Getting Away: Six days hiking in Sichuan's Yading Nature Reserve, part II

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Writer and outdoor enthusiast Luke Dauner spent the 2018 National Day holiday hiking in Sichuan. His goal was to find someplace fairly remote that still had well-maintained trails. Soaring mountains were a requirement, as was a region known for conservation. Wild animal populations wouldn't hurt either. He decided to explore the Yading Nature Reserve (亚丁自然保护区) in southern Sichuan.

Instead of following the immensely popular and well-trod Inner Kora, Dauner opted to spend six days on the 56-kilometer long trail of the Outer Kora. The hike would take him and his companion past jagged, snow-capped peaks, through lush valleys and into some unimagined situations. Part One of this story covers the first three days of the hike. It can be read here and is accompanied by dozens of lovely photos.

Day 4: 9 kilometers, 600 meters elevation gain, 300 meters elevation loss

If day three was the most physically exhausting of the hike, day four was the most emotionally exhausting. Spoiler alert — we had some emphatic disagreements with the another group of hikers. Little did we know, however, that we would end up reaching a meeting of the minds with our fellow travelers. In fact, we ended up working together and forming a powerful bond of sorts. This is how it unfolded.

We had planned to wake up early in order to get ahead of the crowd in front of us, but a fitful night's sleep kept us in bed a little bit longer than expected. When we emerged from our tent, we saw that the 200-person caravan had already begun setting out, though it would be a couple hours before they all broke camp. We shrugged it off, and joked about where 200 people could possibly have gone to the bathroom. We remained slightly apprehensive about having to spend our day passing them along the trail.

When we finally departed, our apprehension quickly turned into anxiety and, as we approached their campsite, dismay. Every person in the lower camp had gone, but what they left behind looked like a smoldering battlefield of garbage. Heartbreak and rage set in simultaneously, and our purely visceral reaction echoed throughout the amphitheater as the snow capped peaks stared down in what seemed like bitterness. We've witnessed plenty of litter throughout China's many "protected areas", each time warranting its own unique reaction of frustration and shame.

However, that was always in the front-country, along boardwalks or roads where people abound and so do trash cans. This time, we had been hiking for three days through one of the most pristine and awe-inspiring landscapes I have ever seen, and it would be another three-day walk before we saw even a semblance of a road. There was nothing here but nature, and this group's garbage.

I quickly gathered a bag of trash and trudged through the stream towards the upper campsite, determined to speak with someone before they had all gone. My plan was to be stern but not unreasonable in sharing our grievances. Unfortunately, I completely lost my temper upon encountering the few remaining trekkers. I yelled at them, asking why they treated this place like a garbage can, and why people were too lazy to carry their own trash.

Undoubtedly I embarrassed myself, as evident by their mildly surprised reactions. We then talked with two others who frantically explained that they were about to clean it all up. We calmed down slightly and thanked them, attempting to explain our backcountry ethics, that hikers who visit this place should be responsible for their own waste. They agreed wholeheartedly, though perhaps a bit defensively, and we started up the trail at a clip.

We shared a few words with nearly everyone on the path that morning. The people near the beginning received slightly harsher comments than those near the end, as our blood gradually cooled to a simmer. Along the way, we were told by many individuals not to worry, they had paid those two men to clean up after their group. This made us feel better about the amphitheater, but did little to soothe our animosity towards the group's lack of responsibility.

Perhaps out of pride, we argued that carrying out your trash is easy — it is heavier when you carry it in, after all — and two people shouldn't have to clean up after two hundred. Besides, we reasoned those two local men were just moving the garbage to a different place — an uncovered stone hut — where it would still be exposed to rain, wind, snow and hungry animals. It's hard to know when, or how, it would ever be properly disposed of.

The trail from the amphitheater to the one and only pass that day was fine kilometers of steady but manageable incline across slightly precipitous scree fields. After turning north at the top of the pass, we had reached a state of calm, but were still hoping to get ahead of the big group and camp in solitude once again. About 3.5 kilometers beyond the pass, we had almost reached what seemed to be the front of the pack when we approached Joseph Rock's Rock — our planned lunch spot, and apparently everybody else's too. From the top of the ridge we could already see the trash strewn about, trash we assumed nobody was being paid to clean up. Our flame was re-lit. We approached the open meadow and crowd of people half-heartedly.

I stood there like an empty shell, defeated by garbage, and meekly moved toward a group of four or five people just sitting down to have lunch. I asked them if they had a bag and, almost in defiance, I began picking up the trash piece by piece. I didn't expect anyone to join in, but to my surprise, an older gentleman and one of the tour leaders quickly began helping. Two more joined the fray, pulling out an empty cloth sack used by the porters. Within fifteen minutes, about a dozen people had Joseph Rock's Rock almost entirely cleaned up. When we finished, three young men volunteered to carry the nearly overflowing sack up the adjacent hill towards the pass beyond.

