Yubeng Village Trek Near Deqin, China

After feeling disappointed by the town of Shangri-la, which was rather underwhelming, I was really keen on going further north in the Yunnan province to be closer to the mountains. Since going to Tibet was out of price for my budget, I decided to venture up to Deqin, a town on the border of China and Tibet where 80% of the population was Tibetan and trekking opportunities abounded.

With the Venuezuelan/Spanish couple I had first encountered on Mount Emei (Sichuan province) a couple of weeks back, I took the bus from Shangri-la to Deqin, an eight-hour bumpy bus ride which took us through spectacular mountain passes, some as high as 5000 meters. On the bus, we befriended a down-to-earth Swiss couple in their early thirties who had traveled extensively in Latin America and spoke Spanish. We all opted to stay in Felai Si, a small village about 10 km from Deqin with breathtaking views of the Meili Snow mountain range, where we encountered a young Israeli man traveling alone who happily joined our lively group. With six people, we could easily split the costs of a trek to the Yubeng village which included minibus rides to and from the trail heads and a local guide for the way back.

Mountain view on the road between Shangri-la and Deqin

The next morning, we hopped on a minibus that took us to the trail head near the village of Xidang. Today we would hike mostly uphill, climbing the mountain with an elevation gain of about 1000m/3280ft over the Nazongla pass (3700m/12,136 ft) before descending into the Yubeng village, a journey which would take us around six hours. We would spend the night at the village, then trek down the valley the following day along the Yubeng river to the Ninong village where we would catch our minibus back to Felai Si.

I knew the first day would be very strenuous for me. Whenever I hike uphill, my lungs constrict, making breathing a struggle. My allergy doctor told me last year I had exercise-induced asthma and gave me an inhaler to use each time I exercised, but it made my cough even worse, so I stopped using it. With the altitude, the air was thinner. I hiked up slowly, taking breaks when I could feel my heart pounding in my chest or when my labored breathing turned into wheezing.

Purple flower that grew all over Shangri-la county

Somewhere along the way, my stomach started churning uncomfortably. Having faced a similar predicament during the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek a few days earlier, I knew trouble was brewing. On the first day of the two-day Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, my stomach had started twisting into painful knots until it kept spasming, desperately urging to be relieved. I was faced with no choice but to relieve myself three times on the mountain. The first time, I found myself on the steep slope of the mountain, clenching my thigh muscles tightly and holding on to bushes to keep myself from slipping down the hill. While I felt the prickly bushes poking into the flesh of my bare buttocks and the imposing facade of the colossal mountain opposite me staring me right up in the face, I thought to myself: “Surely there are worst places to go to the bathroom.” This had to be the most scenic one to date.

The second time the urge hit, I hid behind huge boulders alongside the narrow path bordering the mountain. By this point I had broken into tears because the pain had become unbearable; there was absolutely nowhere on the path to relieve my tortured bowels, and I was extremely desperate. It was either doing it smack dab in the middle of the path or right down into the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Neither option seemed particularly appealing, so when my trekking companions and I found the boulders, I knew this was my chance. A lone male hiker happened to be walking several minutes behind me. He caught a glimpse of me as I was getting up, startled not so much by what I may have been doing back there, but by my appearing so suddenly from behind the boulder as he was walking around the corner.

The third time my bowels screamed for mercy, I went in the tiny little ditch right next to the path. There, there was really no place to hide, and I nearly got caught by a group of hikers who were slowly making their way toward the bend. Before they came around the corner, I quickly pulled up my pants and briskly walked away as if nothing had happened. At that end of that day, I asked the mountain to forgive me for all the littering I had done, but I figured that when the call of nature is that strong, all you can do is answer.

I was shocked when the call came pounding on my door again during the Yubeng trek. Was it the altitude or had I eaten something bad? The pain in my stomach was as intense as it had been on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. This time, however, I had a forest all around me where I could hide to my heart’s content. My trekking companions were very understanding. They waited for me as I relieved myself three times within the same area. Each time that I thought the worst was over, the storm within raged harder. Drops of sweat glided down my cheeks every time my stomach spasmed. Once again I found myself in tears, frustrated of being at the hands of my stomach’s unpredictable fits. Until the storm abated, I could do nothing but ride it out. By the third bowel movement, I was really exhausted. I felt like I had expanded every ounce of energy into emptying my stomach of whatever was causing it to go haywire. I slogged to the top of the mountain, summoning all of my will to get my weak legs to take every step up, another couple of hours so. At the Tibetan rest stations where we stopped, I could not bring myself to eat or drink anything.

We arrived at the Yubeng village at the end of the afternoon, greeted by beautiful alpine scenery. Nestled at the foot of snow-capped peaks, the Yubeng village is a secluded village accessible only by foot or donkey. We decided to call it a day and stay in the higher Yubeng Village for the night, expecting to pass through the lower Yubeng village, an hour’s walk away, the following day. After checking a handful of guesthouses to find a suitable place to stay for the night, we eventually settled for a lodge near the entrance of the village with a large courtyard looking out onto the mountains.

