Lugu Lake


1. Some good hiking areas in the surrounding mountains.
2. Go boating or canoeing on the lake.
3. Plenty of hotels.
4. On the northern side of the lake there are many hotels for backpackers.
5. Chairlift to the top of a mountain with stairs that goes to a big cave and monkeys. 


Lugu Lake is a deep lake dotted with some islets and surrounded by high mountains. It is at a high elevation of 2,685 meters or 8,809 feet in the high mountains that are on the borders of Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet. The Mosuo people have been isolated in the valley and retain more ancient traditions and customs than the other people around them. Travel up to their valley was difficult, and it still is comparatively difficult. There are not yet paved roads to their territory. The 30,000 or so Mosuo people are ethnically distinct from the Naxi who live around Lijiang, but are similar to the Naxi in some ways.

lugu lakeThe smooth surface of Lugu Lake is very charming.

The Naxi people lived on a part of the Southern Silk Road (the Chama Road), and for hundreds of years they were affected by traders and merchants from other regions who traveled through and stayed in their towns. The Mosuo people have had less contact with modern people. In the past before the modern era, many Mosuo men left home to travel as caravan traders, but the women and children remained at home. The Mosuo people retain a lot of unique customs. Lugu Lake is beautiful and is said to be worth the comparatively difficult journey to go see the region. There is good hiking around the lake area and up in the mountains, and the Mosuo people’s exotic culture and traditions may interest you.

Most people go to Lugu Lake from Lijiang. There is a six or eight hour bus ride up and down mountains on narrow dirt roads. The scenery is interesting. Buses pass the Jinsha River. The Jinsha River is the upper part of the Yangtze River. It is a small river that passes through green canyons. The bus passes through the villages of several minority groups with various styles of architecture and clothing. The big lake is often deep blue, and it is framed by forests and the sharp peaks of the mountains. 

Hiking and Scenic Areas

Go canoeing on Lugu LakeGo canoeing on Lugu Lake is a good choice to feel the beauty of the lake.

Lugu Lake is 48.5 square kilometers in area and about 93 meters deep at its deepest point. Ringing the 2,685 meter-high lake are mountain peaks that range from 3,000 meters to 3,800 meters. This is about 10,000 feet to about 12,500 feet. People can go canoeing and boating around on the lake, explore it, and go hiking in the mountains. Away from the lake there are primitive villages without even electricity or water. Around the lake there are newly built modern hotels and resorts that are comparatively inexpensive. Camping is not permitted in the area. There are new roads around the lake, and the Mosuo people are adapting to tourism, but compared to Lijiang and Dali, few tourists come here. So the area is interesting to explore and hike in.

There are so few tourists that ATMs that can handle a tourist’s bank card are still hard to find. Most of the area isn’t yet built up. There are still plenty of paths and dirt roads. It is possible to get away from the hotels and resorts and find areas with inexpensive accommodations, exotic native food, good scenery and good hiking.

The valley recently received electricity, but many villages still have no electricity. Most villages still have no running water and rely on local wells or streams. So hikers should carry their own water or drink boiled or bottled water. It may be a good idea to bring a water purifier. It is said that the Mosuo people used to drink the water directly from the lake, but now it is a little polluted. So now some of them take boats to fetch water from cleaner parts of the lake.

The area is modernizing quickly, but bartering is still a common practice. The average income of the people living in the most traditional areas is very low in cash terms – perhaps 200 USD a year. This means that prices are low. There is a lot of meat available, but since there is little refrigeration, the meat is either freshly butchered or is salted and preserved. 

A bonus in the area is a chairlift that takes one to the top of a mountain. To get to the chairlift, you can ride on go-carts! When you get off the chairlift, there are stairs to climb up the mountain that lead to a big cave in which you can climb around in on more stairs. There are monkeys around the top of the mountain.

The attendants in the hotels and tourist offices may discourage you from going off hiking on your own. They may say it is impossible to go someplace or that there are no paths. But if you try, you’ll get off the roads and experience more of the life of the native Mosuo who live in the beautiful high valley. There are paths out of the valley, and one goes over a mountain pass over 4,000 meters high to a place where camping is permitted. One goes to Yading Nature Reserve.

Mosuo People and Culture

Mosuo people in LijiangMosuo girl with traditional clothes

People seem to differ on how closely the Mosuo people are related to the Naxi who live around Lijiang. Some people say that they are distinct, others say that they are closely related. The Mosuo and Naxi speak languages that belong to the same language group. Since the two homelands are close to each other, less than 100 kilometers distance, and the Mosuo men were traditionally traders who traveled over a large area, there was much contact between the two peoples. However, since the Mosuo people as a whole lived in greater isolation in their high valley, their traditions and way of life are very different than the people around them – almost bizarre.

One difference between the Naxi and the Mosuo is that both the men and women like to dress very brightly in costumes that resemble Latin American traditional clothing. The Naxi generally dress in blue clothing that reminds one of “Mao suits.” Tibetans are their neighbors and have their own style of dress. But the Mosuo men may dress in costumes that remind one of brightly dressed gauchos complete with cowboy hats and a dagger on the Argentinean pampas, and the women dress like brightly and colorfully dressed Mexican Indian tribal women. To make their clothing bright and colorful, some women add glittering sequins.

The Mosuo men are herders and take care of the livestock like the gauchos used to. The livestock includes yaks that are related to buffaloes and cows, some horses, lots of pigs and other kinds of livestock. The preferred meat is pork. The men and women traditionally have strict sex roles. Besides herding the livestock, the men were also were the fishermen and could leave home to travel in the regional trade. Only men were allowed to butcher the livestock. Women were strictly forbidden to do so. This is very unusual. Another unusual tradition in the area is that dogs are worshipped and never eaten as the Chinese did. They considered dogs as part of the family. During the adolescent initiation rites, Mosuo boys prayed to the dogs.

The women took care of the crops and didn’t leave home to travel on the trade routes. Until the middle of the 20th century, the women’s main staple crop was potatoes. But now rice is another staple. They also grow pumpkins and other vegetables. The women took care of the house and children while the men were away. Though it is said that the Mosuo are matriarchal, they really aren’t. The house and property was passed down through the women, but it is said that men have the political power. The Mosuo had a caste system that was sort of a slave society with a small noble class.

The strangest aspect of their lives is their mating relationships. People didn’t marry, but women past puberty invited who they wanted to come over to mate with them at their family houses. A man might mate with dozens of women in his lifetime. The women lived with their families, and the men didn’t live with the women or the families of the women they mated. The children often didn’t know who their father was. 

The Mosuo have a traditional religion called Daba. But recently Tibetan Buddhism has become popular. The Naxi have a unique hieroglyphic script associated with their religion, but it is said that the Mosuo have had no writing system of their own. This seems strange since they had so much contact with the Naxi and are a related people. Perhaps they do have a ritual script similar to that of the Naxi, but it is kept secret. The Naxi religion and script was severely repressed in modern times.


It is said that the ancestors of the Mosuo people were a nomadic people who lived in the Tibetan plateau. The people came to the area around Lijiang around 3 AD and then divided into three branches. The ones who remained around Lijiang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge area are known as the Nakhi or Naxi; those who moved to Shaxi valley and Dali valley are known as the Bai, and those who moved to the Lugu Lake area are called the Mosuo. During the Sui Dynasty(581-618) and the Tang Dynasty (618-917), the people group as a whole were known as the Mosha-yi or the Moxie-yi. 

Mosuo people live in Lugu LakeMosuo people live in a beautiful and peace place.

The people around the high altitude Lugu Lake region were more isolated and retained more of their primitive customs and religion, but the Naxi and Bai people who lived on a major trading route where more influenced by the Chinese empires. The Mosuo men had a tradition of leaving home to work as traders moving merchandise in the region, but the Mosuo women were expected to stay at home and care for the children, houses and crops. They had a caste system and a slave society. 

Joseph Rock who was an American botanist and explorer wrote articles that brought the area to the attention of Americans. He stayed near the lake for a time during the mid 1920s. He wrote about the people he met in the region. He wrote: 

“The last peaceful place on the planet, the last place where war has never existed, where people live in harmony, is Lugu Lake.” 

In this decade, there has been a tourist boom, and the government wants to make Lugu Lake a tourist destination like Lijiang and Dali. The valley was recently electrified and roads, resorts and hotels, and amusement areas are being built to serve the increasing number of tourists and in anticipation of a tourist boom that will begin when a domestic airport is completed in the area about 2011 or 2012.  


It is about 100 kilometers as the arrow flies from Lijiang, but because the bus takes a circuitous route up a dirt road, buses cover about 200 kilometers over several mountains and ethnic areas and the trip takes about six or eight hours。

Touring Activities

1. Walk in the scenic areas.
2. Hike.
3. Take a tram to see the lake and walk on stairs up to a big cave.
4. Try the local cuisine that traditionally features frogs, preserved pork, and lots of meat. There is local brew called Sulima that is like strong wine. It is usually offered to guests. 

Traveling Information

  1. Transportation: Presently, the trip on the dirt roads from Lijiang takes about six or eight hours, and people often say the ride is a little scary.
  2. Cash Machines (ATMs): Bring plenty of cash because it may be hard to find an ATM that accepts a tourist’s card.
  3. Altitude: The lake and the surrounding region are at a high altitude of about 2 and a half kilometers or about one and a half miles and higher. You may experience altitude sickness the first two days, so take it easy.
  4. Clothing: The lake is sometimes snowbound in the winter. Bring warm clothes even in the summer.
  5. Best Time to Visit: Unless you like wintry Alpine weather, come when it is warm. The valley is sometimes snowbound in the winter. It is difficult for buses to travel on ice. The rainy season extends from June to September so to avoid the rain, come in May and in the early fall.
  6. Hiking: It is said that the Mosuo are not very friendly to strangers. So if you go hiking away from lake, bear that in mind. It is best to hike with friends.

Nearby Attractions

To experience more of the ancient traditions and culture, visit the higher-altitude Mosuo villages. You can hike out of the valley to other destinations like Yading Nature Reserve. Be careful, because these paths are not usually hiked by tourists. If you get injured, it may be difficult to find medical attention or people who speak your language. Nearby to the south, the area of Tiger Leaping Gorge is a good hiking trail with comfortable inns all along the High Trail. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges on earth. The High Trail goes the whole distance. 

The Naxi who live around Lijiang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge area are a people similar to the Mosuo and are less primitive. They have an interesting hieroglyphic writing system. To the south of the Naxi region live the Bai people around the Dali valley and the valley of Shaxi. More than a thousand years ago, the powerful empire of the Nanzhao left behind cave grottoes and temple sites in Shaxi and a tall, well-preserved pagoda in the Ancient City of Dali. The old Chama or Southern Silk Road areas in both Shaxi and Lijiang are UNESCO World Heritage sites.