China should be one of the world’s premier hiking destinations.
Why, you ask?
Well, China is home to the two mightiest mountain ranges on Earth, the Karakoram and the Himalayas with the infamous Mount Everest (read our story about hitchhiking the Karakoram highway, the world's highest road). But even outside these giants, the Tian Shan range (a newly declared UNESCO World Heritage), the Chinese Pamir, the Kunlun Range and other regions team up with countless 4000m, 5000m and 6000m peaks.
So how is it possible that hiking in China isn’t on top of the list of every adventurous backpacker? Apart from the “Disneyfication” of Chinese mountains (think of cable cars, wooden tourist paths and tour buses), we reckon that one of the main reasons is the lack of professional (or even amateurish) information. When we were headed to Langmusi, a Tibetan sanctuary on the fringes between Gansu and Sichuan and one of the premier hiking destinations in China, no one could provide us with a useful map or trail description.
But we are here to change things!
We managed to locate and track two amazing dayhikes in Langmusi both ending in 4000m peaks. The scenery is superb and diverse, ranging from Dolomite style rock formations to Pamir like grass fields to genuinely Chinese forested hills. There is also small chance that you will encounter mass tourism here: When we did the hikes, the only moving things we encountered were swaths of eagles (yes, a lot of them) and (no kidding) a lone wolf staring at us from 80 meters distance. Both hikes are intermediate because of the altitude at over 3000m: While Mount Huagai is a little bit higher and longer, you will have to fight through more vegetation for Mount Rixiema and there is also a small (not dangerous) boulder on the way.
Here is how we did it (GPS trails below):
Min Elevation: 3400m
Max Elevation: 4000m
Duration: 5 – 7 hours
Distance: around 15 kilometers
The trail starts at the beautiful Namo Gorge, the entrance of which is located right behind the Kerti Gompa monastery. You are supposed to pay RMB 20 entrance fee for visiting the monastery but you can easily bypass the ticket office (don’t do that if you actually plan to visit the monastery though). The entrance to the Gorge is marked by a number of water-powered prayer wheels next to a small stream and a bunch of prayer flags. Local monks will be able to point you to the right direction.
Trekking the beginning of the Namo Gorge, you will crisscross the small stream and walk by prayer flags, a tiger statue and some sacred grottoes. After 20 – 30 minutes, you will arrive at a lush green grass field with some flags. There the trail forks with one path heading West (that is to your right) and one path heading South (straight ahead). For Mount Rixiema, continue hiking straight ahead.
After a while, you will reach another field with some obvious traces of camping and follow the gorge through the thick bushes. When we hiked the trail, there was no obvious path but we were also walking through pretty deep snow. The next obvious waypoint is what looks like a dead end, but when you turn right, you find some rocks you can pass by doing some easy boulder moves.
Having passed the boulder, you find yourself in a gorge again steadily curving to your right. Eventually, the gorge will open up and you find yourself walking towards a patch of grass that looks like a mountain pass. To your right, there is also a big dolomite like rock pinnacle shooting up. Once up at the grass, at around 3900 meters, you will have incredible vistas towards the mountains to your South. This is also a great place to catch some breath and take a break before the next ascent.
Turn to your right and climb hard towards the ridge. Again, there is no real trail here so simply head up. Once on the ridge, you will be able to see Langmusi and Pamir style highlands in front of you. To your left, you can also spot the peak of Mt Rixiema, marked by a couple of Tibetan flags. Turn in that direction and follow the ridge. Eventually, you will have to climb down a little bit before the trail makes another turn to the right and up to the summit. This last climb is quite steep, particularly the very last part and we veered a little bit around the summit on our right hand side to find a good way. Still, the summit is wide enough to walk around a little bit, admire the Tibetan flags (which are actually a little bit out of shape) and soak in the (expected) amazing views into all directions.
Min Elevation: 3400m
Max Elevation: 4200m
Duration: 6 – 8 hours
Distance: around 20 kilometers
Mount Huagai is the highest mountain that you can climb immediately around Langmusi and is considered a sacred mountain by the Tibetans (which you will realize immediately once you are at the top, but first things first).
