To travel in China is to experience a country where nothing seems to stand still. Trucks trundle by in a haze of dust, diggers dig, roads are cracked out of the mountainside: the whole country seems in thrall to concrete. But this is what a superpower in motion looks like. China’s forward propulsion is evident in every apartment building being raised into the sky, in every dam and hydroelectric plant, in the tentacle spread of its cities into its rural heartlands. To find peace among all this noisy nation-building, a quarter of quiet where history lives large, where one is allowed to sit, settle and breathe, takes some doing.
Or perhaps just the right geographic coordinates, since a new kind of tourism is opening up in China’s Yunnan Province in the south-west of the country: low-impact, high-culture, experience-led luxury and pleasures of the slow and soothing kind. Here, where the province abuts Myanmar and Laos in the south, and the vast Tibetan Plateau in the north, subtropical Mekong villages cede to high-altitude towns in the foothills of the Himalayas, to yaks, prayer flags, ancient trade routes and monasteries.
Fifty-two of China’s 56 minority ethnic groups live in the Yunnan; tribes, dialects and belief systems are so myriad that groups from one valley speak a foreign language to their neighbours in the next. Taking advantage of this fascinating geographic and anthropological mix are owner-operated, small hotels that are immersed in the surrounding culture and aim to provide travellers with an experience of “real” China (or China with the brakes on). Here, too, big hotel groups – Anantara, Banyan Tree, Aman – are opening up the Yunnan to a new breed of luxury adventurers hoping to reconnect with China past as well as present.
Jinghong, a busily expanding frontier city on the Mekong River, is located in the Yunnan’s southernmost region of Xishuangbanna. It’s rather challenging on the eye: rows of bleak, riverside high‑rises and muddy construction sites offer stark contrast to the Mekong scenes at Luang Prabang in Laos or the delta in Vietnam, to which this river runs. But escape the city and things get interesting – and prettier. With its curlicue-roofed Buddhist temples, elephants, jungle and breathtaking humidity, Xishuangbanna feels more like Southeast Asia than mainland China. It has a combustible history of turf wars with neighbouring Laos and Myanmar. In Jinghong’s outlying villages, the Dai minorities speak dialects that could be understood in Chiang Mai or Vientiane.
It’s here that Anantara has built its new resort, 45 minutes from Jinghong, in a rural idyll where mountains rise smokily from the forest canopy and monks in orange robes ride scooters along the bumpy tracks. Anantara is a welcome anachronism for an area rich in interest but undistinguished by big‑brand hotel groups (or international tourists). The resort’s architecture and interiors take inspiration from Xishuangbanna’s vibrant cultural mix – tall buildings are topped with tiled, peaked roofs, and 80 Oriental-modern, dark-wood suites and 23 river-facing pool villas are dressed in local textiles. In the cathedral-like reception, carved wood and gold-leafed pillars evoke the frescoes of nearby temples. Hugging a curve in the Luosuo river, the resort looks onto the wondrous botanic gardens that act as the hotel’s backyard: 2,700 acres of rainforest, lakes, islands and over 12,000 species of plants. It’s an advantage Anantara is capitalising upon by offering private dining in the garden at night.
I fly north to Dali and into a landscape rumpled with snow peaks and lush, green plains. This low-rise, pleasant city creeps around Lake Erhai in a sunny, fertile valley protected by Himalayan foothills to the north and the Cangshan range to the west. Dali’s old town (founded in the 8th century and much sacked and rebuilt in the intervening centuries) merges with the new town via attractive, traditional houses painted with cranes, flowers and rivers. With its fresh mountain air, Dali has the aura of a spa town: one feels better for being there. Better still for staying at the superb Linden Centre on Dali’s outskirts, in the ancient village of Xizhou.
Floating above a sea of green rice paddies, the guesthouse is a series of courtyards with painted eaves, carved-wood shutters, basic but comfortable rooms and a snug bar. It was built in the 1940s by Yang Pin Xiang, the head of a local merchant family. Yang lived here for only two years before his home was confiscated just after the Communist Revolution. The building was rescued by American antiques dealers, Brian and Jeanee Linden, who worked closely with local prefecture and provincial-level government to restore it to its former glory, and by emphasising the importance of authenticity, they have created a new paradigm for tourism in China.
With my guide, Evan, I take a pony cart to tour the village. We pass fishermen at the lip of the lake, collecting tiny silver fish in gauzy nets, and farmers stacking hay. In the temples, a mash-up of deities reveals the influence of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. It is a charming, forgotten place, where dogs nap in the shade and the sound of birdsong is carried on the air. A resort is being built not far from here, a development reported, with a sigh, by Linden’s manager, Andrew. I get it: it’s hard not to wish for everything to stay exactly as it is – a secret.
