Yunnan Province, China’s spectacular Shangri-La

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Lijiang’s celebrated “Big Stone” Bridge must be the selfie-stick capital of the world. It’s a pretty spot in a picturesque town. As crowds jostle to strike a pose among the flowers and cobbles, few notice a nearby sign: “Don’t forget to keep civilised behaviour during outing and also shopping should be rational.”

Bordered by Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Tibet, southwest China’s Yunnan province has become a must-see destination for domestic Chinese visitors. Beautiful scenery, colourful peoples of dozens of different ethnic minorities, and extraordinary biodiversity make it as exotic for residents of Shanghai and Beijing as for westerners.

Geographically, culturally and ethnically close to Tibet, Lijiang has a distinct edge, not merely as a popular destination in itself but as a soft springboard for the wilder and higher country beyond.

As the one-time capital of the Naxi – an ethnic group descended from nomads who migrated from northern China – the town prospered for centuries as a result of its position on the Tea Horse Road, an ancient network of trails on which hardy caravans transported goods, and tea in particular, to Tibet, returning with horses. The trade died out in the 1940s, and Lijiang faded into obscurity until the early 1980s when China began to welcome foreign tourists. On my first visit in 1989, a handful of simple hotels and creaky guesthouses catered to backpackers lured by tantalising reviews in guidebooks. Now creaky has been replaced by comfort and high-end visitors have joined the backpackers.

“The 1996 earthquake changed everything,” explains Jonathan Liu of Aman Resorts’ new Amandayan property, overlooking Dayan, Lijiang’s historic old town. It’s my first (and last) stop on a 10-day, chauffeur-driven loop through some of China’s most spectacular landscapes on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. The quake destroyed a significant portion of Dayan and the government imposed strict regulations on its restoration. Today, says Liu, it’s hard to distinguish between the town’s “old-old” and “new-old” courtyard houses, with their grey tiled roofs, upturned eaves and carved window frames.

Collectively, they form a charming enclave of lanes ribbed with willow-hung streams and quaint bridges. Framed by Lion Hill, the impeccably rebuilt Mu Mansion – erstwhile palace of Lijiang’s ruling chieftains – still dominates Dayan. Lion Hill, and Lijiang in turn, are dominated by the 18,360ft-high Mount Yulong, or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a glorious peak that helps create one of the region’s most sublime settings.

Unsurprisingly, this idealised vision of “Old China” now draws countless visitors – in part because elsewhere so much of China’s venerable architecture has been torn down – and is avowedly commercial. Virtually every former house is a neat boutique, stylish café or restaurant, most of them rented from their Naxi owners by entrepreneurial Han Chinese.

But one can still find areas less touched by commercialism.

At Black Dragon Pool, outside Lijiang, the shimmering waters act as a mirror for a dainty pagoda, an arched bridge and the snow-capped Mount Yulong; most afternoons, the views can be admired while listening to a small, all-male Naxi “orchestra” rehearsing once-banned folk music. The town’s main market, too, offers great opportunities for people watching. Yunnan is home to almost half of the country’s 56 recognised ethnic minority groups, some of whom come to the market to trade and parade. You might see Naxi matriarchs in traditional sheepskin capes embellished with symbolic designs, or Bai women in distinctive multi-layered bonnets, or Yi women in dazzling embroidered skirts and curtain-like turbans.

In Yuhu village, just beyond Lijiang, one gets an earthier glimpse of local life in the dusty lanes, lined with distinctive stone houses and tethered packhorses. The main attraction here is the former home of Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American botanist-explorer who was resident here on and off for almost 30 years until 1949.

Rock studied Naxi culture and its matriarchal society in forensic detail and documented his expeditions in nearly a dozen features for National Geographic magazine. His modest home is now a tiny museum housing both his possessions and his beautiful photographic vignettes of Naxi rituals and rural life.

Back in 1924, Rock ventured north of Lijiang and hiked part of what is called Tiger Leaping Gorge (folklore claims that the desperate animal leapt across at its narrowest point to escape a hunter), which he described as Yunnan’s finest natural feature. Here, the youthful Yangtze cuts a dramatic canyon – in some parts nine miles long by two miles deep – that has become a major attraction. Below the road, I descended a modern stairway to a series of platforms, one of them glass-floored, that afforded terrific views of the wild river below.

