OFF INTO THE WILD WET YONDER How does this...
Yading Nature Reserve: Former Stronghold of Bandit Monks, Current Trekkers’ Paradise
A “REAL” SHANGRI LA IN MODERNIZED CHINA
Shangri La—the fabled far away land of exotic beauty and timelessness, hidden away from much of the world, yet serving as inspiration to many travelers. What began as a fictional place name has evolved into more of a brand and subsequent namesake for various Asian travel destinations in the modern world.
Nowadays there are probably dozens of places from central to eastern Asia that lay claim as the location of the “real” Shangri La, or at least the source of inspiration for it, after it became known as a prominent setting in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Some of these locales are far more deserving of the name or reputation than others and so far, during my travels in China, I have been to two small towns that have actually changed their names to Shangri La—a town formerly known as Zhongdian in northern Yunnan Province and more recently the tiny village of Riwa, deep in southwest Sichuan Province near Tibet.
Riwa is still known by its original name with locals in the region but the tourism industry has been attempting to re-brand it as new hotels are being thrown up and more promotion is being done to attract visitors in the area. Having passed through there myself, I could see that it still basically functions as a stop along the road to get a connecting shuttle bus to Yading Village which in turn allows access to the main destination—the Yading Nature Reserve—a place easily the most deserving of the “Shangri La” title in this entire region.
I had previously read up on the Yading Nature Reserve when I was planning a trip into Yubeng/Meili Snow Mountains range. I opted for the Yubeng hike then (read my trip report here), but book marked Yading as an option in the near future as it immediately struck me as another “must-see” trekking (and landscape photography) destination. For starters, the mountains here lie on the edge of the Himalayan/Tibetan plateau, so for those who don’t have enough time to explore Tibet proper, this is an excellent option.
The far corner of southwest China is a place where one can find themselves on the eastern gateway of the Himalayas, up close to some breathtaking and absolutely massive peaks—nothing like the smaller but also picturesque mountains that are so popular in areas of China a bit closer to urban centers. Not to say those other peaks are not worth seeing but, for one, these mountains are often fogged or smogged out, so views tend to be limited AND you are all but guaranteed crowds of tourists to deal with for the duration of your hike.
For many traveling or living in China, places like Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan) or central China’s Hua Shan are more convenient to access and have scenery reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings almost brought to life. But the downside is that these places are dominated by buses, cable cars, crowds and the monotony of literally 1000s of stone steps to climb in order to reach the peaks. So for hikers (or perhaps the more jaded travelers) who have already seen a handful of these mountains, there tends to be a desire to see something a little more unexpected, a bit more far flung.
With that in mind, Yading fits the bill perfectly. There are impressive vistas and real trekking options here so you are not limited at all times to the fenced in wooden plank/paved paths which dominate most of China’s natural attractions—whether they are mountains, waterfalls, rivers or forests. Given the sheer numbers of Chinese travelers to many of these places, controlling the crowds is obviously a necessity, especially given how prone many are to littering and otherwise making a mess of public places. But on the other hand, it is nice to at least have some alternatives to being a penned in industrial tourist. And it’s only getting harder to find these options in China with the recent emergence of more and more overpriced gimmicks like these glass bottom walkways that seem to be so popular (yet dubious in terms of safety).
The Yading Nature Reserve itself is currently undergoing development to attract ever-increasing numbers of tourists but if you mention this place to others in China, chances are most have still never heard of it. Until recently, access to the area meant a nearly 24 hour bus ride from Chengdu or a 12 hour trip from Shangri La in Yunnan Province just to the south. While using the long haul bus or shared hired van is still a much cheaper option, I try to avoid it if I can due to the incredible amount of time it eats up from the total trip. With the opening of the Yading Daocheng regional airport, it reduces an entire days worth of travel down to only 5-7 hours, depending on where you are coming from within China. The flight from Chengdu to Daocheng only takes about an hour.
A FOREIGNER IN A FORBIDDEN LAND
For now, Yading should still be considered one of China’s most underrated gems. This expansive nature reserve lets you take in some truly amazing unspoiled views of three 6,000 m (19,600 ft) holy mountains: Chanadorje, Jampelyang and Chenresig. These prominent peaks are the very same that botanist and explorer Joseph Rock photographed in 1928 and then wrote about in the 1931 National Geographic article Konka Risumgongba, Holy Mountain of the Outlaws. Despite Joseph Rock’s extensive journeys and documentation of these areas, for many years after they still remained relatively unknown and unexplored by all but the local populations in the region. This has in part been attributed to a large group of notorious monks-turned-bandits who controlled much of the area before.
