It started with Tinder.
I know, I know, that sounds bad. But if it wasn’t for Tinder, I might never have heard of that place in an alpine valley mere kilometers from the Tibetan border. I might never have seen the photos of misting waterfalls, glacial lakes, and fluttering prayer flags which inspired me to alter my trip plans. I might never have gone hiking in Yubeng.
… all good things beyond sleep come precisely because we defy gravity while we live.” – Dan Simmons
Yubeng is an isolated town in northern Yunnan nestled in a valley at the base of Meili Xue Shan, less than 10 km from the border with Tibet. Comprised of two villages separated by a river, it is accessible only on the backs of mules or on one’s own two feet.
Starting point: Shangri-la Bus Station
Cost: 59 RMB
Duration: ~4.5 – 5 hours
From Shangri-la, the easiest way to get to Yubeng is to take a bus. Most info online says to get the bus to Deqin and transfer to Feilaisi, but there are direct buses from Shangri-la to Feilaisi for 1 additional RMB — saving you the transfer. Go early if you can, as the bus takes between 4 and 5 hours.
Spend the night in Feilaisi. The town itself is nothing spectacular, but the day spent there will let your body acclimatize to the elevation and give you a chance to stock up on supplies for the hike. You’ll also need to book transportation to the village of Xidang, the most common starting point for the Yubeng trek.
Starting point: Feilaisi
Cost: 150 RMB for a van with 7 seats
Duration: ~1.5 hours
Most guesthouses can organize an early morning van to take you to Xidang and the start of the trek. The charge is a flat rate for the vehicle, so use those social skills and try to fill every seat! If possible, schedule the start time for just after sunrise — it’s really worth seeing!
Day One: Hiking to Yubeng
The trail started out steep and muddy. Mules and their masters were waiting at the bottom for any not feeling fit enough to make the ascent, but they didn’t seem over-keen to hassle hikers uninterested in their services. Paranoid of the altitude, my hiking buddy and I went slowly. The kilometers seemed to stretch, but the hike was mostly shaded and cool. Summer had passed, and the foliage was beginning to show the colors of autumn.
After several hours of climbing uphill, we came to an area swaddled in prayer flags. We’d seen others along the ascent, but the sheer number of them was impressive.
Cresting the summit gave us our first view of the Meili Xue Range since leaving Feilaisi, and having the payoff view ahead of us for the remainder of the hike made the downhill slog entirely bearable.
All told, our hike time from Xidang to Yubeng was about 5.5 hours including all of our snack breaks. There were two separate areas with food and drinks available: one partway up the ascent and the other at the summit. We stayed at the YHA in Upper Yubeng for the first two nights and were very happy with the accommodation there.
Day Two: Hiking to Ice Lake
Hiking in Yubeng is relatively straightforward, and the paths are well-signed. Look for a board like this at the start of each trek to get an idea of the trail.
Dawn came around 7:20 am, after which we had a simple breakfast before setting off up the trail to Ice (Glacial) Lake.
The hike started easily enough — a level stroll through a forested valley and along the river draining from the glaciers in the mountains above.
The relaxing pace wasn’t to continue, however, and the trail brought us to the base of a huge hill before zig-zagging up it. The switchbacks made things a bit easier, but it was still a punishing ascent. After it felt like we’d climbed an entire mountain, we found ourselves in a grove of trees — giants rustling in the wind. An information placard informed us that this grove was where the deity Kawagebo chose to dance; we were quite literally in the dance hall of the gods.
There was very little undergrowth in the grove; the forest floor was carpeted with moss, twigs, and fallen leaves. The only sound was that of the wind, and we stood there in the stillness listening for the footsteps of the gods.
When the views came, it was a stop and pick your jaw up off the ground type of moment. We found ourselves in a massive basin with alpine vistas spread out in 180 degrees of splendor. A number of buildings have been built in the center of the valley, where the local villagers have their summer grazing grounds. At that time, however, there were only a few mules tethered to posts while their handlers ate ramen and drank tea in the shelter of the huts.
The third and final climb was the straw which nearly broke us. The toll from the high altitude was more noticeable at over 3700 meters, and we were already worn out from the previous day. Nonetheless, we pushed to the top and finally saw the Ice Lake below us.
