In the second part of a two-part series from China’s Yunnan Province, Sarah Richard travels from Lijiang to Shangri-La, where she savours Tibetan food and culture, and another sublime stay in a Banyan Tree Resort.
I must have looked unhappy to be leaving wonderful Lijiang behind because my driver said, ‘Don’t worry, Miss Richard, Ringha is even more beautiful’. Surely nothing could beat the view of the sun hitting the snow-capped mountains each morning? However, I let my thoughts melt away during my four-hour drive north to Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian, and the nearest town to Ringha) by watching the views, in what seemed like an episode of National Geographic, from my car window.
An hour in, we stopped to visit world-famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world, and the location for one of southwest China’s most noteworthy treks. The water flowing through the gorge was so powerful that I simply stood in awe; it was a reminder of just how stunning nature can be. Unfortunately, I was joined by a hundreds of other tourists, and in a country where the use of the “selfie stick” is reaching epidemic proportions, it was hard to find a moment undisturbed. However, I did find a spot where I could sit and soak in the view. (Tip: keep walking right to the end of the bridge, beyond where the steps lead back up.) My vision almost felt photoshopped, with saturation, contrast and highlights all showing the perfect balance.
A few hours later we passed through Shangri-La town, from where it was another 20 minutes to Ringha. Yaks and sheep dominated the winding roads, and our car was obviously not a sign for them to move! Eventually, we pulled up to the Banyan Tree Resort Ringha, where Mario, the resort manager, was on hand with a welcome cup of homemade ginger tea and some melt-in-the-mouth shortbread biscuits. The temperature had definitely dropped since leaving Lijiang, so I was also happy to be given a traditional Tibetan coat to wear.
Warmed up, I was ready to take a tour of the resort. Perched 3,300 metres above sea level and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Banyan Tree Ringha sits within a remote Tibetan valley. All of the suites and lodges are authentic Tibetan homes and farmhouses that a village family and their livestock once lived in; they were then transported from their original location, room by room, and refurbished.
Each lodge is set on two levels and includes a hand-hewn wooden bathtub, a fireplace, raw stone steps leading down to a dressing room, and traditional Tibetan decoration. I stayed in the Tibetan Farmhouse, which had views looking onto the valley and lake.
For dinner, I headed down to Chang Sa Bar & Restaurant for a traditional Tibetan hotpot. Of course, living in Hong Kong, I’ve had many a hotpot; but I soon realised I’ve never had a real one. Served in a stone pot, bubbling with fresh flavours, this was something to savour, from the first slice of yak meat to the fresh Tibetan vegetables. The perfect accompaniment was a few cups of sake, homemade by one of the staff’s mothers.
My instructions for the next morning were to bring my walking shoes and Tibetan coat for an adventure. We were heading to Songzanlin, the largest Tibetan Buddhist lamasery in Yunnan Province. Built in 1674, its history is strikingly obvious as soon as you arrive. We walked around its impressive architecture, through small alleyways, and all the way to the top of the lamasery, for a spectacular view over the old town. The sun reflected off the gold-plated statues giving the whole monastery a magical look.
Next we went to Dukezong Ancient Town to visit the world’s largest prayer wheel, 24 metres high. It takes up to 11 people to get it moving, and when done so, it should be spun three times for good luck. After this came sacred Napa Lake: huge grasslands, home to wildlife such as yaks, deer and flocks of migratory birds. We then stopped to sample some traditional yak butter tea (quite an acquired taste!) with a local Tibetan couple who owned a small shop near the lake. Although most of the people spoke not a word of English – and, of course, I spoke no Tibetan – they were all so warm and friendly, asking my tour guide questions about me and where I came from.
My dressing instructions for the following morning were entirely different: wear some clothes that I didn’t mind getting dirty – and prepare for some excitement. Awaiting me in the courtyard was an ATV! We jumped on and soared around the grasslands, across streams, up valleys and through local villages, mud spraying all over us as we went. The sun came out to say hello, and even the yaks were friendly visitors. My guide and I had regular fits of laughter, especially when we literally got “stuck in the mud” and had to pull each other out with rope. They were definitely right about the clothes – I returned to the resort a different shade from when I left!
Everything about Ringha is incredible: the view of the lake, the fresh mountain air, the sound of the yaks, the hotpot, the people. It’s hard to believe it’s so close to Hong Kong. I’m already planning a trip back; I left a little bit of my heart there, and I need to go and see if it’s still there!
Getting there: China Air flies daily to Lijiang via Kunming, in just under four hours. Ideally, you should stay at Banyan Tree Lijiang before you come to its sister resort, Ringha – not only because it’s an amazing resort, but because Banyan Tree will organise a private shuttle to drive you the four hours to Ringha. Alternatively, you can fly to Diqing Airport from Hong Kong daily; this takes just over seven hours, including a stop at Kunming.
Visa: Hong Kong residents or non-residents who don’t hold a Chinese passport require a tourist visa to enter China, to be obtained before arrival. Different charges apply for different nationalities; check the government website before you travel.
Weather: Summer and autumn are the best times to visit Ringha. Autumn offers spectacular colour changes, when the leaves are ablaze with colour and when Shangri-La is at its most enchanting. Regardless of when you visit, it’s imperative to bring clothing suitable for a hot summer day as well as a winter night, as both can come into use on a daily basis. Summer months can swing between 15 and 30 degrees Celsius, while winter can regularly fall below zero; Banyan Tree Ringha provides traditional Tibetan robes for you to wear in and around the resort, but do bring extra layers for cold nights.
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