After spending a few days in Shangri-La we had the first taste of what Sichuan could be like. Compared to the rest of Yunnan, Shangri-La feels more like Sichuan. Unlike most people, we were going to travel Sichuan over land, instead of flying in from Chengdu. Before reaching our first destination we had to prepare ourselves for a long, (looonnng), bus ride to Daocheng. On the map it is only 120km, but the ride would take us a minimum of 12 hours, since we have to cross a serious mountain pass. Mountains that are the final tips of the Himalaya. So packed with snacks and water, we headed to the bus station where the bus would depart early in the morning. We said goodbye to Apple our lovely host, after some stressful waiting on our driver, who would bring us to the bus station. 5 minutes before departure we finally ran into the station, just on time! The bus was a funny mix of monks, backpackers, Chinese tourists and some locals.
Before ascending we are stopped by the police on the province border. Everybody has to show their passports. Meaning you have to hand in your passport and 30 minutes later the officer hands over a huge pile of ID-cards and passports and somehow you get yours back. The ride is absolutely stunning and proves us right for traveling over land. The scenery with the high peaks and dramatic cliffs is amazing. But the trip is not all fun, the stops are scarce so it is wise not to drink too much water. Apparently driving a big touring car makes you forget about other traffic, so sometimes you just have to close your eyes and hope for the best. Somewhere halfway we are stopped again by some local police, although no one says so, people have to take out their luggage and show their papers again. We decide just play dumb and look for the toilet, a good strategy since we don’t have to show anything.
About 60 km before our final destination of the day there is a crossroad, left goes to Daocheng, right goes to Yading. Here, several taxi drivers offer rides to Yading and the foreigners start to jump out of the bus. We stay put, since we have a reservation for a guesthouse already. Later we heard that there was a lot of discussion about the price, so we were happy to just chill in the bus until our final stop. The last part of the trip is less rocky, since the road is paved with asphalt, Hallellujah! Around 7pm we finally reach Daocheng and it is just a short walk to our Guesthouse. Originally we were supposed to stay two nights, but during our bus ride we decided that it was better to spend one night extra in Yading Nature reserve. We go out to the center to grab some food, but since there is a power cut, many restaurants are closed. We end up in a very tiny restaurant which feels more like someone’s living room and order some local food. We have delicious fried potato, mushrooms, and some beef stew. After a while our bus driver pops in, a funny coincidence. After dinner we buy snacks for our days in Yading. Time to go to bed early, since our car to the national park will leave in the early morning.
We arrive in Shangri-La (same name different town) around 10 o’clock in the morning. First we need to queue for our entrance tickets. People in front of us buy tickets for the entire family and it becomes clear that this is a real attraction for the Chinese. We are the only foreigners in the entire hall. The ticket for Yading is valid for your entire stay in the park and includes the bus that will bring you to Yading village and to the actual entrance of the park, about 40 km from the ticket office. The tickets are quite pricey so we decide to look for accommodation in Yading village, this means paying tickets once. We again need to queue for the bus that will take us to town. We are really the only foreigners, and we stand out from the crowds with our giant backpacks and our height. People find it special that we are here and want to know how we heard of Yading. Once we arrive in the small village of Yading it is time to look for a place to stay. The village mainly consist out of guesthouses but the prices vary extremely. We decide to just go from guesthouse to guesthouse and ask for the price. The cheapest is about 100 yuan per night and the most expensive one is 890 yuan. We go for the cheapest option, which isn’t fabulous, but we have a bed and a small bathroom. The Shower is above the Chinese squatting toilet so that is going to be challenging, but that is what you get if you are on a budget. The village is located at 4000m altitude so just walking towards the restaurant for lunch is catching your breath. Niwa inn is a small cozy place, with good WiFi and nice food. After lunch it is time for our first steps into the park, we are lucky because the sun is shining so it is less cold. We take the bus to the park entrance and from there we start our first ‘hike’. The first stop is a short hike past the monastery towards the pearl lake. The lake is in front of the highest of the three holy mountains in Yading, Chenresig (Tibetan for compassion) which is 6032 meters high. The hike is easy, despite the altitude because the path is made from wooden walking bridges and stairs. The view from the lake is gorgeous, the mountain is bathing in sunlight and its majestic sight is reflected by the lake. We sit down on a bench to just enjoy the view. The bright colors, the snow mountain and the funny Chinese (with oxygen masks) making pictures, there is enough to look at. The rest of the park requires a longer walk, or a ride with the electric cars. Yading is catered to the modern Chinese tourist who wants to see as much as possible with a minimum amount of effort. Thank god that they did not install a cable car! Time to head back to town and sleep well because we need the energy for tomorrow’s hike. We soon find out that the Tibetan nights at this altitude are cold. We need our sleeping bag and the blanket and the electric blanket to stay warm in our guesthouse, which is of course not well isolated (what can you expect if you stay at the cheapest place in town). We fell asleep with the electric blanket on full force, which caused us to wake up in the middle of the night because it was so hot in the bed.
