A journey to Nyenbo Yurtse- an alpine paradise on the Tibetan grasslands

A journey to Nyenbo Yurtse- an alpine paradise on the Tibetan grasslands

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Most of the Great Tibetan Plateau consists of endless rolling hills covered by grasslands, between 3000 and 5000 m altitude. But there are many alpine mountains on the grasslands- majestic, harsh, and remote, with sharp peaks, glaciers, lakes, and eternal snow. One of these mountains is Nyenbo Yurtse, a fantastic and mysterious place, attracting adventurers to explore it- a place where you can feel “at the end of the Earth”.

Where is Nyenbo Yurtse

Let’s open the map of China. Although Nyenbo Yurtse is on the Great Tibetan Plateau, it is outside of the political Tibet (Tibetan Autonomous Region- TAR), which is only the western part of the geographical Tibet. So, we have to look at its eastern part, shared between the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan.

Nyenbo Yurtse- lakes and alpine summits
Nyenbo Yurtse- lakes and alpine summits

So, in this case, the border between Qinghai and Sichuan crosses Nyenbo Yurtse. It can be found south of the Yellow River, between the Tibetan towns of Jigdril (Jiuzhi- 久治), Banma (斑玛) in Qinghai, and Ngawa (Aba- 阿坝) in Sichuan, in a remote area, literally “in the middle of nowhere”. And this remoteness is an attractive element of the mountain’s charm and mystery.

About Nyenbo Yurtse

If you open the satellite map of the area, you can see it- white, rugged, with a labyrinth of valleys stretching in various directions, in contrast to the surrounding yellow-green grasslands. Somehow its valleys look like the fjords of Norway, just without the sea. This is Nyenbo Yurtse (Nianbao Yuze- 年保玉则), and its highest peak is Mt. Golok (果洛山)- 5369 m. Yes, it is not so high compared to the other Tibetan mountains, but it is still quite harsh, like a polar island.

The mountain is covered by alpine tundra. Due to the high altitude, there are no forests, but only some bush here and there. But the real treasure of the mountain is the lakes. There are about 20 glacial lakes of various sizes, scattered in its deep valleys. And there are several glaciers, descending from Mt. Golok.

Like most of the Tibetan mountains, Nyenbo Yurtse is considered a sacred one. It is said that the area is the birthplace of the Golok tribes. Today, the mountain is turned into a national park, and there are no permanent settlements on it. Only some local Tibetan nomads can be seen wandering on its wild gorges, and only during the summer.

Our journey to Nyenbo Yurtse

For all of the reasons described above, we included Nyenbo Yurtse in one of our Eastern Tibet itineraries. We came from First Bend of Yellow River at Tangkor, Zoige Grasslands, and reached the northern gate of Nyenbo Yurtse National Park. Here we established our camping site, where we spent the night.

During our stay here, we hiked the nearby mountain, mainly beside the Shug Tso (Xiannü Lake- 仙女湖), the largest lake of Nyenbo Yurtse. The night was freezing, since we were at 4015 m altitude, and in the morning we could see the local Tibetan nomads with their yak herds. And all the time we enjoyed the breathtaking view of Mt.Golok, reflecting the calm lake, attracting us to get lost deep in the gorges in front of us.

The grassland at Shug Tso Lake in Nyenbo Yurtse
The grassland at Shug Tso Lake shore in Nyenbo Yurtse

We wanted to “attack” the mountain, and if we had time, we would get on one of the trekking routes. But although it remained as a plan for the next time, at least we learned well the routes of Nyenbo Yurtse.

How to explore Nyenbo Yurtse

The best way to explore Nyenbo Yurtse is by trekking. But before getting into detail, let’s take a look at the map.

Gates of Nyenbo Yurtse National Park

There are four main points from where you can enter or exit Nyenbo Yurtse National Park. Of them, the most popular place is in the northern foot of the mountain, on the left side of the road between Jingdril and Banma. This is the area of Lake Shug Tso, the most visited place of Nyenbo Yurtse, and the traditional starting point for Nyenbo Yurtse trekking.

