A 2 day (mis)adventure to Yading Nature Reserve in Sichuan, China. Might be one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and I’m glad to have came, but here’s how you should not do it.
Ever since my first/last trip to China, there was one place I knew I had to return to China to visit. On that trip back in 2015 I had made my way to the ‘hidden’ village of Yubeng in the Meilexueshan area. Word was going round then of a magical paradise in not too far away. An area so beautiful it had sometimes been known as the last Shangri-la. And so in September 2018, along with 2 friends, I headed back to the region north of Meilixueshan in hope of experiencing this paradise for ourselves.
Drama aside, things turned out to be just a tiny bit underwhelming. Perhaps it was the crowd that we had not anticipate would form at over 4,000m above sea level in the mountains. Perhaps it was the cold, wet, miserable, late summer weather at that altitude. I thought I had picked a good time in early autumn, just before the peak holiday periods. We might have avoided a bigger crowd but definitely not the crowd in entirety, and the oversight in weather conditions made the trip a lot less enjoyable than it could have been. But nothing could hide the beauty of Yading Nature Reserve.
The Original Plan
We started out at Daocheng city, having arrived the previous afternoon. Given the bad weather prior to arriving at Yading, we intended spend the day at Yading Village, and hope the following 2 days would have better weather for us to do the 2 day small kora trek, which would involve camping a night at the far side of the mountains. Didn’t quite turn out as planned.
Getting to Yading
From Daocheng, we took a car to Yading. Prices are fixed throughout Daocheng at 50 CNY per person per trip. On the day we arrived, there were drivers waiting outside the bus station. They offered to get us to our guesthouse in Daocheng for free if we agreed to use their services to get to Yading the next day. Since it was going to be 50 CNY from Daocheng to Yading anyway, we agreed. If you’re arriving earlier in the day you might considering heading straight to Yading, or to Riwa, a village (more like a tourist town). We left Daocheng around 8 in the morning and arrived at Yading almost 2 hours later.
Entering Yading Nature Reserve and the first sign of trouble
After we got our tickets (150 CNY entrance, 120 CNY park bus, 10 CNY insurance (optional)), we went over to the information counter to check on the viability of our plan. One of the staff said it was possible while another said it was illegal to camp within the nature reserve. No one seemed too sure if the usual camping spot on the far side of Chenrezig was considered within the nature reserve.
Another consideration was that for the trail beyond Milk Lake till the Pearl Lake, which was unpaved and less frequented, might be flooded/dangerous following the days of rain. That could not be confirmed too. One thing that they could confirm was that having started our day at Daocheng, there would definitely not be enough time to complete the small kora trek on the same day. And so we set off, less sure of what was ahead than before we arrived.
From the visitor center it is about 1.5 hour by the internal park bus to the start of the trail. There’s a stop before Yading village for a photo opportunity with Chenrezig, a stop at Yading village, before arriving at the trail proper.
With a couple of twists and turns we were soon high up in the mountains. It was still pretty cloudy that day so we didn’t get to see much, but it was soon clear that there was a very prominent snow capped peak that we were headed towards.
First view of Chenresig/ Xiannairi
After desperate attempts to get a snot of the snow capped peak on a moving bus, the bus stopped at a viewing platform. We had 10 minutes to get there to admire Chenresig, probably the first 6000m peak I’ve came this close to. Despite the cloud cover we were in awe of it magnificence. This photo below doesn’t really do it justice.
The viewing platform also overlooks Yading village. Unlike at Yubeng village, which was really a village (at least when I visited), Yading village was very touristy, with hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. Not every comfort you can think of but more than comfortable enough for a trip to the mountains.
As the weather was surprisingly still holding up, we decided to take a chance and changed plans, starting our hike that day, with the intention of camping beyond Milk Lake that night.
Start of the hike
At noon we arrived at the start of the trail, at Zhaguanbeng service center. It was a surprise for me finding out how extensive the infrastructure and facilities were, having expected a somewhat more rugged experience. This was pretty much the same for the rest of the trail (for the main public routes), with well paved paths, shelters and toilets available most of the way.
A steep but short climb brought us from the service center to the valley, an open area where there were lots of people waiting, either having started/ended their hike. This was probably where I gave up all final hopes of being able to escape the crowds in mountain paradise.
From Chonggu Meadow there are electric trams that can take you all the way to Luorong Pasture, 50 CNY one-way and 80 CNY round-trip. As we were still feeling full of energy and wanted to do it the ‘right’ way, we gave the trams a pass and headed for the boardwalk along Chonggu Meadow.
Turned out to be a good decision to skip the trams, as the road goes behind the trees, while the trail follows the glacier fed rivers upstream. Most tourists pick the trams, so the trail was suddenly quiet, perfect for appreciating the clear waters cutting across the gentle meadows, back-dropped by mountains rising up thousands of meters.
Chonggu Meadow to Luorong Pasture
At the end of the meadow the view narrowed as we continued on the boardwalk into the forested area. Once in awhile there would be an opening in the trees which showed the mountains getting closer.
