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Yading Nature Reserve: A hidden gem in southwest China

By in Travel on

Located in southern Daocheng County (稻城) near the Tibetan border, the Yading Nature Reserve (亚丁自然保护区) should be at the top of the list for those seeking exotic mountain views and genuine trekking options in China.

Two years ago I read up on this place when I was planning a hiking trip in northern Yunnan, and the photos I saw really blew me away. However, given time limitations I decided instead to check out the Yubeng (雨崩)/Meili (美丽) snow mountain ranges after visiting Lijiang. The Yubeng hike was fantastic, but I still kept Yading in mind as an option in the near future as it struck me as another 'must-see' trekking and landscape photography destination.

The far corner of southwest China is a place where you can find yourself on the eastern gateway of the Himalayas, right up close to some breathtaking and absolutely massive peaks — nothing like the smaller but also picturesque mountains that are so popular in other areas of China, closer to urban centers. Not to say those other peaks are not worth seeing but, for one, those mountains are often fogged or smogged out, so views tend to be limited, and you are all but guaranteed crowds of tourists to deal with for the duration of your hike. So, for avid China-based hikers who have already seen a handful of these mountains, there tends to be a desire to see something a little more unexpected, a bit more far-flung. With that in mind, Yading fits the bill perfectly. There are impressive vistas and real trekking options here so you are not limited at all times to the fenced in paths and overpriced gimmicks which seem to dominate 99 percent of China's natural attractions.

That said, Yading Nature Reserve itself is currently undergoing development to attract ever-increasing numbers of tourists. But for now, if you mention this place to others even in China, chances are many have still never heard of it. Until recently, access to the area meant a nearly 24-hour bus ride from Chengdu or a 12-hour trip from Shangri-la (香格里拉) in Yunnan province just to the south. While using the long-haul bus or shared hired van is still a much cheaper option, I try to avoid it if I can due to the incredible amount of time it eats up from the total trip. With the opening of Yading Daocheng regional airport, it reduces an entire day's worth of travel down to only five to seven hours, depending on where you are coming from within China.

A foreigner in a forbidden land

For now, Yading should still be considered one of China's most underrated gems. This expansive nature reserve lets you take in some truly amazing unspoiled views of three 6,000-meter Tibetan holy mountains — Chanadorje, Jampelyang and Chenresig. These prominent peaks are the very same that famed botanist and explorer Joseph Rock photographed in 1928 and then wrote about in the 1931 National Geographic article entitled Konka Risumgongba, Holy Mountain of the Outlaws. Despite Rock's extensive journeys and documentation of these areas, for many years after they still remained relatively unknown and unexplored by all but the local population. This has in part been attributed to a large group of notorious monks-turned-bandits who controlled much of the area.

It is said that anyone daring to trespass on this territory would most likely be murdered and robbed, in that order, by this ruthless gang. This rule applied not only to ethnic Chinese but other indigenous Tibetan groups living in adjacent valleys. Apparently the bandits — known as the Konkaling Tribe — lived up to their reputation by attacking villages, as well as caravans traveling through the region. Rock and his entourage only managed to explore this area by negotiating permission with the king of the Muli Kingdom — a territory which partially overlapped what is now the Yading Nature Reserve. The ruler then somehow persuaded the Kongaling Tribe to allow Rock safe passage during his time there.

Jumping forward to the late 1990s, the area was officially designated a nature reserve and all of the glacial lakes, meadows and god-like peaks that awed Joseph Rock were opened up for exploration by visitors — all minus the threat of murderous bandit monks. But even then there were very few travelers who would make their way to this unique region.

When reading up on a handful of other trip reports about Yading, it was obvious that in the last five to ten years a lot of transformation has taken place, particularly around the scenic spots closer to the entrance. What were formerly dodgy, poorly maintained dirt roads are now wide and paved. In a portion of the reserve itself, concrete lanes have been laid down for obnoxious horn-honking electric carts that can haul ten people at a time. And for those who walk, simple muddy footpaths have given way to raised metal walkways or wide sturdy wooden planks. After hiking for three of four hours, these walkways end and real dirt trails continue further along the valley.

If heading much deeper into the reserve, the trail itself is relatively easy, open and you can go where you please for the most part. Most importantly, there are still really remote areas where camping is allowed for those who seek a more memorable and challenging trekking experience. Chances are you will see very few people if doing this.