It is said that anyone daring to trespass on this territory would most likely be murdered and robbed, in that order, by this ruthless gang. This applied not only to ethnic Chinese but other indigenous Tibetan groups living in adjacent valleys. Apparently the bandits, known as the Konkaling tribe, lived up to their reputation by attacking other villages and caravans travelling through the region. Rock and his entourage only managed to explore this area by negotiating permission with the King of the small Muli Kingdom—a territory which partially overlapped what is now the Yading Nature Reserve. The ruler then somehow persuaded the Kongaling tribe to allow Rock safe passage during his time there. (More reading on Joseph Rock’s adventures here.)
Jumping forward to the late ’90s, this area was officially designated a nature reserve and all of the glacial lakes, meadows and god-like peaks that awed Joseph Rock were opened up for exploration by visitors (minus the threat of murderous bandit monks). But even then there were very few travelers who would make their way to this unique region.
When reading up on a handful of other trip reports about Yading, it was obvious that in the last 5-10 years a lot of transformation has taken place, particularly around the scenic spots closer to the entrance of the reserve. What were formerly dodgy, poorly maintained dirt roads are now wide and paved. In the reserve itself, concrete lanes have been laid down for obnoxious horn honking electric carts that can haul ten people at a time. And for those who walk, simple muddy footpaths have given way to raised metal grate walkways or wide sturdy wooden planks. However, after hiking 3-4 hours, these walkways end and dirt/rocky paths continue further along the valley.
If heading much deeper into the reserve, the trail itself is relatively easy, open and you can go where you please for the most part. Most importantly, there are still really remote areas where camping is allowed for those who seek a more memorable and challenging trekking experience. Chances are you will see very few people if doing this.
LET’S GET DOWN TO IT—TREKKING DETAILS
There are two options for trekking here which involve circumambulating one or all three of the towering peaks. The trails are essentially Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage (kora) routes around the mountains so depending on the time of year, you may see the occasional group of locals doing the kora. In Tibetan Buddhism, each of these peaks is worshipped as a different Bodhisattva. Mt. Chenresig is an emanation of Avalokiteshvara (mercy), Chanadorje is Vajrapani (wrath), and Jampelyang represents Manjushri (wisdom).
The “small kora” is a 32km route that goes clockwise around Mt. Chenresig and it requires at least one night of camping about halfway around the mountain. Although fairly long, the trail itself is easy. There is no scrambling or rivers to cross, but bringing along a solid walking stick is recommended. There are two mountain passes that need to be crossed but the inclines/declines are not too steep except for just a few short sections. The big kora requires anywhere from 7-10 days of trekking with either a local guide or organized group trekking tour, and almost certainly has some rougher, more unpredictable trail conditions in places. Both routes have an average elevation of 4000m/13,000ft. You need to bring your own food, camping gear and means to get drinking water along the way, e.g. water filter and/or purification tablets.
Given my time constraints, I decided to do a solo trek along the small kora, in early November of 2015. This is one of the best times of year to travel in China because it’s well after the busy “National Day” peak travel period which often extends well into October. Now that Yading has become a more established natural attraction and can be accessed by the nearby airport, you can count on seeing masses of tourists descending on this place during China’s popular travel months. Even in November, there was still a surprising amount of tourists on day hikes in the reserve. Many people (like myself) wanted to catch the tail end of remaining fall colors on the trees, along with the near guarantee of clear blue skies this time of year.
After flying into Daocheng and getting the bus, I arrived around noon at Yading Village and overnighted there. The village lies partway up a big hill looking down on the valley that holds the paths leading into the reserve proper. There are quite a few guesthouses to choose from here so I walked around for 10 minutes, checked out a few and settled on one that seemed as good as any. (for more details on the guesthouses and transportation into Yading, see the end of this post below)
FULL DARK, PLENTY OF STARS… AND A VICIOUS-LOOKING MASTIFF
Despite only having a day to acclimate I set out with my pack at about 6 a.m. the next morning, still full dark. There are buses that run every 30 minutes most of the day from the village on down to the trailhead but I wanted to do it the right way and use my own two feet, walking early so I could catch the sights at dawn. Besides, the first bus doesn’t operate until 7:30, the rides are short, and I felt fine (no headaches or difficulty breathing as long as I took it fairly slow).