Due to the mediocre night of sleep, we wake up too late for a descent breakfast at Niwa, but we manage to score some noodles at another place. Off we go for a full day of hiking. Today we want to reach the Milk lake and the Five color lake, both are located above 4500 meters and will take a few hours by foot. But first we take one of the electric cars to the Luorong meadow. This meadow offers an amazing sight on all the three snow mountains on a clear day. We are not so lucky since the peaks of the mountains are in the clouds. We are surprised by how many Chinese decide to do the hike towards the Milk lake, since the altitude and the path make fierce opponents. Some people decide to rent a horse, but the majority opts for walking. The outfits vary, some people have plundered the outdoor shop and are fully equipped with the latest gear. Others decide that skirts and heels make for the perfect outfit. The climb up is tough, especially the last hour is steep and slippery. Right at the moment we reach the open field in between the mountains we are treated with ice cold wind and hail. With no shelter we have to showcase some true dedication to continue. By the time we reach the Milk lake it is dry again and we can enjoy the view. The milky blue waters of the lake and the contrast with the granite peaks of the surrounding mountains is beautiful. Time to move on and ascent for another 150 meters to the Five color lake. The lake is gorgeous and we can imagine how colorful it must be if the sun is out. But not for us, we have to find a place to hide from the freezing wind and rain. In a few minutes we are entirely soaked and pretty cold. After ten minutes the rain stops and we decide to take a few pictures more before heading back to the meadows. By the time we arrive at the main path down, the sun starts to shine and reveals the peak of the Chenresig mountain and Chana Dorje (Tibetan for power) on the other side of the valley. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags make the scenery complete.
Time to head down again. The descent is difficult since the rain has made the path extremely slippery. I look at my own hiking boots and am so pleased that unlike some others we are not wearing our brand new white sneakers or plateau shoes. After about 2 hours we reach the meadow. Here we find several brides posing for their wedding pictures. In every picturesque spot in China you can spot these brides with their photographers, hair- and make-up stylists and directors. Looking at the girls in their white gowns, I can not imagine going to such lengths for the perfect wedding pictures. It must be so so cold an I hope that they are not sick in bed with bronchitis on the actual wedding day. We take the electric car back and catch the bus back to the village. Time for a well deserved beer and a warm meal and go to bed early.
We have one full day in the park left before heading back to Daocheng, to continue our journey through Sichuan. Since we have done most of the tracks already, we decide that we will walk to the Luorong meadow, the part that we have done by electric car the previous day. We hope to be able to see the Jampelyang (Tibetan for wisdom, 5958 meters high) the only top we haven’t really seen so far. When we arrive at the meadow we have a little sun, but this peak remains with his head in the clouds. Time to go back and enjoy our last meal. We have our favorite Sichuan chicken dish, gongbao chicken at the nice hotel of Mofam. Dinner is so good that we decide to come back for breakfast. Here we get free noodles, because it is someone’s birthday. What a great surprise! We pack our backpacks and wait for the bus to the visitor center. The switchbacks combined with the skills of our driver our not the best combination. Quite pale and not feeling all too well we arrive at the center. It could be worse though, another passenger clearly feels the same, but he sprints to the nearest trash bin to see his breakfast again. I am ok after a few sips of water. Now the only thing we have to do is look for a taxi back to Daocheng. We find one relatively quick, but since it just the two of us we have to pay more or wait for two other passengers. We refuse to pay more and instead of waiting at the tourist attraction our driver is driving around town to find other people. This takes about an hour and by that time I am absolutely furious. But at least we safe some money. Back at our hostel in Daocheng it is almost time for dinner again and we have to stock up some snacks for tomorrow’s bus ride to Tagong. We get some advice in the hostel about a restaurant, they write down the name and say that everybody will know it and we should just ask around on the street. It turns out that nobody who we ask knows where the restaurant is. Finally a woman recognizes the name and takes us to the restaurant…which is empty. We decide to go to a restaurant we spotted earlier which was full and ask for a table there. The restaurant is really packed and we have to wait for a table. So we wait on two seats on the street in front of the restaurant, people find this super funny. The owner comes with the menu and in stead of letting us do our google translate thing, she takes us through the menu in Chinese. This is of course not really helpful but we manage to order dinner. We get some delicious mushrooms and spicy but tasty meat dish. Together with fried rice, eggs and tomatoes we have a great meal and a nice final evening in Daocheng. So far Sichuan is pretty damn awesome!