We have made two attempts at touring Lijiang, China’s Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in our lifetimes (so far!), and both went really badly. Both times the visits were hampered by a combination of planning errors on our part, and the inherent challenges that face Western tourists (or tourists in general) who want to explore this incredibly beautiful, and iconic Yunnan mountain.
If you didn’t know, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is a huge mountain just north of the city of Lijiang, China in Yunnan Province. Part of the mountain range that eventually merges with the Himalayans, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is so tall that it is capped with snow all year. Visible from almost anywhere in the region, it is one of the most famous landmarks. We really wanted to see it up close.
Our Two Bad Day Trips to Lijiang, China’s Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Like I said, we made two attempts at touring the mountain. The first one was a Chinese bus tour we took in 2013 while we were on a one month trip to China shortly after we got married. Our trip to China was amazing, but that tour was not a highlight. The second time, in 2018, we hired a driver to take us up that same path, this time with our three-year-old daughter. It went even worse, despite us having the advantage of two years of travel experience.
Our 2013 Lijiang Bus Tour to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
We don’t really like bus tours very much. Every once in a while we’ll try one, but we’re always disappointed. This was our first one ever, though, so I won’t be too hard on us for trying it. We weren’t sure how we were supposed to get up there, so we the owner of our guest house, and she told us she would make some calls. That’s how we wound up on a Chinese bus tour. Note, that this would not have been possible if Dannie didn’t speak Chinese.
Bus tours are popular in China, and even throughout our travels in Europe we saw that the Chinese seem to prefer tour group travel over the slower, more exploratory path that we like to follow. I was going to say that maybe Chinese bus tours have gotten better in the last five years, but we recently met someone who had tried one earlier this year, and she confirmed that they are still awful. Her experience was much like ours, which I will now describe.
The guesthouse owner called up a tour agency who sent a representative right over to our room to help sign us up for a bus tour the next day. She was a little pushy, but we really wanted to go take some photos, and being novices in the age before online booking had taken over Chinese travel, we didn’t see a lot of options. The tour cost us about 1200RMB ($173 at today’s rate) for two people.
The tour included the bus ride, one oxygen tank and jacket per person, lunch, and entrance to a few attractions, including a gondola ride to the summit of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and a couple of other things we’d never heard of. It would also stop at various scenic spots along the way.
The Oxygen Tanks
Because the elevation of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,596 meters or 18,360 feet, according to Wikipedia) it is recommended that visitors use oxygen tanks. Supposedly the local ethnic groups who inhabit the area do not need them, but everyone in our tour group got one.
Once we were on the road, our tour guide explained (in Chinese) that we would be stopping at a supply station so that everyone could buy another oxygen tank. She said that the one we were given was enough to last us up to the gondola station, but if we wanted to go to the summit, we would definitely need another one.
The oxygen tanks were kind of expensive, but she said that if we started passing out on top of the mountain we would automatically be given oxygen by medics, and it would be even more expensive. The tour guide explained that she was of the local minority, and that’s why she didn’t need an oxygen tank. Dannie and I were a little suspicious, but we bought extra tanks anyway, grumbling a little.
At the supply station, we also received the bright red down jackets that were included with our tour. As we approached the gondola station, we were encouraged to start using our first oxygen tanks so that our blood would be well stocked with oxygen by the time we got up there. I don’t know if that is legit science or if they were just making sure we used more oxygen.
The Gondola Ride
The Gondola reminded me a lot of a ski lift, except that it was enclosed in glass and instead of sitting two people with their legs hanging down, they sat six people facing each other on benches. It was very chilly (it was April), and we were glad to have the heavy coats.
Dannie and I were still obediently huffing away on our first canisters of oxygen. I was admiring the view, but Dannie, who is afraid of heights, was doing her best to focus on other things. About three quarters of the way up, our first oxygen tanks did in fact run out, so we were glad that we had the backup.
We could see the exit station approaching, and we started getting ready, stuffing our cameras back in their bags so that we wouldn’t have to fumble as we got out. The mountain climbed higher above the station, and we’d been told that if we wanted to climb a little, we could go to the actual summit via a flight of stairs. Dannie didn’t want to go, but we agreed that after we took some photos on the main platform, I would make a quick trip up on my own while she waited at the station.
