Colourful limestone pools a magical sight in wintry landscape

Huanglong (which means Yellow Dragon, in Mandarin) Scenic Area in Songpan County was added to our China itinerary after much deliberation. I was not very keen on the Unesco heritage site. From the photos I had seen, all the travertine pools look alike. So the thought of travelling for three hours to get there from Jiuzhaigou, and then having to walk three to four hours from the cable-car station, really put me off, but my other half was adamant about it.

It was drizzling when we left Jiuzhaigou at 7am in a private car (480 renminbi/RM300 per car). Along the way, we passed by many Tibetan villages with the ubiquitous colourful prayer flags flapping in the wind against a backdrop of mountains and yaks grazing in the vast grassland.

As we gained altitude, the drizzle turned into snowflakes. The autumn landscape was soon replaced by trees covered in snow. About two hours into the journey, near the 4,000m-high mountain pass, traffic came to a standstill. The road ahead was covered in thick snow and inaccessible to traffic. Many tour buses, vans and cars turned back but our driver, a Tibetan, persevered. At that moment, I wondered whether we had made a mistake going to Huanglong. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Half an hour later, the road was cleared of snow, and traffic was moving again. When we reached Huanglong cable-car station, we were pleasantly surprised that there was no queue at all. The eight-minute ride up the mountain was rather scenic, with pine trees covered in thick snow along the way. The moment we stepped out of the cable car station, we were in a winter wonderland.

The boardwalk linking the top cable-car station to Wucai pool.

The best thing was there was no crowd, so no jostling. Throughout Huanglong, visitors are confined to the boardwalk which links all the sites in the park, to preserve the Unesco heritage site.

The weather was perfect. With an overcast sky, there was no sun, yet it was bright enough to take some nice pictures. The setback was, without the blue sky, the pools looked somewhat bleached. But the beautiful winter landscape more than made up for it.

We had to remind each other to walk slowly and draw in deep breaths to avoid getting altitude sickness. The highest point of Huanglong, at the topmost cable-car station, is about 3,500m above sea level. There were many free-of-charge oxygen stations along the way. Those who need to use the oxygen station only have to pay 1 renminbi (S$0.21) for the disposable tube.

No more snow by the time we reached Yellow Dragon Ridge.

After about an hour of pleasant walk on the relatively level boardwalk, lined with trees covered in snow on both sides, we finally reached Wucai (Multi Colour) Pool which, in my opinion, is the most beautiful of all the travertine pools in Huanglong. Framed by snow-covered trees, Wucai pool was gorgeous.

From there, we had to walk down some steep wooden steps to Zhengyan (Flamboyant) Pool, another beautiful travertine pool. By the time we reached Yellow Dragon Ridge - the ridge that gave Huanglong Park its name - there was no more snow on the trees, only autumn foliage. Seen from above, the ridge looks like a yellow dragon.

Zhengyan pool is also a pretty travertine pool.

Liuhui Feipu (Glowing) Waterfall did not "glow" because there was not much water.

Yinbing (Guests Welcoming) Pool, the pool nearest the entrance/exit, was a disappointment. We did not have time to go into any of the temples or caves because we had to catch a 6pm flight back to Chengdu that evening. It took us about four hours to walk down from the top cable-car station to the exit. We did not see any restaurants in the park, only a sausage stand three-quarters of the way down.

Our driver was already waiting at the exit to take us to Jiuhuang airport, one-and-a-half hour's drive away. It was only during the journey to the airport that I felt a slight headache, one of the symptoms of altitude sickness.