Snowy mountains, hot salty butter tea in Yunnan

Shangri-La is the name of a fictional utopia in a 1933 novel. The real Shangri-La, Zhongdian county in Yunnan province, lives up to the reputation

I gatecrash a resplendent Tibetan wedding and it is a portal into a joyous, hidden China.

It is my first morning in secluded Shangri-La city, nestled near the Himalayas, and our car is circling a Buddhist stupa.

We spy two young men, stylish in leather jackets, who are firing crackers into a red barrel atop a pick-up truck.

They are off to a wedding, our driver says.

An Alice-in-Wonderland moment is conjured up when we trail the truck, to a place yet unknown. The wedding venue turns out to be a small hotel, where the bride and groom soon emerge from a limousine adorned with miniature woolly yaks and silk.

Then the merriment amplifies with more fire crackers and dancing in the courtyard.

  • GETTING THERE

    To get to Shangri-La city, fly on SilkAir (www.silkair.com) from Singapore to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China.

    From Kunming, take a domestic flight on China Eastern Airlines (sg.ceair.com/en) to the Diqing Shangri-La Airport. 

    Alternatively, SilkAir also flies to the south-western cities of Chongqing and Chengdu. Then book a domestic flight to Shangri- La. 

    The Hidden Valley Resort (www.thehiddenvalleyresort.com) arranges the 20-minute car ride from the airport to the resort. Room rates for the five Tibetan tented villas are US$380 (S$514) a person a night. 

    For the 10 rooms in the Tibetan Residence, rates start at US$280 a person per night. These all-inclusive rates cover accommodation, farm-to-table meals, guided culture and adventure experiences and domestic transportation.

  • TRAVEL TIPS 

    • Be alert to spontaneous local experiences, such as weddings and harvests. The Tibetans are gracious, and we ask politely to join them. Sometimes, they invite travellers home for a cup of butter tea. 

    • There are new experiences in every season. Mushroom foraging is from May to September, for instance. Other months are filled with weddings, highland barley harvesting and black-necked crane watching – consult the resort. 

    • Travel is unpredictable in destinations with changeable conditions. Our day-trip plans to see rare snub-nosed monkeys and a winery were hobbled by a landslide. But just seek worthy alternatives – we step into an idyllic village in a valley and an alpine park. Keep an adventurous attitude. 

    • Glamping is a little colder and wilder than lounging in a hotel room, but the traveller will be wonderfully in tune with nature. 

    • Acclimatise to the high altitude. No need to move at a hectic Singaporean pace, especially during the first couple of days. Your doctor may prescribe medication to prevent altitude sickness.

With my two Singaporean travel companions, I mingle with guests clad in vivid garments, the men bearing silver daggers.

Trays of snacks are passed around, and I relish the fragrant roasted barley harvested from highland fields.

TIBETAN REALM

Ringed by snowy mountains, alpine lakes and grasslands, Shangri-La is a Tibetan realm deep inside south-west China.

It rises 3,300m on the Tibetan Plateau, loftier than the more traversed Lijiang and Kunming that are also cities in Yunnan province.

On a recent week-long glamping adventure at The Hidden Valley Resort (www.thehiddenvalleyresort.com), set up by four Singaporean childhood friends in a hamlet minutes from the city, I step into the Tibetan world again and again. Almost 80 per cent of the people here are Tibetan.

Spontaneously, we are ushered into a housewarming party where the feast is arrayed on low tables. We follow harvesters cutting red stalks of quinoa under a sparkling sky.

The resort plans experiences rich in local flavour when we visit a Tibetan family and sip hot, salty butter tea - or when we wander in a market where I savour red sugar, spring-onion roots and less-known delicacies.

Then there are the inspiring vistas, from the seasonal lake Napa Hai to a horseshoe-shaped bend on the Jinsha River, as the upper Yangtze is called.

Everywhere, it feels like we have journeyed to a different, distant China.