The Summit of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
When we stepped out of the gondola, the first thing I did was almost fall over. I have loved hiking for my entire life, but I’d never been this high before and I immediately felt the effects of the thin air. I looked over, and seeing the look on Dannie’s face, I knew that she was feeling the same thing.
Nearby, a couple was freaking out and pressing an oxygen mask against their young child’s face as they hurried toward the gondolas for a return trip. It was intensely cold, and the wind was blowing up under our jackets, even inside the gondola station.
“Holy shit!” I said, and I instantly regretted speaking as it made my head spin.
“Just get this over with!” Said Dannie, “I want to go!”
We pulled our cameras out and shuffled toward the viewing point. All thoughts of climbing higher had left my mind. I had spotted the staircase and realized there was no way I was going to make it up. Only a handful of the dozens of people in red jackets were even trying. We snapped a few photos of the scenery, shoved our cameras back in our bags, and headed straight back down.
For lunch, our tour took us to a big cafeteria. As we were approaching, our guide explained to us that the food was simple, but that it was representative of what the local people who were serving it ate. She said that it would be impolite of us not to eat it.
The food was bad. Unseasoned gristle and bits of meat stuck to chopped up bones served with mushy rice and soggy, flavorless, grey-green vegetables. Dannie and I did our best to swallow some, but the Chinese tourists just looked at us funny as they passed us on their way to the trash cans to dump their food, untouched into the bins. I guess we were the only ones who were worried about offending the local people.
The Tourist Trap
Our next stop was described to us as a small village where we could learn about the local culture and see demonstrations. We were also told that if we bought something it would help support the people there who were “very poor.” I won’t speculate about how poor they were, but the “village” was a street of shops selling cheap souvenirs. I don’t think there were any actual homes.
There were a few photo ops set up, including holding an eagle (which I tried and felt kind of bad about), and shooting a bow and arrow (which I tried and was awesome at). They both cost money. On the plus side, there was some nice scenery, and there was one street where some kind of seeds that looked like dandelion fluff were coming down so thickly it looked like it was snowing.
We had 45 minutes to walk through before we had to get back on the bus.
The next stop was a parking lot between two waterfalls. On the left was a big waterfall that tumbled into a river where the low water level made it possible to walk around, occasionally hopping over shallow streams on stepping stones.
Far down the road on the right was another waterfall, this one flowing over a series of cup like structures. If you have searched for images of Lijiang, this waterfall has probably come up. It is a famous place for having your photo taken on a yak. We had actually been looking forward to seeing this, and we were glad it was on the tour.
Unfortunately, we had one hour to see the two waterfalls, and there wasn’t time for both. Dannie really wanted a picture on the Yak over the waterfalls, but we saw that the line must have been at least a hundred people long. There was no way we were getting through, so we settled for the other one.
Later, we were glad it worked out that way. Keep reading.
First we walked to the top of the waterfall, where there was actually a really good view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, reflecting on the water that pooled up behind the dam (if you want a similar view without leaving the Old Town, try the Black Dragon Pool). And yes, of course the rocks that the waterfall was tumbling over were actually made of cement that had been shaped like rocks. You see that kind of thing all over the place in China.
Down in the river we had some fun taking photos of the waterfall. While we were down there, counting down the minutes until we had to go, we saw a couple of Germans who were also taking photos. They were speaking in English to a man who we discovered was their driver. It occurred to us that this was a much better way to see these sites, and probably a lot cheaper too. The driver was even helping them carry their gear around. We were insanely jealous.
The Weird Park
After we climbed back into the bus, we were taken to one last park. As you travel around Lijiang, you will occasionally see a poster with a picture of a golden statue of some kind of snake woman. It’s Guan Yim, the Goddess of Compassion. That statue is usually depicted in images as being in front of a blue sky with clouds and mountains, but in reality, it is inside this little park in the middle of nowhere. The background is not mountain or sky, but a bunch of scraggly trees.
The park was also home to some flower beds and little cement waterfalls. Also there were some souvenir stands. It was kind of pretty, but it seemed out of place on a tour that was supposed to be centered around the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Oh, there was also a Yak torturing station. You know, just this little pen where there was a Yak, totally immobilized and tied to a post all day. It was covered with a saddle, head hung low, and tourists waited in line to sit on it and have their photo taken. Some of them would kick it with the backs of their feet and bounce up and down as though they were spurring a horse in a western. This was fine with the guy taking the money.
