Ken, Ellen and Bei in China

Ken, Ellen and Bei spent a year in Lijiang, Yunnan teaching English. This is a place where we kept in touch with everyone while we were away. If you'd like to comment we'd love to hear from you on e-mail. Send to You can view more photos on Flickr at

Location: Laramie, Wyoming, United States

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Yubeng Trek

My pathetic Chinese and the steep, complex terrain along the Mekong River conspired to make my trip to the small Tibetan village of Yubeng circuitous. In other words, I got lost. The landscape here is sculpted by the Mekong, which rushes past the Meili Mountains on it’s way from the Tibetan plateau to Xishuangbanna, then Thailand, and eventually to the South China Sea. A single mistake in this complex terrain can lead you into huge drainages, and once you are in them, it’s easier to go with your mistake than to climb back out. And as is often the case in China, getting lost can be the best part of a trip.

Steep terrain along the Mekong River in northern Yunnan. Although crossed by many trails, huge gulleys often erase them unexpectedly, making travel engaging.

The Meili Xueshan--sacred, ice plastered and mostly unclimbed--guard the arbitrary boundary between the Tibet Autonomous Region to their west and the Yunnan Province to their east. At the base of these mountains, huddled on a small terrace at the confluence of two mountain streams and confined on every other side by steep, forested slopes, lies Yubeng. A few adobe brick homes cluster there, surrounded by meadows and fields.

The village of Yubeng, at the foot of the Meili Xueshan.

Though accessible only by foot or horse, the village has become a popular trekking destination for both Chinese and Westerners, in part because the spectacular Meili Mountains, including Mt. Kagebo, the highest peak (6,740 m or 22,113') in the range (and in Yunnan), explode skyward just a few kilometers beyond the village, and in part because it is on the path to a sacred waterfall flowing over a granite cliff just below one of many glaciers. Buddhist pilgrims travel from all over Asia to pay homage.

Sunrise on one of 13 main peaks of the Meili Range. This peak looms above Yubeng and the sacred waterfall is at its base.

A pilgrim on his way to honor Mt. Kagebo and the sacred waterfall. This man, I was told, had traveled all over Asia with no possessions of his own, surviving on gifts from others.

Anxious to see the mountains from a closer vantage and intrigued by photographs I’d seen of Yubeng, I said goodbye to Bei and Ellen (they headed back to Lijiang) on a crisp February morning and dropped off a steep ridge from Feilai Si where we had spent the night and witnessed a classic Meili sunrise.

The problem was that I dropped off the wrong side of the ridge, and I spent my day descending and then following a small stream that led eventually to the Mekong. Huge eroded gullies sometimes obliterated the trail, requiring technical dirt climbing to navigate; or alternatively, steep descents on hardscrabble slopes sparsely vegetated with plants that were proud of their ability to produce huge thorns in such rocky, dry terrain where other plants had given up and died.

Bei at Feilai Si, before she and Ellen headed back to Lijiang for a short break from traveling.

As dusk settled into the deeply incised valley and a warm evening wind whipped up, I arrived at the Mekong, far downstream of my intended destination, a town called Xidang where the most-used Yubeng trail begins. A boy in dirty, tattered clothes herding a small collection of goats understood my Chinese well enough to assure me my that Xidang could not be reached in less than a day’s walk. (“Bu keyi” -- not able).

But, he indicated, if I walked downstream a kilometer I could cross the river and find villages where I might be able to stay. Disheartened, I set off again, passing a young woman on her way home for dinner, driving her horses up the steep path, and I soon reached a dusty, lonely, boulder-strewn terrace above the Mekong with no sign of a bridge. I contemplated sleeping in the shelter of a boulder. I could build a fire and get water, but I had no food or sleeping bag. It was getting dark and I’d spent worse nights out in the open—the wind was warm. Loathe to commit to a bivouac yet, I wandered further and, surprisingly, just south of where I had been looking the promised footbridge appeared, suspended by cables over the deep green Mekong. I crossed the bridge and drank the last of my water before turning back north towards a small settlement perched on a knoll above the river terrace.

Passing an outlying house, I waved to a man in its courtyard tending his horse and continued toward the village. Five minutes later he caught up to me on the path, panting from his sprint, and invited me to join his family for dinner and to stay for the night. This generosity and kindness is common in China, and I believe one could walk across Yunnan (or Tibet? or China?) with no food or money and never want for shelter.

