Tumbling off the side of Kawa Karpo peak is the 12km-long Mingyong Glacier. At over 13 sq km, it is not only the lowest glacier in China (around 2200m) but also an oddity – a monsoon marine glacier, which basically translates as having an ecosystem that couldn’t possibly be more diverse: tundra, taiga, broadleaf forest and meadow. Sadly, this natural wonder is also retreating at an alarming – and increasing – rate.
The mountain, representing the embodiment of the warrior god Kawa Karpo, has been a pilgrimage site for centuries and you’ll still meet a few Tibetan pilgrims, some of whom circumambulate the mountain over seven days in autumn. Surrounding villages are known as ‘heaven villages’ because of the dense fog that hangs about in spring and summer.
The way to the glacier leads up from Mingyong’s central square. The visitor centre sells tickets (¥75 round-trip) for electric carts to shuttle you 3.6km up to the start of the walk; you can also follow the same road on foot. From the end of the cart road it's a steady uphill of 2.5km via a new staircase that rises nearly 500 vertical metres – the old horse path is visible below, but there are only a few spots where it's accessible. At the top is Lotus Temple (莲花庙, Liánhuā Miào), which offers incredible views of the glacier framed by prayer flags and chörten (Tibetan stupas). It's home to a single monk who lives here for a month at a stretch without leaving the mountain.
Mingyong village consists of only a couple of hotels, restaurants and shops. You can overnight in the very basic Renqin Hotel. From Deqin, irregular private minibuses to Mingyong leave from the bridge near the market at the top end of town (¥20 per person), or you can hire your own for around ¥150. If you’re coming from Yubeng, you could also hike a high trail to Mingyong from Xidang in around three hours if you hoof it.
The road from Deqin descends into the dramatic Mekong Gorge. Six kilometres before Mingyong the road crosses the Mekong River and branches off to Xidang. There is a checkpoint here where you will need to show your national park ticket or buy one if you haven't already.