Mystic Mountaintop

Climbing the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

By: Christopher Batin

Located in China’s Yunnan province near the city of Lijiang, which is served by daily jet service from Shanghai, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is a great spot for a pre- and post-Olympic trip, and for good reason.

For me, the mountain became a mystical wonder the first moment I saw it. Year-round snowcaps crown its 13 peaks with an accompaniment of 19 glaciers and numerous gray monoliths jutting into the sky. With a little imagination, the mountain does indeed resemble a dragon slinking across the horizon. In fact, the mountain really has seen its share of ancestral dragons: Geologists speculate it formed when dinosaurs roamed the earth over 230 million years ago.

Each year, visitors from around the world visit its rocky flanks covered with scale-like strands of dragon spruce. Enjoying the mountain is not an easy task on foot, with its winding 13-mile-long girth and 22-mile length. A cable car offers the best access. On the short bus ride there from Old Town Lijiang, I learned from my guide that the mountain has inspired many Chinese writers and poets. The area basks in generations of mystic folklore, music and song, and the local people historically depended on the mountain for medicinal herbs, teas and food, with over 400 species of trees and 30 species of animals.

Upon arrival at the visitor’s center, I observed a concession renting heavy winter coats. Clients generally won’t need them unless they are in shorts and sandals or traveling without cold-weather clothing. I stayed warm with a sweater, windbreaker and gloves. Lightweight, windproof clothing is adequate during the spring, summer and fall months.

The winding lines of people waiting to board the cable cars are similar to what clients will find at Disney attractions during the holidays. During my visit, I observed mostly Chinese visitors and made friends by showing photos of Alaska I stored on my iPhone. A cultural exchange like this can be as much fun as the attraction itself and helps pass the time, making the 70-minute wait worthwhile.

The cable car ride alone is worth the price of admission. Tourism officials claim the mountain is home to the world’s highest-elevation cable car, taking passengers over several types of lowland mountains and into alpine habitats. The views on the way up can vary drastically, depending on the time of year. The best time for wildflowers is April-June, while fall colors are best in October. Even the snowy winter whiteness adds to the mountain’s rugged beauty and wilderness qualities.

While the cable-car ride to the midpoint offers a spectacular way to see the attractions without walking, it only takes you halfway up the mountain to a staging area. At this disembarking point, families and children frolic in the meadows above the chairlift complex, while others prefer to climb the remaining distance for superb views of the glaciers and monoliths.

Once you get off the cable car, a metal staircase is the only way to reach the top. The top platform at 15,210 feet is attempted by many, but few make it. The thin air at 15,000 feet can cause vertigo, dizziness and an upset stomach, and can be potentially dangerous for smokers and clients with breathing problems or heart conditions. I was in good physical condition and, like many others, made the climb without oxygen. Many visitors were so intent on climbing to the top they sucked on oxygen canisters every few steps. Along the way, oxygen was for sale at five times the price offered at downtown shops. Older clients should pick up a can or two prior to leaving their hotel.

I was glad I carried a small daypack. It contained bottled water to prevent dehydration, a camera and a few energy snacks that gave me a boost during my climb. I found lightweight, anti-slip, dot-palmed gloves ideal, as they provide a solid grip for holding onto slick rails on the steep climb up and down. (Cotton or fleece gloves offer no gripping power.) Good walking shoes with an aggressive tread will prevent slipping on the often ice-glazed stairs.

Visitors must keep to the established trail, which helps maintain the natural solitude of this tour. As a result, viewing the various panoramas even at the crowded staging areas offered a purity of landscape not often seen in China.

This day tour is usually part of a Lijiang region package tour, but is also available as an all-day tour, which leaves the hotel at roughly 8 a.m. and returns at 5 p.m. The price of the cable ride is $20 per person, and the admission to the park is $12 per person.

Local guides are of the Bai or Naxi ethnicity, but my guide spoke English very well, even though he got altitude sickness and couldn’t climb the stairs. Lovely Naxi women, dressed in local embroidered blue and black clothing, will approach your clients with requests to have photos taken with them for a fee. Another option is to pose in colorful Tibetan clothing, yak jackets and hats. Have your clients bring cash for such indulgences, and create memories of one of the best tours in this region.


Yunnan Government Tourism