The beginning of the trail is actually just like the hike to Mt Rixiema. It starts in the Namo Gorge, which you follow until the first grass field with the flags. Here instead of heading straight South (which is way to Mt Rixiema), turn right to the West. Here you will be following a small stream and you will have to cross and re-cross it quite a few times, hopping over rocks and walking through easy water. Trekking poles may be useful for that, but good waterproof shoes are a must for this.
Following the gorge, you will hit another lush and green grass field where the valley forks again. Again take the way to your right. You will be walking right to the small stream now and most probably a little bit higher up than the water. This part of the trail was quite muddy and slippery when we hiked it in November because the new snow has just melted. Stay on this path until you reach another green grass field. On the left side of the grass field, there is a pile of stones from which water is flowing out, apparently the source of the stream. Going up, it should take around 1,5h to 2h to reach this third grassfield at 3600m.
After a small break in the sun, head to your right through the bushes. There are quite a lot of horsetrails leading up in the beginning but the path become less obvious after a while. Still, simply head up and walk towards a mountain pass and it’s impossible to get lost. Although not very steep, the trail goes up steadily until you finally reach the mountain pass at around 3900m so it will probably take some time. Up on the pass, a beautiful valley opens up in front of you. At the far side of the valley, there is a huge dome shaped mountain which almost looks like a gigantic rock out of the ground, that’s Mt Huagai!
Unfortunately, you will have to descend into the valley a little bit but it’s probably smart to stay as high as possible. Coming up on the other side of the valley, keep to your right as you climb towards a patch of grass. We made our lunch break here before the last ascent, which took us about 1,5h. Mt Huagai is now right in front of you. We thought that curving around the east side of the mountain would probably be the easiest way and so continued along the side of the mountain to our right, walking on horse trails.
Your goal is a mountain pass between Mt Huagai and the peak of the mountain you are currently walking on. Once you are on the ridge, enjoy the view from 4000+m and then turn left for the last ascent. It’s arguably less steep than the last part of Mt Rixiema and it’s possible to walk in zigzags towards the top. At some point, the path flattens out, keep going as the summit is near!
Unlike Mt Rixiema (where you could spot the Tibetan flags on the summit from the last mountain pass) it’s hard to see anything going on on the peak of Mt Huagai from afar and it seems empty. But you couldn’t be more wrong! Getting closer, you will suddenly realize that there are not just a couple of Tibetan flags up there, but that, on the summit which is as wide as a soccer field, there is actually an entire temple of flags! The most impressive is certainly the arrow and flag tower in its center. This was definitely one of the most memorable moments of our trip through China, watching this spiritual wonder unfold after an arduous climb up to the top!
We didn’t come to Langmusi with the highest expectation: We knew there were mountains close by and we knew we could do some hiking. But what we discovered surpassed our wildest dreams about the region. We were able to find and explore two amazing trails that really got it all: Amazing scenery along the way, 4000m peaks at the end, a deeply spiritual environment and incredible wildlife. And best of all, Langmusi is still somewhat like a hidden gem in China and at least as far as we can tell, the local government isn’t going to build up any wooden paths and cable cars anytime soon. We are definitely going to come back to discover more mountains!
Information at a glance
Best Time to Travel: We were in Langmusi in the beginning of November and it was obvious that the travel season has finished. Most of the hostels/hotels and restaurants have already closed down at the end of October. We believe that the place would be very crowded in Summer. Best time is therefore probably end of September through October. Hiking was possible even in November but there was lots of snow on the trails.
Transportation: There is no direct transport between Lanzhou and Langmusi, but there is an (unreliable) option) to catch a bus that runs between Lanzhou and Jiuzhaigou which passes through the town. The better option to travel between Lanzhou and Langmusi is to transfer in Hezuo (note that you have to change bus stations at Hezuo). The journey takes around 7 hours in total.
Between Langmusi and Xiahe, there is one daily bus (departing at 7:40 am in Xiahe and at 2 pm from Langmusi).
Accommodation: The best hostel in town is Barley International Youth Hostel. Basic rooms (the heating mattresses are amazing though) and nice flair). The washing machine is extremely analog (basically you have to do every step manually but it works). There is a nice hand drawn trekking map (useful as a first orientation) and the owner speaks English.
Food: Black Tent Café supposedly has great food but it was closed when we got there. There are tons of restaurants on the street.
Kevin & Nicole, written in Beijing and Yangshuo