What is in a name? A lot we guess!
Nestled amongst the lower end of the mountainous Himalayan range, the region of Shangri-La attempts to recreate the splendor that might have been paradise lost. Unfortunately it does not boast of folks having everlasting youth, so do not come with expectations. LOL.
On a cool May afternoon, we flew into the town of Shangri-La in the remote northwestern corner of China’s Yunnan province. The 55 minute flight from Kunming took us to a altitude ~3,200m from ~1,800m. An hour’s drive greeted us as we made our way through the newly paved roads northwards.
In the end, the roads became dirt and we were soon trundling in the hilly outcrops of an old Tibetan village, acquired and refurbished by the Banyan Tree into 32 lodges and suites. While the resort is nestled in the solitude of a former Tibetan village, it is actually surrounded by virgin forests.
Beautifully renovated, each suite or lodge was an actual Tibetan farmhouse that was acquired and sited on the resort. And was usually two storeys, laid over a stone foundation. Each is furnished in the traditional Tibetan style, of which a centerpiece rug is hung atop the bed.
Our double storey lodge had the bathroom on the ground floor. It is spacious and well stocked. Overlooking the nearby river, one can sit in the porch and enjoy the quiet tranquility. Occasionally, you can see a herd of black boars foraging by the riverbed. And should one be tired of walking there is complementary buggy transport between the lodges and the main resort buildings.
After exploring our lodge, we determined to walk around the resort. There is a river that runs beside the hilltop resort. A small bridge across the river allows us to walk to the grass fields.
The resort is surrounded on 3 sides by hills and these hills are said to be still teaming with wild life such as bears and wild deer. Oooh…and the resort staff told us not to roam about on our own, and stumble into wild bears out there.
Now at this altitude, you’d best be doing physical activities at a slow pace. The rarefied air means less oxygen is available with each breath. However it was not possible to resist the allure of walking amongst the grazing grounds by the river.
In the evening, cowherds bring their flocks of Yaks back home. These intelligent creatures graze on grass and roots, some of which are herbal in nature. Yak is bred for both meat and milk as there is little to no agriculture possible at this altitude. Just remember, the warm seasons are very short here.
Tourists are also well advised to keep warm, as you can experience all four seasons in a single day. The rapid change of weather was evident. One morning, we woke up to a scene of white as we experience snowfall overnight in the middle of May!
The mini Potala
Aside from exploring our resort, one key activity is to visit the famous Songtzanlin which we took a we took a cultural “trek” assisted by land rovers of course… This monastery, located about an hour’s drive from our resort is home to about 700 monks. From afar, the monastery does look like the Potala palace in Lhasa, but there are very obvious differences. While both have gold gilded roofs, the crucial difference lies not just in scale but also the fact that the Potala has a large whitewashed base. But it was just for resemblance right?
As in Europe, village settlements congregate around monasteries and this is no exception. As you wonder through the ancient prayer halls, you will notice that it is hardly rebuilt. All these internal structures must have been like it was hundreds of years ago! And out of respect at that time, we refrained from taking photos of the monks deep in meditation or devotion. That’s so unlike today where they have gotten used to visitors…
And like the Potala, you need to ascend long flights of stairs if you were a devotee. Fortunately for tourists like us, it is possible to drive to the top directly. Try your hand at spinning the prayer wheels like the devotees. We are sure you know spinning the wheels is like orally reciting the prayers. So it will earn on more merit and help bring one closer to enlightenment!
Exploring real Tibetan towns
Yet another place to explore is the town of Gyaltsen. Located about half an hour’s drive from Songtzanlin, it is now a modernized town replete with Internet and tea café. We went to the local market to see what is it that locals do. We found a lot of local metalware, made with copper for cooking. Local produce is mainly restricted to Potatoes (an import of course!), dairy products and some wild wheat. The vast majority of the other staples such as vegetables and cereals are “imported” from other parts of China.
Definitely a unique produce is Yak milk, cheese/butter and meat. One might find conical shaped bundles offered for sale in the markets. These are cheese made from raw Yak milk and certainly is NOT for the faint-hearted to try. Yak meat on the other hand was really good. While it tasted a little “gamey”, it was delicious with the spices they used. A must try in our opinion but if one is not into exotic cuisine, it’s okay to stick with the standard fare.
At the old town center, there were many old houses that are preserved. And they are so only because they were in the process of being renovated. This looks like the development that took place in Zhouzhuang and the other towns in Eastern China.
The long hand of commercial development reached even this remote part of China – many of these old houses are converted into shops and eateries. Fortunately when we visited it was not the high season and there weren’t many tourists coming through. We had it easy and the whole street to ourselves. We can only imagine now when the shops are fully opened selling tourist wares. This was sure one trip where Suan could not find anything to buy, so out of desperation we visited a shop that sells earthenware, made from local clay. That pot is still lying unused in the kitchen somewhere…
We fell sick by the second day to altitude sickness and stomach flu and had to leave our resort a day early. So the trek that we had signed on for was cancelled, or at least proceeded without us…sigh. So this adventure was unfortunately cut short due to poor preparedness.
Tip: remember to bring along altitude sickness pills just in case. Better yet, take the course at least a few days ahead of the journey if you are taking the short flight of 50 minutes from Kunming – because it meant little acclimatization time. Just remember that altitude pills are said to make you diuretic – ie you will head to the restrooms more often. But that should not stop you from drinking sufficient water.
Thus above all else, enjoy Shangrila safely. It is one of the places that commercial tourism has only recently began to make an impact. Adventurous ones can partake in any of the treks that take you over the mountain ranges to more remote and authentic villages. The whole region is ripe for exploration!
This journey took place in May 2006
PS: the food arrangements at the Banyan tree does not disappoint. Cuisine of the land was served and there was even air flown seafood. Unfortunately, at the time of dinner we were busy using the oxygen masks that the resort provides to guests who cannot acclimatize…so could only longingly look at the food but cannot enjoy it without returning them…ahem in less glamorous form…