Explore Yunnan’s magical mountains
Perhaps it’s the effects of landing at an altitude of 3300 metres above sea level. Or maybe it’s the fantasy-like landscape — a setting of mud-brick villages, monasteries and monks you’d expect to see in kung-fu movies. Whatever is in the air, being in Shangri-La leaves me with a feeling that I’ve arrived in another world and, at times, I wonder if I’m visiting another planet. Everything seems like it’s on steroids. Colours are brighter and sounds are louder.
Not long after landing in Shangri-La, my head begins to throb and I feel breathless whenever I move too quickly. I’m astonished to see a small black pig standing patiently at a pedestrian crossing, just like a person, trotting across the black-and-white lines only when the traffic has stopped. It almost seems like it’s the most natural thing in the world for a pig to do. And perhaps it is, in Shangri-La. Well, there seems to be an unwritten rule that animals have right of way.
The region in Yunnan province in the south of China shares a border with Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Tibet. About one-third of the population is Tibetan and Tibetan culture is an influence. The Tibetans live by the rules of karma, believing the deeds of this life will influence the next.
Some say this place might be James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-La, which the author describes in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon as a lost Himalayan utopia in the wilds of western China, a mountain paradise with a Tibetan monastery in the fictional Valley of the Blue Moon. It’s a happy place, with people who live long, blissful lives beneath the snowy peak of Mount Karakal.
The Shangri-La I’m visiting was formerly known as Zhongdian but changed its name in 2001 after winning a competition in which counties across China vied to be called Shangri-La.
My guide, Lobsang, who trained as a monk in Tibet and India, speaks Nepali, Tibetan and English more fluently than China’s national language, Mandarin.
The area’s main attraction is the Songzanlin Monastery, which is the largest Tibetan monastery outside Tibet and home to 700 monks of the Gelug, or Yellow Hat, sect, of which the present Dalai Lama is the head.
The monastery is called Little Potala Palace for its traditional Tibetan architecture of multi-coloured roofs, statues, gumpas, scriptures and temples. One temple has an eight-metre-high gilded statue of Buddha, beautiful paintings of Buddha’s life and altars festooned with yak butter lamps.
I move from hall to hall, trying my best to avoid the tour groups visiting from other regions of China, who swarm through the temples accompanied by guides providing commentaries through booming loudspeakers. The best view of the monastery is from my balcony at MGallery Songtsam Retreat, where the Tianbao range is a shadowy squiggle on the horizon.
The hypnotic mosaic of Tibetan technicolour, puffy white clouds, bright blue skies and the Songzanlin Monastery, which rises from golden-dappled plains like a mystical palace, caresses my soul.
The retreat is decorated with Tibetan embroidered door curtains, thankas (religious paintings) and mantras (sounds or words capable of creating spiritual transformation). The minibar is stocked with oxygen canisters and vials of hong jing tian (Rhodiola rosea), a Chinese herbal medicine used to neutralise the effects of the altitude; both come in handy.
There’s a Western restaurant and a Tibetan restaurant, with a menu dominated by yak. Yak soup, fried yak and Tibetan yak hotpot are novelties at first, but the tough, gamey meat quickly loses its appeal. Fortunately for vegetarians, the ground is fertile and the region produces tomatoes, potatoes and 120 different kinds of mushrooms.
Near the city, Pudacuo National Park, which was the first national park in China to meet International Union for Conservation of Nature standards, is visited by few foreign tourists but is popular with the Chinese. Buses drive around the park’s circuit and visitors can hop on or off at any time.
I stretch my legs at Shudu Lake, which has a flat timber walkway around the water’s edge. At this altitude, the 2.7km walk is a comfortable stroll and a visual feast of autumn leaves. Another scenic gem in the park is Bita Hai Lake, which is part of the Three Parallel Rivers Scenic Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tea Horse Road and Tiger Leaping Gorge
Shangri-La was a major stopover along the Ancient Tea Horse Road through Yunnan and the route along which tea from China was transported to Tibet, Burma and India. These days, the old town is a warren of shops selling yak tails, horns and meat, silver jewellery and brightly woven shawls.
The Tea Horse Road was created during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) to move tea from southern Yunnan and Sichuan provinces into Tibet. Tea was carried by mules and on the backs of tea porters, who walked for days carrying their own weight in tea through snow, wind and along high mountain ranges.
Horse trading began during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE), when China’s warring rulers traded tea for horses from Tibet. It is believed that 15,000 war horses were traded for 5000 tonnes of tea. These days, a road trip from Shangri-La to Lijiang, another main centre on the Tea Horse Road, takes around four hours.
We stop at Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze, roars in a series of rapids between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain. The 16km canyon is one of the world’s deepest. It earned its name from a legend in which a tiger is said to have jumped over the river while fleeing a hunter.
Flights of stairs lead deep into the canyon, down to a timber platform where the scenery is lovely. But it’s the swirling, frothing river and its raw energy that has me captivated.