A rooster walking around the Yubeng village

The accommodations were very rustic with toilets consisting of a wooden shack outside the house with holes dug into the ground. Strangely the stench that emanated from them did not knock you out. My stomach had quieted down, perhaps at the sight of its bathroom prospects, and I drank as little liquid as I could to avoid having to visit the shack in the dead of the night. The guesthouse seemed to be made almost entirely of wood; when anyone walked about, the sound of the creaking slats reverberated throughout the house. The rooms were spartan but clean, and offered magnificent views of the mountains and village.

We sat outside in the courtyard on tree logs cut out into tables and chairs. Following a long and tiring day of hiking, we were eager for a bite to eat. Our waiters gave us a handwritten menu, which was very confusing. Though it was written in both English and Chinese characters, it was poorly organized and difficult to read. To minimize confusion, the waiters had given us a pen and paper to write down what we wanted. We tried copying the Chinese characters onto the page, but the characters on the menu were either not legible or too complicated for us to replicate! Instead we decided to make things easier for the waiters by adding numbers next to the Chinese names on the menu, figuring that from then on, foreigners could just write out the numbers of the items they wanted to order. Because my handwriting was deemed the most legible, I then wrote down our order by listing the numbers and the English names of the items that corresponded to them.

The entire menu revamping and order writing process took at least half an hour, then we spent another half hour trying to explain to the waiters, who did not speak a word of English, what we had done and what we wanted to order. Although they appeared pleased by our numbering system, we were not convinced they had understood our order. We just hoped for the best, each of us well accustomed to being served something different from what we ordered in various places in China. When we didn’t hear from our waiters for another half an hour, we assumed they went cooking.

Three of us had ordered Yak meat. At some point, a middle-aged Tibetan man with a broad smile who seemed to just be hanging out around the guesthouse came up to tell us there was no yak meat or beef at this time. Since none of us wanted pork, we asked if the guesthouse had chicken. The waiters returned to tell us that if we wanted chicken, we’d have to order a whole chicken. We went back and forth for another half an hour with them, struggling to communicate, despite the intervention of a Chinese man who spoke minimal English and tried his best to translate on our behalf. In times like these, gestures seem to work best. By then all of the Chinese tourists and locals who were hanging out in the courtyard had been watching our food ordering experience in curiosity and amusement. Since there was no TV around, we served as their evening entertainment.

In an exchange of increasingly amusing gestures, we finally figured out that if we ordered chicken, the waiters would get a fresh (i.e., live) one, which they had to go fetch, kill, pluck, cut, then cook. They assured us they could get our chicken served in half an hour. We doubted they could turn a live chicken around so fast, but darkness was falling and we were growing hungrier by the hour, so we agreed to wait for the chicken.

As it turned out, they didn’t actually have any chickens in-house, however, and had to “order” the chicken from across the village. Since they couldn’t communicate the situation with us in English, we just observed what was going on. Much to our amusement, one of the waiters stood on the edge of the courtyard and screamed from the top of her lungs across the village, asking for what we presume was a chicken from another villager standing on the terrace of a restaurant/guesthouse somewhere in the middle of the village, hundreds of meters away. We could barely make out the tiny silhouette of the villager afar, but somehow they heard each other. This is how we learned firsthand that if you can’t call or text your friend living on the other end of town, the next best thing is to shout to her across the valley. If you live in China, chances are you are already accustomed to speaking at opera-level decibels, so all you have to do is take the volume up a notch.

My companions and I spent several minutes laughing our heads off at the absurdity of our food ordering experience. I was laughing so hard it hurt when the waiter suddenly walked past our table carrying a small live chicken into the kitchen. At the sight of the helpless chicken dangling from the waiter’s hands, a rush of emotions washed over my entire body, and next thing I knew, I was wiping copious tear drops from my eyes. Just a second ago, I had been laughing hysterically, yet there I was, suddenly weeping. Caught off guard by such an unexpected surge of compassion, I quickly wiped my face, silently hoping that the chicken, which would soon be slaughtered for my own dining needs in the kitchen next door, would meet a humane death.

Soon after, the same friendly man who had told us there was no yak meat, came out of the kitchen, wiping blood off his big knife with the same huge grin on his face. Our chicken dishes were served half an hour later. Every bits and pieces of the chicken, including its legs and head, appeared on our respective plates. We scoured through our piles of green peppers looking for meat, but the chicken had been extremely lean and only offered bones. I ate quietly, still feeling a bit of remorse for eating a chicken I had just seen alive, though I knew this was part of life and I accepted it.

At the end of dinner, we casually asked the perpetually smiling Tibetan man whether he knew where we could find a guide to take us to Ninong the next day. To our surprise, he said he could guide us at the price we offered. The man seemed so warm and genuine that we were excited to take him on as our guide.