Seeing the condition the yak was living in, presumably all day every day, literally made Dannie cry. She felt especially bad because she had been planning on riding the other yak who was likely in equally dire straights. We weren’t vegetarians yet, but we’re capable of compassion. This also made me feel bad about holding that eagle earlier.
Animal cruelty is a serious problem in China, and we ran into it again this year when we foolishly attended the elephant show at the Yunnan Ethnic Village (which was otherwise a lot of fun) in Kunming. The yak was five years ago – hopefully that part of the park is closed now and the yak is living peacefully somewhere.
Our 2018 Hired Car to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Almost)
Having “learned our lesson” in 2013, we decided to hire a car like those two German guys we saw by the waterfall had done. We were really excited to go back up again, this time taking as long as we wanted in the scenic locations and skipping the stuff we didn’t want to do. Obviously we weren’t going to drag Lisa to the top of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, but we were looking forward to showing her some of the amazing views.
Hiring a Driver
This time, we asked our friendly Airbnb host, Harry, if he knew any drivers. He didn’t, but he said that a friend of his sometimes drove a Didi – think Chinese Uber, and see our list of must have apps for China – and after a quick phone call, confirmed that he’d be willing to take us up there for 150 RMB. Compared to the the 1200 we’d paid for the tour, this was a bargain.
We arranged for the driver to meet us by the North Gate at 6:30 in the morning. We made our way from our guesthouse to Square Street and then to the edge of town for our rendezvous (read our guide to navigating the Lijiang Old Town without getting lost).
In addition to only seeing the stuff we wanted, this time we also got to get there early while the light was still beautiful and there were no annoying tour groups blocking up the scenery with their rented red coats. And speaking of coats, since we were just going to be hopping out of the car and taking some quick photos, and then hopping back in, we knew we wouldn’t be needing anything heavier than the light jackets we had.
The driver met us as scheduled. He seemed to be in good spirits, and when we asked him to take us somewhere to buy an oxygen tank for Lisa (just in case, even though we weren’t going to the summit), he took us to that same supply station we recognized from our trip five years ago.
To be clear, in no part of this story are we complaining about the driver. He was a nice guy, and nothing that went wrong was his fault. We were the ones who asked him to do a tour that he’d never done before.
The Road Blockade
We left the Lijiang Old Town and the city area, and started uphill into the wilderness. We weren’t worried about our driver’s inexperience on this route, because we remembered that there is only one road that can be followed up through the mountain pass. Everything we saw last time was along that way.
After a little while we ran into our first surprise. There was a toll both for entering the mountain area. The price was 100RMB ($14.50) per person. This was a little bit annoying, and it ate through some of the cash we had on us, but we were still willing to pay. We got our tickets and went on.
All of a sudden, we came upon several police officers blocking the road. They waved the driver toward a parking lot.
That’s never what you want.
Before he turned, the driver rolled down his window and asked what was going on. It turns out that as of this year, no cars are allowed to go onto the mountain. Beyond this point, only shuttle buses are allowed.
For our plans, this was a disaster. For one thing, we hadn’t brought heavy jackets with us. What we had on was OK for mostly riding in the car and hopping out occasionally, but waiting around for an hourly shuttle bus was out of the question. Also, we didn’t know the schedule they ran on or the route they would take.
The Shuttle Station
We pulled over, and came up with a plan. Dannie and Lisa and I would go into the shuttle station and buy our tickets. In the meantime, since the road was still open to through traffic that wasn’t touring the mountain, our driver would then go back to the blockade and say he was visiting a village on the other side. Then, at the first shuttle stop we would meet up again and we’d get into his car and complete the tour as planned.
We went inside and the driver waited in the parking lot for a while. The place was big and there were actually several buildings for handling tours and other activities. At first we weren’t sure where to go, but the first of the tour buses showed up (so much for avoiding the crowds) and we followed the tour to the shuttle area.
There was another place to rent jackets, which cost 50RMB, but with a 300RMB deposit. We overheard someone say that the shuttle would be another 45 minutes. And it cost 30RMB.