Driving on through a forested valley and winding up on to a lofty plateau, I passed the first Tibetan farmsteads – huge trapezial houses with fat timber pillars and recessed verandas – that heralded Shangri-La city. Originally called Gyalthang by Tibetans and Zhongdian by the Chinese, the city and region were rebranded in 2001 as part of a deliberate ploy to link them with Shangri-La, the fictional mountain utopia of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Located at about 10,500ft, this area marks the start of the Tibetan world and culture that stretches west to Lhasa and beyond.

Covered market and enormous hilltop prayer wheel aside, you can safely skip Shangri-La’s bland modern district. The real attraction here lies on the edge of town, cradled among hills beside a shallow lake and the first of six Songtsam lodges that allow visitors to make a glorious circuit of this region. Ganden Sumtseling is Yunnan’s largest and most important Tibetan monastery; a confection of outbuildings and monks’ quarters set around golden-roofed prayer halls decked with banners and Buddhist symbols.

Established by the fifth Dalai Lama in 1679, and once home to 2,000 monks, today it houses around 600 men, part of a deliberate policy on the part of the authorities to restrict the size of religious communities and thus their potential for “subversion”. Much of the monastery has been rebuilt, and some western visitors seem almost disappointed by the relative lack of grime, as though its heritage has been compromised. Yet, as one local explained, for Tibetans this doesn’t matter: “The Fifth chose this spot for a reason, not just at random, so it remains a sacred place.”

I was free to stroll through the complex and visit its main prayer halls, their interiors rich with swirling murals depicting the Buddha’s life, cabinets groaning with weighty tomes, huge Buddha statues and flickering butter lamps. The spell was broken only by several closed-circuit cameras, reminders of China’s prickly hold on nearby Tibet and the murky frontier between security and sedition.

Edged by grasslands dotted with hamlets, wooden hay-drying racks and grazing ponies, the road climbed from nearby Napa Lake to a forested pass before winding into a spectacular barren gorge to rejoin the Yangtze. Here, in a tranquil side valley just above Benzilan town, lies another of Songtsam’s lodges, a cosy base from which to hike the surrounding hills. Walking up a track alongside a gurgling stream, I spied small hamlets, a Buddhist temple, then terraced fields in which cheery locals waved, seemingly astonished to see a stranger. Passing one woman, spinning wool beside a prayer wheel, it struck me how austere yet contented the locals’ lives appeared, surrounded by scenery straight from Hilton’s mythical idyll.

The next day, as we drove north of Benzilan, the scenery stepped up a gear with an extraordinary eagle’s-eye view of the Yangtze snaking through a deep valley. Finally, at the 14,000ft Baima Snow Mountain Pass, we had sight of our first in-your-face Himalayan panorama. A new double-tunnel and viaduct – part of China’s ambitious plans to improve the region’s infrastructure – will eventually make this phenomenal pass optional, if not obsolete.

By mid-afternoon I had reached the Songstam Meili Lodge in Gujinong village, famed for its views across the yawning Mekong valley to Meili Xue Shan. This spectacular massif of 13 major peaks is crowned by 22,000ft Khawa Karpo, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred mountains. In clear weather, dawn’s amber glow creeping across these permanently snow-clad peaks was unforgettable; from my front-facing room, I viewed the unfolding spectacle from my bed.

Driving north, we passed the modern “neo-Tibetan” government buildings of Deqen town, then the dinky 17th-century Feilai Temple where Tibetan travellers – several on mud-splattered motorbikes with sheepskin saddles – paused to throw clumps of aromatic juniper into bulbous clay burners before praying inside. The people here, I noticed, look very different from those in the valleys below: more ruddy and weather-beaten from herding dzos, the region’s ubiquitous crossbreed of cattle and yak. At a celebrated viewpoint of Mount Meili, I joined pilgrims clutching prayer beads and chanting mantras, circling a row of whitewashed chorens or stupas, many repeating the circuit an auspicious three, six and even nine times.

Across the precipitous Mekong valley, Meili’s muscular flanks offer days of exploration and hiking but, with little time to spare, I opted to visit Yunnan’s largest glacier, Mingyong. A century ago, its lip licked the subtropical forest on the edge of Mingyong village; today it has retreated almost a mile and a half. From the village, electric carts whisk visitors about halfway, from where it’s a steady slog up a trail festooned with prayer flags. Hardy Tibetans, young and old, sang and whistled rapturously as they reached the Prince Temple, behind which the glacier uncoiled beneath Khawa Karpo’s icy gaze. For many pilgrims, this was an easy stage one in an arduous two-week circuit of the entire massif.

