Lower yubeng

10 Epic Photos Of China

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China is an impressive country and one so varied it’s difficult to try and summarise it in only 10 photos.  But picking our favourites is one job in running a blog so here it is. You will quickly spot that most of our favourite snaps explore China’s expansive landscapes. From the snowy peaks of the Tibetan border to the neon clad temples of the modern cities, China is all about contrasts! Grab a cuppa, or a noodle soup, and observe our 10 epic photos of China...

 

1. Yubeng

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There is one spot that will forever be one of our favourite places in the world. Let us introduce Yubeng, a place where photographs don’t do justice. We entered in early December as the first snow was falling and there were only a few tourists who made it up to this sacred valley. Trekking Upper and Lower Yubeng got us as close to Tibet as we could afford and it’s only made us more excited about visiting the gated birth place of Buddhism. Without sounding like a classic traveller, it was really spiritual.


 

2. Huangshan Mountain

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Although the Yellow Mountains are one of the most well trodden national parks in China, it can’t be denied that if weather sides with you the peaks are truly stunning. We were told that Huangshan only gets 50 days of sunrises, sun and sunsets; raining the rest of year. So with that in mind we felt pretty privileged to have 4 days of complete sunshine, rises and sunsets. This photo was taken in the Huangshan Grand Canyon on our first night. Wow the colours were exceptionally deep in colour, changing every few minutes before the darkness fell. It didn’t matter that we were joined by 200 other people, that sunset was the best of the whole trip (so far.)


 

3. The Great Wall

 
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What would a trip to China be without a trek on the Great Wall? We set our sights on the deteriorating Jiankou section which, while crumbling away, did offer us access to 3 days on a vast unpopulated section of wall just north of Beijing. It’s one of the worlds wonders and being able to traverse the ancient stonework was very satisfying. Just look at it, a huge defensive structure that failed on the battlefield but left such an impact on the world through the sheer man power that built it. Remember, it can’t be seen from space as it’s smaller than most roads!


 

4. Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter 

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We love food, which is lucky because when you’re a long term traveller because it’s one of the only things we can afford to indulge in. I mean, a person's got to eat right? Enter Xi’an, a place with one of our favourite food streets in the world. The Muslim quarter is an area of Xi’an with mosques, restaurants and shops that continue a long lineage of Muslim culture dating back to the very start of the Silk Road. But let’s talk about the food, there’s so much variety in the ingredients, cooking processes and skill that you have to imagine hundreds of foods: artisans baking, bbq’ing, smashing, frying, freezing most of China’s indigenous ingredients on a bustling street, apparently UNESCO are in process of giving it extra some leverage too. Our favourite food? Milk and egg soup, sweet, salty and enhanced by some middle eastern magic, delicious.


 

5. Baisha

 
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This is not an obvious choice because only a few people would have heard of Baisha. It’s a small mountainside village that specialises in the craft of embroidery. Ali was in her element here as you can see from this photo as she wore a locals outfit proudly down the high street. We meant to stay in Baisha just a night but that quickly turned into a week, it was so relaxing and the people were so kind, it felt like home.


 

6. Feilai Si

 
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Little explanation needed here, you are looking at the Miancimu peak, the second highest mountain of the Meili Snow mountain range in north west Yunnan, Tibet can be found just behind it. We got up at 6am to watch the sun shine brightly on this peak and this was our favourite shot of the morning. If you ever travel to Yubeng make sure you see a sunrise in Feilai Si.


 

7. Xi’an 

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You couldn’t visit China and not witness a traditional temple. Unfortunately the cultural revolution of the 60s meant that many of China’s stunning temples and monasteries were destroyed. This was an authentic temple modernised with neon lights that make the structure even more dramatic. It’s the iconic Chinese image and one you will see again and again in pictures. It’s so much more breathtaking in real life. We hope this photo does it some justice.


 

8. Dali 

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This photograph symbolises adventuring off the beaten track with the best way being by bicycle or moped. All across China we rented bikes to get out of the cities and towns and explore rural China. Here is Mark on a lane connecting Dali and Lake Erhai, the third largest lake in the country. It’s always good to get away from China’s tourism and renting a bike is the best way to do that.