It wasn’t the ticket price; it was the wait that did us in. Even though we were sort of indoors, it was freezing inside. We’d seen frost on the grass as we entered, and though we’d worn several layers, it wasn’t good enough if we couldn’t wait in the car like we’d planned.
Lisa started fussing, and we’d read that fussiness was one of the signs of altitude sickness in children. We tried giving her some of the oxygen, but she completely flipped out, pushing the mask away from her face and throwing herself to the ground sobbing.
Arguing for Our Refund
The plan was never going to work. Even if we waited for the shuttle, there was still a chance that the driver might not make it through or something else might go wrong, in which case we’d be stuck up there in the cold waiting for a shuttle. We could rent jackets, but then, if the driver was able to get through and give us a ride, the one way roads would prevent us from returning to this station to get our deposit back. And finally, if Lisa wouldn’t take the oxygen, we had no way to help her if she really did have a problem with the altitude.
We called our driver and told him not to pass the barricade, we were going home. But we had already paid our 200RMB to get into the mountains. That, on top of the 150RMB for our driver and the 180RMB we’d paid for three oxygen tanks, and the wasted morning was getting to be a bit expensive. We decided to find the service desk and see if we could get a refund for our entrance tickets.
By the time we spotted it on the other side of the big hall, Lisa had calmed down. We needed a way to generate sympathy if we wanted to get our money back, so we came up with a plan. Right before we approached the booth, I tried again to give Lisa oxygen, and sure enough she flew into a fit of tears and flailing arms. We walked up and Dannie started pleading our case.
She didn’t mention our foolproof plan with the driver, but she explained about our coats and Lisa refusing the oxygen. The man behind the counter were skeptical. They pointed to the place on the ticket where it said it was not refundable. Dannie pointed out that you could never see that warning until after you’d already bought it. It’s a good thing she speaks Chinese.
In the meantime, picture me constantly putting the oxygen mask up to Lisa’s face and acting like I’m trying to calm her down, when in reality I know it will just make her wail louder. The people behind the desk glanced at each other and around the room. Dannie kept arguing to them and gesturing to me and Lisa, until eventually one of them relented, printed out a form, signed it and stamped it. He stapled it to our tickets and told us to bring it back to the toll booth within half an hour if we wanted our refund.
I apologized to Lisa as we headed back outside.
Making the Most of It
We rushed back to our driver and he started back down. It was quite a way to the toll both, but I got my camera out so I could snap some pictures as we went. At one point, we passed some pools with nice smooth water reflecting the mountains, and I asked the driver to pull over so I could dash across the frozen grass and get a quick shot. Here it is!
This was pretty much what we’d wanted to do inside the park, only under way more pressure. I ran back to the car and we continued back downhill. We had to double back a little to get to the toll booth, and once we’d showed our forms to the confused guards (who had obviously never processed a refund before) they eventually just handed us 200RMB cash and sent us on our way. This meant driving the wrong way down the highway for about half a mile, but it was worth it.
By the way, if you love photography but you’re still dependent on your camera’s automatic settings, you might want to check out my e-book Easy Manual Mode Photography before you pack your camera on your next trip!
Shortly after that, Lisa threw up all over herself, Dannie and the car seat. She has a history of getting sick in cars, and even though we always have a plastic bag with us, we were so distracted that she caught us off guard. Actually it still almost always catches us off guard. I don’t think we’ll ever learn our lesson.
By the way, speaking of lessons, if you are signed up for our newsletter, you have access to the archives where you can read about the time when Lisa’s puking taught us a much more philosophical lesson (password protected).
Sorry, no photos of the mess.
And that’s how bad we are at visiting the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Usually, when we have a mission that doesn’t go well I say that we’ll do better next time and that it just gives us an excuse to come back again some day, but screw it. At this rate, we’ll never survive our next trip.
I know that there are hotels and resorts within the park, and I honestly think that if you plan on going, it’s probably worth eating the expense and just staying the night, especially if you are a foreigner and you don’t speak the language. If we do try again to visit the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, that’s what we’ll do.
We hope that you found this helpful, or that you at least had fun laughing at us. If you did, then you might enjoy reading about some of our better experiences and helpful guides about the places we didn’t fail at visiting in Lijiang, China, or at other destinations across Asia and Europe. If you have any questions, or if you would care to share your experience with us, head on down to the comments section. Thanks for reading.