Back in Xidang

As Xidang is located in the Meili Snow Mountains nature reserve you need to buy a ticket to get into the area. In principle the tickets are for Mingyong glacier and Yubeng village but everyone entering the area has to buy a ticket. Last year when i left they had just introduced a combined ticket. It included all the sights (Moon Light bend -viewing platform, Feilaisi viewing platform, Mingyong glacier and Yubeng village) and it cost 230 yuan. This rule, of course, applies only to tourists. Tibetan pilgrims can enter for free. The other passengers in the car from Shangri-la had all decided not to go to Yubeng as it would take too much time and was too expensive. As it turned out, the ticket pricing had changed just that day and now you could also buy separate tickets for each site. After short negotiations i was allowed to enter also without paying the ticket as I promised I wouldn’t be going to Yubeng and one of the girls at the gate had heard of me living in the village before.

Xidang village

Xidang village

When I arrived to the house grandma was at the yard spreading barley grains to dry. When she saw me she started crying. I was also very happy to see her as she’s already 85 years old so it is always uncertain if there will be a next time. And so it was with grandad. He had died July 5th the previous year. One year after the death the family organizes big ceremony as the soul returns to see the loved one more time before leaving permanently. And that day is today but more about that later…



And mom, who is always busy with the farm work, hurried home from the fields. Tibetans are not big on hugging but we were all smiles.

Temple by the Mekong

Temple by the Mekong


Shrinking distances

This time i flew into Kunming, China through Kuala Lumpur instead of the east coast cities. After a few days rest and getting used to the altitude (Kunming is about 1 800 m above sea level) I took the sleeper train to Lijiang (about 2000 m) where I again had a few days break from traveling. I wanted to meet friends and needed to prepare things for my work. From there i took a bus to Shangri-la. There has been huge road construction projects going on all over northern Yunnan during the past years and now they are finished. The new highway is elevated and there are bridges and tunnels through the mountains. Actually the new part goes only to the bridge crossing Yangtze River after which it is the old road. Surprisingly the new road doesn’t save much time, the 200 km stretch still takes about 4 hours. But the road is definitely safer now as it doesn’t wind along the mountain sides and go through villages; safer for both cars and the villagers. And the scenery can be seen better from the elevated road.

In Shangri-la I had a break again as it is about 3 300 m. My village, Xidang, is only around 2 000 m but i still needed to cross Baima Snow Mountains where the road at its highest goes at 4 200 m. Or this was the case before. Now there is a tunnel going through the mountains missing the most gorgeous bit of the journey.

Baima Snow Mountain

Baima Snow Mountain

As the public bus to Deqin obviously uses the tunnel there now is also an option for it besides hiring a car. Many of the previously privately owned and operated minivans now have a logo of one company. They gather customers from the different guesthouses in Shangri-la and drive them through the Baima pass all the way to Feilaisi which is where most tourists are going as you can see the whole Meili Snow Mountain range from there. The trip costs 80 yuan/per person. Even driving though the pass this trip took only 4 hours instead of the 6 it did before (180 km) and through the tunnel will be even faster.

Cars in Baima pass

Cars in Baima pass

Tractor in Baima pass

Tractor in Baima pass

The burning down of Shangri-la old town hasn’t affected the number of tourists going up to Meili, actually the opposite. Most tourists I met in the guesthouse in Shangri-la were either going to or coming from Meili.From Deqin I needed to hire a car to get to Xidang. There is one public buss going from the village to Deqin at 8 am and going back at 3 pm but the bus drives only to Xidang village and after that I’d need to hike up the mountain to our house. With all my luggage and the shopping I had to do (boxes of water and ice tea and such) I thought it better to hire one. The 37 km trip takes about an hour with a minivan and costs 250 yuan although I managed to bargain this down a bit. And then I was finally back in my Tibetan home after a year. So all said about the shrinking distances, it is still far! Of course the trip can be done faster by flying in to Shangri-la but you should be used to the altitude already to do that.

For trekking Baima, see

Shangri-la after the fire

About 80% of Shangri-la old town (Dukezong in Tibetan) burned down in early January. The fire started at a guesthouse at the old town center and burned for nearly 10 hours. The fire trucks couldn’t get in to the narrow streets and water was either frozen or cut off which is usual in the old town winter time.

This photo is not from the fire this year. This was one building burning and the fire was luckily put down.

