This incredible scenic area hosts some of the most pristine back-country hiking trails in China, and the Outer Kora is hands down the best trek I have taken in my life. As it is part of a scenic area, there is a hefty entrance fee (270元), tourist buses you must ride in order to get to the trailhead, and throngs of tourists until you get off the main path. All that is more than worth it.
Outer Kora: 54 km, 3,700 meter elevation gain
Inner Kora: 26 km, 1,400 meter elevation gain
Day 1-5-7 kilometers, 600-700 meters elevation gain: This day can be as short or as long as you like. Many people cross the first pass and camp on the other side, but we opted for a shorter day since it took a while to get inside the Nature Reserve and find the trailhead.
The trailhead is relatively difficult to find. From Chonggu Monastery, walk south towards Luorong Pasture until you hit the metal-grated boardwalk. Try and cut back onto the paved road as soon as you can (which is supposed to be reserved for tourists carts, so you may meet some resistance from the workers). In a few hundred meters, you should see a path left of the road veering off into the forest, marked by a nondescript stone tablet. This is the beginning of the GPX, and it should be less than a kilometer from the monastery. If you're still unsure, keep following the path; it should run parallel to the road for a bit and then start climbing steeply into the forest. After 20-30 minutes if you cross a small wooden bridge (pictured), you're on the right path. After 2.5 km or so, you should come out of the forest and into the beautiful canyon you will spend the day hiking up.
After about 3.5 km from the trailhead, you should come to Baiyun Pasture (pictured), a popular lunch/camping spot and a great place to rest and take in the view of Chenresig across the valley (weather permitting). Supposedly, you can see all three holy mountains from this spot in good weather. After the pasture, the trail is pretty straightforward, and hugs the right side of the gurgling stream coming down from the first pass.
There are plentiful camping options both before and after the first pass. We camped a bit earlier at a spot about 5 km from the trailhead, and 4,600 meters above sea level, which was the highest we had ever been let alone camped. Be very careful about Acute Mountain Sickness, we were probably lucky not to have experienced any negative effects of the elevation.
Day 2-13 to 15 km; 400 m elevation gain; 900 meters elevation loss: In short, this day climbs up to the top of the first pass, and then descends down to the valley on the backside of Chenadorje. From where we camped it was less than 2 km to the top of Pass 1, but that doesn't mean it was easy--topping out at 4,900 meters above sea level, this is the highest you will be on the entire Kora.
After pass 1, the trail descends down the next valley for about 5 km before coming onto a small village with a handful of houses and yak pastures. Angle toward the right after the village, close to the stream, and soon you begin descending fairly steeply until you cross the river around kilometer 12.6. After the crossing, the trail climbs briefly and then descends for about 2.5 km through a dense, lush conifer forest, before coming out into the valley at the base of Chenadorje's imposing backside. After another 1-1.5 kms, there are plenty of open flat areas for camping. This is an astonishingly beautiful campsite.
Day 3-17 km; 1,000 m elevation gain; 850 meters elevation loss: This is an ass-kicker of a day. Begin by traversing the Chenadorje valley for about a km to the Southwest, and then climbing steeply through the forest on the other side. After another kilometer and 250 meters of elevation gain, you come over Pass 2 which is fairly anti-climactic and could even be grouped together with Pass 3. It leads into a modest hanging valley before passing some stone huts and turning towards Pass 3, which is about another kilometer on. This pass is a memorable one (pictured), and the scenery will absolutely floor you as you come over the hump.
The valley leading up to pass 4 is long and beautiful, and descends for about 4 kilometers before beginning the ascent. It ascends gradually for about half a km, then steeply for another 3/4 of a kilometer before topping out a little over 4,700 meters. There was a significant amount of snow on this pass when we hiked it in October, but not enough to thwart passage or require crampons.
The day is not done yet--although if you want it to be there are some camping options before and after Pass 4, with plenty of water sources nearby. If you're feeling good, continue on towards Pass 5 and one of the most spectacular campsites on the route--the Amphitheater. The valley after pass 4 gradually descends for about 4 km to the base of pass 5, which is smaller than the previous one but still formidable. Along the way you will cross a couple of large scree fields, as well as a stupa marking the "official" halfway point of the kora. It's another 600 meters to the top of Pass 5, and from there a quick kilometer down to the breathtaking ampitheater.
FYI, if there are commercial trekking groups, they will almost certainly camp at the amphitheater. There was a group of about 200 people there when we arrived (I know, absurd), but we were able to find a nice secluded spot separate from all of them.
