A vast highland of rolling hills, covered by endless grasslands, under the deep blue sky with white clouds. Everlasting silence until the horizon and beyond it interrupted only by scattered Tibetan nomadic families with their yak herds. Curving river valleys through the wilderness, and probably some lonely Tibetan stupa hidden somewhere around. And all this between around 4000 to 5000 m altitude. This is the southwest part of Qinghai Province, in Eastern Tibet, with its main city Yushu, located “in the middle of nowhere”. Let’s make a journey to this hidden gem, deep in the Tibetan land.
Let’s open the map of Tibet. And when I say “Tibet”, I mean the whole highland in the middle of Asia, not only the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). So, look at the eastern part of the Great Tibetan Plateau, in its Qinghai part, just northeast of TAR. If your map is physical or satellite, you can notice the large plains, interrupted by snow mountain chains and deep valleys between them. You can also see the Tongtian River- which is only a section of the longest river in Asia- Yangtze. Finally, you can see Yushu City, located on 3650 m altitude, just west of Tongtian.
Yushu (Jyekundo) City
Yushu (玉树, ཡུལ་ཤུལ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།) is the fourth largest city in Qinghai Province, established in the valley of Batang River, a right tributary of the Tongtian (Yangtze) River. The original Tibetan name of the city is Jyekundo (or Gyegudo), which means a place where two valleys merge into one. The shorter version of Jyekundo is Gyegu, as it is more popular today. And Yushu is its Han Chinese name.
For many centuries, Yushu has been a trade center on the roads connecting Lhasa, Chengdu, and Xining. At the same time, it is located in the extreme northwest of the Tibetan Kham region, not far from the other two regions U-Tsang and Amdo. The city was a long time a part of the Nangqen Kingdom, independent from Lhasa. And this cultural and historical inheritance formed the image of Yushu, with several significant monasteries and local Tibetan traditional life… until April 14th, 2010.
The devastating earthquake
It happened early morning on April 14th. The earthquake was preceded by several foreshocks with lower intensity, and the main strike with magnitude 7,1 M came at 7:49 am. In a short moment, most of the city was devastated and more than 2500 people (or from unofficial sources- nearly 20 000!) died. Around 80-90% of the buildings were destroyed, so those who survived remained homeless, living in temporary tents.
The Chinese government started immediate reconstruction, and at the end of 2013, it announces that Yushu was rebuilt again. However, the new Yushu was completely different than the old. Today the city looks quite modern, full of new houses in Tibetan traditional architectural style. New housing complexes are built, the large square is recovered and renew with its King Gesar statue. So, today’s Yushu is a completely different city, but with its old residents- around 97% of them Tibetans.
The wilderness around Yushu
So, if you go to Yushu, you will find yourself in a modern urban area with wide boulevards, parks, malls, squares, and everything else that makes Yushu “a big modern city”. But if you look at it from space, you will see that this city is in the heart of a high altitude wilderness. It is surrounded by hills, a valley with curving rivers, and endless grasslands. The only traces of human presence in this wilderness are several scattered villages and towns, roads connecting them, and some Tibetan nomad tents, their inhabitants, and their yaks.
And it is only near Yushu. Further west this wilderness becomes almost completely uninhabited, gradually merging into one of the wildest areas on the Earth, with some of the harshest conditions on the planet with its 4900 m average altitude- the northern Tibetan Chang Tang Plateau.
But let’s focus on another important geographical feature of Yushu- Yangtze River.
Yangtze River is the longest river in Eurasia, one of the longest rivers on the Earth. Many cities and other significant geographical spots are connected by this famous river- Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing, as well as places like the Three Gorges and Tiger Leaping Gorge. It is so long and passes through so different geographical zones that its main stream is divided into four rivers.
The largest one is Changjiang (the Long River- 长江), curving through lowland plains and between the mountains of Middle China- a large and wide river with floating ships on it, from Yibin (280 m) to its mouth at Shanghai. Above is Jinshajiang (Golden Sands River- 金沙江), curving through deep gorges of Eastern Tibet, from Yushu (3450 m) to Yibin. Further northwest is Tongtian (Passing through Heaven River- 通天河), from the grasslands at 4435 m to Yushu, curving through deep green valleys. And finally- its wildest section by Tuotuo River (Tearful River- 沱沱河), from the glaciers of Gar Kangri, at Tanggula Mountains, around 5800 m altitude, curving through endless desolate high altitude tundra.
So, the location of Yushu near the point where Tongtian becomes Jinshajiang makes it a geographically significant place, and we didn’t skip visiting this famous river during our trip to Yushu.
