The Holy Pilgrimage: Trekking in China's Yading Nature Reserve
The Discovery of Yading
How I feel about Yading is incomparable to all the other trekking or travel experiences I ever had. It was in many ways the highlight of my trekking experience in China and I cannot express in words how relevant Yading has been in my life. Yading is within the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and is part of the Sichuan Province.
Let's start from the beginning. How in the world did I find out about Yading or to be complete, Yading Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province of China? It was due to a blog that I ended up making my way to this part of the world with determination. I had no idea about this place until I read this blog. In fact, the discovery of the blog was accidental which happened during my research on treks that I could do in Sichuan province. As it was venturing into an off the beaten path, I wasn't so sure how I could make it materialize itself into a real trek. The blog contained such astounding photos of Yading that I couldn't resist. Could it be that this place looked THIS stunning in person?
But not only was I captivated by the beauty of the place. It was the notion of walking around mountain peaks on a trail known as a kora or holy pilgrimage trek. The local Tibetans treat this place as a highly spiritual place. Along the trails, you'd see evidence of their wide-known respect of the nature that can be found here. The mountain peaks, the lakes and everything else were treated with respect the way mother earth intended. Prayer flags abound in some portions of the trail which signify the depth to which the local Tibetans show their lasting connection to this land.
On a more practical level, Yading lured me for the sense of adventure that it brings. Simply put, "How does one get to this heavenly place alone without speaking a word of Mandarin?" From Chengdu, it is a 24 hour bus ride. However, one can split the travel days by going to Kangding, another town in TAR, from which you take a 12-13 hour bus ride to get you to Daocheng and from Daocheng you take a bus to Riwa where you pay your entry fee and then from there you take the final bus to take you to Yading Village. The bottom line is it takes a significant amount of time and effort to get to Yading, that is, if you are lucky enough to manage the transports as a solo traveler who could hardly speak the language. I took the challenge, so to speak, and had not regretted it one bit.
So fast forward to the days leading up to my arrival in Yading. It is important to note that my adventure in this place entailed meeting a lovely soul in the form of a solo traveler who had once trekked the Himalayas in Nepal. Her name is May. She is from the northern part of Thailand near Chiang Rai. May was on the bus with me along with other travelers who were leaving Rilong town where people stayed to visit the Four Girl Mountain National Park. I expected no English speakers on this bus en route to Kangding where I had to catch the next leg of the trip. In fact, May's English is perfect and later I learned that she is an avid learner of foreign languages. What a treat, I thought to myself. How did I get lucky (yet, again)? So, May told me she had been traveling solo in China and had just a few more weeks left. She had been to China before but mostly for sightseeing. I told May about my plans to trek Yading. She didn't plan on going to the same place but upon hearing about my crazy intention to do an overnight trekking to complete the kora trail that was 30 kilometers long, and with the altitude being no lower than 4,000 meters, she excitedly asked to join me. Other than her noting that she trekked in Nepal before, I didn't really know anything else regarding May's experience with hiking. I figured that for safety reasons, having someone join me on this adventure was more beneficial than not. Also, May happened to speak Mandarin as well! So, I took the risk and hoped that with my new found trekker friend, we would be lucky enough to rent a tent and other trekking gear upon reaching Daocheng, the biggest town before heading out to Yading. After all, based on my research, I was told gear rental is possible in Daocheng. Well, that turned out to be false. More on that later.
Meanwhile, May and I had a smooth ride to Kangding where we were fortunate enough to find a couple of spaces at a hostel. Upon arrival at the hostel, we quickly walked to the bus station to get our tickets to Daocheng. It turned out there was no such thing as a scheduled "bus" to Daocheng. It was more of hiring a personal driver. We ended up having to bargain hard and after a few minutes of haggling, we secured our ride for the next day. The next day came rather soon as we had to be up so early to catch the ride. It was an SUV with a few other passengers and most of them were Tibetans. Interestingly, we had to transfer to another SUV at about midpoint in Litang. The second ride was unusually slow, so much so, that one of the passengers was fuming mad. It had been a long day of being cramped in a car and when we were nearing night fall, tempers were starting to flare. May and I were astonished at our predicament but didn't wish to create any tension with the driver so we remained quiet. When we got to Daocheng, the originally chosen hostel turned out to no longer be in existence; hence, May and I had to decide at the last minute on our hostel for the night. We ended up finding a basic and crowded hostel that was able to arrange our private transport to Riwa.