The man led me through the courtyard, filled with straw for his horse, and into the family room where three generations—grandmother, parents and children—sat around a low table, getting started on a hot pot meal of pork, potatoes, vegetables and broth. At one end of the table on a small wooden stand, a TV surreally played a DVD of ethnic Yunnan people dancing in mountain scenery to bad traditional music (why were they watching this!!??). Behind me a Buddhist shrine decorated one wall beside a kitchen area where a low fire burned in a sooty woodstove. To my left, the wind moved old curtains in an open window that faced out on the Mekong valley. A few stars popped out in the clear sky, visible through the window. Before I knew it I was supplied with a hearty meal, a glass of Pepsi (the bottle carried from the closest road 10 km away), baijou, a beer and a cigarette, all consumed with gratitude and/or duty.

Part of the family that so generously put me up for the night on my way to Yubeng.

Before I went to bed, my host led me by the hand though the back door and across a small garden patch to the a grassy area at the edge of the compound which, he indicated, served as the bathroom. I didn’t need to go, but I thanked him for showing me. Then he took me to a large, dirt-floored room containing several single beds, piles of horse tack, a stack of grain sacks and miscellaneous agricultural implements. As he closed the door behind him, I was left alone in a very quiet, very comfortable bed, where I read “Tibet, Tibet” (an excellent book by Patrick French) for a few minutes by headlamp before falling deeply asleep.

An hour later I awoke, bladder full. Groping in the dark for my headlamp I shuffled to the bedroom door, discovering to my dismay and rising panic that it was locked—from the outside. How could this be??!! How could I pee??!! I found my way to the single bare bulb hanging from a wire in the middle of the large room and after turning it on, surveyed my options. The room was oddly devoid of empty vessels and I was loathe to use my water bottle, since it was nearly full of carefully iodized water and I was dehydrated from the day’s walk. My eyes settled on a window above my bed and I calculated trajectories. Clambering unto a small wooden box below the window, I threw open the sash and awkwardly propped my knees on the broad sill, wedging myself so that I could direct my pee outwards while looking at the stars, hoping against hope in the darkness that the window did not face into the courtyard and that I was not peeing on the poor horse; or worse, that the ladies of the family would burst in.

Later, two of the brothers joined me in the room, taking their places on the other cots, and for the rest of the evening the door was unlocked. The next morning, as I headed on my way, I was relieved to discover that my window indeed faced outward onto the dry terrace above the river.
An easy walk on a little-used but beautiful trail mapped out for me by the family delivered me to Yubeng. I arrived under a hot sun and found a room at a modest guesthouse (Analu’s--spelling uncertain) above the village, where a large group of Han Chinese from Beijing soon arrived on horses. “Frank,” their leader, was a tech-nerd to the core and boasted the latest cell phone (he spewed the meaningless model number to me), a GPS, and 2-way radios so that the group of about 10 people could keep in constant contact with one another should their horses become separated by more than a few feet. But despite the noise and commotion that arrives with large Chinese groups, they were very friendly and accommodating, and several spoke excellent English, a relief after a couple of days of simple sentences and hand gestures. For the rest of my stay, I joined them for meals and I ended up traveling with them back to Lijiang at the end of the trip.

The next morning, several of us set out under perfectly clear skies for the waterfall, a 2-hour stroll first passing along small stone paths in the village and then through the largest trees I have seen in China, occupying a pretty valley descending from the mountains, which sparkled above us in the morning sunlight. As we walked, one of the women in the group who spoke some English befriended me, teaching me the Chinese words for some of the trees, lamenting how poor much of Yunnan is, and noting that she and her husband, through donations, support some school kids in the province, which is largely rural or mountainous.

The view from Yubeng as I passed through on my way to the waterfall, an hour or so up the valley towards the mountains.

As we approached the mountains, what had been a small puffy cloud just below its peak, grew and descended, eventually overwhelming the blue sky and producing graupel and then snow, which for me lent an appealing atmosphere to the path which by now was adorned with prayer flags and offerings as we neared the falls. Stopping for a short break, the group laughed among themselves and the woman translated for me. “There is a joke,” she told me, “that if a Japanese tourist arrives at Deqin (the closest big town), the weather will grow terrible because the Mountain God hates the Japanese.”

It’s perhaps hard to understand how an offhand comment like this can taint an otherwise brilliant day (it certainly didn’t ruin my trip), but if you witness the lockstep hatred that many Chinese express towards Japan for atrocities committed in the 30’s and 40’s--over sixty years ago--it will begin to sink in. I recently did a unit on “describing personality” in my oral English classes and I asked the students to list personality words to describe countries: China -- orderly, mature, traditional, polite, friendly, industrious; The United States -- powerful, self-important, open, independent, overbearing, imaginative; Japan -- cruel, extreme, pugnacious, nasty, impudent, obscene, lecherous (“Yes”, they explained. “Japanese men like to go after young girls.”). You get the idea.

