prayer flags cairn Yading

The ‘real’ Shangri-La: Yading Nature Reserve

Yading Nature Reserve is Shangri-La – whether in reality, or in strong resemblance to the Shangri-La described in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It is heaven on earth; the mountains majestic, the colours a painter’s pallet. That is, if you zone out the Chinese tourists and the ready-made boardwalks. It is not the rugged outdoor experience that might do this park justice, at least not when you stay within a day’s walk of the entrance. However, it is still quite the climb, and the beauty is mesmerising regardless of people passing by. 

yading nature reserve mountains china

In my previous articles I wrote about Shangri-La and the road from the pittoresk Chinese town that leads into the mountains to the heartland of the Chinese Tibetan Region in the province of Sichuan, which lies outside the actual border of Tibet. This Shangri-La is actually the town originally known as Zhongdian. It has been named after the utopian paradise described by James Hilton in his book Lost Horizon (1933). Even though Hilton’s Shangri-La is set in the Tibetan mountains, it is not Zhongdian he meant. Since Hilton had never been to the Himalayas, there is no pinpointing as to where this ‘Shangri-La’ would really be, but it has been said that he got inspiration from the famous botanist and explorer: Joseph Rock. Since Rock had been to Yading Nature Reserve before, it is likely to assume that at least in some part, Yading resembles Shangri-La.

And he is correct in calling it so: Yading Nature Reserve is quite heavenly. In summer, most of the snow has disappeared, and one is left with grey walls of granite. But not to be feared, 5 minutes into your walk and you begin to discern all the nuances is the grey, which sometimes lean towards purple, white, brown, or blue. All of the sudden, grey walls are not so grey and the presence of wild flowers and prayer flags makes it all the more colourful, not to mention the intense blue of the lakes. Mountains loom above you and waterfalls tumble down besides you. Beauty simply is everywhere.

What to see in Yading Nature Reserve

1. The three sacred mountains

Yading is home to three sacred mountains: “Wisdom” (Jampelyang), “Power” (Chana Dorje) and “Compassion” (Chenresig). If you want to hike a kora – a pilgrims walk circumambulating a holy mountain – this is your chance. It takes two days to hike around Chenresig and the hike is not too strenuous (but not to be underestimated either). You will, however, have to find your own camping gear before entering the park since camping equipment is hardly found in the town of Yading.

I will have to go back for this some day, since my messed up knee did not permit me to hike as much as I wished I could have:(

chenresig yading nature reserve china
Chenresig Mountain or ‘Compassion’

2. Waterfalls

Yading has many beautiful waterfalls, depending on the time you are there. I was here in July, so there was enough snow melt for some great waterfalls.

waterfall Jampelyang Yading
Waterfall on the face of Jampelyang Mountain (“Wisdom”)

waterfall yading nature reserve china

3. Clear blue lakes

Walk the trail and visit the two bright blue glacial lakes, Milk Lake and Five Colours Lake. Mind that it feels like the temperature drops about 10 degrees celsius here, both due to altitude and to strong winds.

Milk lake yading nature reserve china
Milk Lake

4. Prayer flags and cairns

Prayer flags are often hung in significant environmental spots, such as waterfalls, ravines and passes. In Yading, prayer flags are a colourful addition to the great mountain views and cairns (piles of prayer stones that are often laid there with a request for a safe journey) can be found as well.

prayer flags cairn Yading

5. Wildflowers

Luorong Pasture with wildflowers in front of Jampelyang Mountain (“Wisdom”)

Come in the right season (June-July) and you’ll find Yading’s meadows dotted with wildflowers.

6. Tibetan monastery

This might be a good opportunity to witness some courtyard debating between Tibetan monks, where they smash their hands together in order to make a point. The small-scale monastery itself is a colourful sight and is buit in traditional Tibetan style. The inside is – as all Tibetan monasteries – overwhelming in its colours and pictures, but pretty nonetheless.

Tibetan Monastery Yading











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All my travel information came from:

  • Lonely Planet China (2015) Link
  • The Land of Snows: this guy explains exactly what it is like to hike the kora in Yading Nature Reserve and gives a lot more information on the logistics of visiting Yading Nature Reserve than Lonely Planet does. Link

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