The next morning was so much better as we were able to have a bit of rest the night before. I was also getting excited to finally enter Yading. The ride was not that long and on the way, the scenery of the mountains just got better and better. When we got to Riwa, we had to buy our tickets and from there we hopped on a big tourist bus. At that point, we were finally entering the outskirts of Yading village. I already could tell that we were going to have a magical experience with the views. We also arrived at such a perfect time as the fall colors were in full showing and the peaks had snow on them.
Upon arriving in Yading village, we realized we didn't book any accommodation but thought it should be easy. We quickly learned that we came during peak season; hence, the accommodations were almost at full capacity. The hostel we wanted to stay at was full. We were then advised to walk around the village to find spaces. After about 40 minutes or so, May and I settled on a guesthouse with a Tibetan family. The room was shared with a few others but we did get our own beds. That night the guesthouse was full and the next day we all had to experience the unwelcome aftermath concerning the condition of the toilets. Of course, as usual, they were the typical Chinese toilets where water runs gently through a hole on the ground. Certainly, this was effective enough to wash away #1 but not #2; hence, I opted to avoid the toilet the entire time we were there. I had managed to deal with the toilet situation in China up until now; this was when I finally found myself reaching my tolerance limit of the so called "Chinese" toilets.
Moving onto much more pleasant thoughts, a sweet black cat resided at the guesthouse who chose my company and bed that night. The cat showered me with affection and warmth as it snuggled with me all night. It was a nice reminder of how I missed my furry roommates back home after being away for almost three months.
Yading village appears to be a hub for tourists as opposed to it being a natural village. The area is owned and ran by Tibetans and no Han Chinese can own and operate any business in Yading. It is quite a remote area apart from the tourists visiting at certain periods during the year. I can only imagine how quiet it can get during off seasons. But for now, we have to brave the influx of Chinese tourists. As always, the sight of a western or non Chinese tourist was uncommon, which makes the experience great in its own way.
During our first day, we decided to take it easy as we were already at a significantly high altitude. We decided to use up the rest of the day by visiting the reserve. As usual, the reserve had very well marked trails and they had golf carts moving people up and down the park and to different platforms to view the surroundings. We managed to get as far as the starting point of the kora trek that we planned to do so we had a clear idea where to go. Despite the cloudy weather, the views were spectacular, nonetheless. See the photos - Yading Nature Reserve Photo Gallery.
The next day, we managed to get beds at the originally chosen hostel. After dropping our bags and breakfast, we did a practice hike to Frog Lake. It was again a superb hike with gorgeous views and the lake was pretty. Hardly did we see people on the trail. This was also an opportunity for me to assess May's hiking abilities especially given the altitude. It turned out quite well for both of us. I did notice on my end that at that point in my China trip, I was very much well acclimatized which tremendously helped with raising my level of enjoyment on the trail. See the photos - Frog Lake Gallery.
Back at the hostel, the manager, Andy, was very helpful in planning out our kora trek. So going back to the gear rental - well, I was wrong again. Andy told us the only tent he had was an old and simple one. He even refused to let us use it for its lack of utility. When we told Andy about trekking the kora, he looked at us like we lost our minds because most people only hike up to the famous Milk Lake and then turn around. Andy advised that as a day hike, it can take more than 12 hours to do the 30 km kora trail so attempting to do this in one day is insanely risky given the low temperatures at night in the event of hiking in the dark, the lack of people on the trail and the lack of easy access to getting help. The other problem is the fact that the last bus leaves at sunset so we were very limited in terms of time. The only saving grace is the fact that there is a guesthouse near the park entrance to which we can walk should we miss the last bus.
