Pollution has not been too bad in Ningbo this summer, but this week it was pretty bad. Austin wears a mask at work and on his day off, he did not want to go outside. So, I decided to find something for us to do to escape from the city, and allow Austin to walk around in the fresher mountain air. We decided on Wulong Ponds, or the Five Dragon Pools, or Wulongtan Scenic area, depending on the sign and who you are talking to, they are called by all three names!
We opted to take a taxi from downtown Ningbo. It was over an hour drive with traffic, and a short stop to fill up with gas. Our driver was a little nervous that he had made a wrong turn- he kept stopping and asking for directions as we took smaller and smaller roads out of the city and up into the mountains. It was a beautiful drive, and so great to be out of the city! Fortunately for our driver, there were brown signs along the road pointing the way to the dead end road and parking lot that signals the beginning of the scenic area.
We took advantage of the restrooms and bought our tickets- which were 50 rmb each for adults, and free for our 3-year-old who is not yet 1.2m. On the other side of the ticket booth are trinket shops, some snack shops, and a small tourist bus that runs up the mountain. We came to hike, so we opted to hike up instead of taking the bus. Soon, we started noticing very long millipedes or centipedes along the trail. They were everywhere and they were huge! Landon was enthralled watching them crawl around along the side of the road. He put his hands up to his eyes and “took pictures” of them for a few minutes before he realized that they were common place and we would continue to see them all along our hike!
The first part of the trail is shared between the bus and hikers. We had to be vigilant and stay to the side when the bus came through, but it was a short stretch before the hiking trail veered off into waterfalls, stairs, and wonderful greenery. We opted not to take our stroller because I saw that there were tons of stairs involved if we wanted to hike and see the waterfalls. However, we saw other people there with strollers that confined themselves to the tourist bus road. We were glad we left the stroller!
The trail was clearly marked in Chinese and English with pointers to each pool and some temples and pavilions along the way. Sometimes, the trail hugged the river and we had to descend and ascend as river access changed. Other times, we had to decide whether to go down to the river or stay up above it and continue up the mountain. Most of the time we went down the stairs to check out the pools and waterfalls that were highlighted along the way.
The legend of the five dragon pools is quite interesting. The story goes that a girl from a nearby village was fetching water from the river and found a peach floating in the water. She picked it out of the river and ate it. It was not an ordinary peach, but a dragon egg that impregnated her! She was hidden away because she was young and unmarried and pregnant. Eventually she had four children, and they were all dragon-humans. They each set up their own abodes along the river, and so each pool and accompanying waterfall that we came to were named after the woman or one of her children. They were also characterized by different colors and visitors could have luck or prosperity with specific things for visiting and worshiping at the pools. Each pool had prayer flags alongside it, I’m guessing for this purpose.
After spending so much time in the city, it was so refreshing to go somewhere out in nature. The colors of the pools were awe-inspiring, the waterfalls were each unique and beautiful, and the greenery was amazing. Growing up in a drought-stricken area that is only green a few months out of the year, the dense bamboo forest and lush green and plants is something that I find so beautiful, and somehow unexpected wherever we go.
Let’s talk about our family and hiking for a second. We have only gone hiking a few times together as a family without a stroller. Landon has done well in the past, but it is a struggle, usually, to get him to go in the direction that we want to go. This time, Landon was a little trooper! He walked 3/4 of the way up the mountain, and 1/2 of the way down on his own. He was discouraged at times by the sheer number of steps and how steep they were, but with a little hand from mom or dad he did great. We had a backpack on with my phone inside, and it calculated that the total hike was around 7.5 miles round trip. That was a piece of information that I was unable to glean from Tripadvisor and other posts about this place. So… just so you know, it’s quite a hike just to get to the 5th pool! There are other things to see up the mountain from the 5th pool, but Landon was so tired and we were satisfied to get that far.
