Officially, Shangri-la in James Hilton’s classic “Lost Horizons”, is thought by most to be the Tibetan county of Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan Province in China. The name became well-known through word-of-mouth as a land of mystery and matchless beauty where life is lived in tranquil wonder, beyond the gaze of a distracted world.
However, to few who have traveled in southwest China, the real “Shangri-la” and inspiration for Hilton’s book is not in Yunnan, but more probably a mere 10 hours away by bus – in Sichuan province’s Yading/Daocheng region.
The outside world didn’t learn about Yading until 1920s when the first westerner Dr. Joseph Rock arrived in Yading and photographed the entire region. The writings and photographs are then issued by National Geographic, which gave the world its first pictures of the incredible beauty of the Yading area. But until now, the Yading Nature Reserve is still relatively unknown to both domestic and foreign travellers due to its remoteness.
When I am thinking about another outdoorsy Sichuan trip, Daocheng/Yading is the best option coming to my mind. May and October are the best time to go to avoid the rain (in the summer) and cold (in the winter).
- Day 1 Chengdu / Kangding
Transportation: Bus ( ¥140) from Chengdu to Kangding
From the bus station in Chengdu, there is no bus that goes directly to Daocheng, the county capital where Yading is located. It is recommended to have one-night rest in Kangding to acclimatise. If you depart at 7:00 a.m. from Xin Nan Men Bus Station (新南门车站), you are about to arrive before 4:00 p.m. in Kangding.
Accommodation in Kangding: Konka International Youth Hostel (by far the nearest hostel to the bus station)
Food in Kangding: wild mushroom (菌王府), sinigang with chicken (贵州酸汤鸡), wonton in chili oil (天全抄手), Tibetan meal (岗日嘎布藏餐)
- Day 2 Kangding / Daocheng
From Kangding, there are usually 2 buses per day going to Daocheng taking between 11 and 13 hours. All along you will pass Litang (alt.4000m), one of the highest towns in the world, and drive over Tuzi Mountain and Gao’ersi Mountain. En route you can visit the amazing Hizishan, as well as the largest ancient glacier heritage in Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Overnight at Daocheng.
Accommodation in Daocheng: Le Ma Ting Feng Youth Hostel (勒马听风客栈) is really a bargian with stylish rooms, all fully equipped with 24-hour hot water, hair dryer, wireless internet, and so on. You can tel (86)0836-572-8101 to get more information from the hostel owner.
Food in Daocheng: Daocheng’s local cuisine is mainly Tibetan food like steamed bread, Zanba, butter tea, beef, mutton, barley tea and yogurt. However, there are restaurants with Sichuan dishes. Because of the high altitude, the rice will be a little bit raw and the types of the dishes are less. Stewed Chicken with Matsutake (松茸炖鸡) can be found in the big restaurant in Daocheng County. Matsutake is a precious fungus with rich nutrition and protein, but also too expensive to have a taste. Local Tibetans in Daocheng are also keen on the air-dried beef and mutton (风干牦牛肉).
- Day 3 Daocheng / Riwa
Explore Daocheng and surroundings: On this day, you can take a shared mini-van taxi to catch the morning mist over Sela, and sunset over Daocheng River.There are Tibetan mini-van drivers located along the main street in Daocheng. They will probably find you before you find them! In addition, your hotel or guesthouse can help arrange a seat for you to hang around in Daocheng as well as heading to the Yading Natural Reserves. Visit Haizi Mountain, where has a thousand lakes at different level, up to Xingyicuo Lake, at 4420 meters above sea level. You can see the mountains are still covered by snow in the late May.
In the late afternoon, you can take a taxi to the small town of Riwa, which is now officially known as Shangri La/ Xiang Gel Li La (not to be confused by the town and county in Yunnan that has the same name). A seat in a shared mini-van taxi costs 50 RMB per person and the journey takes about 2 hours to cover the 75 kilometers. Visit Gonggalanjiling Lamasery in the mid-way to Riwa. Keep in mind that the Yading Nature Reserve is located in the town Riwa, 110 kilometers south of Daocheng.
Accommodation in Shangri-La Town: Riwa International Youth Hostel
Food in Shangri-La Town: Shangri-La town has several Chinese and Tibetan restaurants but ordering food can be difficult as English menus are as scarce as English speakers! There were several small shops for stocking up on water and snacks.
- Day 4 Yading Natural Reserve – The Frog Lake
Today you will reach the highlight of this journey – Yading Nature Reserve, home to three sacred Tibetan holy mountains: Chenresig (仙乃日), rising to 6032 meters, Chana Dorje (夏诺多吉) and Jampelyang (央迈勇), which both rise to 5958 meters. Tibetan Buddhists believe that making a kora around these mountains brings them favor with the gods. The scenery here easily rivals that of national parks of the west in terms of spectacular, pristine mountain scenery.
In the early morning, you have to buy your entrance ticket for the Yading Nature Reserve as it is not possible to drive beyond this point. The ticket price is 150 RMB per person, but you also have to buy a 120 RMB roundtrip bus ticket for a total price of 270 RMB per person. The bus ticket is for the 35 kilometer journey from Riwa to Yading Village and on to Long Tong Ba (the real main entrance to Yading). The bus first sent us to Yading village. We left our luggage at DingXiaDuo Guesthouse and the house owner, a really experienced and friendly old man, recommended us to do a quick day-hike first, and start the big overnight hike the next day.
The Frog Lake (小青蛙海), is a short 4 hour round-trip hike from the Yading village. The entrance of the trail is found from behind the big grass parking lot where all the buses drop people off. But it’s quite difficult to find where exactly the trail begins. So it would be better to bring a tour guide with you.