Our trip to Yushu
We chose Yushu as an important point of our Eastern Tibet trip, as Yushu was its westernmost point. Our journey was arranged by car, from Chengdu to Xining. On our way, we passed the romantic Kangding, the grasslands of Tagong, the stunning Garze area, and the fantastic Yilhun Lhatso Lake on the foot of Chola Mountain. We saw Dzogchen and Serxu monasteries and crossed Anbala Pass (4610 m), from Sichuan to Qinghai provinces. Then we descent to Highway G214, connecting Xining with Yushu to the point where Tongtian becomes Jinshajiang, and finally entered Yushu.
Once we arrived there, we walked around the city and enjoyed its new image. We tried the local Tibetan food at its best and explored its beautiful Tibetan style houses. We spent only one night, and it was not enough to visit all the places of interest in Yushu, but at least we dived into its unique local atmosphere.
Below is what we visited and what we would like to visit if we had time.
Places of interest in Yushu
In general, the places to visit in Yushu are two types- urban environment, and Buddhist monasteries. And the first type, the urban environment is almost entirely new, built after the earthquake. But although there is no “old town”, the new modern city is a very nice, clean, and pretty place, worth walking.
Walk around the city
Today Yushu is a quite spacious city. It is established on three valley directions (Y-shape)- westward, eastward, and southward, starting from a central point. No matter which direction you would choose, you can enjoy the new beautiful Tibetan architecture everywhere. Yes, some of the houses are a bit kitschy, but the whole clean and fresh environment is a pleasure for walking. And one of the most emblematic places of the city is King Gesar Square.
King Gesar Square
You can see King Gesar squares in many cities in Tibet. Usually, they are the largest squares in the city, with a monument of this mysterious king, and a favorite place for the local Tibetans who gather there in the evening and dance on Tibetan music. But who is this king, and why he is so important for the Tibetans?
King Gesar is the main character of the „Epic of King Gesar”- a legendary ruler of the legendary Ling Kingdom. Or more precisely, a real historic ruler of a real historic kingdom, both unidentified. This Epic is popular not only in Tibet, but in the whole Central Asia, and is an important cultural inheritance. And King Gesar is especially popular among the Tibetans, as one of their main cultural symbols.
In Yushu, the monument of King Gesar is established on the main square of the city- a large place, the main starting point for exploring the whole area around. And on its southern side, you can see a massive thick wall- a symbol of the victory over the earthquake.
Almost all of this is new. But if you want to see something old, although restored after the earthquake, go to the monasteries of Yushu- Gyegu monasteries.
There are several monasteries in Yushu, located on the two of the three main city directions- on the east, and the south. All of them have centuries, even more than a millennium of history, presenting not only religion but also culture. Like the other buildings in Yushu, they also suffered more or fewer damages during the earthquake, but today are restored.
You probably would not visit one by one all the monasteries and temples, unless you have more time and want to research each of them in detail. But if you decide to go to at least one of them (or two-three), I would mention Jyekundo Dondrubling, Gyanak Mani Stones Temple, and the Temple of Princess Wencheng.
Jyekundo Dondrubling Monastery
This is the nearest monastery to the city center. Located right above the urban area, on the hills north of it, it presents not only a splendid local architecture, but its location offers great panoramic views to the area.
There has been an ancient temple in this place, but in 1398 the present monastery was built. It belongs to the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism and consisted of 16 temples and homes of more than 500 monks. The monastery was heavily damaged in the earthquake but now is restored. It is a good place to learn more about Tibetan culture.
Gyanak Mani Stones Temple
If you still stay down in the city, you can walk eastward on the valley of Batang River, to the eastern neighborhoods of Yushu. And soon you will see a wall and a line of stupas over it. After the wall- another long red wall with prayer wheels. And behind this red wall- a large pile of stones.
This is Gyanak Mani Stones Temple. What makes it unique is exactly this pile (or more precisely- several piles). It is the largest pile of Mani stones in the world, with more than 2 million stones, with various sizes, engraved by various Tibetan religious, cultural, or daily life texts. Many local Tibetans come here for their rituals, including circumnavigating kora.
Princess Wencheng Monastery
This is another must-see place in Yushu. It is not exactly in the city, but some 20 km south of it, well-connected by Highway G214, on around 3850 m altitude.
Who is Princess Wencheng? Her story takes us back to the 7th century, during the heyday of two empires- Tang and Tibet. Princess Wencheng (her name is Li Wen Cheng)was the daughter of one of the nobles in the emperor Taizhou’s court. The Tibetan Emperor Songsten Gampo fell in love with her and after some events, he got married to her. She made a long journey from Xi’an to Lhasa, and on her way, she stopped in the area near today’s Yushu.
Then she proceeded on her way to Lhasa, making an important political and cultural exchange between the Tibetans and Han Chinese people. In her memory, locals made the place when she resided for a month a place of worship, which gave birth to the present temple.
