Yubeng Village is nestled within pine forests and dramatic snowy mountains, including the 6,740m Meili Snow Mountain. The tallest peak of Meili Snow Mountain is called Kawagarbo in Tibetan, and is considered sacred in Tibetan Buddhism. Many thousands of Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate Kawagarbo each year. Kawagarbo sits on the border between Yunnan and Tibet.
For now, visiting Yubeng is like stepping back in time to a small farming villages isolated in the mountains, although guesthouses are mushrooming as word spreads about the magic of hiking in Yubeng. A small dirt road was built only recently to Upper Yubeng Village. In Yubeng, you hike through meadows, old pine forests, rugged snowy mountains (and in the snow – bring waterproof shoes) and alongside rushing glacial rivers. Despite the effort to reach Yubeng, it was one of the most beautiful and peaceful places we’ve been in China. It was a relief to feel so far away from mass tourism and China’s relentless thirst for concrete and endless lorries.
Day 1 – Shangri-La to Feilaisi
Our first step was a harrowing bus ride from Shangri-La to Deqin. The driver drove so quickly along endless hairpin bends that we managed to reach Deqin in just under 3 and a half hours, when the journey is estimated to take 4 or 5 hours. Once we arrived, we were whisked away by a waiting driver to Feilaisi for 5 yuan. Feilaisi is a small Tibetan town a few kilometers past Deqin, and a more pleasant place to stop for the night. From Feilaisi you have a great view of Meili Snow Mountain. Unfortunately along the main street of Feilaisi, a large concrete wall has been constructed to try and force tourists to pay for a view of the mountain. Wander a few hundred meters along the road and the wall ends, and you have an uninterrupted view of the mountain once more.
We stayed in Feeling Village Youth Hostel. It is a decent place to crash overnight, although there was no hot water during our stay, and our shower starting leaking dramatically at one point, forcing one of us to shovel water into the toilet while the other went for help. From our upstairs window, we had a nice view of Meili Snow Mountain, and we caught the last of a cloudless sunrise from our window the following morning. Feeling Village Youth Hostel can arrange a shared minivan to take you to Xidang the following morning.
Day 2 – Hiking to Upper Yubeng Village
We took a shared minivan (150 yuan) from Feilaisi to Xidang, which took around 90 minutes along a winding paved and then dirt road. It ended up costing 21 yuan each as our van was full. On the way, you stop to buy an entrance ticket to the park, which is around 65 yuan. The hike to Upper Yubeng Village is mostly along a dirt road, with the occasional SUV speeding past with tourists willing to pay 200 yuan per person for a 45 minute drive to the village, creating unpleasant clouds of dust for hikers. On the way up, there are one or two snack stalls, some which sell water and instant noodles.
Most of the day the hike is uphill through pine forest, with occasional views of forest mountains and snowy peaks, and rhododendron flowers. From Xidang, you will ascent 1,100m to Nanzheng pass at 3,729m.
From Nanzheng pass, you descend a few hundred meters to Upper Yubeng Village. On the way, you have incredible views of Meili Snow Mountain.
We managed to do the hike in just over 4 hours, without having much of a break. Upon arriving in Upper Yubeng Village, we were so exhausted that we decided to sleep at the first hostel we saw with an English sign reading ‘coffee’. The hostel, which seemed to be called ‘Time Coffee’, was a decent place to stay, with some salty Chinese food and Western options. The building we were staying in was so poorly constructed that none of the doors or windows would close properly, however it had a very nice view of Yubeng village and Meili Snow Mountain. We suggest checking out Yak Butter Inn, a yellow building towards the end of town. Although we did not stay there, we had the nicest meal of our time in Yubeng (vegetarian too!), and they have a very cute cat guarding their convenience store window. Upper Yubeng Village has plenty of accommodation options.
Day 3 – Hiking to Kawagarbo Base Camp and Glacial Lake
Follow the main path out of Upper Yubeng Village, past a large white stupa to your left. You will walk through pleasant meadows with grazing horses, cows and yaks, and then cross a glacial river. You then begin a several hundred meter ascent through pine forest along a well marked trail.
The highest point before Kawagarbo Base Camp was steep and covered with icy snow. Many of the Chinese tourists had hired chains for their feet, although others were attempting this in skirts and stockings. Following this, you hike through snow, sometimes on a icy path and at other times in knee deep snow.
After walking through another forest, we reached Xiaonong Meadow, or Kawagarbo Base Camp, at 3,608m. We decided to turn back at Kawagarbo Base Camp due to the cold and wind, and because my hands were swelling up. In the winter of 1990-91, a Japanese-Chinese team attempted to climb Kawagarbo, using Xiaonong Meadow as their base camp. Unfortunately, all 17 climbers were killed in a nighttime avalanche. Kawagarbo remains unclimbed.
Day 4 – Hiking to Shenpu Waterfall
After two nights in Upper Yubeng Village, we decided to move to a guesthouse in Lower Yubeng Village, as it is closer to both the hike to Shenpu Waterfall and the hike out of Yubeng to Ninong village. The walk from Upper to Lower Yubeng villages takes about 30 minutes, and is a few hundred meter descent. Lower Yubeng Village is a bit quieter, and feels more like a farm village, with yaks, pigs and horses poking their heads into the courtyard of our guesthouse.