Every day, we encounter Tibetan open-heartedness, especially when we turn polite gatecrashers on a quest for insider experiences.

GATECRASHING GENTLY

So when we linger outside an outdoor housewarming lunch in an enclave near the Napa Hai lake, the beaming host welcomes us and we are not the only passing foreigners who find ourselves in the middle of a feast.

We sit at low tables with sumptuously dressed Tibetan merrymakers, and plate after tantalising plate of food appear before us.

I delight in the century eggs with a translucent lemon-yellow albumen, stir-fried string tofu and braised minced yak meat, among the dozen exotic dishes.

Then the guests get up to tour the premises, which are embellished with a pond and a small stupa bedecked with prayer flags.

The mansion is all wood and steep steps in the Tibetan style. We see signs of home-building every day - many rugged Tibetans devote years to crafting these dream houses, sometimes with logs hauled from the mountains and help from neighbours.

Spontaneously, again, we pop into a field near our resort when we notice women of all ages striding into a field to clear the succulent ruby-striped stalks of quinoa. It is the first harvest of trendy, profitable quinoa in a zone of highland barley.

It is hard labour but the women appear light-hearted, singing Tibetan tunes and doing a jig for our cameras.

  • Glamping resort dreamt up by four friends

  • When four Singaporean childhood friends on a road trip to the far west of China were shown a hidden valley in Shangri-La by a local in 2012, they started dreaming of a perfect little retreat for themselves.

    The allure was the Tibetan culture at this frontier and the ancient Tea Horse Road that passed through Shangri-La in Yunnan province.

    The Chinese empire once traded tea for Tibetan horses that they prized for war, using a legendary trade route that wound 6,000km through some of the world's harshest and grandest terrain of snow passes and gorges.

    The quartet began to think bigger. They decided to build Yunnan's first glamping resort, and open it to travellers. The Hidden Valley Resort would be Tibetan-inspired, yet be a modern and sumptuous sanctuary.

    Among them, architect Calvin Sim, 56, co-founder of Singapore design firm Eco.id Architects, had oversight of the design and planning of the 15-key resort set in a meadow amid mountains.

    Mr Sim, along with his friend Mr Philip Cheng, 56, the Hong Kong-based regional chief financial officer of an American Fortune 500 firm, described the resort's essence and their journey in building it, in an interview in Singapore.

    The five tented villas have heated king-sized beds, fancy Japanese-style toilets and wood-burning stoves. Custom-built, the tents were tested for winter-worthiness on site.

    The 150-year-old Tibetan residence, purchased from a village chief, was dismantled log by log and hauled to the 7ha site with yaks. It has lots of communal spaces including a patio, and none of the 10 rooms are alike.

    Out of nothing, a kilometre of high-tension electric cabling had to be strung. Water purification, underground plumbing and Wi-Fi were set up.

    In all, about about US$5 million (S$6.8 million) was spent on the resort.

    Mr Sim, whose projects include W Maldives and Ritz Carlton Residences Singapore, created a gorgeous library and bar arrayed with bulbous glass and clay qingker or highland-barley wine jars.

    The reception desk is an artsy assemblage of Chinese and Korean chests. Tibetan saddles are suspended on the wall.

    The resort, which was soft-launched last May, officially opens on 22 Feb.

    Mr Cheng, who loves mountaineering, is at home at the resort which sits under starry skies at an altitude of 3,300m.

    "If you live in a city, you feel rested here. It's remote but not so remote - drive 20 minutes and you are in the Old Town. Our location gives you options," he says.

    Their other two friends are also global nomads and urbanites who seek far-flung places.

    Mr Ray Chong, who shuttles between Seattle and Singapore, now owns a restaurant business after a long corporate career.

    Mr Peter Ho has a waste-to-energy business in Singapore, and the resort is a domain for his 30 years of expertise in adventure travel planning and resort management.

    Mr Jeff Fuchs, a Himalayan explorer and Canadian author who wrote The Ancient Tea Horse Road, says of the Tibetan ethos of the resort: "It is a little bit of magic to find a place that reflects the concept of 'taking time'.