 

 9. Zhangjiajie

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Although Zhangjiajie was our biggest disappointment after we fought monkeys, flu and fog, we did get this photograph of Ali’s glowing locks against the monolithic Zhangjiajie canyon in the mist. In a way the drab weather we faced made it even more memorable for its sombre tones rather than the brash glowing yellow rocks you’ll see on the internet. We would love to go back and see this national park with better weather but until then we will have funny memories of this place.


 

10. Upper Yubeng 

 
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On day two of our trip in Yubeng we ventured up to a frozen lake found at 4km above sea level. It was cold, slippery but incredibly beautiful. A calm solemn place that is visited by Buddhist pilgrims who walk around the lake 3 times clockwise. If you wait long enough a small avalanches drifts from the glacier above and in that moment time stops as you watch.

 

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Video: Feilai Si and Yubeng

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We visited Feilai Si and Yubeng slightly out of season but as a result the walking paths became even more magical. Stunning snow capped mountains, Tibetan flags dancing in the wind and the kind of remoteness that was really hard to find in China. We would love for everyone to visit this place but in case you don't just let this video wet your appetite.

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Yubeng: A Hidden Retreat Where Time Stands Still

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It’s quite hard to describe what a haven Yubeng is. The quintessential sanctuary in the mountains that takes days to reach by coach with the last hurdle of the journey having to be completed on foot. It separates the tourists from the explorers and for that reason it is a sacred place in the Chinese tourism machine. Getting there is not a walk in the park, more so a walk up the peak, but logistics aside this is a truly special place and we will long feel privileged to have such fantastic memories of this secluded mountain getaway.

 

Yubeng At A Glance

  • Recommended time of travel is October/November but we visited in early December and the snow added a magic tough to the treks.
  • You will need to get yourself to Deqin via a 5 hour coach journey from Shangri-La.  You can travel to Shangri-La by bus or plane.
  • Shangri-La To Deqin bus costs 150 yuan pp (£16) and the return journey is the same.
  • Most people stay in Feilai Si for one night for its views of the Meili Mountain Range, our Shangri-La bus driver took us to Feilai Si for an extra 10 yuan pp (£1.10)
  • Our hotel organised a driver who took a carpool of walkers to Ninong for 22 yuan pp (£2.50) 
  • At time of writing we could only enter via the village Ninong but historically most enter by the neighbouring village of Xidang and then exit down to Ninong. Dec 2017 - Farmers closed the Xidang route to Yubeng due to a tax dispute with Yubeng residents!
  • Take the walking path route with water pipe and go left, follow for 15km until you reach Yubeng.
  • We booked accommodation in Lower Yubeng on arrival, as most trekkers do. There is also accommodation in Upper Yubeng, further up the hill, if you have enough energy.
  • Bring all weather equipment, pack light and bring walking snacks to keep costs down.
  • Walking poles are helpful in icy weather.
Tibetan flags on the way up to the waterfall 

Tibetan flags on the way up to the waterfall 

Enter Into Deqin

Before we could get to the shabby mountain village of Deqin, we had to come through Shangri-La which steals/ borrows the name from James Hilton’s literature of the 1930s Lost Horizon. In reality Shangri-La is a colder and less populated Lijiang which is definitely worth a day of wondering around, but don’t expect the earth shattering wilderness described in Hilton’s book.

Although..... you might find this mountain oasis on the Tibetan border in the secluded village of Yubeng! Start by boarding a morning bus to Deqin and expect to arrive mid afternoon. A group of us were looking to get to Feilai Si and our driver said he would take us another 10 minutes up the road for 10 yuan each, signalled to us through a wave of a note and a finger towards a mountain - how could we resist?  The views on the way to Deqin are pure mountainous bliss and the road is new so no loose rock cliff edges to fear! 

