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