It was a bit surreal to say the least, flying in straight from a polluted urban environment and being here, walking out of the guesthouse into the cold crisp air with a sky above loaded with bright stars and, down on the ground, deep black hulking shadow-shapes on the road nearby. Upon seeing those I actually froze for a moment because I saw that they were moving and only until my eyes adjusted I realized that they were cows just milling around…Not every day you get right up close to a bunch of cows in the road first thing in the morning in a Tibetan village. The only noise to be heard was the soft jingle of the bells hanging from their necks. Given the sparse light from the stars and a quarter moon, I just let my eyes continue to adjust as I walked on down the hill.
About halfway down, walking by a few houses, suddenly I see this good sized dog come running towards me from out of a driveway. It didn’t make a sound but attached to its collar was a length of broken off chain link that was dragging as it approached me. The only thing going through my head as I stopped cold was this dog—a Tibetan mastiff —thought I was invading its turf, the chain busted loose somehow and it was coming in for a swift attack…
Backtrack a bit. When doing my trip planning I had heard plenty about Tibetan mastiffs and the popularity of these dogs in regions like this. This breed in particular has a really nasty reputation as being territorial or dangerous, although that might have to do more with social breeding rather than genetics. Anyway, I generally like to plan things out well, especially because in this case I already knew that I would probably do some walking in the dark alone, so I thought why not bring some pepper spray with? I wasn’t able to buy any so at home I just made some using lots of chili powder soaked in about 100ml of water in a small spray bottle, which I wrapped well in plastic and packed with my other gear.
Well, I had this bottle in the side mesh pocket on my pack when walking down that road so I slowly reached around and grabbed it as the dog approached, slowing to more of a trot. Still, not a sound from him which made it seem more menacing, just a hsss-hsss-hsss of the length of chain dragging on the smooth surface of the road. I began walking slowly, tense with a bit of adrenaline going…and the dog just continued walking directly behind me. After a few minutes, well beyond the house it came from, he wouldn’t leave. I just kept the same pace not even bothering to turn around. Finally the hiss of the chain grew faint as I rounded one of the big switchback turns. I guess the dog was just a bit curious. Either way, he successfully herded me down along the road but I kept the pepper spray out a while longer for good measure.
INTO THE RESERVE
At this point it had already begun to get light out and I walked on, coming to a section of road where I could see a raised metal grate pathway running parallel, so I turned off and began to follow that for 20 minutes or so until it lead to the actual entrance of the reserve. The path followed a creek for a bit until opening up to a viewing area where the trail splits in a few directions. One way leads a short distance to the Chonggu Monastery, a centuries-old fixture in the area. The main path continues along toward Luorong Pasture which takes you further into the reserve. As I walked along the lengthy pasture area, the sun peaked over a mountain ridge, lighting up the yellow swathes of fir trees. Nearby, mist was rising off of the ice crusted stream that flows through the valley and on the other side of the pasture I could see a lone grazing yak—now this is what makes it worth crawling out of bed and setting out extra early.
The walkway continued on and as it got nice and bright out, all of the frost disappeared and sightseers started to trickle in via the electric carts on a small one-way road. After a few more bends in the path, Jampelyang appeared ahead of me—an immense brilliant white shark tooth of a peak, jutting straight up into the blue. Given the limited time I had to reach the campsite before dark, I was torn between getting as many great photos as I could or just continuing right on, trying not to raise the camera to my face every two minutes. Definitely not an easy choice, as I hope the photos here demonstrate. I compromised and snapped just a few with the self-timer and the mini tripod I had brought along, getting some shots of the many stone cairns in the foreground and even one of myself in front of Jampelyang.
Further along, the wooden plank path finally ended and a regular trail began at a collection of huts. There were horse tenders here and plenty of tourists who were relaxing having tea or negotiating the charge for horse rides. No time for a picnic so I trudged on, with many a hiker hailing me with a “jiayou!” (keep it up/do your best!) as we passed each other. An hour or so later there was a real hiker traffic jam on the trail—complete with a scattering of people on horseback and the tenders leading them along. Definitely didn’t mind the frequent stops because I was starting the feel the weight of my pack plus the rigors of hiking at this elevation as the trail wound its way higher up, getting increasingly rocky and steep in a few sections.
