Yading kora trek


Yading's high mountains loom over Wisdom Lake

Adrian Bottomley goes on a unique trekking adventure into the holy mountains in the Tibetan borderlands of Western China

Intrigued by a so-called ‘blank on the map’, Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock first ‘discovered’ the sacred mountains of Yading in 1928. Four years earlier, he’d caught a tantalising glimpse of the distant trio of 6,000m peaks and had asked his new friend, the King of Muli, to use his influence to help him travel to the remote Chinese region. At the time, the mountains, although a sacred place for Tibetans, were controlled by a large gang of brigands and were pretty much off limits – on pain of death – to outsiders. 

These days, thankfully, it’s a different (and much safer) story. The warm-hearted locals in Yading are much more welcoming than they were in the early 20th century. But this excerpt from Forgotten Kingdom, Peter Goullart’s book written almost 30 years after Rock visited the great peaks, still rings true: “Although of an enormous size, none of these areas has ever been visited by a European (since Rock) and probably will not be for a long time to come. There’s no doubt that much of interest to explorers is concealed in these inaccessible regions.” And there is no doubt. The Yading region offers
up some of the most awe-inspiring mountains in Asia and the chance to see those authentic Tibetan cultures who are still clinging on steadfastly out
in the remote Himalayas.

Two mules look out at Mt Chenrezig

The three majestic peaks of the Yading Nature Reserve are situated in the Ganzi autonomous prefecture of Western Sichuan and are still revered by local Tibetans. Sanctified in the eighth century by the fifth Dalai Lama, they are worshipped as emanations of the three bodhisattvas of Chenrezing (compassion), Jampayang (wisdom) and Chanadorjee (power). Even today, it’s a strongly held belief that to embark on the ‘kora’ that circumambulates their towering snow capped summits will purify a lifetime of negative karma. And it’s this ‘kora’ that we experience on our journey.

The best way to enjoy these peaks and get the most out of the Yading area is by joining a special expedition, over about 12 days, crossing northeast by four-wheel drive from Shangri-La to Yading and following the ‘kora’ route on foot. This way, travellers get a chance to acclimatise and explore the local villages and monasteries en route – as well as, of course, take in a wide variety of spectacular vistas. In fact, getting to the trailhead at the start of the mission to the mounts is a stunning journey in itself. Driving for the best part of two days (thankfully there’s a short-cut on the way back…) the road passes through forested valleys dotted with sunflowers and whitewashed Tibetan houses before climbing over the unsentimentally named Big Snow Mountain Pass at 4,100m. The mountain views from here look like the Dolomites on steroids and have to be seen to be believed. It’s a wonderful welcome to an unforgettable trip.

Steps to the gods: A monk enters Ben Po monastery

But that’s just the start. After overnighting in Xiancheng, after the first day’s drive, the route becomes even more picturesque and passes through the pretty village of San Dui, home to the seldom-visited monastery. The crimson-robed monks are usually amused and bewildered to see outsiders strolling around their courtyard, taking pictures of the colourful murals. Finally, arriving in the peaceful settlement of Yading, surrounded by wheat fields, it’s time for the real adventure to begin.

A Tibetan Buddhist mural in one of the monasteries on the journey

If you plump for the 12-day trip, then six of those days are actually spent on foot, out in the wilderness (there are only a couple of companies that run the trip commercially – check out Hong Kong-based Whistling Arrow, which is pioneering a small group trek to Yading in September). And it’s mule assisted: they carry the equipment and you carry your pack. There’s tough climbing to be done in places but crossing over six high altitude passes en route (the highest is 4,700m) does bring its own reward. Whether you’re staring up at the soaring peaks, looking down a massive scree field or marvelling at the scenic valleys sprinkled with the odd yak herder’s hut, there are incredibly beautiful panoramas throughout and mountain views that simply take your breath away.

Two particular highlights on the ‘kora’ – which is about 30km long – are the vast natural amphitheatre at the base of Mount Chanadorjee that locals refer to as Konka Djra-nse or Sea Dragon’s Snout, and the crystal clear, glacier-fed waters of Wisdom Lake. The first is the location of the second night’s campsite on the six day trek and makes for a stunning finale to what is a spectacular and topographically varied days hiking. Crossing over the wild Ji San pass with its flocks of black ravens, the route winds down through a freshly scented, ancient pine forest before funnelling out into a lush green valley with Chanadorjee towering above like a huge sentinel. Similarly, the banks of Wisdom Lake, adorned with fluttering prayer flags, make for a superb lunch stop and a perfect spot for an afternoon nap. 

A Buddhist chorten en route

There are so many postcard perfect sights to see on this journey (too many to mention here but needless to say you need to bring plenty of camera batteries) that by the end of the mission, hiking out of the mountains brings really mixed emotions. Leaving the scenic splendour behind is the promise of a hot shower but the feeling of accomplishment is tinged with a sense of sadness. Contemplating the experience of the last few days as you walk out of the final and inappropriately named Hell Valley, there’s a real sense of privilege at having visited one of the most hidden, awe-inspiring corners of Asia. After the long trek, however, the aching limbs are crying out for a rest. The Yading ‘big kora’ is indeed pretty challenging and includes some significant ascents and descents. As such, it’s worth pointing out that you need to be physically fit and prepared for consecutive days of up to seven hours trekking. In hindsight, though, it’s dealing with the altitude that presents the biggest test – at least for the first few days.

Relaxing in the afternoon sun at the first campsite in Biyu Pasture and looking out over the colossal east-facing wall of Mount Chenrezing, it’s easy to forget the odd headache or grumbling stomach brought about by the body’s reaction to such an elevated vantage point (4,060m to be exact…) and see why those intrepid enough to visit believe this is the original Shangri La. Indeed, it’s the extensive account of Joseph Rock’s travels which probably gave the world its first jaw-dropping glimpse of the area. We’d recommend you add to that account in your own way in 2013 once you’ve witnessed the gloriously memorable views this stunning region has to offer up.

Get packing

How to join the trip
The fixed departure trip with Whistling Arrow is scheduled for 12 days between September 11 and 22, beginning and ending in Shangri-La (airport code: DIG) in Northern Yunnan, China. The cost per person is $24,900, which also includes all accommodation, transportation, equipment and guides – but not flights. For details check out whistlingarrow.com or call 2811 8892.

What to bring
Whistling Arrow provides all the camping equipment, sleeping bags, food and cooking facilities. There’s a comprehensive list of what equipment to bring on its website. There’s a detailed daily itinerary and additional information about what to expect with regard to altitude on the website too.

Where to stay
Accommodation is a combination of boutique hotels and traditional lodges. On the trek itself, camping is in tents.

How to get there
There are several flights from Hong Kong to Shangri-La via Kunming. Dragonair can fly the first leg to Kunming, costing about $3,000 return, and China Eastern Airlines can do the second leg to Shangri-La for about $1,000 return. Check out dragonair.com and flychinaeastern.com.


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