The next morning, we got up early, eager to undertake the most scenic part of our trek. Cloudy at first, the day started clearing progressively as we walked until the sun was shining radiantly in the deep blue sky above us. We walked alongside the mountain stream, which gloriously cascaded down the slope. With the difficult ascent behind us, the road was going to be easier today. We had expected the second day’s hike to be feast for the eyes, but we walked in awe of the idyllic views all around us. When we crossed a little wooden bridge, we could not help but take a break by the mountain stream to soak our feet in the fresh icy cold water and relish the peace and beauty around us. Cows were grazing behind us and the mountains stood majestically on all sides. If there was a heaven on earth, I thought I was in the midst of it.

Mountain stream on the Yubeng trek to Ninong

After some time, we reached the deep gorge over the Mekong river. The trail along the gorge was narrow and precipitous. Afraid of heights, I was starting to feel a bit of vertigo. The only one without hiking boots, I also had uneven footing, but our guide was very understanding and helpful. He held out his hand to me every time I showed any sign of fear or hesitation, helping me cross waterfalls, streams, and slippery rocky passes along the steep path.

The highlight of the trek came when a canal, carved out by villagers on the side of the mountain, appeared right on the left side of the mountain trail. We had the river below us on the right side, the small stream right next to us on the left, and the cliffs all around us. It was amazing! At times the path passed through very narrow viewpoints jutting out from the face of the mountain to offer nearly 360 degree views. One misstep forward and you were off into the void, though. As an intrepid photo-hunting hiker, I was grateful for my fear of heights, always staying close to the inner edge of the mountain. I did not dare look outward while standing on these 360-degree lookout points, which offered sensational views, but were also quite dangerous because of the vertigo that often overtakes viewers when they stand there. We had been told stories of hikers who were so excited by the views that they carelessly took a misstep and fell to meet a tragic end. I didn’t want to be one of them.

View of the canal on the left side of the path and the Mekong river down in the gorge

The sun was getting hotter and hotter, and soon, all of us ran out of water. I had never been as thirsty before as I was during this hike. I didn’t actually carry any water at all on the second day of the trek. The night before, I had tried buying a bottle of water from the guesthouse, but it was ridiculously overpriced. I, like my companions, had expected to buy additional water supplies at the lower Yubeng village, which we unfortunately ended up not seeing at all during our trek. The Swiss couple kindly let me take a few sips from their water bottle though they, too, eventually ran out of water. During the last two hours of the trek, all I could think about, other than doing my best not to fall into the gorge, was water. Water was flowing so freely around me, and I was incredibly tempted to take a sip from the waterfalls. I contented myself with just splashing my face, never swallowing: I wasn’t quite ready for a repeat of yesterday’s mountain pooping adventure.

In the intensity of the heat, I felt as though my body was melting under the sun’s rays. I was filled with relief when I finally saw the bridge in the distance where we were to meet our minibus driver. I trudged the remainder of the way languidly, dragging my heavy body across the rocks, as I thought of the taste of cold water in my mouth.

The guide invited us into his home in the Ninong village, a humble house with a large, sparsely-furnished dining room. His wife, as sweet and gracious as her husband, promptly offered us hot (boiled) water. A couple of us ordered fried noodles for lunch. Too thirsty to eat anything, I gulped down cup after cup after cup of hot water. Yet no matter how much I drank, I couldn’t seem to quench my thirst. So I kept drinking.

Eventually our minibus driver arrived to pick us up. Grateful to the husband and wife for their warm hospitality, we took group pictures with them in their yard before parting. After hugging them goodbye and thanking them profusely for their kindness, we walked to the hanging bridge and crossed the Mekong river to board the minibus that would take us back to Felai Si.

Group picture with the friendly Tibetan guide and his lovely wife

The minibus ride was an adventure. We had been warned by trekkers who had completed the journey a couple days before that we would be going through a horrible road, but we were not prepared for the sight. This was a precipitous mountain road that was undergoing heavy construction. The whole mountain was covered in white dust. There was no other car driving on that road. We crossed a tunnel that was being built. Construction workers were hanging from ropes along the cliffs. Rocks were falling about; we prayed none of them would fall on us. I felt like we were in some kind of end-of-the-world movie where there was nothing else left but thick white dust blowing around everywhere, making visibility minimal.

The conditions of the roads were so horrendous that we were vigorously shaking in the minibus like grains of salt in a salt shaker–I was glad I only had hot water rolling around in my belly. Because of the heavy dust winds, we had to keep the windows shut, and naturally, the minibus did not have air conditioning, so we sweltered in our sweat for a good while. I have no idea how our driver, who did not know how to operate the gears and used the hand brake to start the car, managed to stay on the road, but he somehow did, and for that I am grateful.

The Yubeng trek was probably the most beautiful and fun hike I’ve ever done in my life, full of unusual experiences I would be hard pressed to forget, making it the highlight of my six-week Soutwest China trip.

For more photos, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/cinviraz.

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