Yading Nature Reserve

Top choice in Sichuan

The magnificent Yading Nature Reserve, 140km south of Daocheng, centres around three sacred snowcapped mountains, a holy trinity encircled by forested valleys, crystal-clear rivers and glacier-fed lakes. These are, quite simply, some of the most stunning landscapes you'll ever see. There are opportunities to hike, ride and camp here.

Locals have worshipped these mountains for more than 800 years. The three peaks – Chenresig (compassion), Chana Dorje (power) and Jampelyang (wisdom) – represent bodhisattvas in Tibetan Buddhism. Even for nonbelievers, walking the 35km kora (转山; holy hike) around the highest peak, Chenresig (仙乃日; Xiānnǎirì), which tops out at 6032m, can be a hugely meaningful experience.

The clockwise circuit around Chenresig begins at Longtong Ba (龙同坝; Lóngtóng Bà) and takes at least 12 hours of serious hiking. To avoid one very long day, many use the campsites located about halfway, just below the first pass beyond Five-Colour Lake. You have to bring all your own gear and supplies. (Though you'll pass locals living in simple stone huts, under park rules they are not supposed to take you in.) Remember to keep the mountain on your right, and to always take the right-hand turn when there’s a choice of paths. There is a longer, four-day, 110km hike that adds a circuit around 5958m Chana Dorje (夏郎多吉; Xiàláng Duōjí), which begins and ends at the same place as the kora.

These hiking trails are all around 4000m above sea level, so acclimatise properly and pack for a serious expedition before you set off. Guides are available for hire at Longtong Ba.

If you don’t have the time (or energy) for a full circuit, there are day-hike options that see far more visitors. Take the shuttle bus from the ticket office into the park to just beyond the small settlement of Longtong Ba. From here hike 2km to the 800-year-old Chonggu Monastery (冲古寺; Chōnggǔ Sì), where you can pick up electric carts (one way/return ¥50/80, 6km, 20 minutes) into the Luorong Grassland (洛绒牛场; Luòróng Niúchǎng), which offers incredible views of the trinity and is as far as most tourists go. The other direction, uphill from Chonggu Monastery, is a 40-minute(1km) uphill hike to Zhuoma La (卓玛拉; Zhuómă Lā) and a small lake. This lake, just in the shadow of Chenresig's north face, is particularly impressive in spring when surrounded by blooming azalea flowers.

It's worth continuing another 5km (three hours) from the Luorong Grasslands to Milk Lake (牛奶海; Níunǎi Hǎi) and stunning Five-Colour Lake (五色海; Wǔsè Hǎi). You can also ride guided mules (return ¥300) for this segment, but keep in mind that even on four legs the round-trip journey takes 5½ hours on a steep, rocky trail. Riders must dismount multiple times to scramble alongside their ride for about a kilometre.

Take a shared minibus (per person ¥50, 2½ hours) from Daocheng to the small town of Riwa (日瓦), where you buy tickets for the reserve. The ticket includes a mandatory ¥120 shuttle-bus fee, so take the park shuttle bus the last 32km into the park (50 minutes); it stops first in Yading village and then 3km later at Longtong Ba.

There are guesthouses and places to eat in Yading village (亚丁村). To get an early start on the kora sleep in a guesthouse in Yading then catch the 7.30am shuttle the last few kilometres down to Longtong Ba. Buses within the park run from the visitors centre between 7.20am and 5.40pm, and back from Longtong Ba between 9am and 7.30pm.

The best times to visit the reserve are May to June and September to early October.

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