This photo is not from the fire this year. This was one building burning and the fire was luckily put down.

Luckily no one died in the fire although it started in the middle of the night. It was saddening visiting what was left of the town. The center burned down completely, some buildings were saved at the front and on the edges. The southern side and the temple on the hill are unharmed.

Spared by the fire. The front of the old town.

Spared by the fire. The front of the old town.

At the edge

At the edge

The old town square

The old town square

About the only building left standing - public toilet

About the only building left standing – public toilet

Beijing is pouring money into rebuilding the town and now they are also making proper water system. But the work is slow and everything is still mostly rubble with some blackened walls standing. The plan is to complete the work in three years.

Water system

Old town

The dance that took place every evening at the square has been moved to the southern part, the square in front of the temple.

Dancing Shangri-la

Dancing Shangri-la

Still dancing

Still dancing

Our house

The family has been building this house for six years and it’s still not ready. They build something and then work to get more money, and build something more. Because the house is located at a steep slope even the ground works were very expensive. When I came here two years ago they were still living at their old house. They loved the old house but because part of the floor had collapsed and there was no road to the house, they had decided to build a new one. Tibetan houses are made of rammed earth so the life expectancy of a house is limited. The walls are built by placing two planks on both sides of the wanted wall and then wet dirt is poured to this mold and rammed solid. Commercial loggings are banned in this area but every family has a quota of wood that they can cut for building material. This means that they have to cut the timber themselves, pull it down from the mountain, debark, saw and dry it themselves. Tibetan houses are huge, so many families work together in the construction. They keep records of which families worked at their construction and how many hours because they have to repay the work done when that family is building a house.

Building a wall

Tibetans don’t use toilets. There was no toilet at the old house but when we moved in to the new house, I forced them to do one. Well, it’s just a shack but at least it gives you some privacy. We are going to build proper toilet but everything takes it’s time here. First we needed to build one wall on top of which comes a roof and then we’re going to build the toilets and showers there. Now the wall is done (after 2 years) but no roof yet. Mom just said the other day that there is no rush as you don’t frees your bottom at summer time. So, I guess I’ll have to wait till winter to get the toilet. Try to run a guesthouse here with people who think that toilets are unnecessary! And yes, we don’t have showers either but we can use the showers at relatives’ house just up the road. Other option is to hike one hour up to the Hot Springs to have a shower. The name of the place is a bit misleading as there are no real springs, just showers. But the water comes from a hot spring. Especially at winter time it’s great to have a shower there as the water is really hot. Also when it’s raining the hot springs are the only option because all other showers are solar heated.

When I came to the village I expected everything to be done in a few months as it would be in Finland. So I left to Kunming to buy things for the guesthouse and to make flyers and spread them around Yunnan. When I came back I discovered that nothing was done. So, when the first guests arrived we didn’t even have rooms.We put some beds in the open space upstairs. When the family had some money saved dad went and bought big windows to put upstairs so that it would not be that windy up there.


By now we have 4 guestrooms done (well, almost. The paint job is bit unfinished.). Surprisingly, many people told us not to build the rooms. They liked it that you could seethe great view straight from your bed. Unfortunately it’s bit too cold here at winter time not to have room.

The view at a rainy day


The most popular tourist attraction in Meili Snow Mountains is Mingyong Glacier ’cause the trip can be done in a day. Most tourists stay a night in Feilaisi, hire a car in the morning, drive to the glacier and visit the temples there, and return to Feilaisi for the night. Feilaisi has magnificent views of the whole mountain range (weather permitting) but the village itself has turned into a cluster of hotels. Except for taking photos there’s nothing else to do. In the morning the tourists flock at the viewing platform taking photos of the first rays of rising sun hitting the peak of Miancimu. This viewing platform and a huge wall were built last year blocking the view from the hotels. From Xidang it’s also possible to hike to Mingyong.

Mingyong village and the glacier

A bit more adventurous tourists head to Yubeng. Xidang is where the road ends, so to get to Yubeng you have to either hike or ride a mule. The trek starts from Xidang Hot Springs. (Don’t be fooled by the name. There’re springs but no pools, just showers. The water comes from the spring, though.) The distance to Yubeng is 18 km but the hike to the pass takes 4-6 hours and it’s a steep ascend. From the pass to the village it takes about 1-2 hours. Yubeng consists of upper and lower village, and it takes around an hour to walk from upper to lower. In Yubeng you are in a valley in between three of the snow mountains. You can stay in the guesthouses in the village and do day treks from there.

