There are few places in China as wild and beautiful as the
Three Parallel Rivers national park.
Deep in the Meili Xue Shan mountain range, in the remote north-western
corner of Yunnan, close to the border with northern Burma, it’s straight out of
Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
Soaring, glaciated peaks, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries floating in the
clouds, lush terraced valleys and virgin Himalayan forest all collect in this
area which, according to Unesco, is “one of the richest temperate regions of
the world in terms of biodiversity”.
It’s a designated world heritage site and covers more than 960,000
hectares, with buffer zones almost the same size.
Only one thing had held me back from visiting this extraordinary
area and that was the thought of remote Chinese hotels.
Anyone who has stayed at tired
government-run places with their dodgy plumbing and questionable bed linen will
understand my reticence.
However, in May this year, Songtsam lodges announced the opening
of the two new boutique hotels, in Benzilan on the Jinsha river, and further
north in the Meili mountains near Deqin.
The latter is about 50 miles from the Tibetan border.
Songtsam also has two comfortable hotels in the area now
known as Shangri-la.
(In 2001, in
a canny move to encourage tourism to this remote spot, the Chinese government
renamed the region of Zhongdian after the fictional remote utopian lamasery in
The ploy appears to
Songtsam is now opening a series of small lodges in some of
the most scenic parts of this region, forming a circuit that can be done as a
package including local guides and drivers.
The lure of stylish rooms and heady Tibetan vistas, was irresistible.
I set off with my husband in early October, hoping for
clear, cold weather and mountains clad in scarlet and gold forests.
Since Meili is 3,600m above sea level,
we spent a few days in Lijiang (2,400m), another Unesco site, to acclimatise before
driving for six hours along the now popular route to Shangri-la, via the
spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The region is home to around 25 ethnic groups, including Naxi, Yi and
As we climbed ever higher on twisting mountain roads, we
left behind the lush Naxi farmland and pretty Yi villages clinging to the lower
hillsides, and entered what was once Tibet.
It officially became Yunnan when the Chinese government
redefined the borders in 1951.
Stupas and fluttering prayer flags clung to rocky outcrops, and sturdy
white Tibetan houses dotted the landscape.
You know you’re nearing Shangri-la when the landscape
flattens out into rolling pasture surrounded by mountain peaks.
At 3,300m our hotel, the Songtsam Shangri-la, looks over the
back of the towering Songzangling monastery – the largest in Yunnan.
Once home to 4,000 monks, the monastery
is undergoing a massive restoration.
Tourism is funding the gold-leaf-clad roofs, but it is also creeping
into the more remote regions of Yunnan.
Even here, where the Milky Way still forms a great smudge
across the night sky, you can see the huge concrete pillars of a new highway
being built around a far-away mountain.
But it’s easy to forget modernity as you lie in a snug, futon-like
Tibetan bed and drift to sleep to the sound of bells tinkling from a herd of
zos, a crossbreed of cow and yak, grazing in a frosty meadow.
From Shangri-la onwards, my feeling flipped back and forth
from wonder at the sheer natural beauty to horror at the power of 21st-century
tracks of road were being rebuilt, in a bumpy hell of swirling dust, truck
fumes, temporary cement factories and ragged roadside habitation.
Huge scars were cut into the thickly
wooded mountains as the road was excavated and rubble tipped down the side of
In a year or two, this mountain highway will bring
21st-century benefits to isolated communities, but it will take time for the
landscape to recover and you can’t escape a sense that the life you see will
The vistas changed with every twist and turn of the
One minute a verdant,
terraced valley dotted with houses stretched out below.
This was the Nixi valley, where in
dark, dusty rooms, each household still makes ornate black pottery.
The next minutes we were climbing into
forests of Yunnan pine and spruce that are carpeted with tiny, intensely
coloured alpine flowers.
As the morning drifted by, we drove through idyllic valleys
where plum-coloured birds perched on telephone wires and every house was
surrounded with roses, geraniums and marigolds.
Groves of willow and walnut trees sheltered pretty terraces
of vines, maize, pumpkins and potatoes.
Chickens, pigs and small children ran free – boys and girls in rural
communities are sent away to huge Chinese boarding schools once they reach the
age of seven.
carried baskets of manure on their backs from farmyard to field.
