There is a place on Earth where the mountains look like giant waves, several kilometers high. And the trenches between them are spectacularly deep. Three majestic rivers flow on these trenches- they are some of the longest rivers in Asia and the world. They come from various sources, meet together in this place, then separate in different directions. And they form some of the largest canyons in the world. They are the Three Parallel Rivers.
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Basic facts about the Three Parallel Rivers
Let’s open the physical map of the world and zoom in on China, near the border with Myanmar. Here is Yunnan Province. North of it is the giant Great Tibetan Plateau. And you can see its southeastern branches extending to Indochina- all in one direction together.
These branches are called Hengduan Mountains. They consist of four main mountain chains: Taniantaweng, Mangkam-Yun, Shaluli, and Daxue. The highest peak of Hengduan is in Daxue Mountains- this is Minya Konka (Mt Gongga)- 7556 m. Some other branches and sub-branches are sometimes included in Hengduan too.
But let’s focus on the western part of Hengduan. Taniantaweng, Mangkam-Yun, and Shaluli are separated by three of the longest rivers in the world. They are Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween. These rivers are so long that they have different names for their different sections. Here the Yangtze is called Jinsha, the Mekong is called Langcang, and the Salween is called Nu (or Nujiang).
In the western part of Hengduan, these rivers flow together in one direction, to the south- they become parallel. And they cut three giant canyons, in some places more than 4 km deep. Yes, the canyons are neither the deepest nor the longest (although they are close to number one), but their “unity” make them a part of the same terrain.
There is no other place on Earth with three so deep canyons, so close to each other. That’s why, the whole area of the canyons deserves to be considered as one of the largest canyons in the world.
Yangtze (Jinsha) River
This is the longest river in Asia and the longest of the Three Parallel Rivers. One of its sources is deep in the middle of the Great Tibetan Plateau, at 5170 m altitude. The other neighboring sources are also located on more than 5000 m. They merge a few hundred kilometers later.
Here the river is called Ulan Moron (and actually, Ulan Moron is often considered the main source of the Yangtze) or Tuotuo River. If flows slowly with large curves on the high plateau. Below 4300 m, it enters into a deeper mountain valley. Here its name is Tongtian, and it gradually turns to the south-southeastern direction.
And from about 2600 m, it again has a new name- Jinsha (Golden Sands). The river proceeds to descend, but the mountains are still high around it. As a result, it forms a giant mountain canyon. This canyon doesn’t have a clear beginning, but in general, the confluence of the Jinsha and Batang rivers can be considered as such.
Jinsha descends to about 1800 m altitude, suddenly turns northward and then again southward and eastward, entering another short but spectacular canyon, called Tiger Leaping Gorge. Finally, at about 400 m, it leaves the mountains and officially is called the Yangtze (Changjiang- the Long River), flowing through the plains and mountains of Central and Eastern China until it reaches the Yellow Sea at Shanghai.
Mekong (Langcang) River
Mekong also starts its flow deep and high on the Great Tibetan Plateau, somewhere in Qinghai Province of China, at 5224 m. Again, in the beginning, it flows slowly on a plain to the southeast and gradually enters a valley. At the same time, the river grows and changes its direction to the south. Here its name is Lancang.
Soon, the Lancang River approaches close to Jinsha (Yangtze). They flow together, separated only by a 30-35 km wide mountain range (Mangkam-Yun mountains). But unlike the Yangtze, the Mekong proceeds firmly southward.
Further in the south, the giant mountains finally start decreasing in height, and the Lancang Canyon gets wider. The river gradually leaves the Great Tibetan Plateau and enters Southeast Asia in Laos. From here, its name is Mekong. Finally, it reaches the South China Sea in Vietnam and flows into the sea by the spectacular Mekong Delta.
Salween (Nu) River
The Salween is the westernmost of the Three Parallel Rivers. Like the other two, it also starts its flow from Tibet. Its highest source is at 5432 m altitude, in Tanggula Mountains. From there, it initially flows mainly eastward, again, first on relatively flat plains, then on a mountain valley that gradually gets deeper and deeper. Here it is called Nu River
The Salween (Nu) approaches the Mekong (Lancang) River, gradually changing its direction to the south. And soon, from one point onward, its fierce waters already flow together with the Lancang and the Jinsha, in a deep and wild canyon, between Mangkam-Yun and Taniantaweng mountains, again, only about 30 km west of Lancang.
Further south, Salween (Nu) gets slightly away from the Mekong, gradually leaves the Great Tibetan Plateau, and orientates to the south-southwest. And this direction leads the river to the Indian Ocean, on the other side of Southeast Asia. Finally, it reaches its mouth in the Andaman Sea.