    "Traditions are respected, local ways are genuinely incorporated and there a sense that - for a time at least - one can be immersed in a space that encourages a longer look at mountains and their people.''

    I split my recent week-long stay between the residence and a tent, which was luxurious but also a wilder and more vulnerable experience.

    Only a slightly translucent tent separated me from the firmament and the icy, insistent wind and the barking of village dogs, though I thought they were wolves at first.

    Glamping on the Tibetan Plateau was exciting, but I knew this was simply a romantic rendering of how the nomadic Tibetans and traders lived.

    Certainly, I revelled in it. My tenting life came with intuitive service from the local staff, most of them drawn from the local community, for Tibetan authencity.

    The resident chef and resort manager made every farm-to-table meal a feast.

    Hot pot for cold nights, stewed pork ribs infused in herbal wine, lightly battered mushrooms that flourish in the area, novel yak pizza, delicate fish soup, warm beer bread for breakfast, fragrant onion cakes speckled with sesame and 13-spice mix (we had a fun lesson too) and more were relished.

    On our last night, we had a barbecue and private bonfire under a full moon, with Tibetan song and dance by the staff, the young women looking radiant in silken garments.

    The glamping life is indulgent, with intrepid moments.

BUTTER TEA, SWEET CALF

We do not have to step far from the resort, at the edge of tiny Bisong Village, to experience lots of local life.

Within Bisong is the three-storey house built by groundskeeper Lao Yeh (Grandfather), as everyone respectfully calls the resort employee who maintains the grounds flawlessly, cares for a pair of small, strong local horses, leads us on an uphill trek to gather fresh pine cones, and more.

At his home, his wife makes yak butter tea. She slices the creamy butter from a slab and churns it with hot water in a bamboo tube.

"Singaporeans are family,'' she says shyly in Mandarin, as she pours the tea into bowls.

Lao Yeh makes a doughy conconction with tsampa (roasted barley flour) and butter tea, rolling the mixture in his hands. This is the breakfast of champions, a high-energy food with a nutty fragrance that can be eaten all day.

It is like a cultural playtime in their home as we sip potent homemade barley wine mixed with berries. We peer into their grain room, prayer alcove and open hearth, and also notice a washing machine.

A calf, all big eyes and baby fur, is tethered in Lao Yeh's pocket field. It keeps fleeing from me, until the resort's managing director, Ms Cynara Tan, theorises that the calf is triggered by my red jacket.

She lends me her black jacket and the calf draws near, licking me like a puppy.

City-dwellers, I imagine, will capture all the Instagram-worthy scenes of clean and cuddly black piglets, the peaceable dzo (a hybrid of yak and domestic cattle), tall racks of organic barley, chiselled Tibetan faces and other elements of rustic idyll.

HIP HERITAGE

Just beyond the resort is another cluster of lifestyle experiences, in and near town.

We explore the market, Old Town, Songzanlin Monastery and award-winning craft beer factory with a Tibetan twist - all compelling windows into the destination.

In the Old Town, we linger in a chic cafe and buy pu'er tea from a traditional purveyor.

We choose gifts from shops where Chinese snacks are artfully arrayed like library books or stock Tibetan crafts with whimsical touches.

At night, there is dancing in the square. It is lovely to know this appeals to locals young and old, who cherish community life even as Shangri-La modernises with highways that seemingly spring up in weeks.

There is another glimpse of hyperlocal life at the market where I sample goodies, starting with a spicy snack of gelatinous, cold bean noodle.

At one of the greengrocers, I break off a strand of verdant, white spring-onion roots - it has a clean, pungent flavour just like the familiar green shoots.

We buy vacuum-packed Yunnan dry-cured ham, which costs 50 yuan (S$10) for a half a kilogram. It can enrich a soup or be stir-fried with Chinese cabbage.

Heritage gets hip at the Shangri-La Highland Craft Brewery. Founded in 2009 by Swiss-born Tibetan Songtsen "Sonny" Gyalzur, 45, it is the largest indie beer company in the country.

China's craft beer industry is growing at 25 per cent a year - 3,000 breweries popped up in the last three years - and the trend is propelled by young Chinese sophisticates, he says.

"Our premium beer is integrated into Shangri-La society,'' he says. "We source pure mineral water from a 4,000m lake. The beer is brewed with highland barley or qingker."

Also, 80 per cent of the staff, including a young deputy, are from his mother's orphanages here and in Lhasa, Tibet, adds Mr Gyalzur, the suave face of the new Shangri-La.

Using German technology, six beers are brewed here, including the popular, robust Black Yak that has coffee bean and dark chocolate overtones.

Limited editions have included the Russian Imperial, thick like Yunnan coffee.

MOON RIVER

Farther afield, I love the sense of purity at the seasonal Napa Hai lake and the contemplative Dongzhulin Monastery with towering butter sculptures and alcoves, including one filled with weapons.

We also make black Nixi plates with a potter who uses 2,000-year-old techniques and lets us pluck pears from his tree.

We also wander in the Xiao Zhongdian village set in a windswept valley.

The Napa Hai is a seasonal lake near Shangri-La. In summer, snow from the mountains floods a series of rivers, turning them into a vast lake. In the November-to-April dry season, the shape-shifting Napa Hai is an endless grassland.

On my late October visit, the lake is still full. It will take an hour to drive around it except that the ring road is flooded.

We sneak up on the animal life on the shores instead - horses with tassles; kinetic rootling piglets; and dzos with curved horns and tinkling bells that intrigue urbanites.

That day, we see the lake again at the golden hour before sunset, when the light is soft and the lake is lustrous.

It is an hour as ephemeral as the lake and great for photography - Chinese tourists with gargantuan telephoto zoom lenses have arrived for the perfect shot but are happy to share the space.

On other days, exhilarating hours are spent at the enigmatic Jinsha Bend, when the Yangtze River loops like a moon or omega sign.

Three mighty rivers of Asia flow here - the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween.

They are part of the Three Parallel Rivers protected area, a Unesco World Heritage Site of wild gorges and glaciated peaks on the border of Sichuan and Yunnan.

LOST HORIZON

Because weather and road conditions are changeable around Shangri-La, our day-trip plans also change. Due to a landslide, we cannot visit a winery that still uses grapes brought here in the 19th century by French missionaries who walked here from Myanmar, crossing perilous mountains.


ST PHOTO: SALLY LAM

Neither can we see the rare Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys in a remote Himalayan valley - so I have to return to Shangri-La another day.

When we confer with the resort's adventure concierge, Mr Sonam Gelek, he suggests alternatives.

We like his choice of the Potatso National Park with its clear alpine lakes and bearded forest of grey-green lichen.

I love the autumnal sakura-like blooms and the last-frontier solitude at China's first national park.

Mr Gelek also suggests Xiao Zhongdian village, and images of our last-minute sojourn still return to me.

Our first glimpse of the village, set in a colossal valley, is from a high point.

We see a gleaming river that locals ride on yak-skin rafts on weekends. We see fields of red and yellow too.

Idyllic and remote, the valley calls to mind the fictional Shangri-La in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon. In the utopia imagined by British author James Hilton, Shangri-La is a mystical valley where near-immortals live.

Shangri-La is actually the new name for Zhongdian county. Many cities on the China-Tibet border have vied for the coveted name, and the Chinese government gave extraordinary Zhongdian that honour in 2001.

As I watch yaks cross the river before sunset, and immerse myself in other lost-in-time scenes, there is a whiff of Lost Horizon.

Shangri-La is another China, hidden and riveting.

Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua.

• The writer's trip was hosted by The Hidden Valley Resort.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 27, 2019, with the headline 'Paradise found'. Print Edition | Subscribe