Our faith in humanity, and our own sanity, was officially restored. Perhaps Rock's Rock would be covered in trash again soon, but we felt confident that it wouldn't be by the people we encountered that day. As we sat in the sun, exhausted, we wondered if we had acted wrongly. We will never be sure how every person received our message, but in the end, we felt true to ourselves and the things we perceived to be for the greater good.

By this point, our lunch excursion had lasted a couple of hours, and most of the army of hikers was once again ahead of us. We ascended the trail for perhaps 100 meters more, before being tempted by a serene alpine lake. It took us all of 30 seconds to decide to camp there, and we turned in early for the day. We found a flat spot on the other side of the lake with a view of the trail and the colossal mountains beyond. The remainder of the afternoon was spent reading, writing, relaxing and watching the progression of hikers ascend the next pass.

As the last trekker passed by the lake and out of sight, the silence became suddenly palpable, and the reason we so fervently seek solitude once again became abundantly clear. For the first time that day, we paid complete attention to our surroundings, instead of the people within them — the shimmering reflection of the sun on the crystal clear water, the murder of crows cawing in harmony overhead, and the summit of Jampayang fully revealing itself on the horizon. It was our favorite campsite of the trip, primarily because it wasn't really a campsite to begin with. It was just a patch of grass without any purpose at all. Though we had never been there, it felt completely natural. It felt like home.

Day 5: 11 kilometers, 500 meters of elevation gain, 600 meters of elevation loss

With our major challenge behind us, we had good feelings about day five, and it ended up being one of the best days we've ever had in the mountains. We slept in somewhat, in part to allow the army of hikers to get well ahead of us, and had a delightful breakfast-in-bag with the rainfly off. The lingering clouds above our tent that morning were the last we would see all day. By the time we left our lakeside retreat at 10am, it was blue skies all the way.

It was about two kilometers of gradual incline up to the first pass of the day. The summit of Jampayang gradually exposed itself from behind the ridge to our right, but the views from the top of the first pass completely floored us. Jampayang and Chenrezig appeared full-bodied, seemingly out of nowhere, standing clear, strong, and bright white with snow. The vividly turquoise Wisdom Lake beneath us reflected their snowy peaks, as white tufts of cotton floated skyward. It was a fantasy come to life, and we sat perched atop a rocky outcropping for the next 15 minutes, wordlessly taking it in.

We descended the steep, rocky trail to Wisdom Lake, careful not to stare up and walk down at the same time. Strolling along the blue-green water towards the increasingly imposing Jampayang was bliss. We stopped on the other side, near the popular Wisdom Lake campsite — where the large group had camped the previous night — and ate lunch next to a small glacial stream. To the credit of their team, the campsite was spotless, without a piece of trash to be found. Perhaps they heeded our advice and began packing it out, or maybe they had just relocated it to a stone hut before we arrived. Either way, after the previous day, we felt content with assuming the best.

Almost incomprehensibly, the views got even better that afternoon, as the towering faces of Jampayang and Chenrezig now flanked the hiking trail, looming larger with every step. The walk up to the eighth pass of the trip was nothing short of magical, and even a bit spiritual. The two holy mountains completely hemmed us in, and a catchy Buddhist incantation I had once heard in Nepal appeared spontaneously in my mind. I immediately felt something deeper, albeit fleeting, and I began to empathize with the people who take this trek for religious reasons. I almost converted to Buddhism on the spot, if that's how it works, before changing my mind.

The mountains were there long before religion, and they are divine even without humans attributing divinity to them. I wanted to leave them unnamed and unappraised, to not make them into anything other than what they are, spoiling their perfection with my imperfect constructs. I wanted just to notice them, without reacting, and nothing more. I suppose that is a form of worship in itself, and perhaps even a bit Buddhist. If Buddhism were one's religion, I couldn't imagine anything more transcendent than walking this path.

The top of "three-way pass" was only about 1.5 kilometers from the Wisdom Lake campsite, and it is where the Outer Kora joins the Inner Kora — we were re-entering the official boundaries of Yading Nature Reserve. From the fluttering prayer flags we could see Five Colors Lake a few hundred meters below, along with the hordes of visitors who made the trek there and no further. Back towards Jampayang, we saw what appeared to be a lone mule standing along its lower flanks. It stared at us inquisitively and carefully, before being joined by ten others descending from above. We wondered where their owners were, and slowly approached before realizing they weren't mules at all, or any domesticated animal for that matter.