ARRIVAL AT MILK LAKE—SMELL YA LATER!
The trail then levels out and leads to Milk Lake, the next big stop along this route. This is just one of the several beautiful glacier-fed lakes around the base of these mountains and definitely worth hiking to even if you are just doing a daytrip in and out of the reserve. The trail opens up here revealing a brilliant mineral-rich turquoise lake flanked by cliffs and scree slopes on one side. As you approach the lake, off to the right side is a gradual slope going further up and this is where trekkers go to reach the first mountain pass and descent on the other side leading to where most people set up their tents for the night. Before tackling that, I had to take a good 20 minutes to rest up and hydrate. At Milk Lake the elevation is 4,480 m (14,700 ft) and I was feeling it. Luckily I just had a slight headache but was also really fatigued so I sat down and took some panoramic shots of the lake. I had read that there is another lake nearby which is also quite colorful but it was already getting late at this point, and cold as well, so I bypassed that knowing I had at least a few more solid hours of hiking to go that day.
There were some Chinese hikers who I had met in Yading Village and they joined me on the trail before reaching Milk Lake. They couldn’t believe that I was going to camp alone on the far side of Mt. Chenresig and, amid much hand wringing and looks of grave concern, and much reassurance on my part, we parted ways and I continued on as the sole hiker heading up above the lake. Meanwhile, a dozen or so others enjoyed taking photos in the afternoon light at the lakeside and several more were already making their way back down the trail. I do appreciate the genuine concern some of the other hikers had, as it is from their perspective, just unheard of for someone to want to spend the night out alone in the cold of the high mountains vs. the comfort of the electric blanket back at a guesthouse. Also, as a foreigner in China, in these situations people will want to socialize with you and often go out of their way to help you out, as a guest in their country. So it sometimes makes it hard to give a firm “no” to the stubborn well-meaning insistence on their part. If I hadn’t said “no” on several occasions throughout that day, I would’ve ended up with a pocket full of cigarettes, a bag of hard boiled eggs and pork floss buns…and a group of chatty hikers to spend most of my trip with to boot—definitely not something I had set out to do, haha!
GETTING HIGH AT THE FIRST COL
Departing from Milk Lake and heading up the trail to the first pass, the view looking back down on the lake was amazing—the stark crisp grey of the mountain slopes and the sense of scale and distance was a bit skewed to me, not being used to such an environment. I only took a few photos here with my phone because my fingers were getting numb fiddling with my main camera. Turning back up the slope to where I needed to go, there were big piles of Sanskrit carved stones and the usual prayer flags draped over it all. I kept on slowly, having to pause a lot to catch my breath, and finally reached the highest point at 4,700 m (15,400 ft). This opened out to an arid rocky plateau-like area, where the trail splits and is marked by a derelict metal prayer wheel which was dented and looked a few days away from tipping over (so to future trekkers it is likely this may no longer serve as a prominent trail marker). Make sure to take the right fork—this will lead to an overlook of a ruggedly beautiful sort of hanging valley containing another small lake.
The trail descends here and can get a bit steep in places. Continue on and you will at last come to a few spots that are suitable for pitching a tent. The most popular is the “first hut” which is a low stone hut in a clearing of dirt and alpine grass. It’s quite obvious here that many people have made use of the site over the years, as there is plastic garbage EVERYWHERE around and inside of the hut. Locals use the hut for shelter in warmer months when pilgrimaging here, plus the occasional trekkers who happen along when the weather is nasty. I’ve also read that people come out in greater numbers to remote spots just like this to do late-spring seasonal foraging for caterpillar fungus (the so-called “Viagra of the Himalayas”). It’s pretty cool to see these squat, quaint little mountain huts—there are lots more of them further along the trail. But, dare I whine about it, pretty disappointing that an area designated as a nature reserve is still crapped upon by those too lazy to haul out their own garbage. Not hard to do. There were empty oxygen canisters strewn about, dozens of plastic bottles, instant noodle containers etc. Half of this trash was in the shallow river runoff that comes from the nearby lake and much of it is blown just about everywhere due to the high winds.
