WHY YOU SHOULD TRAVEL TO THE MYSTERIOUS KINGDOMS OF SOUTHWEST CHINA

When we talk about safaris, most of us think about Africa. When we talk about national parks, most of us think about the United States or Canada. And when we talk about aboriginal culture, maybe Australia comes to mind.

However, what if you could combine the three of them together? And would you ever consider China the perfect destination to do so?

Above: rice terraces and Songzanlin Buddhist Temple, both in Yunnan Province

In 1933, James Hilton published Lost Horizon. Even though it’s fiction, it delivers an impression to readers about the southwest region of China, a mysterious kingdom with great landscapes and a strong Buddhist culture. In fact, if you travel to Yunnan province, where the story happened, a world way beyond Hilton’s fiction will be revealed, where travellers can find the best-preserved natural and cultural heritage in China.

Thanks to initial big brands like Intercontinental, Lux, Shangri-La, Hyatt and Banyan Tree, Chinese travellers have been drawn to Yunnan; but perhaps more importantly, these resorts have staged it as a must-go destination for the international crowd. And in today’s competitive market, a few local hoteliers are developing their empires by trying to bring authentic culture as well as iconic nature to travellers. When talking about presenting authenticity, local hoteliers are probably even more competitive than international players, as locals possess a better understanding of the cultural and natural heritage of the area and know how to get along with the local community.

Established in 2001, Songtsam is one of the best-known boutique lodge brands in China. Currently, there are five lodges in operation, all located within the Shangri-la area. The concept of Songtsam is inspired by Aman in Bhutan. Five boutique lodges are located at five iconic spots in the Shangri-la region. By staying in each of them, travellers can experience Shangri-la in multiple dimensions. Each lodge has its own unique selling point and delivers a different aspect of this region; for example, Songtsam Tacheng focuses more on aboriginal culture, while Songtsam Meili brings the spectacular Meili Snow Mountain view to travellers. Baima, the founder, is from the local community, having previously worked for CCTV as a documentary filmmaker. When asked why he shifted to be a hotelier, he said that his dream is always about introducing his hometown to the world. Documentary was one way to communicate, but bringing people to his hometown is more effective.

In order to make the experience unique and exclusive, most lodges have less than 20 rooms. The hospitality training in Songstam is not like big hotel groups. Ninety percent of staff at Songstam, even managers, are from the town where the lodge is located. Some guests have even been welcomed by staff into their own homes and joined real local gatherings. As Baima says, good service is not about how to make beds and clean rooms; treating guests genuinely and taking care of them as family members is the key. Also, for local communities Songtsam is not an outsider, but a helper developing business.

Songtsam

The sense of place is not only created by the service and staff – the interiors are also eye-catching. The work is held together by handmade wooden furniture, pretty rugs of sheep wool and potteries from local craftsmen, painted with totems representing the aboriginal culture. Furthermore, some of Songtsam’s earnings go towards supporting and preserving this craftsmanship. All together, it generates an approachable homey feeling with the appropriate luxury touch.

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Since 2001, Songtsam has evolved a great deal. This year, it will open Songtsam Lijiang in July and Songtsam Lhasa in June, as well as officially starting to extend its empire to the Tibet area. With four more properties going to build, travellers can experience an iconic itinerary from Yunnan to Tibet just by staying with Songtsam.

Similar to Songtsam, another tented resort in the Gaoligong area, Vinetree, is set to open this March. The Gaoligong Mountains are a mountainous sub-range of the southern Hengduan Mountain Range, located in the western Yunnan highlands and straddling the border of southwestern China and northern Myanmar, a distance of approximately 500 kilometers. Because of the difficulty to reach the area, the forests and the wildlife are well protected. Among the most protected species are the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa). This is why this area is one of China’s national nature reserves, as well as the UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Besides the landscape and wildlife, over 20 ethnic minorities live in the biosphere reserve, subsisting mainly on agriculture and still following their customs and various ways of life.

The founder of Vinetree is the same person in charge of developing tourism in the Gaoligong area. By integrating communities, governments and the private sectors, Vinetree is developing a sustainable and eco way to reveal the best of China to the world. In total there are 15 tents equipped with washrooms and showers, plus five public spaces including restaurants, bars and a library. By keeping a low-volume tourism, the environment won’t be threatened. Days at Vinetree tent will be a mix of improbable diversions, from yoga classes in the wild to biking in the mountains. Two hiking trails are available: one for wildlife watching with professional rangers; the other following the walk of Xu xiake, the most famous explorer and geologist in the Ming Dynasty. For those who don’t want to stay in a tent, you can experience camping in the wild alongside butlers and outdoor specialists.

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Nancy Huang
Nancy Huang is Features Editor for Condé Nast Traveler China.