On top of the world

This article first appeared in House & Garden in September 2012.

The moment I stepped into the Opposite House in Beijing, I relaxed.   Designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, it’s a beautiful minimal space in the heart of Beijing’s shopping district. After 10 days high up in Meili Xue Shan mountain range, close to the Tibetan border, it felt luxurious to sit drinking dry martinis and watch Beijing party.   Incredibly, just two days ago we’d been listening to yak bells as dawn broke over Shangri-la – but then, this was proving to be an extraordinary holiday.

It was October, one of the best times to visit the Three Parallel Rivers national park, which lies in the remote north-western corner of Yunnan. This is a spectacular Unesco World Heritage Site with soaring glaciated peaks, sparkling waterfalls and primeval forest.  

Since much of the journey was going to be at altitude, we decided that we should acclimatise in Lijiang, at 2,400 metres. It was like walking into a scene on a willow-pattern plate, all bubbling brooks, bridges and weeping willows. Chrysanthemums line every street and the aromatic smell of grilled yak skewers filled the air.  

After a couple of days’ sightseeing, we set off with our local Naxi guide for Shangri-la, or Zhongdian as it used to be called.   In 2001, to encourage tourism, the Chinese government renamed the region after the fabled lama monastery in James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon.   On the way, we visited Tiger Leaping Gorge, said to be the deepest canyon in the world at 3,000 metres.   The muddy brown water boils through the rocks.   As you walk alongside the river, copper-blue waterfalls tumble down the sides of the mountains and monolithic shards of compressed rock tower above your head.

The landscape becomes increasingly dramatic as we drive ever higher into the mountains. We were entering what was once Tibet. Stupas stood on rocky outcrops, their long strings of prayer flags flapping in the wind.    Suddenly, the road flattened into rolling marshland, surrounded by mountain peaks.   Thick-walled white Tibetan houses dotted the landscape. We were nearing Shangri-la.

An evening mist floated over the meadows as we finally arrived at our hotel, Songstam Shangri-la. Just below our room, the golden roofs of the towering seventeenth century Songzangling monastery - the largest Buddhist monastery in Yunnan - glinted in the setting sun.

At 3,300 metres above sea level, every colour was intense, from the late-flowering nasturtiums to the deep blue of the star-studded night sky.   The rooms were simple, clean and comfortable with low Tibetan futan-like beds and wood-burning stoves.

Our next guide, a Tibetan, introduced himself as we tucked into a supper of sizzling yak meat, barley bread and locally grown wine. Over the next few days we travelled with him, and the best driver we’ve ever had, as we crossed the mountains to a sister hotel, Songtsam Benzilan, set in a beautiful rural valley.   Then to another, Songtsam Meili near Deqin, 3,600 metres up amid snow-clad mountains. Each drive took about three hours.   On the way, we visited the ethereal Dongzhulin monastery, wheich seemed to float between sky and mountain.

At each hotel you can hike into the surrounding countryside.   In Benzilan you pass orchards and barley fields,   In Meili, you cross streams through lichen-clad woods into alpine meadows. In May, the highlands become pink with tiny azaleas.   In October, the woods turn scarlet and gold.

As I sat wrapped in rug, gazing at the majestic Meili Snow Mountain, Beijing felt a million miles away.   How amazing that one minute you can be listening to the sound of a Chinese flute drifting across a lotus pool at Aman at Summer Palace, and the next, you’re hearing Tibetan chanting as someone burns incense at dawn. We’d arrived in Beijing eight days earlier and had instantly been swept up into the magic of Aman - which even has its own door into the Summer Palace, so that we could slip into the gardens before dusk fell.

Yet, that was not the end of this memorable journey.   We were breaking our flight between Shangri-la and Beijing to stop off in Xian to visit the Ox Culture and Ceramics Museum to see Mr Ren Jingwen’s private collection of ox-related ceramics.   Inside is an incredible array of exquisite ceramics, unlike anything I’ve ever seen.   After being shown around, you’re even allowed to handle a few rare pieces.   The Tang teacup almost felt alive, its texture was so sensual.  

Back in Beijing, as we sipped our drinks at the Opposite House, we discussed the intensity of our experience. It felt as though we’ve been away forever, yet we could have happily lingered longer.  

Ways and means  

Sybil Kapoor travelled to China as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent   (0845 618 2214;, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk).   A 10-night itinerary including Lijiang, Zhongdian region, Xian and Beijing costs from £3,895 per person based on two people sharing with international flights.  

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