SUPER PHUN HAPPY TIME WITH AMS
I actually set up my tent a good 300 meters or so back along the trail where I saw what looked like a decent flat area, much closer to the lake. Given the dry time of year, the lake and river were somewhat diminished in size compared to photos I’d seen of summer treks here, but they still provided a few good spots to use my water filter. I ended up bringing along a Sawyer mini-filter and some purification tablets as insurance. Even at this elevation, people bring their horses and yaks around at different times and I saw plenty of evidence of this—old cow patties all around the trail and lakeside. So some means to purify your drinking water is a must. It’s impossible to carry in enough water for this trek, unless you want to break your back or keel over from exertion under the weight.
I didn’t see a soul since I hiked up from Milk Lake except for two young Tibetan guys walking down the trail towards the stone hut. We waved to each other and they continued on their way. I got the tent set up in the late afternoon, pounding the stakes into the half frozen ground. Despite the near perfect weather throughout the day I wondered if I would get snowed on or blown over, given the unpredictable nature of the weather up in the mountains. Didn’t spend much time thinking on it because at this point I had been up hiking since 6 a.m. and was fatigued, slightly nauseous and couldn’t eat anything. So I called it a day, crawled into my sleeping bag and eventually fell into a very fitful sleep through half the night.
Unfortunately the next day my condition didn’t improve at all. Nothing serious—just mild nausea here and there, dull headache and continued lack of any appetite—typical symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The campsite still sits at 4480 meters, much higher than I had ever camped before, so I expected to experience this discomfort. I choked down some oily tuna and mayo with crackers (an excellent choice if you feel a bit sick) and took a haggard walk to the other side of the lake. In the frozen mud by the shore I saw some small paw prints, exactly like enlarged cat paws…perhaps from a lynx? Besides the birds though, didn’t see any critters around, just too cold, especially at night. In fact the night before, it got down to about -8 C and the half cup of water I spilled in the tent and sopped up with a t-shirt was frozen solid when I grabbed it the next morning.
After poking around near the lake I returned to the tent, ate some sesame paste with a bit of dried fruit and just laid down. I was chuckling to myself because I had all of these grand yet sort of abstract plans for what I would be doing during my solo trekking adventure away from civilization. When packing my bags the night before leaving for the trip, I made sure to bring along enough sheets of paper so I could do some journaling while exploring up in them thar mountains. Maybe note down some great insights and musings on life and the outdoors? I’m not sure. I definitely wanted to do some small side hikes and really take it all in, maybe lay on a warm flat rock, soak up some sun and perhaps just meditate on how lucky I was to have this entire valley to myself! Did I think I would be frolicking through alpine meadows, playing a pan flute and mincing around rejoicing in the experience? Well, maybe not…but something better than wallowing in crapulence by being weak, nauseous and just existing near my tent.
I also planned on sleeping here for two nights, not just one as most do. For me, it didn’t even make sense to spend all day hiking, then one night in the tent only to pack it all up first thing the next morning and hike the rest of the route on out of the reserve. It’s about slowing it down a bit, maybe getting some time lapse shots of the clouds scudding over the mountains in late afternoon or even some images of the night sky. Well, none of that happened either because of the cold, the wind and overall shift in my priorities by having a bit of AMS. Still, two nights was without a doubt the way to go, even on a short trek like this.
It really clouded up by late afternoon and the wind kicked up as well so I figured this second night might really bring some snow…and hopefully my budget tent could withstand the gusts of wind. I was up half the night tossing and turning but at least I was warm enough, especially because I was wearing all my clothes and outer shell as well. Wind chill is no joke. There were in fact a few short periods in the middle of the night where icy snow was drumming the tent but the next morning it was sunny. I packed everything up and used the filter again for some refills from the frigid water of the lake before leaving.
THE WAY OUT IS THROUGH
Continuing on the trail, there is a cluster of unused stone huts dotted along a somewhat steep slope. Many of the huts here had roofs which were caved in or otherwise gone. After this, there is quite a long stage of the trail that ascends until reaching the second mountain pass that needs to be traversed. It’s all about pacing yourself and going slow here because it will still take at least a few hours to reach the pass. What made it worse for me is that I was essentially running on empty, having only been able to eat tiny amounts of food over the last two days. Still, the way out is through and that’s just the way she goes, so I soldiered on trying to breathe a little more deeply.