About 2 hours after we started our hike, we arrived at a small lake/pond, where there was a perfect reflection of the snow covered (and cloud obscured) Jampelyang/ Yangmaiyong. Just shy of 6,000m, at 5,958m. In the meantime, the clouds were rolling in fast.
In a few swift moments the last traces of sun disappeared, and the first drops fell. The rain, while not heavy, was relentless. Add in a little breeze at that altitude, with less than waterproof clothing, and the mood couldn’t have been more different from an hour ago.
Lunch and decisions
Raincoats out, we trudged along and soon arrived at Luorong Pasture, but the gloomy skies were as miserable as can be. We decided to have our lunch break before deciding our next steps.
As Luorong Pasture is the end of the electric tram route, there was a big service station where you can get food, seek shelter from the rain, or hire a donkey to get your closer to the holy lakes. At the buildings next to the tram station, we tried asking for hot water, having read that that was available at Luorong service station. The staff we approached, however, said that hot water was not available for cup noodles, due to littering concerns. Found it strange, but as there was packed fresh food available for sale (at a grand 40 CNY), we just took the easy way out and bought the lunch boxes. It was quite a heavy lunch with rice, vegetables, and a fried chicken drumstick (albeit a little soggy). Later on we went to the little huts closer to the stables and it seemed to have hot water available.
After lunch, the rain lightened, but the sky was as gloomy. We weren’t well prepared, and between us had blisters and soaked socks. We decided to give it a go towards the lakes. Most of the crowd was heading backwards by then, and looked at us in puzzlement, as it was probably too late to reach the lakes and make it back in time for the tram/bus out. As the boardwalk ended and the muddy rocky trail started, our tired selves gave in, knowing that comfortable dormitories were just a short ride out. And that was how our original plan ended.
Just as we reached back at Luorong Pasture, the rain stopped, and the sky cleared just ever so slightly. Things did look different even in that slightly better weather. Far from postcard perfect, but nice enough for us to stop to take it in. Without the pressure of having to reach the campsite, we also felt a load off our backs.
Retreat to Yading Village
From Luorong Pasture, we took the electric tram out for 50 CNY (the one way ticket as mentioned earlier). So much for doing it the right way. The tram stopped at Chonggu Meadow, where it was a short walk back to Zhaguanbeng for the outbound buses. Without a prior booking, we just decided to get off at stop #3, the first cluster of guesthouses coming from Yading. Most things are going on around stop #1 or #2, with more restaurants, shops, etc, so there might have been a more convenient choice.
We went into the first guesthouse we saw, just beside stop #3, called Fan Ying Hai. They had beds (60 CNY) left in one of the dorm rooms, we were deadbeat, so that was it, the stop for the night. It turned out pretty decent, with clean toilets and heated mattresses. They had no towels though. One of our roommates learnt it the hard way when he dived straight for the shower upon reaching the room. We had our cup noodles for dinner and had an early night, in anticipation of a long day ahead.
Day 2, the new plan
Given how miserable the weather on the first day had made us, we wanted to get out of Yading as soon as possible. I need to add a disclaimer though, that Yading wouldn’t have been this miserable with the right attire and expectations. The plan was to catch the first bus to the trail (passes stop #3 around 7.50am), take the tram back to Luorong, and finish the lakes. This would be what most people do in one day, the ‘long route’. Then, back at Luorong, we would take the tram back to Chonggu Meadow and do what most people do on a separate day, the ‘short route’, up to Zhuoma/Pearl Lake as well as Chonggu Monastery. If all went well we would pick up our bags from Fan Ying Hai late in the afternoon and be out of Yading Nature Reserve by the evening.
Luorong Pasture, round 2
We arrived at the electric trams around 8.20am and by 8.40am we were back at Luorong Pasture. There were already people out and about but the trail was by yesterday’s standards deserted. Things were still overcast, but not having to deal with rain and wind made a lot of difference.
Luorong Pasture to Milk Lake and Five Color Lake
From Luorong Pasture it was about another 4km to the lakes, first very flat, then a little steep, then just very, very, very steep towards the end.
After the villages the climb began. Gently at first, and the changing panoramas kept us distracted.
Stepping into thin air
This was the viewing platform just before the steep ascent to the other side of the mountains. We arrived here about 1 hour and 20 mins after we left Luorong, at around 10 in the morning. Given the steep and rocky trail that was ahead, there was a sign informing visitors that donkeys are not allowed beyond that point for safety reasons and the rest has to be done on foot. The sign also highlighted that with altitudes reaching 4,700m over the pass, anyone not feeling their best would be much better off not proceeding any further.
From the platform there was only about 1km to go, but the toughest part still awaited us. It was a steep climb over rocky steps in literally thin air.
We took almost half an hour to get 200m closer to the lakes. By then we were exhausted. Or rather, breathless. Fortunately there was an open flat area where everyone stopped to catch their breath. Not too much of a view though in that weather.
