The hike started out on steep dusty tracks, challenging me at first as my lungs made sense of the thin air. In time, with my walking stick in hand and music in my ears, I pulled ahead and separated from the group Ya Ting and I had found and joined at the hostel after the first kilometer and remained solo for the rest of the trek.
It was brilliant, turning from dirt to snow at around the five kilometer mark.
At first, I didn’t really know what to do, as I have no experience with snow. It doesn’t snow in Los Angeles, or anywhere else I’ve lived in Southern California, so I’m completely helpless in this type of inclement weather.
I gingerly climbed the steep shortcuts, following the bright jackets of the hikers in front of me, making my way up until I reached the top where a vista of snowy mountains greeted me.
I was jubilant. I looked around and realized that in that moment, I wanted no other company than my own.
It was perfection – snowy mountains in the distance, prayer flags waving on either side of me as if to guide my way to the promised land, and my own two feet carrying me.
I thought about all the change that had occurred since the Lunar New Year had started. Vietnam had brought about all kinds of self-realizations, and China was turning me into the fearless, hitchhiking, week-long trekking, immersion-seeking traveler I had always wished I could be.
I reached Shang Yubeng (Upper Yubeng) about 20 minutes before Ya Ting. We had completed a hike in 5 and a half hours that most guides had advised would take 9 or more. The rest of the group took another hour and a half to arrive, so we wandered down to Xia Yubeng (Lower Yubeng) to explore the beautiful surroundings a bit more.
As we were about to cross the foot bridge, a local minority tribesman enthusiastically invited us to his hut to sit around the fire. Ya Ting looked at me for approval, and I said of course we had to join!
He told us that his favorite time in Yubeng was April, because March showers brought April flowers, and there would be tons of them dotting every ridge and field from his little hut to the mountain tops.
When we left I told Ya Ting that I thought it was really special in the winter, too, with all of the snow and beauty it brings. I hadn’t seen snow like that in 18 years, and she hadn’t in nine. I guess that made it dreamlike for us – like childhood (I lived in Maryland for a couple of years from age 5 to 6) when we made snowmen and hurled snowballs at the other kids on the block.
Yet as I sat there that night in the cold, dirty little hostel room in Yubeng trying not to freeze, I thought about how much I’d love to see it when it’s sunny, green, and full of flowers.
The thought made me sad, because chances are good that I’ll never make it back.
I so often think that about the places I’m at, making silent plans to return and telling myself I’ll see everything at the peak of its excellence, but of course that’s impossible.
There’s something about Yubeng. It’s known as a sacred place and, despite the chickens, donkeys, and pigs running around freely, it has a kind of peace surrounding it that I haven’t felt before – even in the monastery.
On the hike to the sacred waterfalls, with prayer flags always guiding our way, we passed various holy areas, one with stacks of rocks meant to bring good luck. The feeling of calm was beautiful.
To make Yubeng even more lovable, friendly farmers always smiled and waved hello. They didn’t have much in the world by way of possessions, but they were surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.
Though too snowy and frozen to do all of the three famous treks in the area – Frozen/Ice Lake, Sacred/Holy Lake, and the Sacred/Holy Waterfall – I still enjoyed Yubeng, even in the month that all of the guides suggested staying away due to the snow.
I could see why, though, as the trails were slippery and the waterfall was completely frozen.
However, in the warm summer months, views like this wouldn’t exist:
Do it yourself:
- Getting there: First get to Deqin, which is generally accessible only via Shangri-La. Busses leave from the bus depot in town each morning. Times are ever-changing in China so check with your guest house or hotel
- This drive allegedly takes 7-10 hours but only took me about 4 in a car (I hitch-hiked, which can be done by taking the #2 bus to the end of town in Shangri-La and standing at the intersection on the road leading to Deqin with a thumb up)
- From Deqin, take a taxi or small bus to the Fei Lai Temple area (much nicer than Deqin) and stay the night. The youth hostel there is cheap and decent at 35 RMB/night
- Ask your guest house to organize a bus to Xidang Hot Springs. Generally minibuses charge 180 per bus and can accommodate around 9 people. Try to find people to join at your guest house
- Getting in: You must buy a combo ticket to the park, including Yubeng, for 230RMB, or 65 if you’re a student with ID. Unfortunately this is unavoidable but I’d suggest handing over any ID with English writing as the park attendant will likely be unable to read it and it may be passable as a student ID
- Yubeng is only accessible by foot or mule. The hike to it is over 17 kilometers, the majority of which is up. Most guides advise it takes 6 hours to go up and another 3 to go down. Without breaks and going at a moderately quick pace, one could do it much more quickly
- The hike is pretty clearly marked and when there’s a fork in the road, generally both ways will work and one is a short cut. By following the power lines and counting the numbers printed on each pole, you’ll know how close you’re getting (#102 is the top and #157 is Shang Yubeng)
- Sleep: Yak Butter Inn is apparently a nice place to stay, however they were renovating when I showed up, so I stayed at the youth hostel which definitely left much to be desired (like cleanliness and hot water). Lower Yubeng also had options
- Getting out: Hike out to Ninong, which is known as a beautiful hike but is probably more impressive in the summer (it was quite dry when I went). Minibusses will be waiting at the end of the trail. Take a bus from there back to Fei Lai Temple or Deqin. The only way out of Deqin for a foreigner is back to Shangri-La as we are not allowed to cross into Tibet from there