Another point is from the northeast, in Shaqu Valley, leading to the Lower and Upper Rigan Tso lakes. The third point is from the west- a road starting from Longge village, leading to Emu Tso scenic area. And the fourth point from the southeast, leading to Longke Tso Lake. And usually, the points at Shaqu Valley and Longke Tso are the exits of the trekking routes.

The lakes of Nyenbo Yurtse

There are about 20 main lakes and more than 200 small ponds or just natural puddles beside the rivers in the mountain. The main lakes that can be seen and enjoyed beside the routes are Shug Tso and Yaonü lakes in the north, the Upper and Lower Rigan lakes in the northwest, Ecuoduoma and Shangwen Tso lakes in the west, Longke Lake in the southeast, as well as Haacuonahuoma, Demo Tso and several others, located in the minor valleys.

These lakes create fantastic fjord-like landscapes, and many of them are surrounded by marshy alpine tundra. When summer comes, local Tibetan nomads come to the lake shores with their yak herds, choose drier places on the tundra, and set up their camps. Thus, you can explore not only the stunning nature around but also the local Tibetan nomadic culture.

Shug Tso Lake in the morning
Shug Tso Lake in the morning

Trekking routes

So, there are several trekking routes in Nyenbo Yurtse. They are used by tourists, local Tibetan herdsmen, and Tibetan pilgrims.

Since Nyenbo Yurtse is a sacred mountain, there is a circuit route around it, usually starting from Shug Tso and performed for 12 days. Although it is a pilgrim’s route, some tourists do it too, without entering the interior of the mountain.

The other routes start from Shug Tso or Emu Tso, and usually end at Longke Lake or Rigan lakes, for 5 to 7 days. During the trek, the only trace of human presence that you can see is some Tibetan nomadic camps, and this is only in summer.

Forget about hotels or any other types of accommodation! The only way to spend the night is to bring your own tent- not only for a trek but even at the gates of Nyenbo Yurtse if you just want to visit the scenic areas without penetrating deeper into the mountain!

Mount Golok

There is also a route leading to the highest peak of Nyenbo Yurtse- Mount Golok. It starts from Shug Tso, following one of the main trekking routes of the mountain, but after Yaonü Lake it turns southward, following the main valley. Then it starts a difficult and steep ascending to the main Golok Glacier. Finally, it reaches the summit at 5369 m altitude.

However, this route is not for ordinary tourists. Only experienced climbers can reach the top of Mount Golok, as there are some sections with high difficulty, requiring climbing gear and skills.

Needless to say, all these routes are fantastic, but currently, you can’t just go and do it. To understand what I mean, read about the recent history of the mountain.

Herds of yaks of the Tibetan nomads
Herds of yaks of the Tibetan nomads

Nyenbo Yurtse before and now

Until only about 20 years ago, Nyenbo Yurtse was almost unknown to tourists. Only a few adventurous travelers have visited this remote place. Then, it was discovered for tourism, and in 2003 the area was upgraded to a natural park. Since then, more and more tourists have started visiting this amazing mountain. An entrance fee of 40 CNY was applied.

Unfortunately, with the growing tourism, pollution started to grow too, especially at Shug Tso coast. I remember the garbage at the lakeshore, and it was a sad and ugly view, endangering the fantastic beauty of the mountain.

As a result, the government started applying new measures. First, they forbid camping at the lakeshore (and when we traveled to Nyenbo Yurtse, we had to set up our camp at least 300 m far from the lake). Then, they raised the entrance fee to 120 CNY. Until finally, in April 2018, they completely closed Nyenbo Yurtse for visitors, in order to clean the area (also, the pandemic from 2020 extended the closure).

This closure is temporary, but it still remains to this day, probably until summer’2021. It is sad, but it is our human’s fault.

Nyenbo Yurtse after reopening

We all hope Nyenbo Yurtse will be opened soon again. But when it happens, most probably everything will be different. There will be an entrance fee again, not less than 120 CNY, and stricter regulations for tourists. You can expect a limited number of visitors, and most probably, restricted availabilities for camping at the entrance.

If you want to go on a trek, I will be still available, but only by an organized tour with a licensed guide, and an additional fee for everything included. Nobody can say how much it would be, but if you want it cheaper, better join a bigger group (however, again, the number of trekkers will be limited). And if you want to climb Mt. Golok, it will be again with a guide, and the fee will be even more expensive, with added climbing tax.