On the opposite bank is a stone statue of a tiger on the spot from which the tiger is believed to have leapt. If the legend is true, the tiger must have had magical powers, as the gap is at least 25m. To get to the statue there’s a trekking path called the High Road, a rough, earth track used by Naxi people to travel between villages, and another called the Low Road, which is sealed and used by day-trippers to reach lookout points around the gorge.
I don’t break a sweat on the way down into the gorge but climbing back up is quite a struggle. Fortunately, there are wiry men who earn their living carrying people up on sedan chairs for 100 yuan ($15). As they haul me up the steep stairs, puffing and panting, the chair tips backwards and I’m fearful of being dropped. Halfway up, they stop for a rest and I take the opportunity to walk. Twenty steps later, I realise how difficult it is to climb even a few steps at this altitude.
Labyrinths and lanterns
Lijiang’s cobblestone laneways, slanting roof lines and 1000-year-old canals are straight out of a Chinese fairy tale. Yet, after dark, China’s 21st century personality reveals itself in Xinhua Street, or “bar street”, where Cantonese, Taiwanese and Mandarin pop music rattles the old Chinese timber houses to their canal-side foundations. Crowds of young Chinese drink beer and dance under blue, green and pink neon disco strobes.
I follow the moon, which is a white ball shrouded in swirls of cloud, past yak, snack and souvenir shops and a man dishing out sweet beancurd from earthenware pots on a street corner, into mysterious alleyways filled with quiet, dimly lit bars.
Like Shangri-La, Lijiang is a hub for a minority culture. It was once the capital of the Naxi kingdom. The Naxi are the largest of the 26 minority groups who live along the plains beneath the snow-covered Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. They have their own language and pictographic writing and practise the Dongba religion, a blend of shamanistic rituals, Tibetan Buddhism and Tao Confucianism.
My Naxi guide, Sophia, is also called Lamu, which means Princess of the Moon Spirit. We discuss Naxi culture and another minority group, the Mosuo, a matriarchal society in which property and names are passed down from mother to daughter and disputes are settled by female elders.
Until the 20th century, marriage didn’t even exist in Mosuo culture and women took lovers whenever it pleased them. Some traditional Mosuo families still practise a custom called zou hun, or “walking marriage”, whereby from the age of 12 daughters are encouraged to receive male visitors in the family home. Women choose strong men to spend the night and the children, who are cared for collectively by the mother’s family, often have no idea who their fathers are.
With 13 peaks above 4000m, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain dominates Lijiang’s landscape. At the cable car station, which is 3356m above sea level, the cable car glides above misty tree tops and rocky mountain slopes with low-lying shrubbery. The air becomes frosty as we float about a glacier.
Bundled in layers of warm clothing, I’ve come prepared for the altitude with two cans of oxygen, which I suck at greedily when I reach the viewing platform below its highest peak, Shanzidou. The platform is 4506m high and has timber stairs that lead to another viewing platform nearer to Shanzidou’s peak, which is 5596m high.
There’s magic in the air in this place in the clouds. The peak rises above me like a conical cake sprinkled with icing sugar, while children make angels on the snow below.
The fusion of ancient culture and modern relaxation therapies is a growing trend in Yunnan. Here are two spas that offer a blissful experience.
Linka Spa, MGallery Songtsam Retreat
The Tibetans believe the mountains around Shangri-La possess a healing force and Linka Spa has treatments that tap into this energy. Buddhist mantra chanting clears the mind. Indigenous ingredients such as roseroot, organic coffee, honey and yak butter are blended to use in spa treatments.
Wellbeing activities include traditional Tibetan movements that harmonise body and mind, breathing strategies for coping at high altitudes and a sensational Tibetan yak butter massage. The massage uses a blend of yak butter and roseroot that is at least a year old. The butter is melted and rubbed on the body to rejuvenate tired muscles and improve circulation.
Mandara Spa, Pullman Lijiang Resort & Spa
Opened in early 2011, the resort is laid out like a Chinese village, with traditional tiled upturned roofs. There’s a lake, bars, two restaurants, a library, conferencing facilities and the Mandara Spa. The spa uses ancient local treatments such as chrysanthemum tea foot rituals, yak milk baths and green tea treatments.
China Southern Airlines has flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Guangzhou, with connections to Shangri-La from, $1192 (including tax). See www.flychinasouthern.com or call 1300 889 628.
MGallery Songtsam Retreat’s Himalayan Experience package includes accommodation for two, all meals, transfers, tickets to the monastery, three spa treatments per person and cultural activities from 4628RMB ($690) a person. 1300 855 975, www.accorhotels.com
Pullman Lijiang Resort & Spa has accommodation in private villas furnished with traditional Chinese and regional Naxi touches. There are Garden villas with hot tubs, pool villas with private plunge pools, two-bedroom villas and a presidential villa. Rooms from US$240 and villas from US$405. 1300 855 975, www.accorhotels.com
When to go
March to August for wildflowers, September and October for blue skies and the harvest season activities.
Christina Pfeiffer is a writer based on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast who has a fascination for mountain cultures.