Day 4-9 kilometers; 600 meters elevation gain; 300 meters elevation loss: This morning, we had a simultaneously heartbreaking and rage-inducing encounter with the large group of hikers after coming across their smoldering mountain of garbage that they left behind (pictured). I am only including these photos for educational purposes--this is what happens when large groups of people want to enjoy the outdoors, but do so irresponsibly. We spent the whole day attempting to teach every one of them, and were able to facilitate a cleanup at a different location. LEAVE NO TRACE.
From the amphitheater, the trail climbs steadily for about 5 km to Pass 6, crossing a few very precipitous scree fields and gaining about 500 meters of elevation. This pass tops out just above 4,700 meters.
After Pass 6, the trail stays relatively level for about 3.5 to 4 km through stunning mars-like landscapes before dropping down to Joseph Rock's Rock, a milestone of sorts along the trail where Joseph Rock--the famous botanist who explored China during the early 1900's--stopped for lunch one day...or something like that. It's a good lunch spot either way, and afterwards we decided to call an early day and camped at the small lake just above that area. You can obviously go further on this day, but the Wisdom Lake campsite over the next pass is where the trekking groups camp, and we were trying to avoid them.
Day 5-11 kilometers, 500 meters of elevation gain, 600 meters of elevation loss: This was probably the best day I have ever had in the mountains. The trail ascends from the lake and quickly comes upon Pass 7, from where the views become absolutely unbelievable. Spend some time taking it in. Then head down to Wisdom Lake (or Snake Lake to some)--it's a little less than 2 km from the top of the pass to the other side of the lake where the main camping area is.
From the Wisdom Lake Campsite it's about 1500 meters to the top of Pass 8, where there is a three-way trail junction. Continuing straight will take you down to Milk Lake and Five Colors Lake, and eventually back to where you started. Turn left (Northwest) to continue the Kora and head down into Kasi Valley.
Leaving Pass 9, it's about 2.5 km from the junction to the bottom of Kasi Valley, another popular camping site, especially for those hiking the Inner Kora (which follows this trail). This is a beautiful area, but we were once again set on avoiding large groups so we continued on towards Pass 9, the last of the trip. From the campsite in Kasi Valley, it is another 4 km or so to a smaller amphitheater just beneath Pass 9, which contains a few stone huts and plenty of flat spots for camping.
Day 6-5 kilometers; 200 meters elevation gain, 500 meters elevation loss: Pass 9--the last of the trip--is just over 4,650 meters above sea level. Climb through the tunnel of prayer flags and then descend down the final valley of the trek, Chenresig revealing itself more and more with every step. It's a little less than 4 kilometers to the base of the valley, the main tourist area, and Chonggu monastery. Congratulations, you have finished the Yading Outer Kora!
Inner Kora: 26 km, 1,400 meter elevation gain
This route is for those with less time or experience, but still want a camping experience in this spectacular area. The route starts from Chonggu Monastery, but instead of turning after 1 km and hiking into the mountains, continue following the tourist trail up towards Five Colors Lake and Milk Lake, which is about 11 kilometers and largely on boardwalks and constructed trails. From there, continue on to Pass 8 from the Outer Kora, and then simply follow the second half of Day 5 and Day 6 from the description above. Kasi Valley is a good place to camp on this route.
Getting to the Trail Head (Yading Scenic Area 亚丁自然保护区)
There are a number of different ways to get to Yading Nature Reserve, the easiest being to fly into the newly constructed Daocheng Yading Airport, but you can also take a bus. It is a two-day bus trip from Chengdu, with a one-night stopover in Kangding (康定). You can also start from Kunming, fly or drive or bus to Shangri-la, spend a night there to begin acclimatizing, and then take an eight-hour bus to Daocheng the next day. From Daocheng city, it is another 1.5 hours by shared van or taxi to the town of Riwa (also called Shangri-La, confusingly). The entrance to Yading Nature Reserve, and the end of the public highway, is on the edge of this town. The entrance fee to Yading is 270 yuan. The coordinates and locations below are for Chonggu Monastery (or next to it) in the middle of the reserve (the GPX route for the Outer Kora contains the starting point of the actual trail).
GPS Coordinates: 28°25'54.61"N 100°21'30.12"E (28.431836, 100.358367)
Baidu Maps: https://j.map.baidu.com/2e/4RH
Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/3NHyXmo1DFB3sJLV9