One of the great things about travel is the people you meet and the unexpected experiences you have. During a recent trip to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (JDSM) nature reserve in Yunnan province, I met two university students from Hunnan province and we had a great day on a tight budget in JDSM.
A little about Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is a small mountain range in Yunnan province just north of Lijiang city. Towering over the head waters of the Yangtze River, the mountains are famous for their incredible views and are part of a high altitude nature reserve. Together with the Old Town and the Black Dragon Pool, the JDSM are of Lijiang’s must see travel spots.
JDSM is also be one of China’s most expensive travel spots and the key sites in the reserve are often completely covered by clouds. Normally if the mountains are covered in clouds, you are better of not going there. There are exceptions though and this trip was one of them.
The start of the day
A general rule with visiting the JDSM is that if you can see the mountains covered in cloud from the Old Town, you find something else to do for the day. I was on my last day in Lijiang leaving on a train that night so although the mountains covered in cloud, I had to go. Even a day staring morosely at inaccessible snow covered mountains was preferable to going home with out at least setting foot in the JDSM nature reserve.
There were no public buses to JDSM so I ended up catching a private minibus near the main entrance of the Old Town. The sign at the bus stop was only in Chinese but very obvious and hard to miss. The cost of the bus was 15rmb per person when the bus was full and I was the only one waiting when I arrived. The driver said he needed at least 6 people before he could go and that I could have the whole bus to myself for 80rmb. Funny man!
Xiang and Luoli
Did not take long for the bus to fill up and we eventually set off for JDJM with one foreigner, two business men from Shanghai, a couple from Guangzhou and two students from Hunan University, Xiang and luoli. The university holidays finished 2-3 days earlier but Xiang and Luoli were having too much of a good time to go back to their academic grind.
Hunan University is one of China’s top universities and very difficult to enter. Many students from rich families buy a place at a top university. Both Xiang and Luoli though were from poor country families and used hard work and ability to gain their university places. Xiang is also his class head which is a big deal in Chinese universities. Very bright guys. On the bus to JDSM Xiang called his lecturer to explain that he could not come to class because he had to stay at home and take care of family business for a few days. Gotta admire a guy who can do that with a straight face
Xiang and Luoli were as poor as church mice, on an extremely tight budget, sleeping in a tent instead of hostels to save money and had to borrow several hundred rmb from friends to help fund their holiday. Most foreign travellers would spend Xiang and Luoli’s entire holiday budget in just one or two days. The entrance fee to JDSM blew their budget and they could not afford the fees for the reserve’s buses or any other fees such as the Glacier Park cable car. I was at the tail end of my Yunnan holiday, a little tired of the price gouging found at tourist attractions through out Yunnan and not too keen visit cloud covered mountains. We decided to hike around the reserve and visit the Blue Moon Valley which is one of the highlights of JDSM and free.
Hiking the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Hiking from the reserve entrance to the Blue Moon Valley takes one to two hours and has incredible views of the JDSM. This gives you great photo opportunities that you just don’t have when you take bus.
Hunnan people are renown for their love of conversation and Xiang in typical Hunnan style was full of talk and questions. After the first hour I had to kindly ask him to give me a break for an hour. He lasted for around 10 minutes before he broke down and the talk and questions started again.
Blue Moon Valley
This valley is formed from the melting snow that runs of the mountains and holds four lakes, the Tingtao lake, the Lanyue lake, Jingtian lake and the Yue lake. The lakes in the valley are an amazing shade of green/blue and walking around the valley is one of the best hikes in the nature reserve. The head of the valley is one of the main tourist sites where you can ride on yaks and have your picture taken holding an eagle.
White Water Terrace at the head of the valley is one of the main tourist spots, packed with tour groups and very interesting so we stopped there for a while. The local Naxi who provide the yak rides, eagles and run the site are very colourful in their traditional outfits and fun to watch haggling and bargaining with tourists.
With their amazing shade of green/blue, the valley’s lakes are both stunning and smerizing and the water channels/water falls separating each lake are gorgeous. The whole valley takes around half a day to hike around at a leisurely pace and is a great way to enjoy the reserve.
Lunch at Blue Moon Valley
By the time we had reached the water fall separating the second and third lake, it was around midday and we were getting pretty hungry so took off our shoes and waded to a small island at the head of the third lake for lunch.
One characteristic I’ve learnt about China’s country people is their kindness and generosity to strangers. They are normally poor and living/travelling in conditions that most foreigners would find harsh and yet will no hesitate in sharing their homes or meals with you even if it means sleeping on the floor or going hungry.
Xiang and Luoli were no exception and were sharing their food with me as soon as we sat down. I packed a large bottle of orange juice and a packet of biscuits in my backpack for the day and added these to our lunch as my contribution. So there we were, sitting on the ground on a small island surrounded by magnificent scenery in one of China’s top nature reserves enjoying each other’s company over a simple meal.
Dinner in Lijiang Old Town
After hiking around Blue Moon Valley it was getting late so we decided to hike back to the reserve entrance and catch a minibus heading back into Lijiang.
To make my backpack easy to carry that day I had left most of my stuff at the hostel in the Old Town. We went back to the hostel to pick up my stuff and had dinner at a cheap restaurant with good food a few doors down. Xiang and Luoli wanted to pay but dinner was on me. The meals were cheap enough for them not to be embarrassed by me paying as their new “elder brother” it was the least I could do.
Goodbye at the Train station
Xiang and Luoli wanted to travel for a day or two more before heading back to university but were not sure where they wanted to go next so they went to the train station with me while they made up their minds. Xiang was the talker and Luoli thinker so while we waiting for my train, Xiang kept up a ceaseless flow of chatter and Luoli used a pen and paper to calculate where they could afford to travel next.
10 minutes before the train was due to depart we finished exchanging email addresses, QQ numbers (QQ is Chinese ICQ and EVERYONE has a QQ number) and phone numbers and said good bye. After saying goodbye they were going to pitch their tent next to the train station and catch a t rain the next day.
A Great Day, thank you Xiang and Luoli
Thanks to the company of Xiang and Luoli, I had a great day seeing Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in a way very few tourists ever see. They were excellent company with an incredible attitude, very positive and never complaining about being broke or travelling rough.
Beautiful scenery, ancient structures and exotic cultures can be incredible but the genuine people you meet while travelling like Xiang and Luoli leave the biggest impression and touch you most.