Trekking details

There are two options for trekking here which involve circumambulating one or all three of the towering peaks. The trails are essentially Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage — or kora — routes around the mountains. So depending on the time of year, you may see the occasional group of locals doing the kora. In Tibetan Buddhism, each of these peaks is worshipped as a different Bodhisattva. Mount Chenresig is an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the Goddess of Mercy, Chanadorje is Vajrapani, or the God of Wrath, and Jampelyang represents Manjushri, the God of Wisdom.

The small kora is a 32-kilometer route that goes clockwise around Mount Chenresig. It requires at least one night of camping about halfway around the mountain. Although fairly long, the trail itself is easy. There is no scrambling or rivers to cross, but bringing along a solid walking stick is recommended. There are two mountain passes that need to be crossed but the elevation changes are not too steep, except for just a few short sections. Meanwhile, the big kora requires anywhere from seven to ten days of hiking, with either a local guide or organized group tour. It almost certainly has some rougher, more unpredictable trail conditions at certain points. Both routes have an average elevation of 4,000 meters. You need to bring your own food, camping gear and means to get drinking water along the way.

Given my time constraints, I decided to do a solo trek along the small kora, in early November of 2015. This is one of the best times of year to travel in China because it's well after the busy National Day peak travel period which often extends well into October. Now that Yading has become a more established natural attraction and can now be accessed by the nearby airport, you can count on seeing masses of tourists descending on the place during China's popular travel months.

After flying into Daocheng and getting the bus, I arrived around noon at Yading Village and overnighted there. The town lies partway up a big hill looking down on the valley that holds the paths leading into the reserve proper. There are quite a few guesthouses to choose from, so I walked around for ten minutes, checked out a few and settled on one that seemed as good as any.

Pitch black, plenty of stars...and a vicious-looking mastiff

Despite only having a day to acclimate, I only rested for one night in the village and set out with my pack in the darkness at about 6am the following morning. There are buses that run from the village every 30 minutes down to the trailhead, but I wanted to do it the right way and use my own two feet, walking early so I could catch the sights at dawn. Besides, the first bus doesn't operate until 7:30am, the rides are short, and I felt fine — no headaches or difficulty breathing as long as I took it fairly slow.

It was a bit surreal to say the least, flying in straight from a polluted urban environment and being here, walking out of the guesthouse into the cold crisp mountain air. The sky above was loaded with bright stars and down on the ground, I could see the deep black shadow-shapes of cows meandering around on the road nearby. The only noise to be heard was the soft jingle of the bells hanging from their necks. Given the light from the stars and a quarter moon, I just let my eyes continue to adjust as I walked on down the hill.

About halfway down, passing by a few houses, I suddenly saw a good-sized dog come running towards me from out of a driveway. It didn't make a sound, but attached to its collar was a length of broken chain dragging on the ground as it approached. The only thing going through my head was that the dog — a Tibetan mastiff — thought I was invading its turf, and the chain had busted loose somehow and was now coming in for a swift attack.

Backtrack a bit. When doing my trip planning I had heard plenty about Tibetan mastiffs and the popularity of these dogs in regions like this. This breed in particular has a really nasty reputation as being very territorial and dangerous. Anyway, I generally like to plan things out well, especially because in this case I already knew that I would probably do some walking in the dark alone. So I thought, "why not bring some pepper spray?" I wasn't able to buy any, so at home I just made some using lots of chili powder soaked in about 100 milliliters of water in a small spray bottle, which I wrapped well in plastic and packed with my other gear.

Well, I had this bottle in the side mesh pocket on my pack when walking down that road, and I slowly reached around and grabbed it as the dog approached, now slowed to a trot. Still, not a sound from him which made it seem more menacing, just a hsss-hsss-hsss of the length of chain dragging on the smooth surface of the road. I began walking slowly, tense with a bit of adrenaline going, and the dog just continued walking directly behind me. After a few minutes, well beyond the house it came from, he still wouldn't leave. I just kept the same pace, not even bothering to turn around. Finally, the hiss of the chain grew faint as I rounded one of the big switchback turns. I guess the dog was just a bit curious. Either way, he successfully herded me along my way. I kept the pepper spray out a while longer for good measure.