Terrain and nature
In the area where these three rivers flow together, the terrain and nature are highly diverse. The highest point is Mount Kawagarbo (Meili Xueshan)- 6740 m. It rises spectacularly between the Nu (Salween) and Lancang (Mekong) rivers. At the same time, the altitude of these rivers under Kawagarbo is about 2030 m (Lancang) and 1750 m (Nu River). That makes almost a 5000 m (5 km) difference!
At the same time, the mountain that separates Lancang (Mekong) from Jinsha (Yangtze) River is lower but still magnificent. It is called Baima Xueshan, and its highest peak is 5466 m.
You can only imagine the variety of nature that can be seen in this area! The highest peaks reach a zone covered by glaciers and snow and only about 25 km further, the nature is subtropical. In general, everything is steep, and in some places, the slope is almost like a vertical wall.
But that’s not all. The whole area has its unique atmosphere by the people who live there.
History and local culture
The area of the Three Parallel Rivers is located in the place where the civilizations of Tibet, China, and Southeast Asia meet together. It has a long history of local states or large empires that ruled over the canyons and the mountains.
At the same time, some of the Silk Road routes pass through this place, which is rich in tea plantations in the lower elevations. The local Pu’er tea is famous throughout the whole world.
Today, the three canyons are located mostly in Yunnan Province of China, and partially in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and Myanmar. So, the northern part of the Three Parallel Rivers is dominated by the Tibetan culture. In the eastern part, around the Jinsha (Yangtze), near the city of Lijiang, you can feel stronger Han Chinese influence. And the rest of the area is populated by various small ethnic groups like Nu, Yi, Naxi, and others, more closely related to the people in Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos.
All of this extremely diverse and colorful place is included in the so-called Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO Heritage Site which includes 15 protected areas, presenting an incredibly beautiful and amazing nature, combined with the local culture.
How to explore the Three Parallel Rivers
All of the above is a very attractive reason to visit and explore the Three Parallel Rivers. There are several roads that lead to this area. When they reach the rivers, they follow the riverbed (on the bottoms of the canyons), and in some places, they cross some of the mountain ridges between the rivers and descend to the neighboring parallel canyon.
These roads can be your “starting points chain”. You can travel on the roads and stop at the various points of interest. Or, you can go further- many of these points are also starting points for hiking in the mountain. So, let’s see the main roads and routes across the Three Parallel Rivers.
The Classical Route: Dali-Lijiang-Shangri La-Deqin
This is the most popular tourist route to the Three Parallel Rivers, and one of the most popular routes in Yunnan Province, China. It starts from the culturally-colorful heart of Yunnan, in the land of the Bai ethnic group, passes through Lijiang, in the land of Naxi, one of the most beautiful cities in China, and proceeds further northwest, into the Tibetan lands, to the final frontiers of Yunnan.
The first half of the route is focused on the local ethnic culture, and the second half crosses the canyons of the Jinsha (Yangtze) and Lancang (Mekong). Although the first half is not exactly within the Three Parallel Rivers area, it is a beautiful “introduction” to the canyons, and the whole route is worth traveling.
So, let’s start with Dali.
Dali is a popular tourist destination in China. It presents the local culture, architecture, and lifestyle of the Bai and Yi people who live in the area for hundreds of years. You can notice their specific old traditional houses in white. Dali is known as the town of marble, as you can see in its architectural style.
The city is established along the southern and western shores of Lake Erhai (“Ear Lake”), at 1900 m altitude, at the eastern foot of the Cangshan Mountains. The city is divided into New and Old towns. The New Town is in the south, it is relatively modern, and here the most interesting point to visit is the Dali Museum, where you can dive into the world of Bai.
But the most attractive part of Dali is the Old Town- a typical “old town” with old traditional architecture, local street food, souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants, full of art and crafts, including some old temples and pagodas. And the most attractive landmark in Dali is the Three Pagodas and Chongsheng Temple complex- it is not just a religious center, but a place representing the local culture and history.
Lijiang is the next popular destination on the route, one of the most famous destinations in China, located 175 km north of Dali. It is a well-developed tourist city, established at 2400 m altitude, the heart of the land of the Naxi people. Its Old Town is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lijiang Old Town is a must to visit place. It is the same type of “old town” as Dali but in a different style. While the houses in Dali are white, those in Lijiang present more wooden architectural elements. And the atmosphere is the same- a colorful attraction. You can see people in local traditional clothing from various ethnic groups- Naxi, Yi, Lisu, Mosuo, Pumi, and more.
