OFF INTO THE WILD WET YONDER How does this...
Trip Report: Yubeng and the Meili Snow Mountains
Tucked away up in northwest Yunnan, right on the border with Tibet, is an amazing and incredibly rugged mountain region, still unknown to many travelers. The peaks of note here are known as the Meili Snow Mountain range and they rise steeply out of arid gorges above a remote region dotted with small farming villages. Nestled deep within one of these steep sided valleys is Yubeng—a hidden gem of a hamlet that is slowly becoming known as a fantastic destination for hikers from around the world.
This corner of Yunnan, including Yubeng and Deqin county, features a predominantly Tibetan population, resulting in a completely different atmosphere and experience in contrast to mainstream Chinese tourism in the more popular outdoor destinations around the country. As such, it is especially attractive to those who aim to discover a bit of Tibet without having to actually deal with the travel permits and added expense of going there.
Yubeng village and the Meili Snow Mountains provide hiking options with some of the most spectacular views imaginable—glaciers, vivid green alpine slopes, mountain streams, and waterfalls. It still takes a fair chunk of travel time reaching this area of China but it’s sure to please avid hikers and photographers alike so if you plan on journeying here, make sure you set aside ample time to take it all in.
For most people, the jumping off point for hiking into Yubeng begins at either Shangri-La (quite a bit further south) or Deqin, the only other town of size which lies closer to Yubeng. Shangri-La has attempted to make its name, literally, as an attraction in the region and this was done in 2001 by actually changing the city’s name (formally Zhongdian) to that of the land described in the old James Hilton novel Lost Horizon. Despite its exotic name, the drive on the main road through this area reveals a dusty, barren looking stretch of rural highway lined with various repair shops and rest stops, surrounded mostly by farms and hills. Despite this impression from the road, there are supposed to be some real attractions that bring travelers around for a night or two. Shangri-La’s Old Town used to be somewhat of a draw until most of it burned down almost two years ago so now, there is the Songzanlin Monastery along with a handful of other less famous sights.
If departing from Shangri-La up to Deqin and beyond, be prepared for a ride of about six hours as you work your way up into the mountains. Road conditions deteriorate the further you get, especially if you are unlucky enough to get delayed by a rockslide. Travelers either stay overnight in Deqin or pay for transportation to take them a bit further along to Feilai Temple (Feilaisi)—a spot known for providing some outstanding views of the Meili Snow mountains, along with a handful of roadside restaurants and guesthouses.
From Feilai Temple to the Xidang hot spring (Xidang wenquan) trailhead, the point where you can actually begin your hike, the ride takes 1-2 hours. Upon arrival at Xidang you’ll see a parking lot, guesthouse and mules standing ready for those who want to pay to have their bags hauled in. From here, it’s all about pacing yourself because you are in for a solid 4-5 hour hike, with a starting elevation of about 2,400 m (8,000ft) and it’s all uphill but not too steep for the most part.
The trail works its way through forest for a few hours and you’ll finally top out at approx. 3,750 m (12,300ft) at Nanzong Pass. Here is where most take a breather at a rustic rest stop which sells snacks and drinks. Just after this it’s all downhill and this is where the real views start to open up. It’s still a few hours of hiking down into the valley where quaint little Yubeng reveals itself, a likely candidate (out of the many locations) that may have inspired Hilton’s fabled Shangri-La. After a few hours of downhill hiking, you’ll be sure to feel it in your knees by the time you arrive but the inspiring views are worth it! In Yubeng, there are several guesthouses to choose from, assuming you haven’t already reserved a room in one—with either shared or private rooms available.
Yubeng is actually divided into two parts—upper and lower. It seems that most guesthouses are clustered on the slopes of upper Yubeng and these are ideal because many rooms allow unobstructed views of the Mingyong glacier and the towering peaks. I was here during the rainy season so, while not actually pouring rain every day, the snow covered peaks were obscured by cloud cover the entire time.
The Meili Snow Mountains feature the highest peaks in all of Yunnan Province. Kawagebo is the most prominent here, jutting up to 6,740 m (22,112 ft.), easily recognizable if one is lucky enough to see it free of cloud cover. Kawagebo is also one of the eight sacred mountains in Tibetan Buddhism and remains a virgin peak, as are several other 6000+ m mountains in this area. In the ‘90s, a group of Chinese and Japanese mountaineers actually attempted to climb Kawagebo and were never seen again until their remains were discovered seven years later, all of them killed in a massive avalanche.
The great thing about making the journey to Yubeng is that one can at least get up close to the base of some of these exotic peaks and even hike right up to glacier-fed waterfalls and pools. One of the most popular half-day hikes from Yubeng takes you to the sacred waterfall (Sheng Pu). This route takes you down through lower yubeng and across the valley floor and into heavy forest. This eventually opens out to an amazing alpine valley, surreal looking really, because the air is incredibly clear here and the greens so vivid (one of the benefits of hiking during the rainy season).
Standing there taking it all in—full views of the lower part of the glacier, numerous waterfalls spilling off of sheer cliffs, prayer flags hung over parts of the trail, plus the smell of incense on the breeze—need I say more?
Close to the waterfall there were bulls on the trail too, besides the occasional hiker…a bit unnerving having a those horns come within inches of me when waiting for the bull to pass (and giving as much room as I could spare) on that narrow trail. Once at the waterfall, there’s even a chance to get soaked standing under misty runoff of pure glacier water.
For those with an extra day or two and the motivation to get further afield, there are other hikes from Yubeng which lead either to the Kawagebo base camp/ice lake or Holy Lake. Both hikes take all day in addition to leading up near 4000 m in elevation so they are not to be taken lightly.
Also, there is an alternate hike to access Yubeng Village by starting in Ni Long (a.k.a Ninong) village and following the Yubeng River part of the way. It is also a very long hike so plan accordingly. For more details, check out this write-up. Some even choose to hike in via the Ni Long trail and out of Yubeng on the Xidang route (If I make it out to this region again, this is a route I’d definitely like to try).
If this has inspired you to see this unique part of Yunnan, spending at least a few days to acclimate and even get in a shorter “practice” hike is ideal. Some do this by hiking part of Tiger Leaping Gorge first, before going further north, others find that 1-2 nights in Shangri-La (elevation 3,160 m) is ideal before moving on. And who knows? If you make the journey to Yubeng, you may just be lucky enough to catch a view of Kawagebo at sunrise.
- The best ways to get to northwest Yunnan are either by flying directly into Shangri-La or by bus from points further south (usually Lijiang).
- From Shangri-La, there are a handful of buses that head to Deqin each day (last one departs noon-early afternoon). Minivans are also around and if you can share the cost with other riders, these are a good alternative.
- On the roads close to Xidang, rockslides are common so expect delays.
- Entrance tickets cost 230 rmb/person to access Yubeng.
- Unless you enjoy fueling your body with instant noodles and Red Bull, it’s best to bring your own food for the trail (I had blocks of my homemade energy bars). There are three stops along the trail into Yubeng where you can buy snacks, water or hot tea.
- Winter is supposed to be the best time to hike here as far as getting clear views of the Kawagebo and other peaks.
More photos below!