Lijiang, by contrast, has been well and truly discovered. I had been forewarned of the crowds and the shops selling fake jade bracelets. It’s certainly a different proposition to Dali, but no less pretty with its bright skies and clear views of the craggy Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Lijiang’s World Heritage-listed old town is the best preserved in China, hence the tour groups wriggling through its stone-paved alleys, crossing the narrow canals that droop with willows. My guide, Sophia, sidesteps the brides in ethnic dress having their portraits taken to find corners away from the madding crowd, where shadows make a filigree-lace pattern on mud-brick walls and women wash laundry in a natural spring – just as they have since the city was founded in the 13th century.
There are very good places to stay here. An outpost of the Banyan Tree is an established favourite and in 2011 the Accor group opened a Pullman resort. A brand-new Aman hotel opens here this summer, to be joined in 2014 by a Grand Hyatt. Villas at the Banyan Tree are housed in glass-fronted bungalows with ornamental courtyard gardens and stone-clad hot tubs. The hotel’s entrance gives onto a pond with a pagoda and an impressive backdrop of the Snow Mountain. The Pullman is a brazen but brilliant replica: there’s the same central pond and pagoda, the same slate-roofed villas with courtyard hot tubs. But the Pullman’s rooms, with their marble-tiled bathrooms, slick, Asian-influenced bedrooms and silk carpets, might just have the edge.
One morning I head to the foot of the mountain to watch a show about the area’s native groups. It is piercingly cold, the sun not yet warm enough to thaw the seats in the open-air amphitheatre. But the view is staggering: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is indomitable, the snowcaps eye-wateringly bright. It’s a cinematic setting, even without the show, which is not the clumsy am-dram performance I dreaded but a sophisticated piece of theatre directed by Zhang Yimou, the mastermind behind the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony: here, hundreds of dancers beat drums and canter around on squat mountain ponies.
The journey from Lijiang to Shangri-La involves a metamorphosis. The road winds up past forests of pine and eucalyptus, past the great Yangtze River, through steep gorges where water crashes violently over rocks, up and up until we reach a sky-filled plain of blunt, green scrub. Yaks chomp near roadside stupas; Tibetan houses are painted with mandalas and Buddhist manji. One expects civilisation to simply run out up here, where everything feels so wind-blasted and timeless. But this is China: a traffic jam of lorries impedes our entrance to Shangri-La, or rather, to Zhongdian – the name Shangri-La was borrowed from James Hilton’s novel of mystical monasteries, Lost Horizon, to encourage tourism.
Yet despite the anticlimax of my arrival, Shangri-La still shivers with mystery. Cut off from the city sprawl by a curtain of hills, the gold-roofed Songzanlin Monastery overlooks a valley of wheat fields and a lake filled with golden reeds. Village houses cluster on the slopes like birds’ nests and wood smoke scents the air. It’s extremely atmospheric: at dawn I hear the monks chanting. As my guide, Dolma, puts it: “Welcome to Tibet.”
I am on the Songtsam Circuit, a tour between a set of new and utterly original boutique retreats, which are the brainchild of former documentary-maker Baima Dorji, a native of Shangri-La. Dorji aims to conserve Tibetan culture, support local communities and create places to stay founded on Buddhist principles of kindness and hospitality. Most of the lodges are traditional Tibetan houses made of carved wood or stone with fireplaces, cosy libraries, silk rugs, picture windows, terraces, big, snuggly beds and vine-strung gardens for afternoon tea. They are superlative. As is Dolma, a rosy-cheeked former Tibetan nomad of quick humour and intelligence who is a dream companion.
The 10-room Songtsam Benzilan sits in a cleft of tall, grey peaks. A tiny stupa houses a gold Buddha on a promontory, and from my room I can see elderly villagers making their morning prayer circles around the white edifice. Rivers bounce down the slope and, as we hike a track up to a village above us, the dry, scrubby hills suddenly bloom into thick forests. “There are bears here,” says Dolma at the very moment a yak chooses to lumber through the undergrowth.
From Songtsam Meili’s glorious location in a village of whitewashed farmhouses and pine forest, where the sacred Kawagebo peak fills the horizon – and the view from my bedroom window (as well as from the Book Bar) – we drive up to a plateau. At 4,500m, this is high. The air feels rinsed of oxygen. Nomads bring their yaks here to graze in summer, Dolma explains; their mud-walled shacks stand ghostly and isolated under the shadow of the enormous, empty hills. The altitude is making my head spin so we stop the jeep and walk for a while by the stream that trickles down the valley, chips of sunlight bouncing from the water’s surface. The mountain range suddenly comes into view, floating in the blue sky like a kind of miracle.
It is an extraordinary setting, as remote and wild as any I’ve been to. And yet it’s difficult to fathom that less than an hour down the mountain, the drilling and dust of construction continues apace. Old and new ways of life rub so close together here, it’s almost painful to witness. But that’s what makes Songtsam’s emphasis on locality and simple luxury so impressive, and so precious. It’s also what makes the Yunnan such a compelling place to travel. Up here on the plateau, where eagles wheel overhead on invisible thermals and the clouds cast fast-moving shadows, the trucks feel very distant indeed.