It was a herd of wild bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep. We stood in awe, wanting to get closer but keeping our distance out of respect. They eyed us cautiously in return before heading across the pass towards a smaller mountain on the other side. They were the first wild megafauna we had seen in China, and the entire ecosystem immediately felt more lifelike.

We wondered where they were headed, or perhaps if anything was following them, knowing that they are prominent prey for snow leopards in this region. We entertained the idea of waiting around, and then promptly abandoned it, recognizing how lucky one would have to be to spot a snow leopard. Even the thought, however, left us feeling immensely grateful. For the first time since moving here, we could feel the pulse of the Chinese wild.

We reluctantly left our high-country fairytale and descended down the valley to the northwest of the pass. The northeast trail takes you down towards Five Colors Lake and Luorong Pasture, but finishing the Outer Kora requires circumnavigating the last and highest of the holy mountains — Chenrezig. We followed the valley for about 2.5 kilometers before it leveled off into a beautiful open meadow.

It would have been a fantastic place to camp, with a glacial stream running through it and an unimpeded view of Chenrezig, but another tour group was already filing in and setting up. There weren't nearly as many people in this group, but we still opted to continue along the trail towards what seemed like a flat area on our topographic map, just beneath the final pass of the trip.

The valley dropped off beyond the meadow, but the trail hugged the mountainside to the right. The landscape changed dramatically yet again — the snowy alpine seemed to disappear behind us, giving away to verdant valleys, waterfalls and rhododendron covered ridges. The trail dragged on, and we grew apprehensive about misreading the map, worrying that we'd have to camp on a slope.

After about 3.5 kilometers, however, we arrived at a massive amphitheater that looked like some combination of Scotland and Mars. It was rolling green meadows all around, encircled by reddish brown cliffs and dotted with rocky outcroppings. There was space for probably 500 tents, but not another soul was present. It was already 5pm, so we quickly set up camp before cooking the spiciest instant noodles known to humankind. We were at about 4,500 meters and the wind added an extra chill, but the unobstructed view to the western horizon was irresistible. We stayed out until sunset, belting out embarrassing songs into the nothingness, reveling in our last night of solitude.

Day 6: 5 kilometers, 200 meters elevation gain, 500 meters elevation loss

The morning of day six was the coldest yet. The inside walls of our tent were frosted over and our backpack straps were frozen to the ground outside. Even the small brook next to our campsite had completely dried up. The frigid temperatures called for another breakfast-in-bag while we waited for the sun to find its way into our sheltered amphitheater. The warmth was stubborn, however, and we ended up settling for frozen shoes for the first 20 minutes of walking until we reached the sunshine.

It was only one kilometer to the pass from our campsite, and it would be our last uphill of the entire trek. But somehow, those facts did not make it any easier. We huffed and puffed our way up to the narrow slit in the rocks atop the amphitheater, stopped for a brief moment of celebration, and climbed our way through the tunnel of prayer flags enveloping it.

The other side welcomed us with warm air and fantastic views towards our final destination below — the Yading Valley. On the other side, we could faintly see our first campsite nestled in the alpine canyon that had so enamored us on day one. Although a Kora is, by definition, a complete ring we were still somehow surprised, but more so delighted, by the feeling of having come full circle.

The final valley was a steady but gradual descent, and we made quick work of the remaining four kilometers to Chonggu Monastery. We were as close as we had yet been to Chenrezig, and we did our best to savor the views on the way down. More than that, however, we did our best to fully absorb our last moments in the backcountry before re-entering civilization, the land of cell-phone service, overcrowded boardwalks, and ruthless litter. We were preparing ourselves for the onslaught of tourists and trash, and said our goodbyes to the mountains before we left the forest. When we arrived at the main tourist trail, however, we were happily surprised.

The metal-grated walkways leading around Pearl Lake and the meadows beneath Chenrezig, instead of being shoulder-to-shoulder traffic, were populated by no more than a handful of peacefully observing tourists. As it was a Saturday, perhaps most of the visitors had already departed, we thought.

Much more gratifying than that, however, was the complete and total absence of garbage. Perhaps my expectations should have been higher, but it was unfathomable to me that, after the busiest week of the year, there was not even a semblance of rubbish along the trail. As we descended the last few hundred meters towards the main road, the reason became clear — effective management.

The clearly labeled signs, educational placards, flawlessly maintained pathways and benches, and countless trash cans that are regularly emptied, made it clear to us that Yading Nature Reserve is perhaps one of the few places we've encountered where conservation outweighs commercialization. Maybe we took it for granted on the way in, but even the lack of cable cars or cliffside elevators made it seem that the people in charge of the development of this place care about it more than the money it can bring in. Or maybe they just realize that the mountains themselves are what people come to see.

