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!

The Banyan Tree Ringha, Shangri-La, China

The Banyan Tree Ringha is nestled in a Tibetan valley (and yes, it was surreal to be "nestled in a Tibetan valley"), surrounded by green mountains, and about an hour from the Songstam Retreat I wrote about.  One of the staff said "This is where all the overworked people from Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong come to relax. The West is simple." And it made sense right there. Like busy New Yorkers escape to Colorado or Arizona, the city dwellers of China escape to Shangri-La and the Banyan Tree Ringha.

I felt the peace that I only feel when surrounded by mountains and not much else (what I always feel at home in Arizona).  Before we entered the hotel, I spotted these two little piglets running around, glued to each other, and running around snorting. 

The hotel is surrounded by working farms, one of which Gerald at A&K had arranged for us to visit. Through the entrance we went, greeted by smiling faces and beautiful red lanterns hanging on the lobby building.  All the buildings were designed to look like Tibetan farmhouses.  To my right was a bubbling river and green hills, with lodges at the water's edge. To the left were more lodges and the spa.


View from the lobby down to the river

Peaceful river & lodges

Loved these pathways

How cool is this bathtub?!

The spa

View of Ringha & the valley

China: The Banyan Tree Lijiang

Has anyone even heard of Lijiang? I hadn't, but it has nearly 1.3 million people living in this Chinese city in the west.  When we flew from Shanghai to Lijiang, I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  Usually, I have some sort of frame of reference for where I'm going. Not with the Yunnan province.   This was the view as we flew down into the valley of the mountains. Sold already right? How absolutely gorgeous.

I was now 8,000 feet above sea level and feeling the change in elevation, gulping down bottles of water to avoid any type of altitude sickness, because the next few days would bring even higher elevations.

Gerald Hatherly, my trusted and beloved Abercrombie & Kent guide, had planned a special itinerary in Lijiang. Most people here are Naxi, a minority group in China but one that is large and believed to have come from Tibet hundreds of years ago.

Exterior of VillaThe Banyan Tree Lijiang blends effortlessly into the landscape of the rural areas of Lijiang and was my home for two nights.  There so many uniquely Chinese design elements from the walkways and villas to the restaurant and spa.  I live for moments on the road that take your breath away.  Seeing this stunning pagoda on the property with a backdrop of green and snow-capped mountains was one of them.  I was someplace so foreign, so unexpected, so beautiful, and so completely unknown to every single friend and family member I have.  I felt enormous responsiblity to bring back these images and adequately explain what I had seen. This is my favorite photo of the entire trip.

My garden villa had three separate areas, the bathroom, bedroom, and office/mini-bar area. 

The bed will remain one of my favorites I've ever slept in, because it had a personal sheet warmer, where I could dial up the heat during the cold night.

In the morning, I walked outside and saw this view.

I loved the stone walkways throughout the resort.

The spa had that same soothing Chinese design, with red, black and gold elements.