With no gear at all to use for overnighting, May and I had a tough decision to make that evening. Do we push through with doing this so-called kora in one day? Or do we do the usual hike to that Milk Lake and back? I was, however, so convinced that the best part of the trail was what lies beyond Milk Lake. We had come such a long way and to not even give it a try just felt downright unacceptable. So, May and I decided to go against Andy's advise. We were going to complete the kora in a day but depending on the weather, our pace and our physical condition, we allowed ourselves to revisit this decision once we got over the first pass beyond Milk Lake. That night we prepped our gear and made sure to get to bed earlier than usual as we had to take the first morning bus in order for us to have the maximum time possible to finish the kora before dark. I was very excited and nervous all at the same time. Finally, the trek was materializing despite the hurdles along the way. It was a cold night so I didn't have the best sleep and the excitement also contributed to the sleeplessness.
The Kora Experience
Early morning we were aboard the bus to enter the Reserve. From the entrance, we decided to take the golf cart to Luorong Grasslands as our starting point. From the starting point, we were already afforded views of the three holy peaks - Chenresig, Chana Dorje, and Jampelyang, even if behind the morning clouds. We started hiking at sunrise at which time the temperature was rather low and I felt my hands and feet semi-frozen, even feeling numbness at some point. I had to just remind myself that as the morning progresses, the sun will be up and all will be heavenly. An hour more and that became a reality.
The hike started with trying to get to the first highlight, the Milk Lake, at 4480 meters from Luorong Grasslands (4180 meters). Even if our trek that day had to end at Milk Lake, I would have been satisfied as Milk Lake was a phenomenal sight to see. It was such a gorgeous lake that deserved more time so we decided to eat our lunch next to it. Next to the Milk Lake was the hill that took us to the nearby lake, 5 Color Lake at 4530 meters. It was a pretty sight, as well, but not as wonderful as Milk Lake. After lunch, we proceeded to walk further to hike up the first pass. As we walked further away from Milk Lake, it became increasingly apparent that there were only the two of us now trekking on the trail. This was to be the case for the rest of the time for we didn't see a single soul from that moment onward.
We successfully made it to the highest point,the first pass, at 4700 meters, without much delay and observed the place to be filled with prayer flags complemented by the 360 degree view of the peaks including the southwest face of Chenresig. At that point, we decided given our pace and the decent, albeit cloudy, weather we were going to move forward with our trek.
The next couple of hours consisted of walking a very gradual descent and then ascent with more lakes to be enjoyed along the way. The clouds moving in fast worried me as May notably slowed down her pace. We were walking for about 6 hours at that point and we just made it to the one and only shelter along the way that was made of rocks. At that point, May and I had to assess how we wanted to proceed as the clouds above us seemed to indicate potential for snow. She reassured me that she was doing fine and could continue on. So we did. The hardest part of the trek was just about to start.
As we trudged along up a number of uphills and false summits, I was relying on the blog write up that I had on my phone to remind us of the landmarks and how far along we were on the trail. I was also concerned we have yet to make it to the second pass which was only a few meters lower than the first one and after hiking for about 8.5 hours at that point, the trek was starting to feel rather slow going. Eventually, we came around a bend and the trail became more downhill with another hill for us to climb. I suspected at that point we were nearing the second pass. At times, we were also losing track of the path as there were some snowy patches on the trail which made the path harder to decipher. May reminded me that the trail was a loop so we need to keep the range of holy peaks to our right side at that point. We eventually rediscovered the actual path and from there it was just a straight steep uphill. I felt more difficulty with my breathing which signaled that we were gaining a much higher elevation and that we were nearing the highest point of our trek. At that moment, snow flakes started coming down upon us as we reached the second pass at 4665 meters. The pass itself was a much smaller area than the first one, almost just an opening between two hills or rocks. But on top, it was filled with prayer flags. May and I were ecstatic that we made it this far even though we still had a little less than one third to go. May and I snapped our photos and off we went down to the other side as we worked our way down with mostly a downhill trail the rest of the way.
