May 21, 2009
From Jiuzhaigou, we took a bus southwest to the nearby town of Songpan.
On the bus we met a Chinese-American gal, Jenny. She moved to the states when she was young (six?) but she still has relatives in China, mainly around Shanghai. Jenny managed to keep her Chinese ID card, and she speaks fairly fluently (though she doesn’t read/write). This means that when she travels around China she passes for a local, which is awesome in that it gives her access to all those places that tourists like Pnina and I can’t reach (e.g. Xiahe). Also, she doesn’t really need any kind of tour book; she just talks to local people to figure out where to go and how to get there. That’s such a luxury in China!
Pnina and Jenny at a stop on the way to Songpan:
It was interesting to hear Jenny’s perspective about China. She started her trip in Shanghai, visiting her relatives, and they tried to dissuade her from traveling to western Sichuan and Tibet because “they hate Hans there, and also they eat horse” 🙂 She was the one who told us that it’s possible to sleep in the Tibetan village in Jiuzhaigou – she did it. She also said that she spoke to some of the people who lost their homes in the big 2008 earthquake; they were all supposed to get compensation from the government, but so far they haven’t seen a penny; apparently there’s a lot of corruption in China too.
When we arrived at the bus station in Songpan, we met a really nice local, Emma. Emma runs a backpacker-friendly restaurant called Emma’s kitchen. For Pnina and I, having traveled in pretty non-touristy places for the last few weeks, Emma’s kitchen was a real treat – they had a shelf stocked with English books, all kinds of maps and travel advice, plus their menu included hamburger (hamburger!!).
Emma, Pnina, and Toni in Songpan:
Most people head to Songpan to go “horse-trekking”, which basically means you head out for 2-3 days to ride a horse around the hills and sleep in small villages. Pnina and I still had memories of sore butts from the various horses and camels we rode earlier in the trip, so we weren’t keen. Also, we heard from Jenny that the horse-trekking business in Songpan is a kind of cartel. There’s only one business allowed to run the tours (we’re guessing he gives the police bakshish to make sure nobody else gets a license). Also, the actual horse-men get a pretty crappy deal. Tourists pay about 170 yuan per day for the trip, and the horse-men only get 70 yuan from that, even though they bring their own horses and do all the actual work.
Long story short, we decided to skip the horse-trek. Instead we headed to Huanglong…
Huanglong is another park with clear water running through a valley – similar to Jiuzhaigou. The difference is that the water going through Huanglong is full of limestone. This limestone gets deposited along the way, creating some very interesting moon-like formations and a cascade of crater-shaped pools. The park itself is huge, but the part accessible to tourists is pretty small – about 4km heading uphill through the valley. And like Jiuzhaigou this park is expensive: it costs 200 yuan to enter for the one-day pass (and in this case one day is enough). At least here you don’t have to pay extra for a bus as the park is small enough to walk through.
In the last post we said that Jiuzhaigou is expensive but definitely worth the money. Is the same true for Huanglong? In our case we’d have to say “no”. First off, we came at the wrong season. If you come in October, not only do you see all the trees changing colors but you also see water in all the pools. If you arrive in May, like us, then most of the pools are empty craters (except for the pools at the top of the valley – those are still awesome). Second, on the day we visited, the weather was kind of crappy. It started grey, then it started drizzling, and then it started raining for real. And it was cold too – before we left the park Pnina’s lips were blue and she was visibly shivering. But that’s just bad luck. And finally, we found Huanglong to be really chock-full of Chinese tourists, even on a crappy off-season day like this. In Jiuzhaigou most of the Chinese crowds went by bus/road so you could avoid them by going through the forest trails, but that’s not true in Huanglong – there’s no road here, everyone goes on foot.
So, long story short, our suggestion is to visit Huanglong only if you come in the fall. Otherwise skip it.
By the way, from our book it looked like to reach Huanglong you need to first go to Songpan, but it turns out it would have been cheaper and quicker to visit Huanglong on the way from Jiuzhaigou to Songpan. Oh well.
Anyhow, on with the photos…
On the drive from Songpan to Huanglong we hit a traffic jam in the mountains. After 15 minutes of sitting around, Pnina and I decided to walk to the front of the line of cars to see what’s going on. When we reached the front there was a huge boom followed by this rising cloud of dust. Construction crews were clearing up the road from a landslide, and they needed to use dynamite to clear up some bigger rocks:
A nice map of Huanglong from a sign at the entrance. In October we would have seen beautiful pools all the way up the valley, but in our case nearly all the pools were empty:
Like in Jiuzhaigou there was a great boardwalk heading all the way up. Here you can see a slight trickle creating the tan-colored formations to the right:
Pnina next to a wall of limestone:
Most of the pools along the way were empty. It was still an interesting sight but it was disappointing:
A couple of blue pools in the middle of moonscape – there’s hope! 🙂
And finally, as the weather starts to turn, we reached the high shrine and the big pools at the top of the valley. These pools were full and they were really beautiful: