National Geographic: Welcome to the Wild West of China

I wrote this awhile ago and reading it today takes me straight back to the magical trip I went on with Abercrombie & Kent last fall. Check out my latest piece here, up on National Geographic today!

China's Wild West

“Welcome to the Wild West of China,” my guide said as we touched down in Lijiang after a 4-hour flight from Shanghai. Though I didn’t yet spot any cowboy boots, I was indeed far west in the Yunnan province, at the foothills of the Himalaya; bordered by Laos, Vietnam, and Burma.

For an instant introduction to the region, I attended a performance of “Impressions of Lijiang,” with the sacred Jade Dragon Mountain looming behind the outdoor theater.  It is truly a spectacle of local culture, with hundreds of the minority Naxi people performing songs and dances. And no wonder the show is such a creative triumph; the force behind it is Zhang Yimou, famous for directing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. I couldn’t leave without purchasing a recording of the music that could transport me back to Lijiang over and over again.

The area is difficult to navigate on your own. I traveled on an Abercrombie & Kent itinerary with the warmest expert guide, Gerald Hatherly. He makes centuries of Chinese history come alive daily. A&K is known for making far-flung getaways like the Yunnan accessible — and also happens to be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Banyan Tree was our base in Lijiang, and its architecture reflected the design of the Naxi homes while providing all of the comforts of a great hotel. We rode bikes through a valley of green farmland to the village of Bai Sha, and to the infamous Dr. Ho, who has been credited with healing thousands of people in his 90 years. I received a quick eye scan from Dr. Ho, who instantly pronounced (with Gerald interpreting): “healthy” (whew!). His office contains more than 50 pots filled with therapeutic plants and herbs that he gathers in the mountains. Dr. Ho will proudly show you a letter from the Mayo Clinic thanking him for healing a terminally ill cancer patient. I am convinced that if I return in 30 years, a 120-year-old Dr. Ho will still be there, smiling and healing.

From Lijiang we took a stomach-turning drive through the mountains to Shangri-La, or Zhongdian. An easy hour-long hike through the stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge provided me with a much-needed break in the drive. These mountains are home to Khampa Tibetans, and the area provides a look at Tibetan culture, 13,000 feet above sea level. Each morning, from my room at the Songstam Retreat, I awakened to views of the jagged, snow-capped Himalaya. Gerald introduced me and my group to farmer friends of his in the town of Ringha who welcomed us in for cups of yak butter tea and to meet their new baby. A warning: the tea is a hyper-local delicacy, and makes you feel like you’re drinking a cup full of hot butter!

The hotel overlooks the 17th-century Songzangling Monastery, home to hundreds of monks practicing Tibetan Buddhism. At the bustling monastery, I toured colorful temples and meditation halls covered in murals. I was even blessed by a living Buddha (a very high-ranking lama) in his prayer hall, which kept me on cloud nine all week.

As you make your 2012 travel wish lists, I hope you consider adding this faraway corner of the globe. The Yunnan is woefully under-traveled, with Westerners accounting for only 1% of visitors. This unusual and exotic journey felt like a well-kept secret: until now!