If you look north of the city, you can see the first snow-capped mountain. This is Jade Dragon Mountain (Yulong Xueshan). Until this point, the route is the lower Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. But Jade Dragon Mountain marks the beginning of the higher and larger Great Tibetan Plateau. Its highest peak is 5596 m tall, and it is surrounded by the Jinsha (Yangtze) River and the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge. From this point, the route enters the canyon area of the Three Parallel Rivers.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
From Lijiang, the route descends to Jinsha (Yangtze) River, at about 1800 m altitude, at one of the sharp river bends where the river suddenly changes its direction from southward to northward. And approximately at the point where the route leaves Jinsha, the river penetrates between Jade Dragon Mountain (5596 m) and Haba Snow Mountains (5396 m), through a spectacular wild canyon.
This is Tiger Leaping Gorge, only about 15 km long, but about 3790 m deep- one of the deepest in the world. Here the river is furious. It descends in several rapids under 2 km high cliffs. The slopes of the canyon are extremely steep and the whole landscape is really majestic.
From this point, the route ascends over 3000 m altitude. On the way, you can see Tibetan stupas, and you know- the cultural landscape is changed once again. You enter the Tibetan lands. High above the Jinsha River, the natural image changes too. You reach a large plain with a grassland- a typical Tibetan landscape.
And here, about 185 km north of Lijiang, the route passes through another town, at 3160 m. It was called Zhongdian before, but since 2001, it was renamed after the mysterious fictional land “Shangri-La” from James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon”.
Shangri La is the first typical Tibetan town on the route. Most of its inhabitants are Tibetans, and you can see their culture around the town, especially in its old part. The Old Town of Shangri-La is much smaller than those in Dali and Lijiang, and it is less crowded. Here you can deeply dive into the Tibetan culture. The largest praying wheel in the world is located here and you can see it on the nearby hill. Another attraction is the nearby Songzanlin Temple.
Jinsha at Benzilan
From Shangri-La, the route proceeds northwestward. It passes by Napa Lake- a beautiful marsh on the grassland with spectacular mountain views around it. You cross a mountain pass at 3580 m and start a steep descent to the bottom of the Jinsha River Canyon at 2000 m altitude.
Here you can feel the great vastness of the Three Parallel River landscape- an endless canyon, surrounded by magnificent mountains. A bit further, about 75 km from Shangri-La, the road reaches the small town of Benzilan, at the bottom of the canyon.
From Benzilan (2070 m), the road starts ascending again, with endless curves, higher and higher, more than 2 km of elevation. The vegetation changes from subtropical bush to alpine coniferous forest, and finally- to alpine grassland. Finally, the road used to reach Baima Pass (4290 m), but now it crosses it through a tunnel (actually- two tunnels) underneath.
Here is Baima Xueshan, one of the Mangkam-Yun Mountains. Beyond the ridge of the mountain, the road starts descending again- to the second parallel canyon- Lancang River Canyon. The descent is about 1000 m in elevation until you reach the town of Deqen.
Deqen and Feilai Temple
Deqen is a small town, established at 3300 m altitude, on the steep slopes of a side “sub-canyon” of Lancang. It also has an “old town” that consists of just a few old traditional Tibetan houses. Except for it, Deqen itself doesn’t have other special points of interest. Instead, you have to proceed about 10 km further on the road.
At this point, the road reaches a side ridge. Suddenly, a spectacular view reveals in front of you- a long line of stupas that belong to Feilai Temple, and the magnificent Mount Kawagarbo in the background, beyond the deep bottom of Lancang Canyon. This is one of the most iconic views in the Three Parallel Rivers area. You stand at 3400 m altitude, the abyss in front of you lies at 2050 m, and Mount Kawagarbo rises over all of it at 6740 m!
From Feilai Temple, the road proceeds descending to about 2200 m, where it reaches the bottom of Lancang Canyon. Then, it proceeds further northward, and at the village of Foshan, it leaves Yunnan Province and enters the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Thus, following this route, you can explore two of the Three Parallel Rivers and their canyons. There is no road crossing the next mountain chain (or, more precisely, there is a road but it is far south from this point, a part of other routes).
But before you turn back, you can explore Meili Xueshan- Kawagarbo.
Meili Xueshan- Kawagarbo
Kawagarbo is a serious mountain peak, on the same level as Mount Everest and the other alpine mountains. Probably, it could be reached only by a well-prepared mountaineering expedition, but until today, all attempts have failed. In 1991, one of the attempts failed with one of the biggest tragedies in mountaineering history, when a whole expedition of 17 climbers was killed by an avalanche.