Into the reserve

At this point it had already begun to get light out and I walked on, coming to a section of road where I could see a raised metal pathway running parallel to the road. I turned off and began to follow that for 20 minutes or so until it lead to the actual entrance of the reserve. The path followed a creek for a bit until opening up to a viewing area where the trail splits in a few directions. One way leads a short distance to Chonggu Monastery (冲古寺), an 800 year-old fixture in the area. The main path continued further along toward Luorong Pasture which takes you further into the reserve. As I walked along the lengthy pasture area, the sun peeked over a mountain ridge, lighting up the yellow swathes of fir trees. Nearby, mist was rising off of the ice-crusted stream flowing through the valley, while on the other side of the pasture I could see a lone grazing yak. Now this is what makes it worth crawling out of bed and setting out extra early.

The path continued on and as it got nice and bright, all of the frost disappeared and sightseers started to trickle in via the electric carts on a small one-way road. After a few more bends in the path, Jampelyang appeared ahead of me — an immense brilliant white shark tooth of a peak, jutting straight up into the blue. Given the limited time I had to reach the campsite before dark, I was torn between getting as many great photos as I could or just continuing right on, trying not to raise the camera to my face every two minutes. Definitely not an easy choice. I compromised and snapped just a few with the self-timer and the mini tripod I had brought along, getting some shots of the stone cairns in the foreground and even one of myself in front of Jampelyang.

Further along, the wooden plank path finally ended and a regular trail began next to a collection of huts. There were horse tenders here and plenty of tourists who were relaxing having tea or negotiating the fee for horse rides. No time for a picnic — plenty of time later when camping — so I trudged on, with many a hiker hailing me with a jiayou! as we passed each other. An hour or so further along there was a real hiker traffic jam on the trail, complete with a scattering of people on horseback and the tenders leading them. I definitely didn't mind the frequent stops because I was starting the feel the weight of my pack. The rigors of hiking at elevation were growing as well, as the trail wound its way higher up, getting increasingly rocky and steep in a few sections.

Arrival at Milk Lake

The trail then levels out and leads to Milk Lake (牛奶海), the next big stop along the route. This is just one of the several beautiful glacier-fed lakes around the base of the mountains, and definitely worth hiking to even if you are just doing a day-trip. The trail opens up here revealing a brilliant mineral-rich turquoise lake flanked by cliffs and scree slopes. As you approach the lake, off to the right side is a gradual slope going further up. This is where trekkers go to reach the first mountain pass and often set up their tents for the night. Before tackling that, I had to take a good 20 minutes to rest up and hydrate. At Milk Lake the elevation is 4,480 meters, and I was feeling it. Luckily I just had a slight headache but was also really fatigued. I sat down and took some panoramic shots of the lake. I had read that there is another lake nearby which is also quite colorful, but it was already getting late at this point, and cold as well, so I bypassed the opportunity, knowing I had at least a few more solid hours of hiking in front of me.

There were some Chinese hikers I had met in Yading Village and they joined me on the trail before reaching Milk Lake. They couldn't believe that I was going to camp alone on the far side of Mount Chenresig and, amid much hand-wringing and looks of grave concern — and many reassurances on my part — we parted ways and I continued on as the sole hiker heading up above the lake. I do appreciate the genuine concern some of the other hikers had, as from their perspective it is just unheard of for someone to want to spend the night out alone in the cold of the high mountains.

A true solo hike — to the first col

Departing from Milk Lake and heading up the trail to the first pass, the view looking back down on the lake was amazing — the stark crisp grey of the mountain slopes and the sense of scale and distance was a bit skewed to me, not being used to such an environment. I only took a few photos there with my phone because my fingers were getting numb from fiddling with my camera. Turning back up the slope to where I needed to go, there were big piles of Sanskrit-carved stones and the usual prayer flags draped over it all.

I kept on slowly, having to pause a lot to catch my breath, and finally reached the highest point at 4,700 meters. The view opened out to an arid rocky plateau area, where the trail splits and is marked by a derelict metal prayer wheel, which was dented and looked a few days away from tipping over. I made sure to take the right fork, as it leads to an overlook of a ruggedly beautiful sort of hanging valley containing another small lake.

The trail descended here and got a bit steep in places. Continuing on, I at last came to spots that were suitable for pitching a tent. The most popular is the 'first hut', which is a low stone hovel in a clearing of dirt and alpine grass. It's quite obvious that many people have made use of the site over the years, as there is plastic garbage everywhere. Locals use the hut for shelter in the warmer months when pilgrimaging here, plus the occasional hikers who happen along when the weather is nasty.