On the way to Yubeng

Yubeng Upper village

Yubeng Lower Village

The day treks include Glacier Lake (Bing Hu, 8-10 hours there and back).

On the way to Glacier Lake

Glacier Lake

Holy Waterfalls. These are holy for the Tibetans so it’s a pilgrimage site. The locals are supposed to do this at least once a year. The pilgrims want to circumambulate the falling water three times. The water comes from a glacier so it’s freezing. Afterwards you’re not allowed to wash yourself for a week, at least not your hair. Because of the holiness of the waterfalls the road there is lined with mani rock piles. Every rock in the pole is a prayer. One year we visited the falls in late autumn. We were very disappointed to see that there were hardly any water in the falls, just some dripping along the mountain side. But the younger brother of my Tibetan family started to chant to the falls, and the water came. We were able to do the three rounds, and when he stopped chanting the water also stopped flowing. This trek takes around 5 hours.

Holy Waterfalls

You can also hike to Holy Lake which is located in 4 370 m.

From Yubeng you can return to Xidang either the same way you went in or hike around the mountains through Ninong. This route is 38 km but it’s mostly down hill from Yubeng to Xidang. The change from the old growth forests of Yubeng area to the moon landscape of Mekong river valley is huge. But this route is also a bit dangerous as sometimes you need to cross water flowing over the path balancing on slippery stones and sometimes the path is very narrow and the fall down is hundreds of meters. If it’s windy or raining you also have to pay attention to falling rocks. Three tourists have died on this trek.

Along the Yubeng river (Photo by Katja Järvinen)

About half way on this trek there’s an empty house. The Tibetans believe the house is haunted. In the picture that my cousin took of it there’s a ball of light in the pitch black doorway into the house. Also bears sometimes come in there at night. I stayed in this house for two nights with a friend of mine. I have to admit that I didn’t sleep very well and a mouse looking for food outside of our tent almost scared me to death.

On the way to Ninong

On the way to Ninong (Photo by Katja Järvinen)

Ninong (Photo by Katja Järvinen)

The most demanding hike around here is the kora around the mountain range. The whole pilgrimage takes 6-12 (or more) days depending whether you use cars when possible or walk the whole way. The route goes over 4 high passé into Tibet and the back to Mekong river valley. In principle, you need the Tibet permit for this about there’re ways to get around that. You can also walk part of the kora and turn down to Nujiang valley.

Nature preserve

The Meili Snow Mountains nature preserve is located at the Hengduan Mountains. The area belongs to ‘Tree parallel rivers’ nature preserve which belongs to UNESCO world heritage sites. The whole area is 1, 7 billion hectares and consists of 15 nature preserves. Three of China’s big rivers run here close to each other, Yangtze (Jinsha), Mekong and Nu (Salween). The rivers have carved deep gorges; gorges that are sometimes even 3 000 m deep, so the biodiversity in the area is very rich. Here are some of the reasons for including this area on the world heritage list:

Kawa Gebo ang Mingyong glacier

Superlative natural phenomena or natural beauty and aesthetic importance The deep, parallel gorges of the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu Jiang are the outstanding natural feature of the site; while large sections of the three rivers lie just outside the site boundaries, the river gorges are nevertheless the dominant scenic element in the area. High mountains are everywhere, with the glaciated peaks of the Meili, Baima and Haba Snow Mountains providing a spectacular scenic skyline. The Mingyongqia Glacier is a notable natural phemonenon, descending to 2700 m altitude from Mt Kawagebo, and is claimed to be the glacier descending to the lowest altitude for such a low latitude (28° N) in the northern hemisphere. Other outstanding scenic landforms are the alpine karst (especially the ‘stone moon’ in the Moon Mountain Scenic Area above the Nu Jiang Gorge) and the ‘tortoise shell’ weathering of the alpine Danxia.

Mekong River in Xidang

The property is of outstanding value for displaying the geological history of the last 50 million years associated with the collision of the Indian Plate with the Eurasian Plate, the closure of the ancient Tethys Sea, and the uplifting of the Himalaya Range and the Tibetan Plateau. These were major geological events in the evolution of the land surface of Asia and they are on-going. The diverse rock types within the site record this history and, in addition, the range of karst, granite monolith, and Danxia sandstone landforms in the alpine zone include some of the best of their type in the mountains of the world.