At the same time, Kawagarbo is considered one of the most sacred mountains by the Tibetans. So, when the expeditions tried to reach the peak, it was received with protests. Finally, since 2003, the government restricted any climbing activities to the top of Kawagarbo and the nearby peaks. Thus, Kawagarbo remained unclimbed until today.
But there are other ways to taste and explore it- you can go hiking on its eastern slopes, to some spectacular points. When you reach the Lancang River from Deqen, you have to travel southward to Xidang Village. From there, you have to ascend to the parking lot of the Meili Xueshan Protected Area. And there are trails between Xidang and Mingyong villages that go along the upper boundary of the forest zone and reach Mingyong Glacier.
There is also a long trekking route around Meili Xueshan. It is a “Kora” route, used by Tibetan monks for religious purposes, and is about 300 km long. They make it for up to a month, but experienced trekkers can complete it in about 11-13 days. And since this route reaches the Nu River west of Kawagarbo, this is the only way to explore the three canyons at once. Unfortunately, this route is currently restricted for foreigners, because it enters the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
While the classical route from Dali to Deqen is the most popular, there are off-the-beaten opportunities to explore the canyons one by one, following their bottoms.
On Jinsha River Canyon
There is a road from the First Bend of the Yangtze River that follows the river upstream. The route starts from Lijiang and follows the classical route described above. But at the First Bend, while the classical route proceeds downstream to the Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-La, this one follows the bottom of the Jinsha.
The route is about 260 km long, and you gradually ascend from 1800 to 2100 m altitude. On the way, you would see endless giant mountains on both sides, small villages, and towns, as well as some points of interest like Lama Monastery, Mahavira Terraces, and Jigong Rock. Finally, the road leaves the bottom of the river and ascends toward Shangri-La direction, where it joins the classical route, in the section between Shangri-La and Benzilan.
From Benzilan, the classical route leaves the Jinsha River and ascends to Baima Xueshan, but a smaller road proceeds following the bottom of the canyon. Here is the border between Sichuan and Yunnan, and further north- the border between Sichuan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
There are smaller and larger roads all along the Jinsha River, until the point where its name changes into Tongtian, and the canyon softens, turning into just a deep mountain valley, deep in the Great Tibetan Plateau.
On Lancang River Canyon
This is a much longer route. The canyon section of this route starts from Wayao town, at 1220 m altitude. Here the landscape is subtropical, and the Lancang River is large. The canyon itself is still not in its deepest area.
From this point, the route goes upstream, gradually ascending, again through the same landscapes as along the Jinsha, on smaller or bigger roads, until finally, it reaches Foshan, at the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) at about 2100 m altitude. From there, the road crosses into TAR.
The starting point for this route can be Dali. From Dali to Wayao is 170 km, and from Wayao to Foshan is 550 km at the bottom of the canyon. So, the whole route is 720 km- you would definitely need at least 3-4 days to complete it and another 1-2 days to return to Dali.
On Nu River Canyon
This is another route, following the third (the westernmost) canyon of the Three Parallel Rivers. It starts from Lujiangba, at 670 m altitude. From there, it goes again upstream and northward to 1630 m altitude, to the village of Qinglatong, before the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Here the landscape is similar to the canyons of Lancang and Jinsha. The road passes through Lisu Autonomous Prefecture- here is the main land of Lisu people. Again, the best starting point for the route is Dali, and the whole length- from Dali to Qinglatong is 665 km. Unfortunately, you can’t see Mt Kawagerbo from the west, because it is already in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Crossing into Tibet (Tibetan Autonomous Region)?
When we talk about the Tibetan Autonomous Region, have in mind that this is only the western part of the land of Tibet. This is what it means in Chinese- Xizang (西藏)- literally- “Western Tibet”. The rest of Tibet, the so-called “Eastern Tibet” is the rest of the Tibetan lands, shared between the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, including Diqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan with Shangri-La as its main town.
So, in the north of the Three Parallel Rivers, Yunnan Province borders Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) with Lhasa being its capital. Jinsha River only flows on the border between TAR and Sichuan, but Lancang and Nu rivers upstream enter TAR. And the routes mentioned above proceed from Yunnan into TAR. Can you cross into TAR and proceed further?
Unfortunately, since 2008, for foreigners, the answer is “no”. We don’t know if and when this situation would change, but for now, the only way for foreigners to enter TAR is by organized tour and permits, by plane to Lhasa, by train from Xining to Lhasa, or by other on-land vehicle from Kashgar, Nepal, or Xining.
