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Yubeng, China: More of a Paradise than Shangri-La!

There’s a tiny Tibetan village in Northern Yunnan that might just be the most stunning place in Asia. Snow covered peaks surround lush green valleys filled with birds, butterflies, flowers and prayer flags. This village isn’t Shangri-La, instead that name (in 2001) went to a dusty, traffic filled Chinese city surrounded by barren hills. Whoever oversaw that name change should be fired, but I guess he didn’t envision the flames that would destroy most of the old town in early 2014 – robbing it of whatever character and appeal it might have once had. Instead, Shangri-La has become the gateway to paradise, as you’ll most likely pass through there on the way to Yubeng.

Getting to Yubeng

Getting to Yubeng isn’t easy. A bus from Shangri-La takes you to unappealing Deqin. From there, take a bus to Feilaisi, stay 1 night then get a minivan in the morning to Xidang, where you’ll have a 3-8 hour walk to reach the village (I did it in just under 4 hours but there is such a range of times that it could apparently take).

Two and a half hours into the walk I was seriously considering whether all that hassle was really worth it. It was a hard slog uphill in high altitude, requiring me to rest every 2 minutes to cool down my lungs. There wasn’t even any view to speak of, just dull green trees lining a dusty path. I was told it takes up to 6 hours to get up that hill, so I was really pleased when the track started heading down. I was blown away by what was around the corner. One of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen (and I’m from New Zealand) unfolded before me; green hills mixed with snow covered mountains in a way I’d never witnessed before. It’s funny how an amazing view makes you forget about all the troubles that came before it.

The view as you reach Yubeng, Yunnan, China

The lack of roads leading to Yubeng means it has avoided the day tripping Chinese tourists that overrun other sites. The fact you have to walk for hours (or take a bumpy ride on the back of a mule) means you’ll see more farm animals than people, and hear more mule-bells than camera clicks. The village is split into two halves, upper and lower. Upper Yubeng is definitely nicer and has the better accommodation options. The village is basically a stone path winding around the edge of a hill with some farmland below.  This area of Yunnan is Tibetan – it’s probably as close as you’ll get to that fabled land without actually going there (it’s extremely close to Tibet, but you can’t cross the border from this area of Yunnan, you have to take a 4-5 day bus ride through Sichuan to get there).

The main street in Upper Yubeng, Yunnan, ChinaA mule in Upper Yubeng, Yunnan, China

From Yubeng there are a few day walks you can do to surrounding valleys.

The Ice Lake

Apparently I did this walk pretty quickly. The guy working at my guesthouse was shocked by how fast I’d returned, but I’m definitely no Sergey Kirdyapkin (Olympic 50 km walk champion – don’t be too impressed, I had to look that up). The Chinese groups that I passed walked really slowly, despite their professional looking appearance. I saw so many people kitted out with walking poles (gloves often included) serious hiking shoes and North Face jackets and bags. They must have thought I was some kind of hiking heathen in my rolled up track pants, t-shirt and falling apart, knock-off Timberland shoes.

The Ice Lake is tiny but definitely worth the uphill journey. The scenery on the way is great and the area surrounding the lake is in stark contrast to the valley which leads to it. It looks like another planet, and you can even walk up onto the ice (it might be a small glacier, I’m no scientist though).

A great view on the way to the ice lake in Yubeng, Yunnan, ChinaA river on the way to the ice lake in Yubeng, Yunnan, ChinaThe ice lake in Yubeng, Yunnan, China

The Sacred Waterfall

This was one of the coolest waterfalls I’ve seen. The water comes screaming off the top of a small mountain and into the stream below. People visit the Sacred Waterfall to make a wish, but I was more interested in drinking some of that ice-cold glacier water. The walk to the waterfall is far easier than the Ice Lake, but it’s still a 3 or 4 hour round trip. There is also another, more serious trek if you have the time, called the Holy Lake. Some Israelis I was talking to took on the challenge, leaving at 6.30am and returning at about 4pm, looking exhausted but satisfied.

