When you imagine spending a day in the mountains, you don’t generally picture yourself second-hand smoking hundreds of cigarettes amidst thousands of people in a large, dimly lit room, but that’s pretty much what a day on the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xueshan in Chinese) near Lijiang in China‘s Yunnan province looks like for most visitors. Waiting times for a chairlift can reach several hours and coming back down is often worse. Luckily there are three lifts and only two draw crowds.
The traditional architecture and narrow cobblestone streets and canals of Lijiang’s UNESCO World Heritage old town draw millions of Chinese tourists per year and the varied meadows and the northern hemisphere’s southernmost glacier on the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain lure them out of the city for a day trip. I’ve mentioned this before in posts on the sand dunes at Dunhuang and visiting the Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, but whenever a destination is popular with Chinese tourists, you can expect two things: massive crowds and even more massive entrance fees. Lijiang’s famous mountain delivers on both counts.
Whether you travel to the area by minibus, tour bus, taxi or private vehicle, you make one stop on the way to pay the entrance fee (190 RMB, around $30), before being dropped off at a visitor center that has only one function: to separate you from whatever money you have left.
I asked about tickets to Asia’s highest chairlift and learned I would have to pay 170 RMB and wait for over two hours for a ride to the glacier at 4506 meters. No thank you. Nearby, they were renting out jackets and flogging oxygen bottles to chain-smoking Chinese with the promise of near-certain death from altitude sickness to those who passed on the generous offer. The same bottles can be bought back in Lijiang for a fraction of the price. They’re also pretty useless.
I knew there were more chairlifts located a bit further north, so I moved on and inquired about tickets to the next one, which carried visitors to the descriptively named Cloud Fir Meadow: 160 RMB combined for the chairlift and bus transport with a wait of over an hour. As I was asking, I noticed a brochure with photos of the meadow—I saw a more scenic patch of grass in the parking lot outside. No, thanks.
That left the furthest and by far the least popular chairlift. It runs up the mountain to the Yak Meadow at 3650 meters for 60 RMB. Wait time?
“The bus to the chairlift is waiting outside and leaves in five minutes. You want to go?”
I think you know the answer. After a thirty-minute ride on a mostly-empty bus that climbed up a windy road past clear streams and grazing yaks, I was dropped off at a small building. A chairlift stretched upwards from the building and promptly disappeared in a gray mass. The air was already much cooler once I got off the bus and that mass of gray did not promise warmer temperatures further up.
Suddenly those jacket rentals seemed much more appealing. If only they’d priced the jackets like jackets and not like rental cars, I might have considered getting one. I was already wearing the warmest clothes I had, but having just come from southeast Asia, my warmest clothes were a t-shirt. At least I would be motivated to do some walking—some very brisk walking.
The second the chair lift left the building, a cold wind cut right through that t-shirt. A short while later, the world turned gray and I suddenly found myself in the middle of a freezing rainstorm. Okay, maybe rainstorm is a bit of an exaggeration. It was a drizzle. But it was a cold drizzle. Freezing cold.
Once I got to the top, it was immediately obvious why this place is called the yak meadow—it’s a meadow covered in yaks.
Wooden walkways climb up on both sides of the chairlift building and disappear over a hill. I assumed they connected somewhere and made a big loop. I saw a Tibetan temple adorned with thousands of little prayer flags to the right, so I headed in that direction.
The temple was completely deserted, but I expected that to change when the other passengers on my bus caught up to me, so I looked back to see how much time I had. No one was following me. Every one of them stepped just outside the chairlift building to snap a few photos of yaks in the distance then retreated inside. And they had all rented jackets!
It looked like I was going to have the whole looped walkway to myself. Either that or I was completely wrong in my assumption and the walkways didn’t connect at all, which meant I was heading far off into the fog and freezing rain somewhere and likely wouldn’t make it back in time for the last lift down. I began looking around for the shaggiest yak to shave for bedding, in case I ended up having to spend the night up there.
Nevertheless, I continued along the walkway, stepping off into the mud occasionally to take photos. And for yak related detours.
Did you notice the Jheri curl he was sporting? That seems to have been quite the fashionable hairstyle on the yak meadow back in the summer of 2011.
My stroll through the meadow soon turned into a half-jog as the rain picked up and little icy darts pelted my face. They also turned the wooden walkway into a bobsled track, which kept me from risking a faster pace—that and my general distaste for running. Despite the stinging rain and the slippery and occasionally yak-blocked walkway, I somehow still managed to appreciate my surroundings.
Yellow flowers dotted the meadow as it stretched out around me to the distant wooded slopes where clouds were oozing their way upwards among the fir trees. I can only imagine how beautiful Yak Meadow might be on a warm, clear day. Actually, I don’t have to imagine. Thanks to Google Images, I know exactly what I missed out on.
When I got back to the chairlift, I got strange looks from the other tourists on my bus; they clearly considered me insane. The gift shop owner invited me inside for some tea and a sales pitch, but I told her I would prefer to warm up at the bottom of the mountain where it was, you know, warm. As soon as I got on the chairlift, everyone else followed. Had they been waiting for me? That didn’t make sense, as our bus wasn’t scheduled to leave until the chairlift stopped running and sure enough, once we got to the bottom, the driver was nowhere to be found. Luckily, the bus was unlocked and we all piled in to enjoy the relative warmth.
As I was sitting there and thawing out, I looked around at the Chinese tourists and got the feeling they were all thinking the same thing: “Why didn’t we just wait in line for the southernmost chairlift like everyone else? If we’re going to freeze, we might as well freeze at a more impressive altitude next to a famous glacier instead of a muddy meadow full of glorified cows.” To me, though, if you’re going to spend a day in the mountains, you might as well spend it on an actual mountain, not a depressing waiting area at the bottom.
Besides, I actually liked Yak Meadow. Yes, I practically had to run around the little loop and I certainly didn’t get to enjoy the promised alpine meadow views, but I was surrounded by more yaks than people and I didn’t spend any time waiting. If you ever find yourself in Lijiang and you’re lured out of the city, like so many, by beautiful photos of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, I highly recommend skipping the closer and more popular chairlifts and making your way to Yak Meadow instead. And bring a jacket.
The Lijiang travel guide has information on getting to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.