To foreign tourists, Sichuan is probably most famous for it’s pandas, and for a few Unesco sites in the surrounding areas of Chengdu (like Mount Emei or Dujangyan). However, what attracts most mainland Chinese tourists to the province is its landscape; the fabulous mountains and parks that can be found in the East of the province.
We’ve already mentioned Hailuogou and its marine glacier, the grassland of Tagong…
Niu Bei Mountain and its Sea of Clouds is one of the most visited places in the area. Located around 300km from Chengdu, close to the town of Lengqi in the Luding County, it’s not the easiest place to get to, but hiking groups head out there there fairly often. The hike is easy, the path is fairly clear and if the altitude is not a problem, the result is pretty rewarding: a full view of the nearby mountains and the famous sea of clouds. Sadly for me when I decided to do this hike in January, I began the ascent on probably one of the worst days of the month. With a heavy fog, it got pretty hard to see more than a few metres ahead, and made for hours in a very grey landscape.
To be fair, I’m still a little sad about how unlucky I was with that landscape and am hoping to return in Spring to get, this time, some of the best views on Gongga mountain and to, maybe, be a little warmer during my night in the camp!
Niu Bei Mountain: One of Sichuan’s top landscapes .
At an altitude of 3.600m, Niu Bei Mountain ( or Cattle Back Mountain) is not the highest mountain in the province of Sichuan but it’s location makes it the perfect spot for prime views on some of the holiest peaks in the area, like Gongga, considered the Mountain King of Sichuan.
Add to this the altitude to end up right above the clouds to appreciate the famous “Sea of Clouds”, you can imagine that people quickly add this to their list of things to do in the region.
But like a lot of places in Sichuan, tourism isn’t very developed yet and what makes it see few foreign visitors, is how difficult it is to get to.
Don’t kid yourself. When people tell you it’s close to Ya’an, it’s not. And the journey will take up to three days of your trip. Is it worth it though? Yes.
No crowds (except a little bit at the top), stunning views, with a bit of luck the stars at night, if you can find the time, you really should go.
Getting to the starting point of the hike.
But how does one get to Niu Bei Mountain and the start of the hike? As of March 2018, your best option is to catch a bus to Lengqi town and stay there for the night. In the morning, a car will bring you to the start of the hike that follows an unpaved road to the summit. No need for maps, chances are you will not get lost, but a guide is highly recommended.
Getting to Lengqi town might be the tricky part. Most groups doing the hike will leave the day before, as the drive is long and would take too much time for you to do the ascent. Count 6 hours or more depending on the roads. We left at 18.00 and arrived somewhere around midnight (or probably later than that) at our hotel.
You will need to spend the night there. As you would gather, don’t expect much from the hotels, the beds, this is just a necessary stop and if you’re in for a hike then you’re not really looking for comfort, you can get that later when you’re back in Chengdu.
Small vans and cars will usually wait for you in the morning and in their very… Sichuan style?… will load up with up to 12 passengers (in a car, yes, that’s more money for them but be ready to be a little cramped!).
They will drop you off near a little police shack at the start of the path. From there, your walk begins.
Hiking towards the summit, don’t forget your supplies.
I’ve seen all sorts of “time” online for how long your hike will take, from 3 hours to others saying a day. It took us around 8 hours. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many kilometres it was. I’ve heard 20km but also 32, it’s honestly hard to tell.
We stopped a few times along the way to play in the snow and to have lunch. The closer to the summit, the harder it got, since it was January and the piles of snow and patches of ice required us to be a lot more careful of where we were stepping.
The first part of your trek, in the morning, will take you up pretty steep hills. Your guide could chose to let you take the normal road but this is a much faster way. This is maybe the most demanding part at least for your cardio. After that you will get to a little wooden shack where most groups stop for lunch. Bring your own food!
While you will get barbecued potatoes, prices are a little steep and you’ll get something a lot nicer when you get to your night stop. Put some noodles in your bag, grab some water, rest for a bit and keep going.
With a bit of luck, you’ll be walking up on a sunny day and that’s when the views start to get interesting. With my luck, I really had to make sure I was looking at where I was going to not plunge down a hill. The beauty of doing this is winter was in the fascinating formation of icy waterfalls and the fantastic blue colours that were coming out of them around the white snow and grey sky.
The closer to the top, the most amazing rocks you’ll get to observe as well, composed of up to 6 colours, I’m still not sure what they are but boy are they pretty!
Now if once you get to the lunch area you’re not feeling too comfortable to keep going, cars and their adventurous (some might say, reckless) drivers are also happy to take you up to the camp (for a fee of course, and you’ll have to not be too scared because that looks like one scary ride!)
Staying the night on Niu Bei Mountain.
There are two camps near the summit on Niu Bei Mountain but you need to make sure you’ll book them in advance. That’s why most people (and I’m most people), hire a guide: they will call in advance to book the beds and also your food at night so you don’t end up cold, with nowhere to pitch your tent and none of the pretty awesome dishes the cook will prepare for you.
You’ll get two options: a bed shared with a few others in a wooden cabin or simply a tent pitched already. In winter please opt for the cabin. You’ll get maybe an hour of electricity to warm up your bed which you won’t get in the tent. Also it gets really really cold at night up there!
If you’re there at any other time I’d say rock the tent! At least that’s what I’m really tempted to do next time to get to see the stars.
Getting to the summit for the sunrise.
Now something important you need to know is that the two camps are not that close to the summit! A car will usually take you up there early in the morning to get to see the sunrise, you can also walk but that should take you over an hour so plan accordingly and wake up earlier or you might miss it!
Once at the summit, the views, bad weather or not, are out of this world. The colours of the sunrise constantly evolving, the white cast of the clouds moving in front of you…
There’s not much more to say about it. I was pretty grumpy when I got there thinking that I wouldn’t get to see a thing after the awful day we had before but the next hour, when the clouds finally came down a little, properly shut me up.
Practical informations to hike Niu Bei Mountain.
If you’ve come so far, you might want a few bits of practical information about Niu Bei Mountain. So let me put it all together for you here.
How to get to Niu Bei Mountain from Chengdu.
You will need to grab a bus to Lengqi town. It’s 264km away from Chengdu and should take 6 hours.
Stay overnight in Lengqi town and get a car to the start of the hike.
Hire a guide! He will take care of booking your nights, your meals and transportation, it’s worth it as it might be difficult to accomplish on your own.
Regarding the hike:
The level is pretty moderate and the hike should take around 6 hours on the way up and maybe 4 hours coming down. (Probably less if the weather is good and if you are not visiting in winter).
Beware of the altitude! 3.600m can mean altitude sickness so take your time and also take some medicine just in case!
Bring snacks, water, food with you to keep you going as there’s only one stop where you can get food before getting to the summit.
When is the best time to visit:
April and May are the best months to visit. The weather is pretty dry and not too cold.
You could visit during the cold months of December to March but be prepared for a lot of ice and snow along the way and very cold nights at the top.
The rest of the time is considered rainy season and you might get wet but we’ve found July, August to still be pretty dry.
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