Huanglong Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area – or Huanglong Valley, as we will call it here, since the most visually striking part of the scenic area is by far Huanglong Valley – is located in the northwestern part of Sichuan Province, more precisely, in Songpan County. The scenic and historic interest area encompases, besides Huanglong Valley itself, also Mouni Valley. Though Huanglong Valley is better known for it breathtakingly beautiful travertine landscape (note that travertine is a light-colored, slightly porous calcite (CaCO3), aka calcareous alabaster, or calc-sinter*) with its many colored pools that lie in a terraced formation along the slope of Huanglong Valley, it also includes mountains with snow-clad peaks, nestled among which are to be found China's easternmost present-day glaciers. Travertine landscapes are a not uncommon (but not automatic) feature of a karst landscape; the difference seems to lie in the presence of geothermal springs that are rich in carbonic acid (see the footnote for an explanation of the process that produces travertine).
The valley derives its name from the fact that the overall shape of the 3½ kilometer long travertine bank (a series of calcium carbonate pools, each demarcated by an irregularly shaped alabaster dike, plus a very special sand flow), that is seemingly plastered to the floor of the valley resembles the outline of a gigantic dragon, at least in the rich imagination of the Chinese people. Since the calcareous alabaster, both that which forms the dikes as well as that which forms the bottoms of the calcium carbonate pools, is often of a golden yellowish hue (as is the sand from the hot-springs propelled sand flow) – but with many other hues, including reds, greens and blues – and since the spring water is itself crystal clear, reflecting the hues of the sand and those of the calcareous alabaster, the effect of the sunlight playing on the dancing surface of these shimmering, colored pools, together with the golden sheen of the sand flow, enhances the image of a dragon snaking down the valley.
The list of sites belonging to Huanglong Valley is too great to enumerate here; instead, we will list the main features with a detailed description of each, beginning at the highest (and southernmost) end of the valley, corresponding to the "dragon's tail", Fuyuan Bridge, and ending at the northernmost and lowest end of the valley – corresponding to the "dragon's head" (remember that this dragon is snaking down the slope of the valley) – Wucai Chi, or Five-Colored Pond.
Yingbin Chi ("Welcoming Guests Pond")
Welcoming Guests Pond, nearest to Fuyuan Bridge, is in fact a series of some 350 irregularly shaped ponds, some larger and most quite small, that cover an area of about 9500 square meters. Some of the ponds are contiguous while others are free-standing and are ringed with trees and shrubs and, in season, with a myriad of colorful flowers. Most of the ponds of Welcoming Guests Pond – as is the case for almost all of the hot-springs-fed ponds of Huanglong Valley – exhibit an unbroken, mirror-like surface. In spite of the seemingly fierce dragon metaphor that describes the whole of Huanglong Valley's travertine bank, in their details, most of the components of the travertine bank exude utter tranquility, apart from the busy activity of the area's many birds, both on a daily as well as on a seasonal basis.
Due to the calm surface of these ponds, they mirror the azure skies as well as the towering elements of the surrounding countryside, including the forest-clad mountains with their occasional snow-clad peak, all of which only also adds to the sublime beauty and tranquility of Welcoming Guests Pond. To this majestic image must be added the stunningly beautiful effect of the colored ponds themselves (though the water is crystal clear, the walls and floors of the ponds are colored), which colors range from greens and blues to browns and yellows.
Feipu Liuhui ("Glowing Waterfall")
Glowing Waterfall lies northward of – and downhill from – Welcoming Guests Pond. The slope of the valley here is especially steep, while the waterfall itself is made more impressive by its 68 meter breadth than its scant 14 meter drop that consists of three terraced "walls" over which the water spills. Still, the waterfall is impressive and produces a cacaphony of sounds as the rushing waters vigorously spill over the terraces. The backdrop to the waterfall is a dense forest through which the water gushes enroute to the first terrace of the waterfall.