We finally arrived at the beautiful Chonggu Monastery, the beginning and end of our journey, and poked our heads in for a quick visit. I wondered if, perhaps, it is the religious significance of this place that has actually prevented unchecked development. I will probably never know for sure, but I still felt thankful for the fact that so many people find meaning in places like this, in so many different ways, religious or otherwise. Before we boarded the bus that would take us back to massages and mixian, we glanced across Chonggu meadow and saw the fully bare peak of Chenadorje staring back at us, the only holy summit we hadn't seen. Coming full circle, I thought.

Tips and notes

While we did this trek independently, we would not recommend doing so if you are not confident in your outdoor skills and backpacking abilities. It is a relatively straightforward trail, but we still would have been lost — both literally and figuratively — without topographic maps, lengthy preparation and the good graces of a few other blogs.

Additionally, altitude sickness is no joke, and can become very serious very quickly, especially at the altitudes found around Yading. Although we luckily didn't have any problems, we probably didn't take this seriously enough. Make sure you acclimate properly, and start taking altitude medication a couple days before beginning your trek.

We are clearly very passionate about the outdoors, but we are even more passionate about making it accessible and, perhaps, less intimidating to people who are looking to get out there. Hopefully this write-up has accomplished that for you, but feel free to contact me with any questions about the trek, or outdoor recreation in China more generally. We are happy to share map resources, GPS tracks, packing lists and trip menus for anyone who wants them!

Images: Luke Dauner

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Comments

Great article Luke, and thank for the detailed write-up.

We actually did a different version of the Yading Kora (~80KM, beginning from Xianggelila Town) last month, and your article brought back fond memories. I would agree that the hike is beyond spectacular, but physically very challenging, especially for those that don't hire pack animals.

We found lots of evidence of that 200-person group on our hike, mostly in the form of garbage and discarded personal items. Sadly, the 'amphitheater' campsite was still a disgusting mess a month after the fact, and you were correct in suspecting that they had merely stashed unwanted items in the stone house and under rocks at the campsite beside wisdom lake. I took 10 completely unused cans of gas and stuff sack in great condtion with me. I found two brand new boots (not from the same pair, alas) along the hike and would have taken them with me if I could have found their counterparts...I think you were right to confront them, and would have done the same if I were in your position.

I have done a lot of hiking in western China, and have mixed feelings about the 景区化 of the wilderness here. On the one hand, I feel like it keeps the majority of tourists to the front-country, which minimizes the impact (and garbage!) in the back-country. On the other hand, it promotes the attitude that nature can only be experienced along paved footpaths and that there's no need to practice LNT ethics, because there will always be an army of peasants not far behind who will be paid to pick up ones trash.

As for the Yading Scenic area, frankly, I couldn't disagree more with your assessment. The fact that the Yading area is free of garbage has nothing to do with eduction and more to do with the army of Tibetan peasants which are paid to pick up and haul out bags of garbage continuously. We passed hundreds (if not more) tourists as we made our way back to civilization, and the majority of them had huge bags filled with instant noodles, disposable plastic bottles, disposable hand warmers, and multiple cans of oxygen, which would have been comical if it wasnt so pathetic. The amount of trash that is generated each day there is horrific.

As for the motivation of the development company that leases the park from the government, their motives are from benign. The sheep that you saw were introduced by them to make the area more appealing to tourists (under the pretense of promoting biodiversity). When we finished the hike, we were exhausted, and decided to just pay the extortionate 50yuan for the 6KM golf cart ride to the park entrance. We were told that we would have to also buy seats for our backpacks, at which point we just lauged and decided to walk. This 'trail' was a visually aweful and physically uncomfortable steel-grate platform that wouldn't have been out of place at a slaughtherhouse. My partner and I joked that it was a punishment for those that didn't want to fork over the 50CNY for the golf cart, because I couldn't imagine anyone "hiking" that section for pleasure. (Sure enough, we encountered noone). As for the gondola, rest assured that they would build one if it were practical or economically feasible, and I dont think it can be ruled out, given how much money they are pumping into tour group infrastructure.

I'm sorry to be so negative, because I think it distracts from the beauty of the area and your experience. I would highly recommend this hike to anyone looking for an adventure or an escape:)

Once again, I had a spectacularly enjoyable trip via words, and I never left my easy chair. The pictures are remarkable, too. Thank you very much.

I find it difficult to understand why anybody would ever go anywhere in a 200-person group unless they were armed and under fire from mortars.

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