I've also read that people come out in greater numbers to remote spots just like this to do late-spring seasonal foraging for caterpillar fungus — the so-called 'Viagra of the Himalayas'. It was pretty cool to see the squat, quaint mountain huts, and there are lots more of them further along the trail. But, dare I whine about it, pretty disappointing that an area designated as a nature reserve is still crapped upon by those too lazy to haul out their own garbage. Not hard to do. There were empty oxygen canisters strewn about, dozens of plastic bottles and instant noodle containers. Half of this trash was in the shallow river runoff that comes from the nearby lake, and it had blown just about everywhere due to the high winds.

Super fun happy time with AMS

I set up my tent a good 300 meters or so back along the trail where I saw what looked like a decent flat area. Given the dry time of year, the lake and river were somewhat diminished in size compared to photos I'd seen, but they still provided a few decent spots to use my water filter. Even at this elevation, people bring their horses and yaks around at different times and I saw plenty of evidence of this in the form of old cow patties around the trail and lakeside. So some means to purify drinking water was a must. It's also impossible to carry in enough water for the trek, unless you want to break your back or keel over from exertion under the weight.

I hadn't see a soul since I hiked up from Milk Lake until I caught sight of two young Tibetan guys walking down the trail towards the stone hut. We waved to each other and they continued on their way. I got the tent set up in the late afternoon, pounding the stakes into the half-frozen ground. Despite the near-perfect weather throughout the day, I wondered if I would get snowed on or blown over, given the unpredictable nature of weather up in the mountains. However, I didn't spend much time thinking on it because at this point I had been up hiking since 6am and was fatigued, slightly nauseous and couldn't really eat anything. So I called it a day, crawled into my sleeping bag and eventually fell into a very fitful sleep lasting half the night.

Unfortunately, the next day my condition hadn't improved at all. Nothing serious, just mild nausea, a dull headache and continued lack of any appetite — typical symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness. The campsite sits at 4,480 meters, much higher than I had ever camped before, so I had expected to experience some discomfort. I choked down some oily tuna and mayo with crackers — an excellent choice if you feel a bit sick — and took a haggard walk to the other side of the lake. In the frozen mud by the shore, I saw some small paw prints, exactly like enlarged cat paws...perhaps from a lynx? Besides the birds, I didn't see any critters around. It was just too cold, especially at night. In fact, the night before, it got down to about minus-eight Celcius, and the half-cup of water I spilled in the tent and sopped up with a t-shirt was frozen solid when I grabbed it the next morning.

After poking around near the lake I returned to the tent, ate some sesame paste with a bit of dried fruit and just laid down, chuckling to myself because I had all of these grand plans for what I would be doing during my solo trekking adventure away from civilization. When packing my bags the night before leaving for the trip, I made sure to bring along enough sheets of paper so I could do some journaling while exploring up in them thar mountains. Maybe I would note down some great insights and musings on life and the outdoors? I'm not sure. I definitely wanted to do some small side hikes and really take it all in, maybe lay on a warm flat rock, soak up some sun and perhaps just meditate on how lucky I was to have this entire valley to myself! Did I think I would be frolicking through alpine meadows, playing a pan flute and mincing around rejoicing in the experience? Well, maybe not...but something better than wallowing in crapulence, being weak, nauseous and barely existing near my tent.

I also planned on sleeping up there for two nights, not just one as most do. For me, it didn't even make sense to spend all day hiking, then one night in the tent only to pack it all up first thing the next morning and hike the rest of the route on out of the reserve. It's about slowing it down a bit, maybe getting some time-lapse shots of the clouds scudding over the mountains in late afternoon, or even some images of the night sky. Well, none of that happened because of the cold, the wind and the overall shift in my priorities once I came down with altitude sickness. Still, two nights was without a doubt the way to go, even on a short trek like this.

It really clouded up by late afternoon and the wind kicked up as well, so I figured the second night might really bring some snow, and hopefully my budget tent could withstand the gusts of wind. I was up half the night tossing and turning, but at least I was warm enough, especially because I was wearing all of the clothes I brought. Wind chill is no joke. There were in fact a few short periods in the middle of the night where icy snow was drumming against the tent, but the next morning it was sunny. I packed everything up and used the filter again for some refills from the frigid lakewater before leaving.

