If you have any interest to go to Tibet, you’ll know that it’s very difficult for Westerners to get into. Today, the only way to legally go is through pre-arranged group tours. For some, group tours provide a seamless and scheduled experience. However, group tours can also feel quite sterile and limiting – if you’re going to go all the way to Tibet, I’m guessing that you don’t want a rigid and limited experience.
One of the main reasons that tourists are interested to see Tibet is for its mysterious culture, romanticized religion and its idyllic, untouched landscape. However, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and the main destination for tourist groups, has changed significantly in recent years, becoming commercial and tourist-oriented, as opposed to representing our ideas of a mystical place.
So how do you see ancient and preserved traditional Tibetan culture and religion? There’s one place that still symbolizes it. And it’s called Yubeng.
Yubeng, in the Northwestern Yunnan province in China neighboring Tibet, is a small village in the Meili Snow Mountain range, which is believed to be a scared and holy spot. The village is physically built into the mountains, making it isolated and extremely difficult to get to, however, its location is the catalyst for how Tibetan culture and religion has been preserved and untouched from mainstream society. There are zero modern influences in Yubeng, except for a few basic guest houses for tourists to stay, if you consider that modern, but other than that, you’ll feel like you’ve been put in a time capsule to the 1800s.
The village of Yubeng is reminiscent of a fairytale setting with homes tucked into the mountains, eliciting memories of the play Brigadoon about a mystical place in the countryside. The area is filled with Buddhist symbolism and structures. Along the trek to and from Yubeng, you’ll experience vibrant Tibetan culture, meet local Tibetans, taste authentic food and see Monks in prayer. It was the most unique, interesting and informative travel experience I have ever had – and if you have a passion for adventure combined with an interest in seeing an ancient yet vibrantly alive culture, a trip to Yubeng is worth it.
How to get to Yubeng: Getting to Yubeng is not easy – I will say that first and foremost. It entails a long relatively frightening drive in the mountains and a steep, lengthy hike. If you’re coming from outside of Yunnan province, the easiest way is to fly into Shangri-la and drive from there. You can then either take a public bus or hire a private van to Feilaisi, the nearby town where you will begin the hike and a five hour drive from Shangri-La. Another less common option is stop in Meili to stay at the beautiful Songstam Meili hotel, an hour away from the start of the hike and pricier than places in the Feilaisi area, however it provides a nice, relaxing experience before the big trek.
There are two trail options to get to Yubeng village: one starting in Ni Long and the other starting in Xi dang. Most people will stay overnight in Feilaisi and then begin the main trail in Xi Dang; this trail is much steeper and strenuous (about 7-8 hours) than the Ni Long trail (6-7 hours), which is less common but a bit less challenging. Our guide who we hired for the trek (you’ll need a guide for this if you don’t speak Mandarin), advised us to choose the Ni Long trail as it would be less populated and steep, as well as provide a variety of scenery compared to the main trail which provides limited views.
After climbing up the Ni Long trail to reach Yubeng and then down the Xi Dang trail, I could not be happier with our guide’s advice. The Ni Long trail follows along the Yubeng River, providing beautiful views of the river and its gorge throughout the majority of the trek, as well as vast landscape views of the Meili Mountains. The trek itself, while long, was surprisingly not as challenging as I expected, as our guide and hotel staff had been warning us about the difficulty for days. However, seeing the steepness of the Xi Dang trail which we climbed down from Yubeng, I can only imagine that this is the trail people were referring to.
Regardless of which trail you choose, you’ll get a glimpse into traditional Tibetan culture, as the trails are covered with relics, stupas and colorful Tibetan prayer flags that are filled with mantras, prayers and symbols. The flags are purposefully placed outside and hung in trees so that the prayers can be blown by the wind, spreading the mantras and goodwill to the surrounding areas. It is an ancient tradition that we saw in every Tibetan area in Yunnan.
You’ll also see many Tibetan stupas on the trails – a significant religious symbol that represents Buddha’s physical presence. To show devotion, Tibetans will walk around the stupas clockwise, a common practice to gain merit. We saw dozens of stupas throughout our hikes to and from Yubeng, each varying slightly in size and style and all made up of three parts: a square base, followed by a cylinder and then a spire at the top – each part representing an aspect of Buddha and his journey to enlightenment.
The most spectacular part of our hike, however, was seeing Tibetan men and women hiking up the mountains to reach the Scared Waterfall, a 10-12 hour hike uphill (if you begin at Dequin) to an altitude of over 3800 meters above sea level. Most Tibetans will do a pilgrimage to the base of Meili’s highest peak near the waterfall once a year, starting in Tibet and climbing for days to reach the waterfall. As it’s the Year of the Sheep, the trek to the waterfall is extremely popular among Tibetans, as it’s believed that a pilgrimage in the Year of the Sheep brings upmost merit and provides more fortune than doing the pilgrimage in other years. As our New Zealand guide said: “think of it like pinball, they’ll get triple score if they make the pilgrimage this year”.
What was most astonishing was seeing 70-80 year old men and women make this steep, long trek uphill with smiles on their faces and without copious amounts of water attached to their backs, as us Westerners did.
Yubeng: Once you reach Yubeng, the site of it from an aerial view is arguably the most spectacular landscape you will see on this trek. The village, made up of wooden white rectangular homes that look like gingerbread houses, is built into the Meili Snow Mountains. The village itself is basic, simple and bare; homes don’t have heat or much electricity nor do they have access to the outside world. To get goods, horses climb up and down the mountains each day with all types of items attached to them, bringing anything and everything to the villagers. Along our hike, we saw toilet paper, construction items and even a TV attached to the horses who were guided up and down the mountains by a local Sherpa.
A typical image of Yubeng is pigs, yaks and horses strutting around the village streets or grazing in the fields. Monks walking around the area and praying in the village monastery. Tibetans farming the land and tending to their crops – the only way of economic means in the area. Women in vibrant, patterned and layered wool outfits sitting in dark rooms of their homes, warming up next to the fire or cooking a local meal which will most likely consist of Yak.
Yak is ‘the chicken of Yunnan’ and especially prevalent in Yubeng. We were constantly served Yak butter tea (‘the water of Yubeng’), which tastes more like a rich salty buttery soup with a hint of Yak smell than soothing tea. We also tried Yak stew, which we served at the end our long hike, though we weren’t able to chew the pieces of Yak in it. Needless to say, I brought two packages of granola bars on the trek with me.
Throughout our day in Yubeng and hike into the village, we didn’t see one other tourist or tour group until our trek down the mountain. We were also the only ones in the guesthouse which felt quite spooky given its lack of light, heat and access to the internet. However, while the trip obviously doesn’t come with glamour (or toilets, wifi or food options), it is absolutely the most fascinating place I’ve been to and provided a learning experience that I could not have received in any other way. Seeing a culture completely unlike the West, solely focused on agriculture and region and preserved in ancient tradition and culture was a very humbling experience.