nearby the Huanglong Temple, the ruins of a much older temple still draw plenty of worshippers. Also in the vicinity, the Body Washing Waterfall is said to have healing properties for those who bathe in its waters.


Huanglong Town is a medium sized Tibetan village close to the centre of the main Huanglong subdivision. Local Tibetan herdsmen grazing their livestock and cultivating the land nearby make for great pictures if you're slinging a camera. The larger town of Songpan cuts Huanglong off from the Muni gully subdivision and is worth exploring in its own right if only for its stout town walls, Tibetan architecture and colourful vitality. It's also a good spot for souvenir hunting.