Animals live at the bottom of Tibetan
houses and food is stored at the top.
People may not be hungry, but this is farming at its most basic.
After three hours we stopped at Benzilan, the first of the
new Songtsam lodges.
The air was
warm in this sheltered valley and we sat under a wisteria and gazed out over
the farmland before visiting the village.
We’d seen brooks tumbling down every valley, and here one powered a
little wooden threshing wheel.
Animals rootled along the road, and each house had maize, marigolds,
pine kernels, garlic and chillies drying in the autumn sun.
Back at the hotel, we slipped on
Chinese slippers and ate tiny, crispy bamboo skewers of sesame-coated yak and
spiced steamed pumpkin and potato with Tibetan bread.
Our bedroom was simple but comfortable.
At dawn, a villager walked clockwise
around a white stupa, set high up over the valley.
Smoke curled up into the pink sky from the newly lit pine
needles in an incense burner.
Tibetan Buddhism is an integral part of life here, and the catchy
soundtrack of religious songs written by a famous 17th-century Tibetan lama
accompanied our drive.
As we passed through further road works, I though about a
meeting I’d had back in Lijiang with Lushan Jizhen He, who works for the Nature
Conservancy in the Three Parallel Rivers region.
I’d quizzed her about he pressures on natural resources from
wood-felling, and efforts to protect endangered species such as the snub-nosed
Yunnan monkey and the black-necked crane.
She had exuded positive energy as she outlined a raft of preventive
strategies aimed at changing local practices, such as outlawing poaching and
illegal logging, introducing cheap sustainable power, education and
I had been a little sceptical, having seen men selling hawks
for hunting in the mountains and an abundance of furs for sale – even though
our guide had assured me the latter were farmed.
But this journey was changing my perspective.
Everywhere we went, we saw solar water
heaters and biogas being used in place of wood.
Trees had been planted on mountains laid bare by
deforestation. Apparently even the monks were preaching that hunting was anti-Buddhist.
It’s the old dilemma, how do you improve life for the very
poor, while at the same time protecting the environment?
Perhaps tourism could open a door to
further environmental protection.
Songtsam lodges are working hand in hand with NGOs around the world to
help educate their staff and their families, providing them with new more
sustainable ways of earning money.
Suddenly, just below more road excavations, we came across
the ethereal 17th-century Dong Zhu Lin monastery, which seemed to float above a
Wandering through its
richly painted halls, I understood how different Tibetan Buddhism is from other
shamanistic paintings cover its walls, while the statues are more like Hindu
gods than Buddhas.
monks chanting in the main hall while others delicately tapped out brilliantly
toned pigments to create a richly coloured mandala nearby.
Outside, ravens circled and the wind
rang the temple roof bells.
By the time we entered the Baimang Snow Mountain nature
reserve it was impossible not to be swept away by the scenery.
Glistening, snowy peaks towered over
the rolling highland moors of copper-leafed wild azaleas which in May form a
sea of flowers.
purple rocks jutted at odd angles high above us as we reached a barren high
pass, marked by a thousand prayer flags.
Finally, we descended to Songtsam Meili near Deqin, amid
bubbling streams and wild woods of rhododendrons, berberis and pines draped in
The forest shimmered scarlet,
gold and dark green in the brilliant light. We stepped into the warm comfort of
the stone lodge – all wood stoves, rare old rugs and vases of wild berries –
but our eyes were constantly drawn to the view.
Every one of the 17 rooms looks on to the sacred Meili Snow
Mountain (Kawagebo in Tibetan).
we sipped our sweet ginger tea, I felt that this is why we travel.
Before me lay the delicious possibility
of clambering up the mountain behind the hotel to see yaks grazing in an alpine
meadow or riding up the Mingyong glacier.
For the time being, I was content to gaze at the snowy Tibetan mountains
rising out of the clouds.
watched they glowed pink in the setting sun before turning silver in the
Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2214, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers
an eight-day tailormade itinerary to Yunnan, including nights at the Songtsam
hotels, some meals, flights from Heathrow to Beijing and transfers.
This article first appeared in the Guardian on 18 November