It’s not huge, but the lake is really a secondary attraction. The massive cliff-face beyond it reaches towards the sky, where glaciers can be seen. Thick clouds had started to roll over the peaks, obscuring the view and causing the temperature to plummet. A sleety rain pelted us for a few minutes just to remind us how lucky we’d been with the weather, then subsided.
Day Three: Hiking to the Sacred Waterfall
Dawn came once more, the first rays of its light touching the peak of Bawu Bameng Shan. The golden light spread, illuminating the glistening flanks of the mountain, and we watched spellbound. Sometimes — just sometimes — it can be worth waking up for a sunrise.
Our next destination was the Sacred Waterfall, but before we could start hiking we needed to switch villages to Lower Yubeng. A 45 minute walk to the other side of the river, Lower Yubeng is a less popular place to stay than the upper village, so the range of accommodation there is a bit limited. We stayed in the hotel second from the end of the street — the name was only written in Chinese characters, so that’s the best you’ll get out of me!
The views at the start of the trek were immediately stunning — a ridge of craggy peaks standing snow-capped and brilliant against an azure sky. At the mouth of the valley and the end of the village, a Tibetan Buddhist temple basked in the glory of its surroundings.
The hike started out similarly enough to the previous day’s — level and relaxing. That pace continued for the majority of the hike, however, and we made excellent time up the valley towards the falls.
Eventually, we reached a glacial valley similar to one surrounding the Ice Lake. The peaks loomed over us, and the weather appeared to be holding.
The density of flags only increased as the trail began to climb, to the point where the majestic views to either side were all but obscured by fluttering walls of silk.
When we reached the top, the waterfall took our breath away. It had looked modest throughout the ascent — we’d been lucky with the weather, but the absence of rain made for a meager flow. From beneath, however, we could see the wind catch the torrent from above and scatter it, casting spray along the cliff face as light refracted through the drops and rainbows were born.
Sometimes, it’s easy to understand why a place is considered sacred. Getting your first look at the Sacred Waterfall is one such time.
We completed 3 circuits of the falls (there are technically 3 waterfalls you can access along the wall) and spent some time gazing up from beneath them before turning around and heading back to our nameless hotel.
It had been another day and another adventure hiking in Yubeng.
Day Four: Hiking to Ninong
Our final day hiking in Yubeng would take us out of the mountains and to the village of Ninong. A big perk of that section of the hike: all of it was downhill. After 3 days of grueling ascents, some gravity assistance was a welcome change.
The views along the path started modestly, but further on the river had cut deep through the stone and created a sheer gorge. The trail had been hewn into the side of the cliff, and I made a point to walk as close to the wall of it as possible. Heights and I, we still aren’t friends.
At last, we reached the mouth of the gorge and stepped into another world. While Yubeng had been surrounded by alpine forests, Ninong was a barren and dusty place. Barely any greenery was present; even the rocks had changed. We’d barely hiked over 2 hours, which made the difference even more striking.
The last section of the trail was a steep descent down a path switchbacking along a loose scree, which made for treacherous footing. By the time we reached the parking area and the end of the trek, we were more than ready to be finished with it.
Getting back to Shangri-la
There are vans waiting at the end of the trail which will take you to either Feilaisi, Deqin, or all the way to Shangri-la. We also heard rumors of a 2:30 p.m. bus from Ninong to Shangri-la, but were unable to confirm that and not willing to wait around and risk having to stay a night in Deqin. The most time/ cost efficient combination seemed to be taking a van from Ninong to Deqin, then getting a bus to Shangri-la, so that’s what we did.
Starting point: Ninong
Cost: 150 RMB for a van
Duration: ~1 – 1.5 hours
The van should drop you off directly at the bus station. Head upstairs (the stairwell is just to the right of the entrance) and buy your tickets, then kill however much time you have left eating at one of the many stalls along the main street.
Starting point: Deqin
Cost: 58 RMB
Duration: ~4 – 4.5 hours
That’s it! If you do decide to go, I hope you have an awesome time! Take a few days to chill out in Shangri-la; it really is the perfect place to relax for a little while. Check out this list of things to do around town, and don’t forget to toast your epic off-the-beaten-track adventure with a Shangri-la brewski.
Hike safely, friends!
Any questions, recommendations, or updates on hiking in Yubeng? Let me know in the comments below!