Sunrise on the Meili Mountain range from Feilai Si

Sunrise on the Meili Mountain range from Feilai Si

Feilai Si And The Meili Mountain Range

It’s not advised to stay in Deqin as it has little to offer tourists, so make your way to Feilai Si where you will find outstanding views of the Meili Mountain range and the monstrous Khawakarpo peak. To view the Meili range you’ll be asked to cough up a rather steep 60 yuan pp (£6.60) for the privilege of stepping onto the photo friendly wooden pavilion. The ticket allows you to enter the space for 3 days but most people stay in Feilai Si for just a night, it’s probably worth the price for the chance of a great sunset and sunrise. If you’re travelling on the cheap you can follow the hideous view-blocking brick wall down the road where it recedes, here you can get a free view. Our hotel, which cost only 90 yuan (£9.90) for a double room, kindly organised a friendly faced Tibetan man to pick us up at 8.30am the next day. The late start gave us time to brave the minus degrees and watch the sun rise on the Meili range. It was a stunning start to the day.

Ninong village next to the Mekong River

Ninong village next to the Mekong River

Day 1: Feilai Si To Ninong 

Anyone with a 2015 Lonely Planet will read that the recommend route into Yubeng is via Xidang but as of December 2017 the route from Xidang to Yubeng has been closed due to a dispute between villages, it’s all very parochial! The Ninong to Lower Yubeng route is more challenging than the Xidang route so make sure you’ve had your Weatabix, or rice porridge! Our drive from Feilai Si to Ninong took 45 mins and passed through Deqin. The drive passed smoothly and safely until the last part where our carpool of 7 was taken off-road down a mountainside track. Lumpy bumpy, to and fro, the road zig zagged down until we reached the walking entrance where an unofficial looking local asked us for 80 yuan (£8.80) each. We got a paper ticket which you’ll definitely need when entering Yubeng, so discard at your costly peril.

A view on the way up to Yubeng

A view on the way up to Yubeng

Day 1: Ninong Village And A 15k Trek Up To Yubeng

The trekking route up to Yubeng made us realise why so few people were there. It’s a relatively long route up made worse because you need to carry your kit and supplies, this makes the last few hours very draining. Don’t worry about vistas, the landscapes change a lot across the day. It starts dry and arid but as soon as you pass into the gorge the landscape becomes lush and green, the gorge expanding at every turn. I truly felt like I was back on the Torres Del Paine in Chile. The trek is well signposted all the way up, any splits in the path meet up again later, they are normally shortcuts for motorbikes. We carried all of our backpacking equipment which could have been an error. We could have left it in a hotel in Deqin and picked it up on the return. The heavy bags made it a leg wobbling final climb up into Lower Yubeng, I know that sounds paradoxical, but all the pain was worth it. Yubeng sits at 3.2km above sea level and we felt mild altitude sickness, which was mainly shortness of breath on the last ascent into the village. 

The view from our guesthouse window

The view from our guesthouse window

Day 1: Where To Stay? Lower Or Upper Yubeng?

On arrival in Yubeng we were gifted with placid views of grazing animals who outnumber the locals 5:1, a stupe, temple and guesthouses. It felt like we’d just gone back in time and that this place was far more deserving of the name Shangri-La.  This haven would be our home for the next 4 days.  China’s recommended time to visit is Oct/Nov but we reached Yubeng in December as the snow was starting to turn the landscape white and magical, who doesn’t love looking at snow capped mountains? There are two treks to complete from Yubeng village, one to a waterfall from lower and the frozen lake from upper. It makes sense to stay in the lower part to avoid carrying your bags for a further 40 minutes to Upper Yubeng. So with that sentiment we stayed in the first guesthouse on the right as you enter Lower Yubeng. Dorms were 30 yuan (£3.30) and a double is 200 yuan (£22). The food is great, all fresh and visible in the fridge but the star of the show is the huge pots of yak butter tea, 20 yuan (£2.20) for a medium and 30 yuan (£3.30) for a large. They have freshly cooked flatbreads for 10 yuan and supplies if you need them. Dinner was 90-100 yuan per night for 2, and was a meat dish, 2 veg dishes and rice, which was much cheaper and tastier than the tosh on Huangshan mountain. 

Yak butter milk tea and freshly cooked bread

Yak butter milk tea and freshly cooked bread

Day 2: Rest day

We checked the weather forecast on arrival with rain and snow forecast for Yubeng in a weather attack that would last all day. So we opted for a rest day to escape minus 5 temperatures! We sat in bed with our electric blankets on as the rooms had no heating. It was so cold the windows were frozen but somehow the internet in the mountains was lightning quick so we could feel clever watching TED talks. A leak in our bathroom meant that we had to wade through water every time we wanted to go to the loo with squelching slippers. In a place this beautiful you have to take the rough with smooth.

