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The True Shangrila

Yading Nature Reserve

Discover the last Shangrila, an untouched wilderness of three holy mountains and pristine lakes deep in the heart of Kham. The views here rival any part of this Earth.

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By Kevin McFarland

Visited October 2016

James Hilton's "Shangri-La", from the 1933 novel Lost Horizons, has captivated imaginations and spurred expeditions to discover this paradise on Earth. However, a decade before Lost Horizons sent adventurers into a scurry, an Austrian-American explorer and botanist named Joseph Rock discovered his own paradise in the Kham Tibet region. Here he vividly detailed his explorations to Yading, nowadays a nature reserve in Southwestern Sichuan, made famous to the outside world for the first time from his National Geographic publications. In awe of one of Yading's mountains, he exuberantly called it "the finest mountain my eyes ever beheld." This peak, pictured below, lives up to Joseph's claims; our eyes were in shock and wonder when we first glimpsed its peak, appearing from nowhere and standing so confidently yet gracefully.

For years, many have speculated where James Hilton drew his inspiration for Shangri-La, but many suggest it was from an admiration and awe of Joseph Rock's explorations to Yading. This excerpt from Lost Horizons seems to describe exactly both Joseph Rock's experiences and our's when visiting Yading:

"But it was to the head of the valley that his eyes were led irresistibly, for there, soaring into the gap, and magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth. It was an almost perfect cone of snow, simple in outline as if a child had drawn it, and impossible to classify as to size, height or nearness. It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all."

China soon took notice as people were looking to this part of the world as the location of Shangri-La. Zhongdian, a town in Northeastern Yunnan, was officially renamed "Shangrila" in 2001 by the government's attempt to cash in on tourism dollars. We've been there, and although it has its own beauty, it is definitely not the true Shangri-La which Hilton describes. In Southeastern Sichuan, yet another town is renamed Shangrila; once again, we've been there and it doesn't deserve its lofty title.

That title belongs to Yading.

We visited the Yading Nature Reserve in late October 2016, and even though a busy season for local Chinese tourists, its still mostly unknown to those outside of the region. The colors in this autumn season were so beautiful, we would have been content just seeing the rivers, lakes, and hills that dot the entrance of the reserve. The bright yellow grass and trees contrasted with the turquoise waters; the pure white snow contrasted with the deep blue sky. Every step we took further into the valley was met with more awesome wonder. It only took 30 minutes in Yading for us to realize we are somewhere special, the most beautiful place we have seen.

Yading is comprised of three primary mountains, all rising to 6,000 meters (19,700 feet). These mountains are some of the holiest in all of Tibet, some say second only to Mount Everest. Kham Tibetans make the pilgrimage from near or far to these holy mountains, where they circumambulate (walk around in a clockwise direction) the largest of the three, Chenresig (6,032 m). In every nook and cranny, river bend and mountain slope, one can see Tibetans prayer stones and piles of rocks stacked on top of eachother. It's easy to understand their reverence for the mountains when they exceed in beauty to all other mountains around.

We traversed the valley, taking in all the sights and sounds. After 6 km of slightly uphill walking, we reached the Larung Grasslands, an expanse of golden grass interweaved with crystal blues streams. Even more spectacularly, the grasslands offer splendid views of all three mountain peaks, a sight unlike any other. In almost every direction, three 6,000 m mountains rise from the valley, appearing so close as you could touch them. We, along with other Chinese tourists, were not the only ones basking in their beauty; a couple dozen Tibetan antelopes were grazing the grasslands too. I attempted to get closer to these grazing animals, but found out the beautiful golden grass was covering thick mud, hindering me to get any closer.

Up the mountain pass towards the highest peak, Chenresig, was Milk Lake. With claims to Shangri-La, our expectations of this lake were high, but it was soon greatly exceeded. It was a rigorous climb up the mountain, hardened even more by the elevation. The grasslands were at 4,170 m (13,700 ft), already high even to Tibetan standards, while the Five Color Lake sits comfortably at 4,550 m (14,930 ft). Therefore, the climb entailed nearly 400 m (1300 ft) of elevation in only 4.4 km (2.7 miles). One man passing by cast doubt by saying the lake is all but dried up. Other fellow passerby's were either inching ever so slowly to the top, vomiting from the elevation gain, or inhaling from tubes of oxygen, some descending back down before reaching the lake. We pushed through to the top, and as soon as we caught sight of the Milk Lake, our exhaustion became an afterthought. The lake was a sight to behold, a glistening gem high in the mountains. A trip to Yading would not be complete without witnessing the beauty of this lake, the most stunning, even to this day, we have witnessed.

It is worth mentioning that Milk Lake isn't the sole aquatic attraction as two other lakes equally deserve praise. Further up the ridge is the Five Colored lake, a name attributed to the array of colors seen on the outer rim of the lake. That, along with a striking view of Chenresig, makes for an unbelievable scene. Thirdly, on the other side of the mountain (closer to the entrance) at a modest 4,100 m, is the Pearl lake. Offering an alternate view of the mighty Chenresig, the reflections here are unparalleled. Spending our two days in Yading was a feast for the senses and overwhelmingly beautiful. Getting to Yading is an incredible effort, entailing hours and hours of bus rides, but I can assure you it is beyond worth it. I can wholeheartedly agree that this pristine and remote nature reserve deserves the title of the true Shangrila.

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