Xishen ("Washing the Body") Grotto
Below Glowing Waterfall lies Washing the Body Grotto. The grotto measures 1 meter in height and 1½ meters in width. Beyond the first meter or so, the interior is covered in yellow and white stalactites and stalagmites. Scientists believe that the grotto was hollowed out of the surrounding limestone bedrock by an earlier glacier – or perhaps by a series of glaciers – i.e., by the massive runoff from the gradually melting glaciers, as Huanglong Valley is indeed "glacier country".
The entrance to the grotto is partially concealed by a sheet of water vapor, a detail that has added to the mystique of the grotto, which has been a holy site for ages, stretching back to before the advent of Taoism, when this part of China was inhabited by Tibetan ancestors who practiced the Benbo religion. Indeed, the name of the grotto is a reference to the daily bathing practice of the revered Benbo monk, Dala Menba, who, thanks to his daily bath in the grotto, eventually became immortal. Later, both Taoists and Buddhists cultivated the grotto as a holy place. The grotto is also reputed to possess fertility powers and as such has been a place of pilgrimmage for women seeking to become pregnant.
Jinsha Pudi ("Paved With Golden Sand Beach")
Jinsha Pudi is formed by a calcium-rich, geothermal sand-carrying flow, aptly named Paved With Golden Sand Beach. From where the flow emerges on the highly sloped valley floor, it extends about 1500 meters downhill (from south to north), depositing an untold amount of golden sand particles as it fanned out and down the valley over the aeons. Since the calcium-rich, sand-carrying flow has also deposited numerous calcareous ridges in successive, broadening waves, the net effect is of a series of large fish-like (make that "dragon-like"!) scales. The unique sand "beach" at Paved With Golden Sand Beach, ranging from 70 to 120 meters in width, is the largest such hot-springs sand flow in the world.
Pen Jing ("Potted Landscape") Pond
Just as with Welcoming Guests Pond, Potted Landscape Pond is in fact not a single pond, but a series of some 100 ponds. Since the water here also stems from a geothermal spring that carries various calcium carbonates, the bottoms and walls of the ponds of Potted Landscape Pond are similarly colored, ranging from yellows and whites to browns and grays. Also here, most of the ponds are free-standing, interspersed with copious vegetation, mainly in the form of trees and shrubs, hence the suggestion of a potted landscape, though grass abounds too, as well as flowers in season. The special arrangement of Potted Landscape Pond – entirely from nature's hand of course – suggests an almost deliberate garden, reminiscent of the Scholar Gardens of Suzhou, Anhui Province.
And in the same manner as with Welcoming Guests Pond, the surface of the many calm ponds of Potted Landscape Pond mirror the skies and the surrounding greenery. Potted Landscape Pond is accordingly a favorite venue for aspiring artists.
Suoluo ("Azalea") Pond
Azalea Pond is also a sizable series of ponds, numbering some 400 very small – not to say tiny – ponds that are surrounded by azaleas, which are common to Huanglong Valley. The valley is in fact a kaleidoscope of azaleas, such as the Liexiang Azalea, the Touhua Azalea, the Elegant Azalea, the Yellow-Haired Azalea, the Qinghai Azalea, the Large-Leafed, Golden-Topped Azalea, the Snow-Mountain Azalea, the Stemless Azalea, the Mountain-Shine Azalea, the Red-Back Azalea and the Dense-Haired Azalea. Tibetans call the azalea the Gesang Flower, while the local Qiang and Yi ethnic tribes call it the Yangjiao ("Goat-Horn") Flower and the Pangponiang (Fat Lady") Flower, respectively.
Longbei Liujin ("Dragon's Back Golden Flowing") Waterfall
The Dragon's Back Golden Flowing Waterfall stretches some 85 meters from start to finish, with an elevational drop of in all about 40 meters. The color of the stone surface is overall golden, hence the color reference in the name. The irregular shape of the travertine slope over which the water spills suggests the spine of a dragon, which imagery is reinforced by the "dragon scales" (terraced, shallow ponds). The dominating colors of the waterfall as a whole are golden, of course, but also white and silver, dotted with dark green patches. Willow trees are common here, as are flowers in season. As elsewhere at Huanglong Valley, a large part of the beauty of the site is created by the reflections of the skies and the surrounding terrain and its vegetation that are mirrored by the "dragon scale" ponds.