Mark in awe of the flags and the view

Mark in awe of the flags and the view

Day 3: Tibetan Flags And Frozen Waterfalls

Lower Yubeng to the waterfall and back takes about 5 hours. This is a magical walk through Tibetan flags up to the waterfall view point. As it had snowed all day on our rest day we awoke to fresh white stuff but with crisp sun and a clear view of the mountains. We endured a few hours of uphill trekking, with the altitude causing some shortness of breath. As we reached the waterfall the snow was melting making the climb very slippery. Without walking poles, Mark would have been like Bambi on ice. The waterfall itself had frozen over but the spectacle of Tibetan flags, snowy mountains and occasionally chunks of ice/snow crashing down from the waterfall was epic. On our decent we noticed a temple tucked away in a cave, which made the return journey more interesting. We celebrated the day with a round of yak butter milk tea and homemade bread, the perfect treat.

Ali in amongst the Tibetan flags

Ali in amongst the Tibetan flags

Day 4: Slippery Climb To An Icy Lake

This is a longer trek, an 8 hour route up and back down that has been made much tougher because of the freezing weather. The path from Lower to Upper Yubeng follows a stream which had flooded, the whole path was black ice so we passed with caution. The route from Upper Yubeng starts by passing a big stupe and lots of yaks before making our way through some woodlands on flat ground.  A big chunk of the next hike is uphill through woodlands, the snow and ice have frozen over so acrobatics are needed to jaunt trees around the frozen water. All the hard work is rewarded with an outstanding view of the Meili Snow Mountains and a glacier.  Here it’s downward for a short while until we reached a meadow, which could undoubtedly be camped on in the summer. From the meadow we are guided to the left to access the glacier lake but it’s so snowy and slippery it's nearly impossible to get up.  At 3900m high and the potential for twisting ankles, we are concerned about being able to get back down again safely and so will need to find another route or risk some off-piste skiing.

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Day 4: Frozen Aqua

After a difficult last stretch we reach the glacier lake, which is a stunning solid frozen mass surrounded by mountains and glaciers above the peaks. It’s a sacred lake and many people have braved the difficult climb to drink the water and walk around it three times clockwise for Buddha. We walk around once looking for another route down that avoids the dangerous icy path we just came up from, deciding to follow the rushing river down by scrambling over the many chunky rocks either side. It’s a fun route and loads safer than our way up, but Mark gets a little cocksure and accidentally dunks his foot into the ice cold water! Squelching downwards, we spot a curios chipmunk who is very interested in us (and our snacks).  Before walking through Upper Yubeng we sit and enjoy the view of lush lands, grazing yaks and bright sunshine.  It is total bliss here. The animals have bells on which creates a simple and relaxing music to our experience. As we are sitting eating a snickers, a donkey comes right up to Mark and puts his face next to his. The donkey continues his journey and we start thinking about butter tea again...  it's just so good!

A cow on the road, just don't call her daisy!

A cow on the road, just don't call her daisy!

Day 5: Descending....

We don’t know how long the exit will take so we leave at 9am with speed in mind. It’s lucky we left early because half an hour before leaving there is a power cut. We're prepared we’ve just had our coffees, pot noodles and charged up our electronics! Yubeng returns to dark ages just as we escape back to reality. We had a real stand out moment on the high pass back to the entrance as a curious goat walked with us for around 15 minutes. He was like our shadow, a jumpy little friend who would accompany us most of the way back to the Mekong River. 

.... And Exiting

We literally zoomed down to Ninong, arriving at 12pm as the route is downhill the whole way. Even luckier still, there was a cab waiting to go that costs 150 yuan (£16) for a 7 seater (which is pretty expensive) so we decide to wait for another walker. Luckily a lady turns up 10 mins later and we get on our way to Deqin, splitting the fare 3 ways. The cab lady tells us that the last bus to Shangri-La leaves at 2.40pm, which gives us an hour and a half to buy tickets and grab some lunch in Deqin.