From there it was a fork between the Milk Lake and Five Color Lake, with a trail between them on the other side completing the loop. As we were tired we opted for the easier way first towards Milk Lake, as it was just another kilometer on flat ground. On the other hand, the Five Color Lake was an extremely steep 800m upwards.
About half an hour we were at Milk Lake, with the rain and wind howling in our face from across the mountain pass. Just a tiny bit different from the vivid photographs of it seen over the web. Just a bit.
To the right of the pass along the grassy surface is the trail that leads around Chenrezig. The trail we would have taken if we had came better prepared at a better time. Not today.
From Milk Lake it was a short climb over relatively gradual stairs to reach the Five Color Lake. On hindsight deciding to head to Milk Lake first was a good decision, given how steep the other way up to Five Color Lake is.
Five Color Lake
We arrived at the Five Color Lake after a short walk (less than 20 mins). The rain stopped as suddenly as it started, and we spent a little more time just sitting around at the Five Color Lake. The colors were stunning.
Between the Milk Lake and Five Color Lake
Between the Milk Lake and Five Color Lake was a paved walkway over a ridge that was as high as we would get to over our hike. From there it is possible to see either lakes, and occasionally, both of them, at the same time.
Descent from Five Color Lake
At the end of the ridge was the stairs that we had avoided earlier, the steep steps that would complete the Milk Lake/ Five Color Lake loop. Probably not one for those with a fear of heights.
When we were finally down that steep flight of stairs, I looked back and caught a magnificent view of the snow capped peak of Chenrezig peeking out from behind the clouds.
Luorong Pasture, round 3
The way back was more or less the same, definitely easier on the descent, and we arrived back at Luorong at around 1pm. Got on the tram and in no time, back at Chonggu Meadow.
Back at Chonggu Meadow we had our lunch which was some self heating rice set we found in Daocheng, and seemed popular in China. Everything was in the box (water, utensils, heating pack), and in a few minutes you can have a steaming hot bowl of rice with meat and vegetables. Perfect for that chilly weather, even with the sun out shining at lunch. Sun shining with a couple of raindrops.
Chonggu Monastery to Pearl Lake
We took our time with lunch, knowing that the rest of the trail we intended to do would not take long. Around 3pm we started on the final leg of our hike in Yading, the trail to Pearl Lake and back. The entire way there and back is about 3-4km, with a slight uphill. After the ascent to the lakes this would have felt like nothing.
Not that much of scenery in the initial half hour stretch, till an opening in the trees where there was a pond/small lake. The view might have been great if not for the rain settling in again. It was cold and crowded there so we didn’t stay long, and continued towards Pearl Lake/ Zhuoma Lake. From the unnamed pond/ small lake the trail goes in a loop back to that same spot. If you go in an anticlockwise direction you’ll first reach Pearl Lake, then a viewing spot for Chenrezig, then back to the unnamed pretty pond again.
Pearl Lake/ Zhuoma Lake
There were lots of tourists and groups crowded there when we arrived, with much jostling and shoving, so it was far from a pleasant experience at Pearl Lake. Wasn’t easy taking pictures in that weather too, so we hurried along.
Attempts to catch the peak of Chenresig/ Xiannairi
We continued on the path around Pearl Lake, towards the view point of Chenrezig/ Xiannairi. The attractions in this part are pretty close together, all within minutes of each other.
Actually with Chenrezig/ Xiannairi at 6,032m tall you don’t need a viewing platform to see it, just need good weather. Short in supply in early September.
The viewing platform was as far as the demarcated trail went for that route. As it was less crowded than the Pearl Lake, and there were seats available, we decided to wait one last time for the clouds to clear. Alas it was not to be, and we started on our way out of Yading.
Finally, at around 5pm, after that leisurely afternoon stroll, we were back at Chonggu Monastery. The monastery is a few hundred years old, but its current form is more recent. It isn’t a huge monastery, but still an interesting Tibetan monastery to explore. You’ll need to remove footwear before entering the halls, and no photography is allowed in them.
Inside the prayer halls were Buddha statues and intricate paintings. You can make a small offering or simply admire the the interiors. Tibetan monasteries burn yak butter candles, which for me was a little too pungent after some time.
Just as we were about to leave the sun came up, and cloud cleared up a little. Close to the perfect ending we needed to complete our trip to Yading.
Out of the mountains!
There was still time for the internal buses to the exit, which ran till around 7pm. There were separate queues at Zhaguanbeng for buses to Yading Village, and the buses that went straight to the exit. We had to get back to Yading Village to collect our bags first. From stop #3, it was a little tricky catching the bus out, and we had to take one bus to get to the center of Yading village (more like a small town), before catching another bus to get us to the exit.
Evening was nearing by the time we reached the entrance to Yading once again, where the driver who got us in 2 days back was already waiting for us. We had planned to look for transport when we reached the exit but he beat us to the game by dropping a Wechat text. He had filled his guest list and we were the first among them to reach his car, so we spent awhile catching our breaths, contemplating what we had just gotten ourselves through. Definitely one for the memories.
For the next part of our Sichuan adventure, continue to the Daocheng post!