China #18: Sacred Meili Snow Mountain of Shangri-La (梅里雪山)
Sights: Meili Snow Mountain (梅里雪山) & Mingyong Glacier (明永冰川)
Region: Deqen (Deqin) County, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan
Meili Snow Mountain, or "Mainri Snow Mountain" in Tibetan meaning "Mountains of Medicinal Herbs" (药王山), stood at the boundary between Tibet and Yunnan. The snow mountain is sacred to Tibetans. It has an altitude of more than 6,000 metres with more than 10 peaks. The highest peak, named Kawagarbo (卡瓦格博), is 6,740m high and is the highest peak in Yunnan. Due to restrictions and dangerous conditions, the highest peak has never been conquered by anyone.
When travelling in Shangri-La, a trip to see Meili Snow Mountain is a must. Feilai Temple (飞来寺), in Deqen County, is one of the observation points to see the snow mountain in full view. There are accommodations and restaurants right outside the temple. And that was where we headed to.
Getting from Shangri-La to Feilai Temple
There were 6 of us on the journey to Meili Snow Mountain — Xiaohan and I were joined by 4 other solo travellers at Lao Shay Youth Hostel in Shangri-La. The foursome were Xiaohui from Shanghai, Tommy from Hong Kong, Xiaoqi from Hebei and a quiet girl who spoke very little. Except for Tommy and me, the rest were all girls.
We split into 3 teams of two and attempted to hitch-hiked to Feilai Temple. There was only one trunk road (214 National Road, 214国道) between Shangri-La and Feilai Temple — so most cars that used that road would go to Deqen.
As "sort-of" expected, the team with 2 girls successfully thumbed a car and got to the agreed destination. The other 2 mixed teams failed after 3 hours. We walked to the bus station in Shangri-La and boarded the next bus to Deqen, where we changed to another bus for Feilai Temple, just 10 kilometers further down 214 National Road. It was late afternoon when we arrived.
Where I Stayed
We lodged at Yunnan Township Hostelling International (觉色滇乡国际青年旅舍). The downside of this hostel was that it does not provide hot water for washing up even in winter. So, most of us did not shower for 2 days as the water was too cold.
Most of the accommodations around Feilai Temple were not expensive during the off-peak season — we found out only on the last in Feilai Temple. However, the best time to visit the snow mountain is not in winter (read on to find out why). During peak seasons, which is outside of winter, the hostel is probably a better and cheaper option for backpackers.
Shangri-La Meili Snow Mountain National Park (梅里雪山国家公园)
There were five tourist spots in the national park that were opened to the public, namely Jinsha River Turnabout (金沙江大湾), Wunongding (雾浓顶观景台), Feilai Temple (飞来寺观景台), Mingyong Glacier (明永冰川) and Yubeng (雨崩自然圣境). Different tickets with mix-and-match of the 5 tourist spots were available.
However, Mingyong Glacier was about 40Km further from Feilai Temple and Jinsha River Turnabout was about 100Km from Deqen along the road to Shangri-La. Wunongding was nearer to Deqen. All of us had passed by both Jinsha River Turnabout and Wunongding on the way to Deqen without knowing it. And trying to get to all the spots without a transport would be difficult.
Yubeng was inaccessible by road — need to hike in the mountain for 2 days to get to a village in Yubeng. It was said that Yubeng was the most beautiful place on earth — a godly place severed from the outside world — and definitely worth the long hike. There was also a waterfall in Yubeng. Winter was the perfect time to go for snowy scenery.
Among of the 6 of us, Tommy and the quiet girl were geared for Yubeng. The rest opted for Mingyong Glacier — I was interested in going to Yubeng too but I knew nothing about it until I was in Feilai Temple and was neither prepared for the cold weather nor geared for mountain hiking.
DAY 1: Mingyong Glacier
The following day, we split. The 4 of us (3 girls and me) followed the very same car, with two guys, that sent the two girls to Feilai Temple. They were headed for Mingyong to pray. We skipped the viewing platform at Feilai Temple due to heavy mist in the morning that engulfed the top of Meili Snow Mountain. Our first stop was the glacier at Mingyong.
The road to Mingyong winded around mountains and Lancang River (澜沧江) with beautiful scenery. It would be prettier in summer with more greens and higher water level in Lancang River.