Campsite at the northern entrance of Nyenbo Yurtse
Campsite at the northern entrance of Nyenbo Yurtse

Yes, obviously, it will take away your freedom to enjoy the wild of the nature and to go wherever you want, as long as you want, alone or with friends. But we don’t have a choice- the ecosystem of Nyenbo Yurtse is vulnerable, and we humans have to sacrifice a bit of our pleasure to protect it.

How to reach Nyenbo Yurtse

There is no public transport to Nyenbo Yurtse. If you don’t travel by private car or by joining an organized tour, the only way to reach the mountain is to travel by bus or shared van to Jigdril (Jiuzhi).

You can take a bus from Xining to Jigdril. The trip is around 11-12 hours, and once you arrive in Jigdril, you can reach the northern entrance of Nyenbo Yurtse at Shug Tso Lake only by local taxi (it is 40 km west from Jigdril).

If you come from Chengdu, you have to change two buses. The first bus goes to Ngawa (Aba) for about 9-10 hours, and the second bus (on the next day) from Ngawa to Jigdril travels about 1 hour and a half. Then- again taxi to the entrance. Or you can take a taxi directly from Ngawa to the entrance, but of course, it will be more expensive- the distance is 110 km, so you have to be ready for at least 400 CNY.

And again- after reopening, most probably, the only way to explore Nyenbo Yurtse will be by an organized tour.

Altitude sickness

The entrance of Nyenbo Yurtse at Shug Tso is at 4010 m altitude, and if you go on a trek deep in the mountain, you will reach 4500 m or more. And if you go there without proper acclimatization, you can easily experience altitude sickness. To avoid it, you have to ascend gradually. For example, spend 1-2 nights in Xining (2300 m), then spend a night in Labrang (2900 m) or Ngawa (3280 m) before arriving in Nyenbo Yurtse.

If you come from Chengdu, an excellent way to acclimatize is to include the fantastic Jiuzhaigou valley in your itinerary, where you can spend the night on 2100 m, ascend to 3100 m in the valley and back. Then, you can proceed to Ngawa (and spend another night there) and you would be ready for Nyenbo Yurtse.

Nyenbo Yurtse in the morning
Nyenbo Yurtse at sunrise

Weather and seasons

Nyenbo Yurtse is a harsh place. With an altitude between 4000 and 5369 m, deep on the Great Tibetan Plateau, its climate is cold, like the climate in the Canadian or Siberian tundra.

Warm seasons

The best time to visit Nyenbo Yurtse is between May and October. In May-June and in September-October is relatively dry, but not as warm as July-August. During the middle of summer, the temperature reaches its peak, and the tundra is most beautiful- fresh and deep green. But this is also the rainiest season- it doesn’t rain every day, but still quite often. And even in the warmest time of the year, the temperature can drop below freezing at night and early morning.

Cold seasons

The rest of the year is cold, very cold. Yes, it is dry, and snowfalls are rare, hence the snow cover is thin, but the temperature can drop below -30, even -40°C. And after reopening, most probably the organized tours will be held in summer. Nyenbo Yurtse in winter will remain uninhabited, wild, desolate, and incredibly beautiful.

When we wake up early morning at the northern shore of Shug Tso Lake, in the freezing dawn, we saw the local Tibetan herdsmen with their yaks, horses, and dogs moving beside the small river that flows out of the lake. A cold mist was covering the grasslands under the rugged summits of Nyenbo Yurtse.

Then, we left this stunning place on our way to another icy mountain further northwest- Amnye Machen. Nyenbo Yurtse remained in our hearts forming plans for the next visit, this time with trekking, but at the same time with sadness from the pollution that we saw. Now the mountain is temporarily closed, but we hope when they reopen it again, we can enjoy Nyenbo Yurtse in the best of its fantastic beauty.

Get more impressions of Nyenbo Yurtse from the video below:

Check some travel books about Tibet:

    

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A guide to Nyenbo Yurtse, a rugged alpine mountain range in Eastern Tibet, on the Great Tibetan Plateau- useful info and tips. A guide to Nyenbo Yurtse, a rugged alpine mountain range in Eastern Tibet, on the Great Tibetan Plateau- useful info and tips.

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