Thousand Turtle Mountain in Liming

Biodiversity and threatened species Northwest Yunnan is the area of richest biodiversity in China and may be the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth. The site encompasses most of the natural habitats in the Hengduan Mountains, one of the world’s most important remaining areas for the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity. The outstanding topographic and climatic diversity of the site, coupled with its location at the juncture of the East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Tibetan Plateau biogeographical realms and its function as a N-S corridor for the movement of plants and animals (especially during the ice ages), marks it as a truly unique landscape, which still retains a high degree of natural character despite thousands of years of human habitation. As the last remaining stronghold for an extensive suite of rare and endangered plants and animals, the site is of outstanding universal value.


The land area encompassed by Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas is one of the world’s least-disturbed temperate ecological areas, an epicentre of Chinese endemic species and a natural gene pool of great richness. It supports the richest diversity of higher plants of China…. The park has 22 vegetation subtypes and 6,000 plant species. The area is believed to support over 25% of the world’s animal species, many being relict and endangered. There is a concentration of the country’s rare and endangered animals within the nominated area.

The Meili Snow Mountains consists of seven snow mountains. The mountains are holy for the Tibetans so climbing them is forbidden. The most holy are Kawa Gebo (Kawa Kharpo) and his wife Miancimu. Kawa Gebo is also the highest peak (6 745 m). The main tourist destinations in the area are Mingyong glacier and Yubeng village. Yubeng is a Tibetan village located in a valley between three of the snow mountains (Miancimu, Buddha’s fist and Knight). There is no road to Yubeng: to get there you have to either trek or ride a mule. The glaciers here are the lowest lying glacier at this latitude in the world so they are quickly disappearing. My Tibetan grandmother is originally from Mingyong village. In her youth the glacier went all the way down to Mekong river. Now maybe half of it is gone. There are many animal species here, including bears, wolfs and the endangered Yunnan snub-nosed golden monkey. There are also many kinds of birds, like lammergeyers and other big vultures. In the spring the mountains are decorated with blooming wild flowers, like azaleas and rhododendrons. Many of our garden flowers originate from here. You can also find many wild vegetables, like rhubarb and celery. The richness of plant species was the reason why first westerners here were the so called plant hunters like Joseph Rock.

My family

My Tibetan family consists of mother, father, grandma and grandpa and two brothers. Our family also includes two cats, one dog, two mules, six pigs, two cows, four yaks and a rooster and a few chickens. Our old dog just died recently and we kill two pigs every year, but some new ones are born as well. And the next baby yak is going to be mine! The cows and last years baby yak are moms, and dad and the brothers each has a yak bull. It’s time for me to have one. Last years baby yak loves pigs. When she was weaned of her mom, she took the pigs as surrogate, and likes to suck their ears.

Our baby yak

All the animals run around free in the village except during the planting season. They return home every night (well, at least most nights). During the tourist season the mules have to work daily carrying people up the mountain, but now they also can have a rest. I feel so sorry for the dogs. If they aren’t shepherd dogs they spent all of their lives chained down in a short leash. We need the guard dogs as the animals roam around free, so they would come inside the house and eat all the fodder and vegetables mom has worked so hard to get. We need to listen to the dogs. Especially goats are excellent climbers and able to get anywhere. On the other hand, the cats are really enjoying their lives here. Cats are of course necessary as there’s food everywhere for the mice to eat. But the cats are also especially loved. They get treats from the table and mom would even let them sleep with her. The Tibetans say that one hair in the fur of a cat is blessed by the Buddha.

When I came to Xidang we agreed on the rent that I would pay every year, but now the family has practically adopted me. I’m the daughter that especially mom always wanted. Of course I can’t pass as a real Tibetan daughter because I’m no good in the field work, which is womens job. The only thing mom let’s me help her with is washing dishes. But at least I’m female companionship for her in a house full of males. Although farm work is womens job, it doesn’t mean that the men spent their days doing nothing. Everybody works very hard from morning till night, and men also participate in larger farming projects. The older of the brothers drives tourists up from Lijiang which means he’s never home. He also married a Han Chinese girl, so they are never going to live here in the village. In practice, this means that the younger son has to marry a Tibetan girl regardless of his own wishes. Mother can’t keep doing most of the field work alone for much longer.

Me and my family except for dad and big brother