More places to visit in Yushu
Besides these three important monasteries, there are several more- Zomda, Jorang, Thranggu, Dangka, etc., but they are not so significant. In general, there is not much else to see in the city, but I would recommend three places that you should not skip. The first one is the Yushu Museum, presenting a lot of information about the region, located right beside the main Y-shaped crossroad of the city.
The second one is Yushu Earthquake Memorial Hall, in the south part of Yushu, which features another museum, dedicated to the earthquake events and restoration of the city. And the third one is A Gu Dun Ba (Grandma’s Kitchen) Restaurant- the best Tibetan restaurant in Yushu.
The restaurant is easy to find. Just cross Batang River from King Gesar Square and you will see it. They offer Tibetan food in its best, in a refined atmosphere, usually with soft Tibetan music. And the owner is a friendly Tibetan who can share a lot about the city, about the life of locals, and many other things.
Although Yushu is deep inside the Great Tibetan Plateau, it is well-connected to the outside world. If you want to reach the city by plane, you can do it from Xining. I don’t recommend it anyway, because it doesn’t give you a time for acclimatization- you jump directly from 2200 m (Xining) to 3700 m (Yushu), and some people can get altitude sickness.
A better way to travel to Yushu is by bus from Xining, stopping at Qinghai Lake. Thus you would be better acclimatized, as the lake is located at 3205 m altitude. Or even better, with a stop in Gonghe (2900 m). But if you don’t have problems with the altitude, you can do it at once for around 16 hours. There are several buses from Xining to Yushu, including an overnight bus, and the price is between 230 and 260 CNY.
But if you want to reach Yushu from other direction, you have only two options- from Sichuan (through Serxu), or eventually from Golmud (via Qumarleb) if the latter route is not closed, and you can do it only by hired van or private car (with someone who has Chinese driving license), as we did. Currently, you can’t come from Chamdo (or another place in the Tibetan Autonomous Region), since this part of TAR is still closed for foreigners.
Transportation in the city and around
Once you arrive in Yushu, moving around the city is easy- you can do it on foot, by local taxi, or by public bus (for only 1 CNY). And if you have more time, you can visit the towns and areas south of Yushu- to Nangchen, Zadoi, and the villages around them. This area at the border of TAR is interesting because you can find beautiful alpine forests. Yes, its pity that foreigners can’t legally cross into TAR, but we hope one day the restrictions will be lifted.
Yushu is considered a big city, and there are a lot of hotels that you can find. And since most of them are built after the earthquake, they are new and clean. However, as everywhere in China, not every hotel accepts foreigners. And you can’t find any hotel in Booking or Agoda. So, you can just go there and find your hotel while you walk. That’s what we did, and we found a good hotel not far from the central Y-shaped crossroad of the city. And we found that there are plenty of choices, so if you don’t like what you find, or they tell you “we don’t accept foreigners”, you can easily find another hotel.
The best season to visit Yushu is July-August. This is the warmest time of the year when the grasslands are green and fresh. Yes, it is a bit rainier than during the other seasons, but again, the sunny days are more than the rainy days. Besides, you can enjoy the Horse Racing festival at the end of July-beginning of August.
The other seasons are colder and dryer, hence sunny almost all the time. But the grasslands around are yellow, not green. Winter is very cold, with temperatures dropping sometimes below -30°C. The end of February to the first half of March is the time for the Tibetan New Year, and large parts of Tibet are closed for foreigners.
Now, let’s go out of the city- to the endless silent grasslands, hills, and valleys.
Out of the city
As I mentioned above, Yushu is established in Y-shape, with three main roads following the shape, and three hillsides between them. The hillsides are great for hiking, and the more you ascend, the more stunning views you can enjoy, including the city from above. And if you proceed further, losing Yushu from your sight, you will enter the real “middle of nowhere”, but still with the possibility to meet some Tibetan nomads or to reach a small remote village (beware of the dogs guarding the yak herds, they can be aggressive!)
But if you choose the roads, you can take a bus, a taxi, or a shared van (unless you can travel by private car), you can make trips deep in the Tibetan wilderness. The road westward leads to Qumarleb, then to the Tibetan highway to Lhasa. On its way, you will cross the endless emptiness of Central Tibet. And when arrive at the highway (at Budongquan), you will reach the frontiers of Kekexili- the inhabited part of Tibet, full of wildlife.
Finally, if you choose the road to the east, it will guide you to the northeast direction. You will cross another portion of endless grasslands, a mountain pass at 4824 m altitude (Bayan Har Pass). Further northeast, the road will lead you to the holy Amnye Machin Mountain until you reach Qinghai Lake and Xining.
The eastern road was our choice too, as a part of our Eastern Tibet journey. We left Yushu and back to Yangtze River again. We threw several stones into the river’s raging waters and proceeded on our way through the vastness and fantastic beauty of the Great Tibetan Plateau.
Get more impressions from the video below:
Check some travel books about Tibet, hiking and high altitude experience:
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