The view on the way to the sacred waterfall in Yubeng, Yunnan, ChinaThe sacred waterfall in Yubeng, Yunnan, China

Paradise isn’t comfortable

Everything needs to be bought in by mule, so food and drink is expensive in Yubeng. Tourism in Yubeng, and most places in China, is geared towards the locals, so finding such western luxuries as a cold beer (they were either frozen or warm) or toilets with doors is sometimes pretty tough. There is no Wi-Fi, and there aren’t many places to sit outside and admire the views. If this was in Southeast Asia every guesthouse would have a rooftop bar – it’s the perfect place for it, but these things don’t seem to matter to Chinese tourists.

Despite all that, my 3 days in Yubeng were some of the best I’ve had while travelling. It’s the kind of place that not many people have heard of, but once you’ve been you’ll rave about it to anyone willing to listen.

Further reading: What exactly is Shangri-La…?

A mule on the ice lake hike, Yubeng, Yunnan, China

Would you like to visit Yubeng, or does all this talk of walking uphill put you off? Let me know!

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge trek in Yunnan, China
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32 Comments

  1. June 10, 2014 at 6:27 pm — Reply

    I love the pictures, it looks so amazing.

  2. June 14, 2014 at 2:41 am — Reply

    I don’t know so much about Tibet, but wow, this place looks incredible. Looks like I have another one for the bucket list.

    • Jon Algie
      June 14, 2014 at 7:40 pm — Reply

      I’d never heard of this place either, glad someone told me about it while I was close enough to visit.

  3. June 16, 2014 at 7:33 pm — Reply

    Beautiful! We went to Yunnan Province but visited only main cities – Kunmning, Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian. I wish we went off the beaten track!

    • Jon Algie
      June 17, 2014 at 7:10 pm — Reply

      Yeah, it’s nice to get out of the cities for a while, you still went to some cool places though.

  4. June 20, 2014 at 7:36 pm — Reply

    I don’t care how hard it is to get there, I really must go for that landscape view. Simply stunning.

    • Jon Algie
      June 22, 2014 at 5:54 pm — Reply

      It’s definitely worth it!

  5. June 21, 2014 at 10:41 pm — Reply

    If I hadn’t read the post I could have confused the photos for the Lauterbrunnen valley in Switzerland.
    Very interesting!
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Jon Algie
      June 22, 2014 at 5:55 pm — Reply

      Sounds like I’ll have to check that place out! I was surprised how green it was, a lot of the surrounding area is pretty barren.

  6. July 1, 2014 at 5:21 pm — Reply

    It does look lovely. Hopefully the relative inacessibility will keep it this way for a long time!

    • Jon Algie
      July 2, 2014 at 4:43 pm — Reply

      Hopefully, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a road next time I visit though.

  7. July 16, 2014 at 7:31 am — Reply

    Holy smokes, that is gorgeous! Love those snow capped mountains in the back drop.

    • Jon Algie
      September 18, 2014 at 9:50 pm — Reply

      Coming over the hill and seeing them was one of my best travel moments!

  8. October 7, 2014 at 1:23 am — Reply

    Love the shot with the donkey in the foreground. The scenery in Yubeng looks unreal!

    • Jon Algie
      October 11, 2014 at 12:51 am — Reply

      Cheers Molly, can’t wait to go back there!

  9. Veronica
    May 7, 2015 at 6:19 pm — Reply

    Hi Jon
    Just how far into the trek from Xidang to Yubeng did you get ‘over that hill’ to see the superb views? By the way, there’s still no road! 🙂

    • Jon Algie
      May 8, 2015 at 9:45 am — Reply

      Hey Veronica, from memory it was between 2 and a half – 3 hours until I got to the top. I tried to do it as quick as possible and it was tough!

  10. Ivy
    September 6, 2015 at 2:43 pm — Reply

    I’m going to visit Yubeng village next month! Does the sacred waterfall took one day? Holy lake another day again or we can do both at the same day? Is it same direction?