We stayed at Sacred Waterfall Guesthouse, which is towards the end of town near the Buddhist monastery. The room was decent, especially for the price (35 yuan per bed in a triple room, but there were only two of us), although the public bathrooms left much to be desired. The male owner speaks some English, and there is a lively restaurant with many snacks available.
We started the hike to Shenpu Waterfall just before midday. Again, you walk through a meadow filled with farm animals, and past a Buddhist monastery. After this, you walk alongside a rushing river and ascend about 340m through pine forest.
From here, you reach a large clearing, where several wooden buildings and trees have been flattened, seemingly due to an avalanche.
Although we were told there was “no snow” from the staff at our guesthouse in Upper Yubeng, we hiked several kilometers through snow on a steep hill. We rejoined the icy path on the left of the snowy valley, and soon after we heard an avalanche tumbling down the mountain in front of us. It looked like a wide waterfall of snow. We ran up the dirt hill to our right, pushing the dead trees aside to ascend as quickly as we could, too scared to look whether the crashing snow would reach us. Luckily, the avalanche did not reach the hiking path. We advise to take caution on this hike, as there have been avalanche accidents with tourists in the past.
Shenpu Waterfall falls from the top of the mountain, and is 3,657m in altitude at the bottom.
On the way back, we took a small trail left that took us to a small Buddhist monastery built into a rock. We stopped to fill our water bottles at one of the many waterfalls pouring down the mountain. The entire hike took us about 4 hours at a leisurely pace.
Day 5 – Hike out to Ninong Village
On our last day in Yubeng, we woke up to steady rainfall. We had heard hiking out to Ninong is dangerous in the rain. Nevertheless we decided to hike out, as we met some Taiwanese people who were sharing a van back to Shangri-La that afternoon, direct from Ninong.
The hike out has some steep sections on narrow dirt paths, but overall is not too bad. For some of the hike you walk beside a rushing glacial river.
The last part of the hike is on a fairly flat concrete path, however you are hiking along a gorge with hundred meter cliffs and no railings.
Once we arrived at Ninong, there is a small hut with locals waiting to arrange lifts to Deqin or Shangri-La for you. Our driver was already waiting for us, and we began the descent to Shangri-La. As we left Deqin to the highest road pass, we were bombarded with fog that reduced our visibility to a few meters in front, forcing all the cars and trucks to drive with their hazard lights flashing. As we went over the pass, it began to snow. We were fortunate to have a safe driver that drove this part at about 30km/hr, particularly as the traffic was extra heavy due to the May 1-5 holidays. We made it back to Shangri-La in one piece in time for dinner.
A few notes on Shangri-La old town
If you are planning a trip to Yubeng, you will almost certainly pass through Shangri-La on your way in and out. Shangri-La is a nice to base yourself for a few days, particularly to acclimatise to high altitude before hiking Yubeng. Most of Shangri-La’s old town was tragically burned town in a fire in 2014. However the old town has been reconstructed with Tibetan-style wooden houses along the cobblestone streets. Shangri-La was formerly referred to as Zhōngdiàn prior to being renamed for tourism purposes after James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon’, and is called Gyalthang in Tibetan.
Shangri-La is located on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and offers an opportunity to explore Tibetan culture despite the constructed-for-tourism feel of the ancient town. Between the stores selling colourful Tibetan trinkets, you can find some authentic Tibetan thangka art stores. Thangka is a form of Tibetan Buddhist painting, usually depicting Tibetan deities or mandalas with great detail and skill. A large thangka can take more than one year to complete. We would suggest visiting the thangka shop in the ‘dancing square’, a main square where there is choreographed dancing every night, and talking to the knowledgeable Tibetan man working there. The gallery inside Shangri-La Thangka Academy, which is near Gushan Park, is also worth visiting, and costs 10 yuan for entry.
Where to stay and eat?
We found a home at Tavern 47, run by the friendly Jun from South Korea. Tavern 47 is an old wooden house with a homely common room centered around a fire place and several large tables, providing a great place to stay warm for the night and chat to Jun and other guests. The rooms are quiet and comfortable, with a private room with shared bathroom going for 90 yuan per night. Jun has a treasure trove of information on hiking and sightseeing in the area, after having spend many years as a hiking guide.
Tavern 47 also offers amazing and cheap food. We really enjoyed the Korean food, including the Doenjang jjigae stew – a miso-style soup with tofu and vegetables, served with kimchi, and the Kare Dub Bab – Korean curry rice. You can also get a range of Western dishes and yak-derived foods including a pot of sweet yak butter tea, a banana smoothie with yak yoghurt and if you eat meat, a yak burger.
We had some of our best meals in China at Kailash, which is run by a Tibetan family. We enjoyed the Tibetan yak butter tea (the salty variety) and bread, as well as the Indian-style vegetarian curry, as the restaurant owners reportedly spend a decade in India. We also had a tasty vegetable soup, Tibetan momos and sizzling yak meat. Kailash is a bit difficult to find, as it is located down a small street where most of the shops are closed, but it is definitely worth the effort. You can find Kailash on the MapsMe app.
You can also buy fresh steamed Tibetan wholewheat bread at various street stalls for 5 yuan, which we would often have for lunch. We think this is made from buckwheat.