Day 5: The Road To Shangri-La 

The return coach journey is the worst ever as the driver bangs on his favourite Chinese house tunes, it’s so obnoxiously loud. We escape to our memories of Yubeng, imaging the locals gearing up for winter, storing their hay, drying out foods, looking after their animals.  Every building is like a farm.  As you walk down the cobbled streets between Upper and Lower Yubeng, you are joined by wild donkeys or horses carrying supplies, cows grazing. As we sipped our favourite buttery tea 4 chickens came into the restaurant and clucked around.  Later we gaze out the window watching the pigs waiting at the gate of our guesthouse to be fed. This place has all the drama!  One afternoon we saw a piglet get pushed off the side of the path about a meter drop into the pond... wet swine!

Walking down to Yubeng.... oh how we miss you!

Walking down to Yubeng.... oh how we miss you!

Yubeng is so simple, modest and beautiful.  It’s truly the closest we’ve been to finding the real Shangri-La. We would love for everyone to experience this place.  It’s a long journey to get there, but worth every magical second.

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VIDEO

Watch out adventures on the mountains, lakes and waterfalls of Yubeng in Yunnan, China

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Searching For Shangri-La

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James Hilton conceived Shangri-La as an escape from the troubled 1930s, a fable of a spiritual utopian sanctuary. I first read Lost Horizon in 2011 on my first ever backpacking trip through Yunnan, China. I was captivated by Hilton’s vision of meditative llamas in secluded mountain temples. But when I finally reached Zhongdian, 6 years later, it had been renamed Shangri-La to boost tourism. Would it be the place of solace I had yearned for?

Travelling to South West China in 2017, tourism is now deeply rooted here when once it wasn't. I feared what may have become of the Yunnan I loved. Sadly, Zhongdian's old town was destroyed in a huge fire in 2014 with devastating losses. I spoke with the manager of a Tibetan gallery who told me of the loss of 7th century Thangkas’, irreplaceable intricate paintings of Buddha. The old town has been rebuilt in haste, underpinning all my frustrations with modern China, a new city rising like a phoenix from Zhongdian’s ashes. Any sense of wonderment or spirituality has been lost in it’s rapid construction. This is not the mountainous refuge I dreamt of. But mere hours from the Tibetan border, my search for Shangri-La will continue.

Meili Snow Mountains

Meili Snow Mountains

The drive North takes 5 hours up a winding cliff edge towards Deqin. Expectedly, it’s people are fewer, hardier and of Sino-Tibetan decent. Fuller, browner faces, their gaze fall heavily on me, few western tourists make it here. Feilai Si is recommend for it’s view point of the Meili Snow Mountains and the towering 6,740 metre Khawakarpo, which the Austrian-American Botanist Joseph Rock described as “the most glorious peak my eyes were ever privileged to see”. Awestruck by the view, my host spoke of a hiking path to Yubeng, a secluded village at the foot of the same mountain range. The next morning a friendly faced Tibetan ferries a full carpool of walkers to Ninong, a town which straddles the Mekong River. A tough 15km uphill trek to Yubeng is accompanied by pine forests, granite peaks and a pounding downward stream.

The Glacier Ice Lake of Yubeng, Yunnan, China. by Studio Mali

In frozen Yubeng I spot yaks in the mist and pigs trampling mud as the rising sun slices off the mountain tops, soundtracked by the bells that ring abstractly from the livestock’s necks. It’s November and snow has fallen,only a handful of tourists are here. This isn’t the China I know anymore. Yubeng’s hikes visit sacred waterfalls and frozen lakes, they feel like pilgrimages. Yubeng is a hidden destination free from China's fixation with tourism, with a rich balance between local culture, Buddhism and nature.

Trekking up to the Glacier Ice Lake in Yubeng, Yunnan, China. by Studio Mali

Hilton’s words resonate timelessly here and in this moment Yubeng has become my spiritual Shangri-La. My utopia is  fleeting, a special balance of time, space and psyche. Shangri-La isn’t one place, but a time in life where true peace is found. Get off the beaten path and you may find this place. Your own Shangri-La, my Yubeng.

I would strongly recommend reading the story that brought Shangri-La to public knowledge, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon

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