Back at the lodge that evening, I was grateful for the homely warmth of its fire as I feasted on delicious local food: battered fish, sliced pork, greens sautéed in garlic, aromatic mushrooms and strips of yak. Never has Chinese beer tasted so good. Founded by a Swiss-based Tibetan émigré, the new Shangri-La Highland Craft Brewery’s Tibetan Pale Ale and Black Yak proved as heady as they were hearty.

The next day’s drive was even more spectacular than the last, as we plunged into the Mekong valley through the heart of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, a Unesco World Heritage site. Here, outstanding biodiversity meets freakish topography.

For around 180 miles, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween flow south in snug parallel between these great mountains, their waters chiselling immense cliffs and barren slopes into steep valleys and broad alluvial plains dotted with pretty green fields.

As we navigated the Mekong’s spectacular course, the landscape softened at Cizong, which, at first glance, looked much like any other village, other than one building: a European-looking church with Chinese-style roof and vineyard. In the mid-19th century, French and Swiss Catholic missionaries came here, planted Rose Honey vines (now extinct in France) to produce wine for their services, and converted small numbers of Tibetans. A handful of churches were built, Cizong’s the largest, and despite communism and the Cultural Revolution, Christianity endured.

Which is how, for one surreal hour, I came to attend Mass. Father Yao led the small Tibetan congregation in Mandarin and although the prayers had the cadence of a Buddhist chant, they were peppered with “Hallelujahs” and “Amens”. For the Eucharist, there was wine – downed only, I noticed, by Father Yao.

Almost every family in Cizong still makes “wine” and offers tastings to visitors, although Alexis de Guillebon, a French expat in the verdant hills, explained it wasn’t really wine. This was an observation rather than a criticism: the original vines are tired and techniques amiss. But tapping this curious heritage, de Guillebon’s fledging winery aims to produce fine wine from recently planted vines to sell to increasingly discerning Chinese consumers.

In this astonishing and increasingly worldly part of China, the spirit of Shangri-La might yet be bottled.

Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861) offers a tailor-made 13-day trip to Yunnan from £3,995 per person, twin share, taking in Chengdu, Lijiang and the Songtsam trail. This includes flights, transfers, guides, most meals and accommodation (see details below).

Where to stay on the Tea Horse Trail

Northwest Yunnan

The international gateway to this area – the fertile plains around Dali and Erhai Lake, quaint Lijiang, Shangri-La and the dramatic scenery of Mount Meili – is Chengdu, capital of neighbouring Sichuan province and southwest China’s best-connected hub.

Temple House, from Swire Hotels, was last year’s mega-debut and is the city’s top place to stay: two glamorous L-shaped towers housing 100 high-tech rooms and 42 apartments, and surrounded by pretty landscaped grounds (0086 28 6636 9999; thetemplehousehotel.com; doubles from £185, room only).

Lijiang

Dayan, Lijiang’s old town, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and Aman Resorts’ new Amandayan is the finest hotel in the town: a serene Sino-Tibetan style property overlooking the historical centre and the mountains beyond from a peerless location on Lion Hill (0086 888 533 9999; aman.com; doubles from £500). Hidden amid Dayan’s labyrinthine lanes is the boutique-like LUX* Tea Horse Road Lijiang, whose 10 rooms fuse modern and traditional design (0086 888 559 6666; luxresorts.com; doubles from £88).

Shangri-La

The Monastery is the key sight in town, and Songtsam Lodges – the original in the portfolio of six in this region – has 75 traditionally decorated rooms a stone’s throw away. Slightly further is the Songtsam Retreat, with cottages and spacious living areas (0086 887 8288 8886; songstam.com; doubles from £113).

Mount Meili

The Songtsam Circuit of lodges is situated in the upper Yangtze and Mekong valleys, including in Meili Snow Mountain National Park and fine rural locations at Benzilan, Meili, Cizong and Tacheng. While not luxurious, each of the lodges is comfortable and stylish, featuring Tibetan furnishings, artefacts and motifs, as well as selections of Joseph Rock photographs (songtsam.com; doubles from £197, full board). In Benzilan, the new LUX* Tea Horse Road Benzilan, a more conventional hotel with Tibetan-tinged architecture, has just opened (0086 887 8998000; luxresorts.com; doubles from £84, room only).

The Guardian

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