Suyun ("Sleeping on Clouds") Bridge
Sleeping on Clouds Bridge is an ancient relic from the region's Taoist past. According to a Taoist legend, a devout Taoist monk was passing through the area and stopped to rest at the bridge in question, whereupon the good monk fell asleep and dreamt. In his dream, he heard celestial music that seemed to beckon him from the far end of the bridge. Responding to the music, the good monk arose and approached the far end of the bridge where he was met by a flock of singing and dancing celestial beings. Proceeding further into their midst, the monk disappeared, having been swept up into paradise as an immortal, hence the name of the bridge, which is also called Immortal-Greeting Bridge. It is an interesting ancient relic, quite apart from the veracity of its legend.
Feicui Kuangquan ("Jade-Green (or Emerald) Natural Mineral Springs")
Jade-Green Natural Mineral Springs is one of the 10 most renowned mineral springs in China. Its waters are claimed to be curative in the sense that they alleviate a long range of maladies from a simple upset stomach to chronic arthritis. However, a good soaking in any geothermal mineral springs, curative claims aside, can re-energize like nothing else.
Huanglong Monastery consists of three separate temples – a front, a middle and a back temple, of which only the back temple is entirely intact today, though part of the middle temple, namely, the Buddha Hall, remains in excellent condition. Buddha Hall houses 18 arahants, all of which are well-preserved. Originally, the middle temple had 5 halls: Lingguan Hall, Mile Hall, Tianwang Hall, Dafo Hall and Buddha Hall. In Buddha Hall, the visitor can still light incense and can purchase souvenirs as well as be served tea. Today, the front temple is only a ruins. The rear temple, lying about 2 ½ kilometers behind the middle temple, is the best preserved of the three temples.
In its heyday, Huanglong Monastery – erected on the urging of a Ming general during the reign (CE 1368–1398) of the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty as Snow Mountain Temple, according to the historical annals of Songpan County – was a highly popular temple, attracting a huge following consisting of local Tibetan, Qiang and Hui ethnic peoples of both Taoist and Buddhist faiths. The back temple still serves a large flock of parishioners of the three aforementioned ethnic groups. Behind the back temple of Huanglong Monastery lies a newer, lesser-ranking temple, namely, Longwang Temple. The annual Temple Fair at Huanglong Valley is held on a special grounds reserved for this specific purpose, situated in front of Huanglong Monastery's middle temple.
Besides being a temple devoted to the teaching of Buddhism and the Tao, Huanglong Monastery is considered as an ancestral temple devoted to Yu the Great, aka Dayu, for his wisdom in matters of flood control (the Min River runs through the area and caused a great deal of flooding in ancient times, until the likes of Yu the Great harnessed the river by means of parallel canals designed to tap the excess flow of the river during periods of heavy rain).
Not surprisingly, there are legends associated with the origin of Huanglong Monastery...
One such legend has it that a benign yellow dragon came from the East China Sea to help Dayu prevent flooding in the valley, therefore Dayu had the monastery built in honor of the benign dragon (Huang Long means "Yellow Dragon", of course). Another legend, which builds upon the first, says that the yellow dragon, as a result of having helped Dayu prevent the flooding of the valley, immediately became immortal, and desiring to help the people of the valley in spiritual as well as in worldly matters, the immortal himself built the monastery for them.
Benji Hu and Matixing Hu ("Dustpan Lake and Horse-Shoe Lake")
These two ponds are included for their uniqueness compared to the majority of the countless other ponds of Huanglong Valley, which are almost all of them round, and which the local residents refer to as ponds (chi), whereas they distinctly refer to these two bodies of water as lakes (hu). Another anomaly with these two bodies of water is that there is only one each of them, not hundreds of them belonging to the same designation, as is the case for the large majority of the bodies of water of Huanglong Valley.