This hike is a great warmup before circling the holy mountain Chenresig, which is most comfortably done over the course of two days. The Frog Lake itself is quite small, and if it hasn’t rained in a while, there might not be much to see. Nonetheless, it’s a breathtaking, not-to-intense hike through the woods.
Accommodation and food in Yading: Ding Xia Duo Guesthouse
Guesthouses in Yading village offer meals, which are a bit more expensive than average. There are also a couple of other small restaurants in the village that may be cheaper than the guesthouses. There is a small shop for snacks and drinks, but don’t expect much of a selection.
- Day 5 Yading Natural Reserve – Circling the Mountain
In Yading, though you can hike the entire trail, along the way you also have these options.
☑Electric Car: From Chonggu (冲古寺) to the Louring Grasslands (洛绒牛场). If you begin to hike from Chonggu Temple, you would be completely and utterly destroyed by the end of the day. So the electric car, though expensive, with ¥80 per round-trip, is a must.
☒Horse: Luorong Grasslands to the Milk Lake (牛奶海). By this point you’re up pretty high and the views get spectacular. Actually there is no need to ride a horse since you still have to get down the horse and walk by yourself for a 600-meter long uphill road.
◎Hike: Past the Milk Lake your only option is hiking, which is a good thing, because it means there are basically no other tourists around. But if you don’t bring a tent or other hiking equipments, it is better to give this route up. The wet cold at 4,500 meters would totally sap you of your energy.
The hikes takes you clockwise around Chenresig. You’ll make it to the following landmarks:
- The entrance
- Chonggu Lodge (冲古寺)
- The Louring Grasslands (洛绒牛场)
- The Five Colored Lake (五色海)
- The Milk Lake (牛奶海)
- Campsite (卡斯牛棚)
- Cass Hells Canyon (卡斯地狱谷)
- The Gate of Hell (鬼门关)
- Pearl Lake (珍珠海)
Food when you are hiking: There was a small shop at Chonggu meadow near the cart stop which had pot noodles and various other snacks, and there may be one at Luorong but I didn’t go look. Otherwise I didn’t see much by way of food, so take your own!
The night before our hike around Chenresig (in Chinese, you call it zhuanshan 转山, which literally mean circling the mountain) was pretty restless. Incredibly powerful winds combined with lightening and torrential downpour would made it quite apprehensive about spending the next night in a tent at nearly 5,000 meters.
When morning broke, we are fortunately to see the sky without any thick layer of clouds. It is a usual case that visitors would experience a constant hourly change of blue sky, hail, fog, and rain. Few of them can see the top of all the three sacred mountains.
After about 3+ hours of muddy hiking from the Luorong Grasslands, we arrived at the Milk Lake (Niúnǎi hú – 牛奶湖), which stands at about 4,500 meters. The lake is created from glacier runoff and has a milky turquoise color.
The Five Colored Lake (五色海) lies directly to your right as you approach the Milk Lake. Because the split in the trail to the Five Colored Lake comes before you actually get to the Milk Lake, to save energy you could go up and check out the Five Colored Lake first, and then come back down and head to the Milk Lake. It’s hard to appreciate how beautiful this lake is in a picture. Basically, one side of the lake is bordered by cliffs that are the size of mountains. The scale in real life is absolutely astounding. When you’re there, you get that euphoric feeling of being small and insignificant beneath eons of natural beauty.
Most people turn back down the mountain at the Milk Lake. But, now is actually when the best part of the hike begins. By now, we’re mostly likely on our 5th or 6th hour of hiking. At this point, we were really tired. So we three girls returned and the other two boys soldiered on. They followed a path up behind the Milk Lake (ask a local horse guide to point it out if you aren’t sure). Keep in mind: as you ascend behind the Milk Lake, follow the trail markers and veer right once you’re up on the ridge. Keep Chenresig on your immediate right at all times. You’ll eventually come to a valley after about another hour of hiking. If it’s been raining, you’ll pass a small pond called Wisdom Lake (智慧海) created by rain runoff. This valley leads to the foot of Chenresig’s peak. Ultimately, you’ll come to a clearing where there is a discarded stone hut. My friends had their tent right next to the hut, which is somewhat sheltered from the wind. Then around 6pm, they met some local Tibetans being back from digging Chongcao in the plateau.
The Tibetans, according to my friends’ words, are incredibly cute and friendly. They offered hot water and a fire, shared some food, and stories. One of the young man even asked my friends for a Charge Pal since his phone has run out of charge and he could not listen to his beloved songs any more. And that night, they saw the sunset and the most incredible starry sky they’ve ever witnessed. “Trying to write about it or taking pictures of it is almost trivial, as you can’t really express it. You can only feel it, which is why you need to go there”, as they told us.
The second day of hiking starts hard, but then gets easier. You will cross over the top of a mountain ridge, and then begin descending down the mountain to Pearl Lake. From the Pearl Lake you’ll walk back to the Chonggu Lodge, where you can take an electric car back to the entrance. The following map shows you the basic outline of the route.
We’ve spent two days to finish the mountain circling, whereas the Tibetans can finish two rounds in one day. That is quite astonishing when we heard of that. Running into these people really made us suck it up and stop complaining about anything. Hearing of them inspired me to carry less, rely on less, and to be tougher.
- Day 6 Back to Daocheng
Eventually, you’ll descend back from Yading Natural Reserve to Riwa then to Daocheng again. Overnight in Daocheng.
- Day 7 Back to Chengdu
The Daocheng Airport opened in September 2013 and is the highest commercial airport in the world at 4411 meters high. You can take a flight there back to Chengdu.