The road to Shangri-La

{Part 7 - Our Founding Director Fionna Heiton is currently travelling in Tibet with her teenage twins}

We have almost reached the end of our Tibetan Journey and finally, after driving right across the Tibetan plateau, over high passes inhabited only by passing nomads and yaks, we have arrived at our final destination, Shangri-La! Nervous that it wouldn’t live up to its reputation, we stop first at Napa Lake. No need to worry, there are yaks and horses grazing by the grassy lakeside surrounded by mountains shimmering in the midday sun. It reminds me of Phewa Lake in Pokhara, Nepal in the 1980s before the hotels sprung up along the lakeside.

We stroll through the old town, which despite much of it being destroyed by a devastating fire in 2014, it has been rebuilt and is perfectly charming! We explore handicraft shops and have a wonderful Indian style meal at The Three Brothers Cafe. After dinner, we join around hundred local Tibetans at the nightly community dance. Tibetan circle dancing is not as easy as it looks. I felt like a contestant on the amazing race, trying to learn the steps before getting my next clue! It didn’t really seem to matter and they seemed delighted that we had joined in! Each dance was different, always in a circle and all quite exhausting in the thin 3,300 metre air.

Our gorgeous Tibetan owned boutique hotel is set in a small village overlooking the Songzanlin Monastery, Yunnan’s largest monastery. Modelled on the Potala Palace, construction began in 1679. Filled with treasures, it once housed 3,000 monks.

The head lama has just died and thousands of locals come to pay their respects, wearing their colourful regional dress. We watch monks praying and debating and chat to an elderly monk about his life. Back at the hotel, we learn that by staying there we are not only helping to employ local Tibetans but that the hotel also supports anyone from the village wishing to go to a higher education institute. The hotel group is opening in Lhasa soon and we meet young Tibetans aspiring to be chefs and restaurant managers. This is a wonderful way of supporting over 300 Tibetans. I join morning meditation class looking out on the monastery before feasting on a wonderful buffet breakfast. We save some bread and cheese for a picnic lunch overlooking the monastery.

The next morning, we join pilgrims pushing the worlds largest prayer wheel which was so heavy it took at least 10 people tugging on ropes to make it move. Our journey in Kham has been a wonderful and highly authentic cultural experience.

We wish we could stay on or continue across the Tibetan plateau but sadly it is time to return to New Zealand, cherishing memories of this very special place. We visit one last monastery, turning prayer wheels for one last Om Mani Hum.

View all our Tibet journeys here

Lost Horizons

{Part 6 - Our Founding Director Fionna Heiton is currently travelling in Tibet with her teenage twins}

James Hilton wrote Lost Horizons in 1933. He in fact travelled extensively in Kham before writing Lost Horizons which would go onto become one of the most famous books on Tibet. Although very dated, it tells of a plane that crashes on the Tibetan Plateau. The passengers meet a monk who takes them to a beautiful place, Shangri La.  Since then, people have searched for Shangri La. Some say it exists only in your mind. For me, I think it can be anywhere that you find special. The day I travelled from Yading down from the plateau, I think I found my Shangri La. The road from Xiangcheng climbed steeply affording incredible views as we reached high passes. Mile after mile, we travelled through forests and empty valleys. Any plane crashing here would indeed be lost.  Dropping down into yet another valley, we were amazed to find only a village or two. We were miles from anywhere and glad that our driver knew the way.

Eventually a larger village had a small Tibetan restaurant. We devoured the fried rice before continuing towards the Yunnan border. We have booked into a hotel just outside Benzilan for the night. Benzilan was one of the key places on the old tea and horse trading route connecting Tibet and India. With 15 kilometres to go, we look forward to a hot shower and dinner. However road works on the Yangtse River Gorge, meant a 2 hour delay. We reach our accommodation for the night in time for a lovely dinner.

Looking out on a small temple the exquisite boutique hotel was authentically Tibetan in style, service and management. Sun poured through colourful stained glass and fruit trees flourished in the garden. The days journey melted away.

Want to find Shangri-La?  Find out more about our Road to Shangri-La Joruney here

Heavy snow on the plateau

{Part 5 - Our Founding Director Fionna Heiton is currently travelling in Tibet with her teenage twins}

Yading National Park is renowned for its outstanding natural beauty, turquoise lakes and snow capped mountains. The pictures I had seen were stunning and my excitement grew as we drew closer. We check into a stunning brand new hotel to be greeted by Khampas who turned out to be nomads tempted by the easy job of greeting and singing to guests! The guys have enough English to explain that they come from the plateau near Lijang and will get 4 days off a month to visit their families. They seem delighted with their new roles which seems a lot easier than tending yaks.

The next morning, the weather does not look good. Rain turns to snow. Determined to visit the national Park we head to the ticket office to catch the shuttle bus to the national park. We have forgotten our passports and officials refuse to let us go until we quote our passport numbers. Luckily the hotel has our passport information and we head up the mountain accompanied by excited Chinese tourists who have never seen snow before.

The snow gets deeper and deeper as we reach the entrance to the park. It is freezing and are glad of our thermals, down jackets, hats and gloves. Visibility is poor, yet there is a great beauty in the pristine snow scenes.

We discover a brand new monastery being built and head in out of the cold. Artists from a nearby town have been commissioned to paint Buddhist murals.

We warm ourselves by their electric heating ring and chat about their work. Outside the snow piles down and locals invite us to join them around a roaring open fire. The atmosphere is wonderful and we linger with these generous folk. However away from the fire, it is bitterly cold and we return to the hotel to warm up. We may not have seen the stunning views of Yading National Park but we did have a unique Tibetan experience that we wouldn’t have swapped for anything!

Want to experience Tibet for yourself?  Find out more about our Road to Shangri-La Joruney here