These two bodies of water, which we should probably call lakes, in keeping with the local taxonomy, are also deeply buried in thick woods. Of course, the logical explanation that links all of the seeming anomalies regarding Dustpan Lake and Horse-Shoe Lake is that the geothermal springs that produced them all but dried up as soon as they were created, meaning that the flow was not sufficient to produce further ponds (an alternative explanation is that there may originally have existed several smaller ponds belonging to each of these two lakes, but that a later effluence from the springs had the effect of dissolving the perhaps imperfectly formed calcareous walls of the original two sets of ponds, causing them to merge into one single body of water each, which might also explain their respective odd shapes).
Wucai Chi ("Five-Colored Pond")
The Five-Colored Pond marks the head of the dragon that the travertine bank of Huanglong Valley is said to represent. As is the case in all of the above instances, this is not a single pond, but a collection of ponds, some larger and most quite small; Five-Colored Pond is in fact made up of some 700 ponds, most of which are very tiny indeed. Its name derives from the fact that the deposited materials in the ponds come in five color variations, a reflection of the fact that other minerals were being mixed, quite locally, with the travertine flow producing the different colors, but the color effects might also be partly due to light refraction, since the water in shallow parts of the ponds tends always to be of a jade-greenish hue.
Five-Colored Pond is otherwise not particularly remarkable compared to the collections of other ponds in Huanglong Valley – though they are all quite remarkable indeed! – except for two features (and in truth, the colors of the ponds of Five-Colored Pond tend to be very strong, with several primary colors represented): as indicated, Five-Colored Pond marks the 'head of the dragon', and, as well, it houses a very special pagoda, which leads to the next highlight...
Shita Yuchi ("Stone Pagoda in the Pond")
The Stone Pagoda in the Pond refers in fact to two small stone pagodas situated in one of the larger ponds of Five-Colored Pond. They are believed to be burial tombs that house the earthly remains of an unnamed Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty general (possibly even the illustrious Cheng Yaojin (593-665)) and his wife, though the pagodas were built much later, i.e., during the Ming Dynasty. Over time, the stone pagodas have been almost entirely covered in travertine, except of course for the parts that extend above the water level, such as the spires and their eaves. The effect is both beautiful and mystical, the latter owing to the implication that it is mother nature herself, via the travertine deposits, who has sealed these tombs (which explains why no one can conveniently open them to determine the true identity of their presumed occupants).
As indicated in the introduction, Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area, while dominated by Huanglong Valley, is more than both its valleys, it also includes the rare, austere beauty of a mountainous backdrop, where snow-capped Xuebaoding Peak, the highest peak of the Ming Mountain Range, dominates. But Huanglong Valley is inarguably the gem that is nestled at the heart of this famous scenic and historic interest area, with its virgin forests, its travertine bank, its waterfalls, ponds and grottoes, not to forget its unique calc-sinter flow, Paved With Golden Sand Beach, which is the largest such sand flow in the world. Indeed, it is for all of these reasons – and perhaps more – that the UNESCO World Heritage Commission decided to inscribe the Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area on its 1992 Natural Heritage List.
* Calcareous alabaster, or calc-sinter, is formed when spring water rich in carbonic acid dissolves the calcareous (calcium-rich) parts of limestone rock, carrying the dissolved calcareous matter farther "downstream" (eg., down the slope of a mountain) where it is eventually deposited as crystallized calcareous alabaster, or calcium carbonate as it is also sometimes called. Because the source of the dissolved calcareous matter is a natural spring, and if the spring-fed water runs down the slope of a mountain, then the deposits will typically form a step-like, or terraced, series of fanned out pools, each lower elevation pool generally being broader (wider) than the one above it, though each terrace level might well consist of a jigsaw puzzle of smaller pools. Note also that travertine is similar to but not the same as tufa, a calcareous deposit formed by cooler spring water as opposed to the geothermally heated spring water that produces travertine.