At that point, we still had clouds above us but the flakes were short-lived. The sun came out intermittently which allowed us glimpses of the holy peaks as we descended at a regular pace. Soon enough, we were below the treeline and inside a pristine forest. We were making our way to the next landmark, Pearl Lake, which alerted us that we were close to the end of our trek. After Pearl Lake, the last stretch took us back to a trail near the main entrance which then led us to the steps where the usual Chinese tourists are usually seen; but as it was late in the day, the place was deserted. May and I were fortunate to have made it to the last bus with just a minute or two to spare. We were exhausted after 11.5 hours of trekking at such high altitude. But we did it. And as the bus rolled out to take us back to our hostel, May and I smiled at each other contently.
At the hostel, Andy was so delighted to see us back and made sure to prepare us our meals to recover from the grueling day. We learned that Andy was awaiting our return and that he intended to send for help in the event we didn't make it back to the hostel that night. We were delighted to hear that gesture but glad it never headed that way. At dinner, May revealed to me that she trekked Nepal years ago and that she had not done much high altitude hiking since then. Had I known this, I might have decided not to do the kora with May. I would have second guessed the idea because I prefer not to put someone in danger. In some ways, I felt responsible for May's safety the entire time as it was my plan to begin with. But she did exceptionally well, and I was proud of her achievement as I quietly thanked the world for our safe journey.
We were such strong trekkers that day and for sure it felt like such a feat! But the truth is the highlight of the experience was the golden moment we had to ourselves as we enjoyed nature's finest. In many ways, that moment captured the essence of life, which we were reminded of every step of the way. We were in perfect harmony with our natural surroundings and ourselves that day. I knew then that Yading was a life altering experience as I forged an everlasting friendship with my new friend, May.
And YES. Yading is hands down gorgeous.
Yading and the Kora Aftermath
May and I left Yading the day after we completed the kora. We took a photo with our kind host, Andy, and bid him farewell as we hopped on the bus to move onto our next destination. In Riwa, we managed to get a private SUV to take us to Daocheng where we spent the night before parting ways. May wanted to go to another town, Soda, in TAR to witness the sky funeral, a local Tibetan tradition, while I had to get myself to Daocheng airport, the highest one in the world (and the coldest), to get back to Chengdu to meet my American friends for the start of our journey to Lhasa; and then Nepal.
That night we stayed at a different hostel and indulged in traditional Tibetan cuisine which consisted of their traditional bread, yogurt and grilled meats. We spent sometime chatting about life and where we envision the road leading us from there on. We were delighted at the spontaneity of our adventure - two female trekkers/travelers who crossed paths to do one of the most amazing hiking experiences ever. I knew my heart was heavy to say goodbye yet again, especially this time because I connected with May in many ways as a hiker and a friend.
But as life goes, I woke up the next morning earlier than my friend to catch the taxi to the airport. I bid farewell to May and suggested she meet me in Chengdu after her adventure in Soda. After all, I was curious about the sky funeral and a bit dismayed at not having extra days to join her. My journey was shifting yet again. The next chapter would entail having to reconnect with people back in the U.S.A. which felt at that point in my travels a bit strange. It was something to have to get used to again after months of traveling alone and meeting random people along the way. Truth be told, the notion of this shift scared me a little because I was fully enjoying the time spent alone and the spontaneity of my experiences; hence, I didn't feel I was ready to give that all up. This was the first time that I completely grasped the beauty of solitude. Having to part from it was scary for the first time.
Travel bloggers can be heaven sent and that became evident in my case. For that, I am grateful. For full details on Yading and the Kora Trek, please visit the website, The Land of Snows, which I used as my personal reference for this journey.