The main problem is that currently, the easternmost prefecture of TAR- Chamdo Prefecture, is restricted to foreigners, even with organized tours. In other words- it is completely inaccessible. The neighboring Nyingchi Prefecture is only partially accessible, but only from Lhasa. And these restricted areas of TAR border Yunnan Province at the Three Parallel Rivers.
At least the Yunnan part of the Three Parallel Rivers is open to foreigners.
Unlike some world-famous destinations, particularly canyons like Grand Canyon in the USA, Colca Canyon in Peru, or Blyde River Canyon in South Africa, the Three Parallel Rivers are highly underrated, less popular, and off the beaten for foreigners (it is popular but among the Chinese people).
So, how can you explore this area, depending on whether you are a Chinese or a non-Chinese citizen?
The most convenient way to explore the Three Parallel Rivers is by car. However, you can’t drive a car in China unless you have a Chinese driving license. I have it, so I could drive, but most foreigners don’t have it, so, they have two options- to hire a driver (unless they have a Chinese friend who can be their driver), or to travel by bus (or by road bike).
But first- how to reach this area? The best way is first to arrive in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, and from there to travel to Dali. Kunming has an international airport, connected mainly to the countries in Southeast Asia, as well as Kathmandu, and even Vancouver and San Francisco.
From Kunming, there is a speed train (about 2 hours), or a slow train (6 hours) to Dali. Another option is to fly directly to Dali, but Dali Airport is only for domestic flights.
Once you arrive in Dali, there are a lot of buses between Dali and Lijiang, between Lijiang and Shangri La (stopping at Tiger Leaping Gorge), and between Shangri La and Deqen. There are also trains between Dali and Lijiang, and soon to Shangri La.
For the other routes that follow the three canyons, there are local buses too but it is more complicated for a foreigner. It is off-the-beaten, everything is in Chinese, and you have to change a lot of buses to complete the routes.
There are a lot of places to stay on the classical Northwest Yunnan route- hotels (from budget to splurge), hostels, and guest houses. You can easily find them on Booking or Agoda. However, have in mind that not each of them allows foreigners. For Chinese citizens is easy, but non-Chinese can face some difficulties finding a hotel, especially during the high season.
Some hotels that don’t have a license for the registration of foreigners still can be found on Booking or Agoda. You book such a hotel, go to the hotel, and when they see you are a foreigner, they just say “Sorry, we can’t allow you here.” It is especially true in the off-the-beaten routes on Jinsha, Lancang, and Nu rivers.
So, when you book a hotel, first talk to them in advance, ask them whether they allow foreigners or not. Even that is not a guarantee (some new hotel workers might not be informed about it, I had such a case), but at least it can decrease the risk significantly.
Joining a tour
An attractive way is to join a bicycle tour on the classical route. You can try this:
- Yunnan Discovery. It is a 12-day tour on the classical Northwest Yunnan route. Although it is not focused primarily on the Three Parallel Rivers but mainly on the area east of them, it is still very spectacular. The tour starts from Shangri La (and you can travel independently from Shangri La to Deqen to see the magnificent Mount Kawagarbo before the tour) and proceeds to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, Lijiang, and Dali. And on the way, you visit many other points of interest in between. Finally, you are transferred to Kunming, where the tour ends.
The area of the Three Parallel River is located in a highly transitional zone, not far from the rainiest place on Earth in Northeast India. So, there are several seasons that you have to consider.
Summer is not the best season for two reasons. First- this is the rainiest time of the year (we were in this area in August and stayed 3 days in Deqen in the hope to see Mount Kawagarbo, but it was constantly hidden in clouds and fog). And second- this is the high season for the Chinese. This is the vacation time for the Chinese students and the hotels are usually crowded.
Spring is rainy too, although not as rainy as summer. And the weather is cooler. Snowfall is possible in the high mountains. At least there would be fewer tourists.
Winter is mostly dry and sunny. But it can be cold, and usually snowy. If you want to travel from Shangri La to Deqen, Baima Xueshan can be covered by snow and the road can be closed (the new tunnel today decreases the risk anyway). And it still can be crowded during the Chinese New Year vacation.
Fall is the best season. It is cool and dry. And there would be fewer tourists because it is a working and studying time. Just avoid the days between October 1st and 7th, because this is the National Holiday vacation in China.
Three Parallel Rivers dream…
This is the Three Parallel River Canyon area. A less popular and highly exotic place on Earth, full of adventures, colors, breathtaking landscapes, and impressions- a place that can’t be found anywhere else on our planet. So, if you want to see something different than the most popular destinations in the world, take a look at this place and include it in your bucket list!
Take a look at this video for more impressions from the Three Parallel Rivers:
Check some travel books about Yunnan:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.