Finally made it through where the trail leads to a notch in the ridge and directly on the other side, not getting nearly as much direct sunlight, was a rocky snow covered mountainside. Snapped more pictures at this pass, in front of a veritable tapestry of layered prayer flags, encouraging myself that it was all downhill from here on.
Sometime later, the trail led to some great unobstructed views of the imposing Mt. Chenresig, and further along through a small area of what appears to be old growth forest. After this, Pearl Lake is one of the last notable stops along the trail before coming full circle back to Chonggu Monastery. I actually didn’t see Pearl Lake when I finished up the hike—either I was too tired to take one of the side paths leading a short way to it or it was mostly dried up, given the time of year. At that point, I was just intent on getting back to the park entrance and resting for while. Heading around the back side of Chonggu Monastery however, some really amazing views just kept opening up nearly every step I took so I was able to get some of my best photos right on the tail end of the trek. After that, I caught one of the big shuttle buses back up the hill to Yading Village. Got off and walked a short piece, sharing the road with a horse and chicken who were clomping and clucking their way along up in front of me.
The main thoughts going through my head were gratitude for the experience I had here, coupled with a twinge of melancholy at the trip being over so soon. I just might have to head back sometime to see even more of the reserve.
- There are scheduled buses departing Lijiang (Yunnan Province), heading north to Shangri La and finally on to Daocheng town or Riwa. From Chengdu, the bus route generally includes a stop in Kangding before continuing on to Daocheng/Riwa.
- Yading Daocheng Airport—the highest commercial airport in the world at 4411 meters elevation. Plan accordingly if you are flying directly from sea level or are prone to altitude sickness.
- Tickets for the reserve and shuttle bus must be purchased in Riwa. There is a small bus station there and ticket counters inside. Total cost is 270rmb. This allows access to the whole reserve plus multiple rides on the buses to/from Yading Village-LonglongBa down at the bottom of the hill (the real entrance to the reserve).
- There are plenty of guesthouses in Daocheng, Riwa and Yading Village. It is generally not necessary to book a room online/phone in advance unless you want to play to play it safe during peak tourist seasons. Most places provide clean simple rooms with comfy beds and electric blankets. Prices can range from 40-140rmb/night.
- Plan well in regard to food for your trek. I brought canned tuna, piles of homemade protein/energy bars, fruit and biscuits. I flew into Yading so I could not bring fuel or camping stove. My Spartan, no-cook meal plan worked fine for me—going a few days without a hot meal is not a big deal. Skipping the cooking gear also saved me the extra weight to pack, not to mention time fussing with a camp stove. For those arriving by bus, there may be places to purchase fuel and camping gear in Kangding. As for Daocheng town, I’m not sure.
- If you plan on taking lots of photos/video, bring extra batteries or battery pack. The overnight cold really saps the batteries. A solar powered battery charger would also work really well in an environment like this. There are many models that are lightweight and efficient, perfectly suited for trekking and eliminates the need for carrying lots of extra batteries.
- Autumn is usually the best time of year to see Yading (but avoid the October peak period). The weather is great, mostly clear skies and the best views. Spring and especially summer can be hit or miss as far as lots of rain. Plan on wet conditions if you travel during these times.
- Carry out what you carry in. Half of the route even has garbage cans at intervals—why many locals don’t bother to use them is beyond me. So any PET bottles, plastic wrappers, tissues etc. can be placed in the next trash bin you see after returning to the areas closer to the reserve entrance.
- If you have the time, allow an extra 2-3 days to acclimate. I really wish I could have done so. This means spending a few nights at other destinations in the region such as Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri La or Kangding. Those areas are around 2000-2600 meters in elevation and have some of their own hiking options—a great buffer prior to heading into much higher mountain environments.
For further reading, The Land of Snows has a nicely detailed and up-to-date trip report that gives more information on transportation options into the region and the different stages of the trek, including elevation gains and estimated hiking times along the route. The details presented here proved invaluable for me as I completed the Mt. Chenresig kora. Of note, it took me a bit longer than the hiking times given per stage but I was also taking a fair amount of breaks for photos and the high altitude made it slow going after my initial burst of energy at the start. Additionally, I carried my own gear for the entire duration of the trek so for those who do likewise, plan accordingly.
Both of the above sites played a major role in inspiring me to get out to explore the Yading Nature Reserve.