By Xudalad Bounleut
Early last summer, I passed my thesis defense, completing my four-year degree at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. Afterwards, I finally had time to relax and watch some videos on Tik Tok, a popular social media video app in China. A viral video about picturesque Yading Nature Reserve thrilled me. I had long dreamed of experiencing the enchanting scenery and culture of the reserve in southwest China’s Sichuan Province.
As most of my classmates were still working on their dissertations, I was so inspired that I joined a local tour group heading to Yading for a spontaneous graduation trip.
As a woman traveling alone, I was a little nervous about joining a group of strangers but convinced myself that life should be a journey to seek the unknown and challenge oneself.
From Beijing we traveled to Chengdu at an average altitude of 500 meters, and then drove along National Highway 318, dubbed the “heavenly road with 18 bends” to Yading at an altitude of 4,000 meters. During the two-day drive, we crossed primitive forests and streams and saw snow-capped mountains in distance. We admired the impressive
landscapes all along the way. Every time we passed around a mountain bend, we stopped the car to take pictures of the scenery.
Our tour group comprised seven members including a tour guide. We all hailed from different places including Beijing, Hunan, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Despite our varied ages and professions, we all got along well. I shared a room with a girl from Hong Kong. Her age and interests were like mine, and she was always a lot of fun. We jokingly call her “Peppa Pig.” Exhausted by climbing a mountain, her antics easily made us burst into laughter. Every time I think about her inhaling oxygen from a canister while eating chocolate for supplementing glucosamine, I can’t help but chuckle.
We took pictures the whole way. At the start, each of us took selfies. Soon, we were taking photos for each other and making various poses. A young man from Beijing Sports University was particularly good at posing for pictures. We nicknamed him “Mantis Shrimp” because he looked playful and funny in every single picture. An older man in our group was far less skilled at mugging for the camera, but he tried hard to smile like the rest of us in a group photo. His face always looked a bit rigid, so we jokingly called him a “model zombie.”
Perhaps because I was the only foreigner in the group, other members explained every scenic spot to me. All of us seemed to agree that fate brought the group together. Because of their company, my trip was far better than expected. When exhausted, we encouraged each other. Although everyone often complained about the weather, transportation conditions and altitude sickness, no one gave up because all expected even greater scenery ahead.
Last Stop Yading
After two days of tough trekking, we finally reached the town of Shangri-La at the foot of the mountains in the Yading Nature Reserve. Many complain that the place has already been excessively commercialized and developed. I don’t agree. If it was all about profits, developers would have built more roads and cableways. For the purpose of protecting the “last pure land on our blue planet,” the core area of the nature reserve remains far from human settlements. It takes an hour and a half in a car plus six to seven hours of hiking to reach the reserve from the town.
During our hiking trip, we passed Chonggu Monastery at the foot of Mount Chenresig. Against the snowcapped mountains and the blue sky, the temple seemed removed from the mortal world. Herds of cattle and sheep grazed on the grassland, a stream of melting snow flowed gently, and local Tibetan people smiled shyly and kindly.
The high-altitude hike pushed my body to the limits, but each landscape brought a rush of relief. The weather was constantly changing, and some sections of the mountain path were narrow and slippery. You had to be extremely careful at every step, and every step was exhausting. I hiked while inhaling oxygen from a portable canister. As I reached the top of a peak 4,700 meters above sea level, the wind was so strong that I even felt dizzy, reminding me of the chilly winter wind in Beijing. However, the moment I saw Milk Lake, a tear even fell from my eye due to the scene. The lake was like a blue tear from heaven penetrating my heart. All the hardship along the way became worth it.
I was also impressed by the most beautiful starry sky I had ever seen in Yading. The clouds seemed to play hide-and-seek, emerging suddenly and then vanishing. Despite fatigue and cold winds, we stayed on the mountaintop past midnight to snap photos of the starry sky. The tour guide and my companions patiently taught me how to use a smartphone camera to take a good picture of the starry sky. To my surprise, I saw many shooting stars. Such opportunities can never be planned, and I was grateful for it.
Colorful prayer flags and Mani stone mounds were found everywhere in the Tibetan-inhabited areas featuring monasteries, hilltops, mountain passes, and riverside residences. I learned that Tibetans use the flags and mounds to pray for blessings. When encountering them, we also put our palms together to pray for a safe, happy trip.
Although I didn’t talk directly to local Tibetans, they didn’t seem as cut-off from the outside as some media have suggested. They were maintaining their own traditional culture while keeping in pace with the times and showing inclusiveness to modern civilization. Their spirits attest to cultural diversity of harmonious Chinese society.
The trip brought a surprise around every turn. For instance, monkeys gathered to observe us curiously once when we stopped the car. We encountered a marmot brave enough to approach people, and it was super cute eating biscuits, bread and even beer we fed it. We also drank fresh yak milk served by local Tibetans To my surprise, public toilets could be found everywhere—not only gas stations and rest zones but even along the highway in the middle of nowhere.
Now, I study at Nankai University. The moment I received my acceptance letter, I made plans to spend my summer and winter vacations traveling to more places in China such as Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the three northeastern provinces.