Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Tour: altitude tourism in South West China

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) is located near Lijiang in Yunnan, South West China. Lijiang's old towns, once beautiful places, have today become one of the country's top 5 tourist destinations and are swamped with tourism to the near exclusion of anything else. I am here for COART festival, an arts festival which has given me the opportunity to see something of this part of China. I'll write more about Lijiang subsequently but for now I will concentrate on the mountain.

There are different ways to go about ascending; in the old town there are many travel agents who offer package tours that include an ascent as part of a one, two or four day trip around Lijiang. Having already had the Chinese coach tour experience of The Great Wall I wanted to see how the site might reveal itself differently when travelling outside of the structure of a large organised group or, to put it another way, I had had it with the guide turning salesman at every opportunity routine and everything devolving into kitsch. This more independent tour of the mountain began, then, with some advice from the appropriately named K2 hostel, who gave the number of a driver. With the arrangements made for the next day, it was a simple matter of hanging about till she showed up. Yunnan is not a hurried place and it turned out she was waiting at a different gate to the village but, after a while, the van arrived and we got inside. 

She advised us to buy oxygen and pulled up in front of a shop on the edge of the village that sold portable oxygen canisters and nothing else. I've seen some specialist stores before and this place was up there with the best of them. The driver said it would be wise to take some and the man in the store was, predictably enough, more certain still that we absolutely needed to buy some and what's more, we'd need the large canisters. Not knowing what to expect, having never been to so high an altitude before, I suspected he was exaggerating in order to boost sales. Still, we bought two large canister anyway and got back in the van.

We drove for about 40 minutes and during this time the driver expanded upon some of the other tours that could be had in the area. It did not seem as if we were climbing that much, except at the end of the journey, but we must have steadily gained altitude. Lijiang is already 2400 metres above sea level and the base station where we were heading was well over 3000 metres. The air was thinning.

This is a view of the mountains in the background from the car park of the base station. Forget any ideas of Everest Base Station and rudimentary camps used for trekkers and climbers This was a huge car park with shops, a leisure centre and restaurants. They even have a Starbucks.

After buying the ticket for the cable car there was a half-hour queue for the shuttle bus. As is often the case here, we had to queue and a minority tried every trick in the book to jump it. The most common one, which was successfully deployed here, was to have one person in the queue up ahead then other people who vaguely know that person join them. It doesn't matter how vague the relationship is, as long as they could stand beside the person and say hello. And once in, everyone else in their group then joins too. Whole tour groups can sometimes work this technique of one person establishing a bridge and the other 20 then following. This queue was reasonably polite, later in the day when people were in a hurry to get back for dinner, such niceties were dropped and more brazen tactics employed. 

The queue took us not to the cable cars but to a bus that drove a further 20 minutes to the cable car station. Here we got out, queued some more and finally got into one of the 8-person enclosed gondolas. It pulled us high up into the sky and our rapid ascent began. Each time we crossed over one of the supporting pillars the gondola rocked forward and backwards prompting nervous laughter and some white knuckles amongst the 8 of us thrown together in the metal and glass box, dangling giddily from a line leading upto the summit.

As we continued to climb the trees gave way to rocks and snow. I am not so keen on heights, I get mild vertigo, so I looked forward as much as I could at the mountain coming towards us. When I looked behind me at the void stretching out below, I could imagine us falling down into it so easily that I quickly turned forward again. It is an odd thing that altitude does not bother me but heights do.

Arriving at the end of the line we spilled out into a loveless commercial hall that had the surprising addition of a green-screen photo studio. It wasn't in use so I couldn't see what photoshopped location you could be placed into, but the very idea of coming all this way to use a green-screen studio struck me as bizarre. I can only suspect that its purpose is to give you the edge over the other tourists in the altitude stakes by placing you at the very top of the mountain, rather than stopping at the final visitor platform some distance from the summit, as regular visitors must do. 

As you can see, the altitude here is an impressive 4508 metres above sea level. You can travel to this height without having to barely walk a step. That makes this a location that attracts tourists who might not otherwise make it to such an altitude, who, it could be said, shouldn't even really be there. 

From this landing the final ascent on foot is up a wooden staircase weaving around the side of the mountain and its glacier.  

I had never experienced anything like walking in such an atmosphere before. It was necessary to walk slowly and stop regularly to catch breath. Breathing compressed oxygen made this a good deal more bearable. Without it, someone unacclimatised to such thin air as I was, would have been sorely challenged to make it up those staircases. 

An illustration of the change in air pressure was graphically provided by the packet of biscuits which I pulled out of my bag. 

Whilst the tourists edged their way slowly up the stairs, stopping for breath every 20 paces, the local builders had no such problems. This man carried a large bucket of paint up to the hut under construction, put it down, lit a cigarette then started hard manual labour. I'm guessing that over time the body must adapt to the thin air.

And finally this is the top platform at 4680 metres. It offers an excellent view over the glacier, a natural environment I'd never seen up close before, but more than that, it was a curious location that turned out to host three things.

The first of these was a man sitting at a simple open-air table carving tourist's names onto metallic medals. It was a small but popular business with a constant queue.

Next was a small food stall selling wildly overpriced snickers, red bull and sausages, the small red variety that rotate on a heater. He wasn't doing so much business.

And finally there were people, like myself, taking the obligatory selfie or the friends shot like the pair in the background. While I was wearing more than warm enough clothing, what I should have been more prepared for was the sun. It is very powerful and deceptive at this altitude. I got somewhat roasted as the day went on and have the flaking skin now to prove it.

Coming down by the same route there turned out to be more to the trip than expected. We took a wrong bus when alighting from the cable car and were deposited not at the base station but instead at a lake. This was, in many ways, a more beautiful and relaxing place with fewer visitors.

The lake was supplied by the glacier and was of a stunning aquamarine colour. These sunken trees also drew my attention to its artificial construction, accomplished by a series of small dams creating pools where there must have been a faster flowing descent in the past.

With the light hitting that perfect early evening glow the place took on a wonderful energy. There were a few people milling around, even some wedding photography going on, as there is in most tourist spots in China, but the place itself was big enough to absorb all of this. Also, being lower in altitude at a mere 3500 odd meters, it was possible to walk around without having to make constant recourse to the oxygen. Leaving Jade Dragon Snow Mountain behind I thought I had coped with the altitude challenge pretty well but I found that  in the evening a headache came on that refused to leave me till noon the following day. While the bulk of people and the technology goes a long way to opening up a space like this to the casual visitor, it remains a harsh environment. I won't be in a hurry to go further than 4680 metres and, unless I go on a Tibet tour (not impossible), it's unlikely I'll be in a position to do so anyhow. Once, in this case for me, is quite enough.


  1. You have added here very nice and attractive images. China is now being termed as one of the must visit travel destinations all over the world. Great Wall of China is a very famous tourist place all over the world. It was build more than 2000 years ago. Really the foods in China are very tasty.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.