The way out is through

Continuing on the trail, there is a cluster of unused stone huts dotting a somewhat steep slope. After this, was quite a long stage of the trail that ascended until reaching the second mountain pass. It's all about pacing yourself and going slow there, because it still takes at least a few hours to reach the pass. What made it worse for me was that I was essentially running on empty, having only been able to eat tiny amounts of food over the previous two days. Still, the way out is through, and that's just the way she goes, so I soldiered on, trying to breathe a little more deeply.

Finally I made it through where the trail leads to a notch in the ridge, and directly on the other side, not getting nearly as much direct sunlight, was a rocky snow-covered mountainside. I snapped more pictures at this pass, in front of a veritable tapestry of layered prayer flags, encouraging myself that it was all downhill from there on.

Sometime later, the trail led to some great unobstructed views of the imposing Mount Chenresig, and further along led through a small area of what appeared to be old growth forest. After this, Pearl Lake is one of the last notable stops along the trail before coming full circle back to Chonggu Monastery. I actually didn't see Pearl Lake when I finished up the hike — either I was too tired to take one of the side paths leading a short way to it or it was mostly dried up, given the time of year. At that point, I was just intent on getting back to the park entrance and resting for a while. Heading around the back side of Chonggu Monastery however, some really amazing views kept opening up nearly every step, so I was able to get some of my best photos right on the tail end of the trek. After that, I caught one of the big shuttle buses back up the hill to Yading Village. I got off and walked a bit, sharing the road with a horse and chicken who were clomping and clucking their way along in front of me.

The main thoughts going through my head were gratitude for the experience I just had, coupled with a twinge of melancholy at the trip being over so soon. I just might have to head back sometime to see even more of the reserve.

Getting there, and other practical bits

There are scheduled buses departing from Lijiang in Yunnan Province, that head north to Shangri-la and finally on to Daocheng. From Chengdu, the bus route generally includes a stop in Kangding (康定) before continuing on to Daocheng. Tickets for the nature reserve and shuttle bus must be purchased in Riwa (日瓦) — the last town before arriving at Yading Village. There is a small bus station there and ticket counters inside. The total cost is 270 yuan. These tickers allows access to the entire reserve, plus multiple rides on the buses to and from Yading Village.

There are plenty of guesthouses in Daocheng, Riwa and Yading Village. It is generally not necessary to book a room online or by phone in advance unless you want to play it safe during peak tourist season. Prices range from 40-140 yuan per night.

Plan well in regard to food for your trek. I flew into Yading, so I could not bring fuel or a camping stove. My Spartan, no-cook meal plan worked fine for me — going a few days without a hot meal is not a big deal. Skipping the cooking gear also saved me the extra weight to my pack, not to mention time fussing with a camp stove. For those arriving by bus, there may be places to purchase fuel and camping gear in Kangding.

If you plan on taking lots of photos or video, bring extra batteries or a battery pack. The overnight cold really saps the batteries. A solar-powered battery charger would also work really well in an environment like this, and there are many models that are lightweight and efficient, perfectly suited for trekking.

Carry out what you carry in. Half of the route has garbage cans at intervals and why many tourists don't bother to use them is beyond me. After eating most of your food, you will still be traveling lighter than when you arrived anyway. So any PET bottles, plastic wrappers and tissues can be placed in the next trash bin you see after returning to the areas closer to the reserve entrance.

If you have the time, allow an extra two or three days to acclimate before hiking. I really wish I could have done so. This means spending a few nights at other destinations in the region such as Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri-la or Kangding. Those areas are around 2,000-2,600 meters in elevation and have some of their own hiking options — a great buffer prior to heading into much higher mountain environments.

Editor's note: This article was written by Peter Zhang and originally published on his website Knowmadic News. It is republished here, with permission.

Images: Peter Zhang

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Looks & sounds beautiful. I agree with you about the wisdom of a bit more acclimatization.

Just about last week I was recommending this route here in the forum section. The Muli area mentioned in the article is really nice too.

Some ruffians left from old days, but mostly around Litang area.

Yeah I definitely want to head back to this region one of these days...lots more to see!

I read a while back that there are direct flights from Kunming to Daocheng but I can't find any on Ctrip. Does anybody know if they are still running this route?

I also read that but it appears now that these flights are all routed through Chengdu. This could also be a seasonal thing- I would guess that during peak travel times there might still be at least one daily flight from KMG to DCY

Great article - even it's already been a while. Does somebody know if it's possible to rent camping gear in shangri-la town?

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