And despite the kindness that my companions showed me, I couldn’t help but marvel that they could be blind enough to imagine a Tibetan God joining them in their hatred of Japan rather than grumbling at the imposition of Beijing tourists into what had once been the edge of a free Tibet. Though the roots of Chinese anger towards Japan lie in terrible atrocities, and have been exacerbated by recent insensitivity on the part of Japan, the edge of Tibet seemed a poor place for complaining, even if in jest.

The group was slow on the trail and eventually I left them behind to enjoy the atmosphere of the waterfall alone. Though better described after the unusually dry winter as a sacred wet spot, the “falls” still evoked an aura of reverence, and I sat at its base for a while enjoying the silence, the falling snow and the faded prayer flags draped on every available surface. Above me Mt. Kawegabo rose into the clouds and its glaciers shifted and rumbled high above. Later, my friends arrived, chatting on their radios, consulting their GPS units and literally blowing referee’s whistles to advertise their arrival to one another. I greeted them and made my way alone back to the village from which I would hike to the road the following day to begin my return to Lijiang.

That night, after a boisterous dinner at Analu’s, the Beijing woman pulled me aside to tell me earnestly, as if letting me in on a secret that only the Chinese are privy to. “You know,” she said, “on the trail we joked about the Japanese, but you should realize something. What we said is true.”

Ellen and Bei in Zhongdian before our trip further north to the Meili Mountains. Searching for a guest house in the re-built "old" town.

Steep terrain along the road from Zhongdian to Deqin. Between the two Tibetan-esque towns, you cross the Yangze River (Jinsha) and then quickly climb and descend into the Mekong watershed. If one continued further west you would soon encounter the Salween river. All three major Asian rivers flow in parrallel from Tibet within 100 km of one another.

Stupas along the road to Deqin.

Prayer flags at Feilai Si, near Deqin.

A view of the Meili Xueshan from the road to Deqin.

The Meili Mountains from Feilai Si.

A carved stone near a stupa at Feilai Si.

I watched as this yak systematically made his way along this line of stupas, stopping at each to devour whatever offerings had been left there, typically oranges. Perhaps he is the reincarnation of an old climber, fondly remembering a former life scarfing uneaten food from tourists in the Yosemite cafeteria.

Mt. Kagebo, the highest peak in the Meili Range at 6740 meters or over 22,000 feet. The peak is unclimbed. In 1991, 17 Chinese and Japanese climbers were killed attempting an ascent.

An empty building in a side drainage that led to the Mekong. I passed this early on my first walking day, still unaware that I was in the wrong watershed.

A Tibetan-style window at Yubeng.

On my walk from the house on the Mekong where I spent a night to Yubeng, I passed an abandoned farmhouse in an isolated valley. The remains of a workshop greeted me in the main room of the house--including a handmade wooden plane and a sawhorse. I left them where I found them, unsure if the owners might return in the spring.

Mani stones left by pilgrims on their way to the sacred waterfall near Yubeng.

Yubeng horsepackers prepare to transport a load of Chinese tourists from Yubeng back to the trailhead. Some of the horse guides were as young as 7-years old, and they led tourists up and down the trail by themselves each day.

This 6-year old girl was a daughter of one of the brother's that owned the guesthouse where I stayed in Yubeng. She worked hard to help the family manage their business--hauling wood, serving food and collecting dirty dishes. And she had a determined set to her jaw that made me laugh every time I saw her.

The deck at Analu's guesthouse above Yubeng on my last day there. I arrived in hot sunshine and left in 2 inches of squeaky cold snow.

The upper part of Yubeng, under a thin blanket of new snow.

The top of the pass on the trail between Yubeng and the nearest road. A small shack here offered hikers hot butter tea, snacks and a warm fire. It was here that I met the one pilgrim that I saw on this trip--on his way to visit the waterfall in the cold season.

Offerings draped on a boulder along the trail to the waterfall. Huge boulders here were covered with small bits and pieces of people's lives--from beads to photographs of dead loved ones to tags that guaranteed the quality of goose down fill.

Birds flying over a glacier at the base of the Meili Xueshan.

Our ride from Deqin to Zhongdian at the end of the hike. My Chinese friends offered me a place in their Land Cruiser and I happily took them up on it. The drive can be interesting, even in dry conditions. On our way to Deqin (before the hike) we were stopped at a "checkpoint" where the driver was offered a healthy shot of 100-proof baijou by a man in traditional dress before a prayer flag was tied to our mirror and we were sent on our way. Do prayer flags counteract bijou-shots in highway accident statistics?

My Chinese companions enjoying dinner at Feilai Si after our return, under the watchful gaze of The Great Helmsman.

The Meili Mountains and stupas from Feilai Si.

Sunset from Feilai Si before we headed south to Zhongdian.


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