Lesson one for the first-time mule rider: your job is to hold on, nothing more.

All attempts to influence speed or direction will be greeted by total indifference. Utter mulishness, in fact. This becomes obvious the moment my mule's zig-zag trajectory takes me to the edge of the mountain track, providing a buttock-clenching view of the scenery far too far below.

Forget that pony club stuff about steering your steed with your knees; these animals carry everything from tractor parts and boxes of beer to groceries and disassembled pool tables, and as far as my mount is concerned I'm just another dumb load.

So hold on tight to that saddle, concentrate on the trailside trees and flowers — and do try not to look down.


Mule-riding wasn't high on the list of intended activities on the trek to Yuben village, less than a dot on the map high in the mountains of Yunnan, southwestern China.

But having staggered down the steep path into the village a couple of days earlier, the offer of a mule to ease the uphill trip back was too good to resist.

The trek to Yuben starts at 3200 metres, rises steadily to 3750m — about the same as the top of Mt Cook — then dives back down to the village at 3300m.

Not quite bring-your-own-oxygen territory, but enough for unfit sea-level dwellers to suffer a mismatch between what the eye sees and what the legs and lungs experience.

What should be a gentle slope feels more like the final ascent on Everest and the way to the top becomes a long, slow step-pause-step-pause-step ...

Fortunately, the scenery provides plenty of excuses to stop. Hundreds of metres below, the Mekong River flows mud-brown through a narrow canyon. On a terrace above the river, golden fields of ripe barley are a small patch of colour against a grey wall of bare rock.

Closer, the area's reputation for diversity is evident in the extravagance of vegetation: pink and white rhododendrons, giant spruce, oaks, birch and maple trees.

On the slow trudge uphill we meet mule trains carrying supplies or other tourists, the lead mule stopping every few minutes for the stragglers to catch up.


And finally the summit, marked by prayer flags, a common sight in this strongly Tibetan part of China, and two shrines to another local obsession — a pair of pool tables which someone has lugged up the trail and installed under rough shelters among the trees.

Yuben, when we reach it after four hours' hard slog, is a hamlet of about 60 people, a scattering of Tibetan-style houses — two storeys, rammed-earth walls, shingle roofs — dotted among farm fields.

At the Mei-Li Snow Mountain Lodge, the accommodation is backpacker-basic: squat long drops, dorm rooms, a few flickering lightbulbs, a dining area decorated with chunks of drying bacon nailed to the walls, still bearing a disturbing resemblance to the original pig — and a housekeeper who opens beer bottles with her teeth.

But the scenery is the attraction, not the accommodation, and the views are extraordinary. To say Yuben is "nestled" in the mountains is altogether too gentle; they've got the place surrounded. The village occupies the few hectares of relatively flat land, encircled by steep slopes and summits, decoratively garnished with waterfalls and glaciers, all dominated by 6740m Mt Kawakarpo and several other peaks of only slightly lesser altitude.

This part of China is busy selling itself as the "real" Shangri-La, a sort of tourist paradise on earth. In the towns, that sounds like just another marketing slogan; up here, it's easy to believe that if the real Shangri-La ever existed, this is how it looked.

From Yuben, after a night's recovery, the next goal is a spectacular waterfall that plunges off an overhanging cliff, 4000m up Mt Kawakarpo. The 3 1/2-hour trek begins in a dark hobbit-forest of giant trees, with the occasional patch of blue irises, then heads up a steep track streaming with water from just-melted snow.

It's a popular Buddhist pilgrimage route, and along the way we find collections of offerings which visitors have left in auspicious spots: coins stuck with butter to a rock face, old watches, silver bangles, rice bowls, rocks tied with red string dangling from branches.

Among the devout, it is considered good fortune to circle the base of the falls several times, through the falling water. Having already achieved total saturation through a combination of rain and perspiration, this final act of immersion seems superfluous; I limit myself to admiring the view.

Another night of soothing tired muscles, then the morning delight of wet socks and boots and it's on to the mules for the climb out.

First, though, comes the matching up of riders and mounts. This is accomplished by picking numbers scribbled on scraps of paper, presumably to guard against wily muleteers fighting over the skinniest riders, leaving the losers to carry the more generously sized.

I draw mule No 18 — no form to speak of, but obviously a stayer and good in the heavy going — and we're away.

On the trail the sounds are of mule-bells, short bursts of song from the muleteers, and a raucous Tibetan undercurrent that suggests vigorous debate on the odds on No 18 making it to the finish line.

A pack of teenagers in sandshoes and gumboots accompanies the mule train, skipping up the steep slope with a deeply disturbing lack of effort.

It's all very picturesque, apart from those too-frequent moments when No 18 pauses to stare over the edge with a weary sigh, apparently contemplating whether mule suicide might be preferable to taking another step with this burden.

But, finally, the summit, a nose-bag of mule-food for No 18 and it's back on foot for the downhill hike to the road.

Off the beaten track? Not entirely; this particular track is relatively well-travelled by foreigners and by Chinese tourists, whose numbers are rising rapidly. And despite the efforts of the locals, some spots are decorated in the way that the Chinese appear to reserve for places of outstanding natural beauty — with discarded candy wrappers, beer bottles, and other assorted rubbish.

But if it's emptiness you're after, there's enough of that to make you question whether you really are in a country of 1.3 billion people.

For 360 degrees around Yuben village, the only signs of civilisation are a couple of trails. No roads, no power lines, just forest, mountains, streams and snow as far as you can see.

Inevitably, the tourist tide is rising, villagers are busy adding on to their homes to accommodate more travellers and there's even been talk — please say it's just talk — of building a cable car into the area.

It is impossible to imagine how the mountains around Yuben could sustain that impact and remain the special place they are. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that mule-power remains the fastest thing on the trail.

Before you go: If you plan to do any trekking, head for the gym or do some serious walking beforehand. Altitude makes hiking harder, and a pre-travel fitness campaign will seem like a good investment when you start heading up that first slope. Altitude sickness most often happens above 2400m. Most people will be fine, but you need to know what to do if it strikes. And make sure your itinerary doesn't involve getting off the plane and dashing straight up a mountain. A day or two acclimatising can work wonders.

Getting there: Singapore Air flies direct to Singapore, 12 times a week from Auckland, daily from Christchurch. SilkAir flies from Singapore to Kunming — about four hours — three times a week. From Kunming it's a short hop — under an hour — to tourist centres such as Lijiang or Zhongdian.

What it costs: World Expeditions (0800 350 354) runs a variety of trips in China. Its 15-day Yunnan-Meili trek departs from Kunming between June and December.

Mark Fryer travelled to China courtesy of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.