    • Jon Algie
      September 6, 2015 at 11:44 pm — Reply

      Great choice, I’m sure you’ll love it! It took me around 4 hours to do the sacred waterfall but I’ve heard of it taking a lot longer, and the Holy Lake is apparently a whole day’s walk – I didn’t do it but I heard it was tough!

      • Ivy
        September 6, 2015 at 11:57 pm — Reply

        Plan for 3 days to Yubeng and not sure if I will extend one more day for the Holy Lake as my friend is pretty much worry of the altitude sickness. I hope can do both since I’m not sure if I will do the same crazy trip again next time.

        We will do the Tiger Leaping Gorge first before Yubeng village.

        • Jon Algie
          September 7, 2015 at 1:49 am — Reply

          The waterfall and the ice lake (the easier one) are both great walks and are probably enough, especially if you’ve just done the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.

  11. Ivy
    September 8, 2015 at 8:36 pm — Reply

    Thanks for your advice. That’s helpful to me. But I saw the holy lake pics and it seems really stunning! Maybe I will make a trip there instead of the ice lake.

  12. Andrew
    October 6, 2015 at 12:20 pm — Reply

    What time of year did you go? I’m think about making a trip in December. Feasible or madness?

    • Ivy
      October 8, 2015 at 1:54 pm — Reply

      I’m leaving next Friday to cover Tiger Leaping Gorge and White Water Terrace before Yubeng.

      December will be quite cold. The route for descent at Tea Horse road will be slippery and dangerous by that time.

    • Jon Algie
      October 9, 2015 at 4:39 am — Reply

      I went in May/June and the weather was perfect, December would be cold but I read a post about someone who went to Yubeng in winter and it looked interesting; snow everywhere!

  13. Tam
    December 30, 2016 at 12:20 pm — Reply

    Hi!

    Is it safe to travel alone? How to get there from Hong Kong?

    • Jon Algie
      January 4, 2017 at 6:09 pm — Reply

      Hi Tam, I think it’s pretty safe, never really heard of people having troubles in China. If you go during the summer there will be plenty of other tourists heading there too.

  14. Paul
    April 9, 2017 at 4:49 am — Reply

    I somehow ran across your blog while traveling in Shangri-la, and I just want you to know that I LOVED going to Yubeng. The walk to the sacred waterfall was one of the most beautiful and magical experiences I have ever had. There are … if you figure every strand of prayer flags has twenty flags on it, and there’s about 50,000 strands of flags along that four hour hike to the falls… well, that would be a million flags. Which feels about right. It’s crazy amazing.

    Thank you for this blog post, because I don’t know if I would have found Yubeng without it.

    And for future travelers… if you go all the way through lower Yubeng, to the Tibetan temple, and look directly to the right… about 100 meters away, at the edge of the field, there is a rainbow-colored brightly-painted looks-like-a-fantasy guesthouse. Stay there. It is perfect. 🙂

    • Jon Algie
      April 10, 2017 at 4:54 pm — Reply

      It’s amazing isn’t it. I hadn’t heard of it before either, it’s one of those unknown places that you feel so happy to have found. It’s awesome to now be inspiring other people to visit. It’ll never be a mass tourism kind of place (unless they put a road in) which should mean that it doesn’t change too much.

  15. Saari
    April 10, 2017 at 2:38 pm — Reply

    Thanks for this blog post! This was the only reason I found out about Yubeng and was dead set about going there once I read it! Went in January in the dead of winter and the scenery was amazing (though the Glacier trek was a bit difficult in the snow). Another couple did the Holy Lake trek but all the locals said it was too dangerous at that time of year so I stayed clear of that one. I did Tiger Leaping Gorge after Yubeng and while it was still great it couldn’t quite compare.

    • Jon Algie
      April 10, 2017 at 4:55 pm — Reply

      Thanks Saari, glad I could help out! I’d love to visit in winter, will definitely have to go back there one day. I did Tiger Leaping Gorge first and I’m glad I did it in that order — it’s nice but not in the same league as Yubeng.

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