And we crossed the big bridge over the fierce-flowing Lancang River, one of the rivers in the Three Parallel Rivers (云南三江并流) of Yunnan Protected Areas (a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site). The other two rivers are Nu River (怒江) and Jinsha River (金沙江).
At the entrance to Mingyong Glacier about 1.5 hours later, we got ourselves each a ticket that included Jinsha River Turnabout, Wunongding and Feilai Temple.
From the entrance, we had to hike up the mountain for about 2 hours before reaching the glacier. The going was slow due to the heavy cold air and up-slope walk.
We also checked the scenery and prayer sites on the way up.
We finally reached Taizi Temple (太子庙) just beside the 5.5Km long glacier. It "flowed" from Kawagarbo (6.4Km high) to about 800 metres above Lancang River — the lowest glacier in the world.
The glacier was flanked by Tibetan prayer flags. There was another viewing platform further up the mountain (about 500m up) but none of us wanted to climb any further.
A closer view of the glacier, which was frozen all year round. However, due to global warming in recent years, the glaciers on Meili Snow Mountain have started melting. It is a matter of time before this splendid sight disappears.
And that was the highest peak, Kawagarbo, peeping through a break in the mist.
The mist thinned about an hour later and we were able to have a clearer view of Kawagarbo and the surrounding peaks.
Then, it was time to say goodbye to Meili Snow Mountain.
We were back in Feilai Temple before nightfall but mist had once again engulfed the peaks of the snow mountain.
DAY 2: Feilai Temple, Wunongding & Jinsha River Turnabout
The next day, Xiaohan left our group to continue her journey to Tibet. The remaining 3 of us followed the same car back to Shangri-La.
Before departing from Feilai Temple, we went to the viewing platform to have a full view of Meili Snow Mountain since it was part of the tickets we bought the day before. The highest peak was still engulfed in mist and we can see Mingyong Glacier. There was another glacier to the right — probably Sinong Glacier (斯农冰川), which was not opened to public. Meili Snow Mountain has four large glaciers altogether.
Winter is not the time to get full view of the peaks due to heavy mist. Summer and early autumn would be better times to see the peaks being bath in morning sunlight — that will be the time to see the famed golden peaks (日照金山).
Feilai Temple was a scenic area of its own but we did not have much time to explore it fully. Here's a look at Feilai Temple with its row of 8 chortens (white pagodas) and colourful prayer flags.
Departing from Feilai Temple, the next stop was Wunongding (雾浓顶 meaning "foggy peak"). Again, we tried to see Meili Snow Mountain from here but heavier mist had already risen. We could not tell if the tall peak to the right was Kawagarbo.
The 13 chortens in Wunongding was said to represent the 13 peaks on Meili Snow Mountain — which is why Meili Snow Mountain is also called "Thirteen Taizi (Prince) Peaks" (十三太子峰).
Two hours later, we were at Jinsha River Turnabout (金沙江大湾), which was a short 10 minutes stop. The viewing platform was double-tiered.
For info, Jinsha River is the upper stretch of Yangtze River (扬子江) and Lancang River is the Chinese name for Mekong River that flows through the Indochina nations.
The lowest tier allowed a fuller view of Jinsha River as it made a big turn-around in the valley. As mentioned earlier, Jinsha River is one of the Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan.
And we were back in Shangri-La some 3 hours later! We were really thankful to the two guys for allowing us to hitch-hiked them for 3 days.
The first thing to do after checking in to Lao Shay Youth Hostel was to take a hot shower!
Special Note for Foreign Travellers
For foreign travellers like me, Meili Snow Mountain or Deqen County is the furthest spot in Yunnan that we can travel to without crossing into Tibet. Entry into Tibet is not allowed for foreigners without travel permits and not in organised tour groups. The two places where foreign backpackers can join tour groups and acquire the relevant permits (via travel agencies) are in Beijing and Chengdu, Sichuan — there may be more cities after 2012.
There were security outposts along the main road between Deqen and Tibet to check the identity of everyone travelling towards Tibet. In 2012, just 2 weeks before I reached Shangri-La, a Taiwanese traveller was deported for attempting to cross into Tibet with a fake student ID. It's not worth it to use illegal means that can spoil a good journey.