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