The fringes of Tibet: One week in China’s Yading Nature Reserve

Milk Lake

It was the day after China’s annual Mid-Autumn Festival, and I had been debating what to do in Chengdu when a fellow backpacker mentioned that he was headed to the Tibetan region of the province. Yading Nature Reserve, in the western Garze region of Sichuan, promised a way to see a slice of Tibet without the hassle of obligatory tours and finicky travel permits. Over a steaming bowl of spicy hot pot and a copy of Lonely Planet China, I decided to come along with Christian to Yading, in the western edge of Sichuan province.

But what is going on with this bus?

The gateway city to Yading is the small city of Daocheng, which can be reached via a twenty-hour bus ride from Chengdu. The bus apparently takes two days to do this, but without knowing any Chinese, the details were rather fuzzy. It turned out to be more of an adventure than expected.

The bus left Chengdu at 09:00, and at around 14:00, we hit a jam. For some reason, the traffic on the one-lane road was at a standstill.

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We’re not going to be moving for a while….

Luckily, we met some Chinese friends, Gavin and the Police (I forgot his real name and ended up calling him by his occupation…) as we loitered by the side of the road, killing time by shooting hoops and conversing in broken English.

The area where we were stranded was actually quite nice... but we were there almost five hours....
The area where we were stranded was actually quite nice, but we were there almost five hours.

The bus didn’t start moving again until about six in the evening, and it was another seven hours of driving through increasingly foggy, dark mountain roads before we reached the town of Kangding. It was 1 in the morning, and the whole bus checked in to a rather dumpy hotel beside the bus station.

But first, our Chinese friends that decided it was essential to take a foot bath before bed!

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According to the Chinese, this helps you sleep!

The next morning, we boarded the bus at 6 AM. As it rode up the mountainside, it wove through an ever-changing series of landscapes: some areas reminded me of the Scottish Highlands, some of Kananaskis in Alberta, while some were just unmistakably Tibetan.

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In the afternoon, the bus arrived to the city of Daocheng.

Acclimatizing at Daocheng and Riwa

Daocheng is a small mountain town at 3700 metres above sea level. We decided to spend one day there to acclimatize to the the thin air before heading to the town of Riwa (also known, confusedly, as Shangri-La). It’s from there that special park buses enter the Yading Nature Reserve.

It had been drizzling the evening before, but the next morning the sky had cleared up. We decided to rent some bicycles to explore the countryside around Daocheng. Less than fifteen minutes out of town, and a few more pushing our (non-shifting) bikes up some hills, we found a viewpoint with Tibetan prayer flags and a lovely vista of the surrounding area.

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At about 4 in the afternoon, we made our way to the town of Riwa.

That evening we tucked in to a typical Tibetan dinner of yak meat, fried potatoes, and butter tea. Then we hit up the little town for some obligatory Chinese karaoke – surprisingly, for a small town, they had all the songs you could imagine, including obscure 90’s pop and European techno!

The next morning, we would finally catch the first bus to the nature reserve.

Finally in Yading: Autumn snow and day hikes

At 6 the next morning, we made our way to the Riwa bus station. After three full days of travel, we would finally be entering the Yading Nature Reserve.

It took only an hour by bus to get to the Yading Visitor Centre from Riwa. From there, trailheads and minibuses diverge further into the park.

The Lonely Planet recommends a particular hostel in the village, but after fifteen minutes of wandering in freezing rain and fumbling with Google Translate, we gave up and was showed another hostel right outside the bus stop.

The place was cozy enough, until we realized that at the equivalent of 10$CAD a night, you don’t get any heating at 3997 metres above sea level!

And then, of course, it began to snow.

The hostel had electric blankets, which was better than nothing, but walking around anywhere outside its confines involved donning full winter attire.

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In the afternoon, the snow had subsided, and at the recommendation of the hostel owner, we decided to take a quick hike to a place known as Pearl Lake.

We made it to somewhere that looked like could be Pearl Lake, but mostly, it was enough to wander around the boardwalks built around the swampy valleys and streams in the area.

 

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The air was noticeably thin. None of the trails were particularly steep or strenuous, but we had to catch our breath every ten minutes due to the more oxygen-deprived atmosphere.

It was just as well that we had the chance to get outside that day: the next morning, we would take a longer hike to two of the most famous lakes in the area, Milk Lake and Five Colour Lake.

Wrong buses and two lakes

At 4000+ metres, the altitude in Yading is no joke. Maybe it was because of this, in combination with the incessant cold and mountain fog, that we managed to take the wrong bus for the trailhead of Milk Lake the next morning. We wound around the mountain roads for about twenty minutes before we realized that it was going to take us out of Yading!

We frantically mimed with the bus driver that we were on the wrong bus, while he replied animatedly and pointed at our map. We were indeed going the wrong direction. He made some calls on the radio, and dropped us off on the side of the foggy mountain road to catch the correct bus.

Once we made it to the trailhead at the Visitor’s Centre (which actually turned out to be the same visitor centre as the day before…), it was pretty easy-going. From there, we bought another ticket to take a minibus to the Milk Lake trail head (80 RMB, round trip). Then we followed the other hikers and horse-riders into the trail.

Yading trail with horses

It was a leisurely hike, and the rain had let up, at least for the first half. We had to dodge horse poop and ruddy mud, and the altitude made it slow-going.

But for the sights, the pictures can easily explain…

Trail to Five-Colour Lake

Stones on the trail

Horses on the Yading trail

Waterfall on the Yading trail

Milk Lake
A view of Milk Lake…
Five Colour Lake
…and Five Colour Lake

It took about three hours to get to Milk Lake, and from there, it was another ten minutes to Five Colour Lake. At this point, it had started to rain, and we made our way back.

That evening, we settled for a dinner of instant noodles and self-heating rice(!) before being invited by the hostel owner for butter tea and barley bread with the Tibetan family living underneath our hostel. It was a quiet end to a slightly hectic day.

Backtracking to Chengdu

At some point during the two days on the mountain, something went kapputt with Christian’s knee, and the idea of spending another two days on a cramped bus back to Chengdu did not sound appealing. We tried to find a quick flight out of Daocheng, but they were either sold out or prohibitively expensive.

In the end, we grudgingly decided to backtrack again by bus through Daocheng, spending one evening there before catching the only bus back to Chengdu.

In the two days we were on the mountain, the landscape on the highway changed from fall shades to vistas of lightly-dusted sprinklings of snow.

Bus driving in snowy landscape

Snowy view from bus

We had expected the bus from Daocheng to take two days once again, but it only took a short break in Kangding before driving on. After leaving Daocheng at 6 AM, it arrived in Chengdu at 10 PM that same day.

It had been a long week: The way to Yading was long and winding, but in the end, we were rewarded with scenes of some of the most unique areas in China.


To see Christian’s version of the story, check out his post (German only) at cendt.de.

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