Fed up with the urban jungle of steel and cement buildings, I longed to be close to nature. So I readily accepted the invitation of four friends from Beijing to accompany them to the Huanglong Nature Reserve in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Southwest China's Sichuan Province in mid-June.
After a 50-minute flight from Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan, my friends and I arrived at the Jiuzhaigou-Huanglong Airport around 8:30 am.
The small airport, 3,300 metres above sea level, opened last September and is believed to be one of the country's busiest. Almost all of its flights are full in peak travel seasons and passengers have to book tickets well in advance. Our group could not get five tickets for the same flight, so two friends had to fly in earlier.
Reunited at the airport, we hurried out and met Liu Bihua from the Huanglong Nature Reserve Administrative Bureau. Liu, in her early 20s, works in the bureau's tourism section, and had a minibus to escort us to the reserve.
As my friends were first-time visitors to Huanglong, Liu gave us a brief introduction to the reserve on our 90 minute ride there.
Colour ponds in Huanglong. Some 300 kilometres from Sichuan's provincial capital of Chengdu, Huanglong, which is on UNESCO's World Natural's Heritage List, is made of about 3,400 coloured ponds of different shapes and sizes. On clear day, the mineral-rich water glows in hues of creamy white, silvery grey, amber, pink and blue.
Huanglong consists of a 3.6-kilometre-long valley that is tucked away in thick primeval forests and descends from 3,578 to 3,145 metres above sea level. The reserve is about 3,000 kilometres from Chengdu.
Huanglong in Chinese means "yellow dragon." There are several stories of how it got this name.
One tells of a Buddhist monk called Huanglong whose saintly acts included rendering a great service to Yu, founder of the mythical Xia Dynasty (21st century-1600 BC). According to Chinese tradition, Yu was the Xia Dynasty's most illustrious ruler, who tamed the flooding that had devastated the lowlands of central and southern China.
With the monk's help, Yu was able to create a channel in the Minjiang River and direct its course to the Yangtze River. Eventually the monk became an immortal, and later generations erected the Huanglong Taoist Temple in his memory in the present-day Huanglong Nature Reserve. Liu said the valley was therefore named Huanglong.
But to most visitors, the name of the valley is closely associated with its scenery, she said.
The valley is covered with a thick yellowish layer of carbonate of lime, which forms around 3,400 ponds of different shapes and sizes that are joined together like a terraced field. Viewed from far above in the sky, the valley resembles a massive yellow dragon. The glistening pools look like dragon scales.
We had all got up early that morning to take the flight, so fell asleep as the minibus bumped along the mountain road. When we woke up, we were at the entrance to the valley.
Climbing to the summit and back would take at least four hours, we were told. My friends Zhi Tongfan and Sheng Xiandai were alarmed.
The 51-year-old Zhi, who suffers from hypertension, and 52-year-old Sheng, who has heart disease, decided that they would only "look" at the beautiful valley, and wait for our return.
Liu said that many ailing older people had climbed to the summit without the support of an oxygen bag.
"You would regret it if you didn't climb to the summit, where Huanglong's most spectacular pond, Five-coloured Pond, is located. Many colleagues of mine climb to the summit in their high-heeled shoes," she said.
"If you feel uncomfortable, you can breathe oxygen at several sites on the way up to the summit." Mustering up courage, Zhi and Sheng decided to have a try.
Soon after entering the valley, we felt cold. Liu said that the temperature was about 10 C. With only T-shirts, we had to walk quickly in order to drive away the chill.
As we walked along, we passed more and more ponds. The whole valley looked like a yellow carpet overrun with gurgling water.
According to Liu, the largest pond covers an area of 667 square metres, while the smallest is only 1 square metre. The deepest exceeds 3 metres, while the shallowest is only 10 centimetres deep. They are all terraced with walls of limestone on the lower side.
The water in the ponds is clear, yet the ponds present a vast variety of the most delicate shades of colour.
One pond might be as green as fresh leaves, another bright emerald green, and a third as dark as the distant woods. One pond might be of uniform hue, while an adjoining one reflects a rainbow of colours. We were told this is caused by the different mineral deposits at the bottom of the ponds.
On the way up the valley, we saw many blossoming azalea flowers and whispering birds frolicking in the jungle on both sides of the path. According to a local guide book, Huanglong has some 1,500 species of plants and many endangered animals including the giant panda.
We were intoxicated with the natural splendour, so none of us had much difficulty breathing in the highland valley, let alone needed oxygen. We took a break from time to time in the wooden pavilions found along the way, and to drank mineral water.
Two hours after entering the valley, we neared the ancient Huanglong Taoist Temple.
Tourists relax in front of the ancient Huanglong taoist Temple, 3,588 metres above sea level, before their final attempt at climbing to the top to see Five-coloured Pond. The temple is the site for an annual temple fair held in summer.
Built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the temple, which covers more than 1,000 square metres, is in a remarkable setting.
It stands at an altitude of 3,588 metres. Behind the roof-line of the second storey, mountain peaks frame a glorious view to the south. A statue of the eponymous monk is found inside the main hall.
Since the Ming Dynasty, a temple fair has been held in front of the temple for three days every year. The fair runs from the 13th day of the sixth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, which usually falls between July and August.
Crowds of Tibetan, Qiang and Han people gather for worship and fun. With an area of nearly 10,000 square metres, the land in front of the temple is the venue for singing, dancing and a horse race.
This year, an international tourism cultural festival will be held in Huanglong on July 30, based on the annual temple fair. Unlike previous fairs, the festival will feature modern musicians from the Bayern Song and Dance Troupe in Germany.
Bayern has established ties as a sister prefecture with Aba, said Tang Siyuan, chief of the Huanglong Nature Reserve.
Throughout Chinese history, Buddhists and Taoists have had difficulty co-existing peacefully. Locals near Huanglong believe in Tibetan Buddhism, but they also pray and burn incense in the Huanglong Taoist Temple. That is really a wonder, Liu said.
Food and summit
Feeling hungry after visiting the Huanglong Taoist Temple, we had lunch in a fast food restaurant nearby. It was the only restaurant in the valley. The medium-sized, well-decorated restaurant offered mutton, ham, highland barley cakes, potatoes, mushrooms, wild vegetables and instant noodles.
We ordered mutton, barley cakes and potatoes. The food was appetizing, but the price was unbelievably high - nearly 300 yuan (US$36). Liu said the price was acceptable because everything in the restaurant was carried by locals on foot from outside the mountain.
After our short break in the restaurant, our walking pace sped up and it took only 30 minutes to reach the summit. Thanks to the fine weather, we could see the mineral-rich water glowing creamy white, silvery grey, amber, pink and blue in Five-coloured Pond.
With an area of 21,000 square metres, it actually consists of 693 coloured ponds and is doubtless the most beautiful scene in Huanglong.
The scene was so captivating that one cameraman near us fell into the water twice when taking photos.
A reserve employee helped him out and carefully checked the pond to make sure there was no damage.
"The karst formation was created some 2 million years ago and grows by 10 millimetres every 100 years. So visitors aren't permitted to touch the ponds," the worker said.
Glad to have reached the summit without using oxygen or falling into the water, we felt like conquerors. We returned to the entrance of the valley in only one hour.
Although our stay in Huanglong was short, our experience was memorable. In addition to its natural beauty, Huanglong offered a rare opportunity for us to challenge our age and health, and accomplish something previously considered "impossible" by both Zhi and Sheng.
I share their view. It is common for people to lack courage and belittle themselves without even endeavouring to do something that seems difficult.