“Wait, let me get this straight. A marine glacier? In Sichuan? Less than 200km from where we live? Doesn’t seem likely. . . .”
I’m sure my scepticism could be understood, but the information we read was unequivocal, a marine glacier a thousand miles inland, over a kilometre wide, and featuring giant icefalls, ice caves and hanging glaciers, all apparently located in a place where summer temperatures regularly exceed 30ºc, and starting at an altitude of less than 3000 metres.
It was certainly worth a day’s detour on the return trip from our Western Sichuan motorcycle adventure to investigate.
Hailuogou Glacier Forest Park is it’s official name, and even as we rolled along the parched and crumbling highway that leads to it, passing countless billboards advertising snowy vistas that would seem more at home in Norway or Iceland, we remained unconvinced (to say the least) that there would actually be anything resembling a ‘glacier’ at the end of the trail.
In fact, we remained cynical for a long time. Even after we’d passed through the strangely deserted ancient town of Moxi, and through the gates to the park itself where we had purchased our entrance tickets and boarded a bus (you’re not allowed to take your own vehicles inside the park, so we were forced to abandon our trusty steed, and were bundled aboard shuttle buses with the rest of the mornings camera-wielding tourists). Park entrance tickets are 92 yuan pp, and the bus is a further 70 yuan pp. You could walk I suppose, but as the road from the entrance gates to the main camp is more than 30km up some very steep mountain roads, it seems unnecessary to sell the bus tickets separately, there’s really no alternative. It’s a bit like “yeah, the ticket to visit the international space station is $100, but if you want the ‘optional’ rocket trip there and back, that’s another $10 million!”
Anyway, after a 40 minute journey (excluding two short stops for visiting the ice caves and a scenic spot), the bus drops you at camp 3 , from which you can have a walk on the lower glacier itself, though be prepared for a steep and slippery trek. Or you can take a cable car (150 yuan pp) up to camp 4, for a view of the summit of Mt Gongga. And it’s aboard this cable car, one of China’s longest, that the following conversation took place:
“Ok honey, the park is beautiful, the forest is lush and wild, and the surrounding mountain peaks are spectacular. But it’s 33ºc and I neither see a glacier, nor see how one could endure here for more than a few hours without the aid of the worlds most powerful freon cooling system or a convenient frost wizard”.
“Yeah, maybe global warming took care of it and they just haven’t changed the signs”.
“Hang on. Look down”
“Look down again”
We were directly above it.
The thing is, when someone says the word ‘glacier’, your mind automatically conjures up images of crystal-like walls of translucent blue/white ice, perhaps with a dusting of virgin snow and a few woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers roaming around for good measure. And I suppose, naively, this is the scene I was keeping my eye out for.
There’s really no reason this should be so if you think about it, the damn thing is in a valley and has been there for thousands of years. In all that time, an awful lot of rock, rubble and earth is going to come down from the mountains and deposit itself on top of the glacier. In fact, it’s only because of the insulation that this layer of debris provides, that the glacier is still here at all. The result is that the lower part of the glacier actually resembles a dried up river bed from above, and only the occasional fissure through which you can glimpse the clear ice beneath tells the true story.
Not that we were disappointed, it was still a glacier, and as the cable car glided ever onward, the upper and much more picturesque part of the glacier came in to view, waterfalls, icefalls and all.
Time to fire up the camera drone.
The visitors area here at camp 4 was a welcome surprise, the pathways are tastefully blended in to the natural forest, and the elevated viewing platforms are spacious and well-located, affording good views of the snow-capped Mt Gongga, the glacier and the ice waterfalls. There are also a number of shrines and pagodas at this site, as well as the other tourist attraction; ‘red stone beach’ – a very pretty mountain stream surrounded by deep red rocks and boulders.
All in all, it’s definitely a place worth visiting if you’re travelling in Sichuan, budget around 6 hours from the main gate.
Hailuogou’s Hot Springs
Then we come to the other reason to visit this area, the hot springs. It’s a very geologically active area and there are countless natural hot springs dotting the landscape. The best of them have been snapped up by resorts and hotels, so if you really want to experience them, prepare to stay the night. We chose the Gongga Shengtang Hot Spring Hotel. It’s not the cheapest (though not excessively expensive either considering the quality) but we chose it largely because we’d heard that this place had the best hot springs and also, as we were at the tail end of a long motorcycle journey in some very remote places, the prospect of a western toilet and a comfortable bed was too much to overcome.
It was a good choice. Booking a room at this hotel afforded us unlimited access to the hot springs within the resort, of which there are close to twenty, ranging from small plunge pools to a full sized swimming pool, all fed from the natural hot springs at a variety of temperatures (ranging from ‘liquid nitrogen’ to ‘molten lead’ and many degrees between) and all outdoors in a forested spa environment. Better yet, we’d inadvertently visited during what must be the low season, and found that we basically had the entire spa and hot springs area to ourselves. The rooms were pretty sleek too.
Getting to Hailuogou Glacier Forest Park.
There is a direct bus from Chengdu Southwestern bus station at 9:30 every day, 115 yuan and about 5 hours. Buses also run to here from Luding and Kangding.
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