Last summer (2016) I travelled through China. I decided to bus hop from Shangri-La to Chengdu, because it would bring me to the Chinese Himalayas and the Tibetan Plains. It was the only rational decision a mountain lover could make – and boy, was I happy.
How I Thought It Would Be
Some people like the sound of adventure that comes with uncomfortable travel and sketchy people. On my first solo backpacking trip through Asia, that wasn’t me. For my route through China, I had previously decided on the plan to bus hop my way from Shangri-La (Yunnan) to Chengdu (Sichuan) for the promising views of +6000m mountains, Tibetan monasteries and plains full of yaks. However, as I read up on my route online a week beforehand, I felt a growing fear and reluctancy to carry out my pink cloud plans. Windy, narrow mountain roads, 8-hour long smelly ad noisy bus rides, hitchhiking, political unrest and monks with knives; those who had gone before me had had quite the adventure, but was that for me?
This matter was quickly resolved when I met another Dutchie on the trails of Tiger Leaping Gorge. She was going for sure. Bloody hell, I thought. If she’s doing it, I’m doing it too. Better yet, we ended up travelling together for the entire 2,5 week route: Shangri-La – Feilai Si- Meili Snow Mountain National Park – Shangri-La -Daocheng – Yading Nature Reserve – Daocheng – Litang – Tagong – Chengdu. If you are in a hurry, Lonely Planet says you will need approximately 4-6 days. I would say that is a silly thing to do. Take your time for detours: it is absolutely worth it.
How It Actually Was
It became clear once more how quickly China is developing. We had no trouble getting around anywhere, and did so in either a very decent (normal bus) or pretty decent (minibus) way. It took some measure of planning: the regular buses usually only go once a day, mostly early in the morning around 6-7 am, and the tickets sell out fast. We often got them a day or two in advance or missed out, which meant getting a more expensive minibus. Minibuses are shared vans that the driver wants to fill up completely with passengers before he leaves. This means that you could be waiting for hours for others to join, which can be quite frustrating. Sometimes, the driver will even decide that the backseat is meant for four people instead of three, leading to a pretty cramped up ride. Still, if that’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve experienced, I’ll have it.
In every other way, my pink cloud view of this route was even a more faded shade of pink than it should have been. This part of China falls outside of Tibet, but is in every other way Tibetan: the language is Tibetan, the houses have a Tibetan architectural style, the food is Tibetan, the people are Tibetan; scattered everywhere are Tibetan monasteries and prayer flags mark the beautiful mountain scenery and make it such a colourful world.
The Route From Place To Place
SHANGRI-LA (ZHONGDIAN), YUNNAN
Shangri-La is the gateway to Tibetan China (Click here to read my article on Shangri-La). Here you will see the first Tibetan monasteries, haul a giant olden prayer wheel and taste the first yak yoghurt and yak butter tea. We ended up dancing the night away (well, until we got hungry around 8pm) in the daily dancing circles on Shangri-La’s two squares, trying to comprehend the steps to various traditional Tibetan songs amongst a mix of young and old, Tibetan and Chinese.
MEILI SNOW MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, YUNNAN
Getting to the home of Yunnan’s highest peak, Kawa Karpo in Tibetan, Meili Hueshan (snow mountain) in Chinese, means a long bus ride from Shangri-La to Deqin (¥58, 5hrs), a minibus to the town of Feilai Si (¥50, 2,5hrs), and then another to the hot springs in the park (¥50, 1,5hrs). From there, a trail goes up towards the mountain village of Yubeng, which lies at the foot of the Kawa Karpo. If you linger in Yubeng you can do various day hikes to waterfalls and glacial lakes. We decided to go back down the next day due to bad weather, following a different route along the Yubeng and the Mekong Rivers towards Ninong. We were lucky to meet a group of people on the way down who had ordered a minivan in advance, and we went went back to Shangri-La with them (minibus, ¥120, 5hrs). Remember: people who speak both Chinese and English are your greatest asset.
Note: Entrance fee Meili Snow Mountain National Park (only to hotsprings): ¥45 (student discount), entrance fee Yubeng Village: ¥5.
YADING NATURE RESERVE, SICHUAN
The bus ride from Shangri-La to Daocheng (¥109, 8hrs, once daily) was the most gorgeous piece of scenery I have ever witnessed before my eyes. Basically, it is like watching big granite structures crown the lush green valleys as far as the eye can see while you cross narrow mountain passes. Towards the end, you start passing through colourful Tibetan villages and plains filled with yaks. Daocheng was just a pitstop on the way to and from Yading Nature Reserve, and is far from exciting as a town itself. It does serve as a good place to stock your food supply, and this is also highly recommended: Yading is far more expensive.
2,5 hours by minibus down south (¥40), we arrived at Yading Nature Reserve. This park offers the possibility to do a two-day kora (a holy pilgrimage) around one of the three holy mountains in this park. Alternatively, you can do day hikes from the park entrance and spend the night in Yading village. Whatever you choose, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks and bright blue glacial lakes. Stay tuned for more Yading stories on this blog.
Note: Yading park entrance fee includes a shuttle bus to the village and the main gate (35km into the park). Full price: ¥280, Discount (student): ¥200.
We went back to Daocheng after one night in Yading, to catch a minibus to Litang the next morning. We arrived in Litang after a six hour journey from Daocheng (minibus ¥60) and the first thing we thought was: we are leaving tomorrow. Were we wrong! The fast growing capital of Tibetan China has its share of ugly buildings, but once you connect to the people – as always – it can be a hell lot of fun. We ended up befriending our hostel owner, named Tenzin (which is not a shocking fact, since all Tibetan children born during the time of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, carry his name: Tenzin). He invited us to his Tibetan family reunion, fed us traditional Tibetan Tsampa for breakfast (a barley wheat mixed with yak butter tea, which you eat with your finger) and took us on a daylong road trip in the back of his pick-up truck. We even ended up being sprayed with mud at a Tibetan nomad horse race we happened to stumble upon.
Although Tagong (bus to Xinduqiao ¥80, 5hrs, minibus to Tagong ¥50) is small as a village, it is big in character. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I didn’t want to leave. Quite lucky we were to see the village crowded with people from all over Sichuan, since normally the village is deserted. However, just in those two days we were in Tagong, a famous lama, who resided in the US, was visiting this local monastery. When in Tagong, there are plenty of monasteries and a nunnery to visit and you can go for great hikes across the Tibetan plains, passing through fields of wildflowers where nomads herd their yak.
Onwards: In Tagong, find a shared minibus on the square to Kangding (2-3hrs, ¥40-50), from where you can get a bus to Chengdu (¥140, 7 hrs, approx. every hour).
The most beautiful place
I can honestly say that this area was one of the most, if not the most, beautiful place I have ever been to and I would’ve felt horrible had I let my discomfort with the adventurous stories keep me from going here. Of course, any traveller should watch out for him/herself and if it really doesn’t feel right, you should listen to that gut feeling. For me, though, going through with it has made all the difference.
Have you ever felt reluctancy to travel anywhere? And what was your decision? Did you go anyways? Were you happy about it? Or did you end up regretting it? Please let me know!
Disclaimer: The prices and routes mentioned in this article are from July, 2016.