Another thing complicating things slightly is that I was 29 weeks pregnant when we went. If I had known it was such a long hike, I probably would not have suggested it. I was sore and tired by the end, but somehow I lugged myself and my belly up and down all those stairs. The fresh mountain air and wonderful scenery invigorated me, and our dip in a pool later on helped my aching feet. All in all, I definitely looked bigger in pictures than I felt on this hike.
Each waterfall and pool that we visited was completely unique. Some of the falls were just cascading down, some were very tall, some were roaring with huge volumes of water while others had carved out the rocks in interesting patterns. It was so neat to see the different types of fall as we went along, and the pools that they created.
The whole time we were hiking, Landon wanted to dip his feet in the pools. I think he may have remembered that when we saw lots of waterfalls on Jeju Island in Korea, we dipped our feet in the pools there. I don’t know. Anyway, because of how the pools formed, they were very deep and most of them had guardrails around them so people could not get in the water. We wanted to follow the rules, and also wanted Landon to wade and be safe. Finally, between the 3rd and 4th pools/waterfalls, there was a fork in the trail. In one direction, hikers could go see a statue on top of the mountain after crossing the river. The other fork when up to the last main waterfall. We chose to forgo the statue, and instead take a little break in the shallow water and rest our feet. Landon was so excited to finally get to dip his feet in, he never wanted to leave!
The only way to get above the next waterfall was to go up a set of very steep stairs carved right into the side of the cliff! There were guardrails, and you better believe I was using both sides to heft myself up the steps. Landon somehow managed to climb them, even though the steps were steep and large. It was so cool to climb with the waterfall rushing down right beside us!
After many hours of hiking, stopping for lunch, and some moments from Landon of, “Mommy, I’m too tired! Carry me!” we reached the 5th waterfall. There were not many places to sit and rest, but we managed to find one while Landon ate a snack and felt proud of himself for making it all the way up. This waterfall was so cool because it swirled at the bottom. The water fell at such an angle that it actually carved out the rock in a way that made it turn right at the bottom and shoot to the side.
On the way down, I think Landon was a combination of scared of the steep steps and very tired, so Austin carried him on all the steep section. It was amazing how much further we were able to cajole him along on his own! We promised him a popsicle and a rest about half way down, and that motivated him to walk himself down for quite some time, even after breaking down and saying that he was “tired of walking!” several times. We want to teach Landon that he can do hard things, and push his body beyond the first feelings of discomfort if needed. I think we succeeded in that with our outing today. After being in the city with no elevation changes for a few months, Austin and I were both quite sore for days after this hike. Landon seemed unfazed and was full of energy the next day. Go figure!
This excursion is by far our favorite thing we have done so far in China. It was challenging, but there were plenty of places to stop and rest. Here are some of my top tips for visiting this area:
- If pressed for time, take the tourist bus up to the middle of the mountain. The coolest waterfalls are still a hike up the mountain from here, but you miss out on a few miles of walking and strenuous stairs.
- Bring snacks/food: there are some snack stalls selling popsicles, water and other drinks, but the majority of visitors to this area packed in their own meals and snacks. The hiking is quite strenuous, so bring lots of water!
- Bus 638 runs from the northern part of downtown Ningbo to Wulong pools. Just take it all the way to the end! I think it runs every 10-15 minutes. We opted to take a taxi there to save some time, and then we took the 638 back because it is impossible to find a taxi up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. The bus ride took an hour and a half, and dropped us off in the city enough that we were able to hail a taxi to take us back to our hotel in just a few minutes.
- Wear sensible clothing. There were Chinese ladies hiking this trail in platform sandals or high heels. I’m not really sure how. It is the opposite of Korea. In Korea, we felt under prepared because we did not have hiking shoes, poles, or special outfits. In China, all of the women were wearing cute little dresses and fashionable shoes, while I was in tennis shoes and basketball shorts. I vote comfort and safety over fashion in this case!
- Forgo the stroller: Too many stairs! Bring a baby carrier or backpack if your kid is not going to walk. We were thrilled Landon made it as far as he did on his own, because neither of us really wanted to carry all 38 lbs. of him up that mountain!