We begin at Songtsam Shangri-La,the brand’s first lodge with 22guestrooms situated at an altitudeof 3,300m. It is located in a smallvillage bordering Shangri-La, theformer city of Zhongdian that was given the name of James Hilton’sfictional location in 2001. The area,known to Tibetans as Gyaitang,is also home to the resplendentSongzanlin Monastery andpicturesque Lamuyangcuo Lake.When we arrive, the sun is settingand infusing the area with a goldenglow, made even sweeter by thewelcome offering of ginger tea andhomemade biscuits. Up the hill isthe much largerSongtsam Retreat –with 75 guestrooms,a spa and more diningoptions – which offers'Tibetan breathingclasses' and yogain the morning,plus cultural danceceremonies and butter-tea-makingdemonstrations in the evenings.Although we could imaginestaying happily ensconced in theShangri-La lodge for days, weeks,or even months, we venture outwith our local driver and guide toexplore the villages, landscapeand lodges that lie beyond. Thearea is surrounded by the Yangtze,Mekong and Salween rivers, and wefeel immediately refreshed by the abundance of trees and wildlife, theclean air and the crisp, clear water.
Heading northwest towards theBenzilan Lodge, we drive past thepeaceful Napa Lake, where ourguide tells us that Songtsam canarrange for guests to go horse ridingand enjoy a picnic lunch. Also enroute, guests can arrange a visit toNixi village, where they’ll learn howto make black potteryitems before feastingon a luscious andwarming Nixi chickenhotpot cooked in thearea’s traditionalblack pots.After the 80kmdrive, we fallimmediately in lovewith the BenzilanLodge (at a more manageablealtitude of 1,900m). With ten guestrooms, and located in a village ofonly 17 families, we feel completelyat peace in this isolated spot. From here, we head out on aneasy two-hour hike, walking pathssurrounded by trees and packedwith leaves that crunch underfoot.We pass by cows and yaks, eat wildstrawberries and drink fresh waterfrom the local stream. At the end of the walk we are met by the Benzilanstaff who have arranged a picnic forus among the trees.
From Benzilan, guests cancontinue on to the Meili Lodge,located at an altitude of 3,600min the tiny village of Gujinong andwith views over the Meili SnowMountain Range. This even moreremote setting provides theperfect opportunity to disconnectfrom the rest of the world andembrace local village life and theepic natural surrounds. All the Songtsam lodges offerfreshly cooked meals and afternoonteas, so eating well is never anissue. Expect a delicious mix of yak,chicken or pork meat, accompaniedby fluffy white rice and heavingplates of local vegetables (theBenzilan Lodge even has a largevegetable garden that providesorganic produce). And don’t skip abottle of the surprisingly balancedand moreish locally-made Shangri-LaAlti wine. Although an optional extra, thebenefit of a guide comes with theserendipitous encounters you’llhave with the locals you meet alongthe way. Our guide, Ring, who spenta year working at Meili, and two at Benzilan Lodge, knows the area andlocals like he’s been there his wholelife. It’s this knowledge that leadsus to meet local incense makers ina tiny village (translated as 'Village11' in English). The artisans allow usinto their workroom, handing us off-cutsof juniper wood to sniff, whileshowing us how they lay tray aftertray of incense sticks.Similarly, in Meili, Ringintroduces us to a local Tibetanfamily of farmers, who welcome usinto their home and offer us buttertea, yak cheese and tsampa (atraditional staple of roasted flour).Although this kind of visit wouldnormally feel like an imposition,our affable guide makes theseinteractions fun and relaxed, andthe family is warm and chatty beforesending us upstairs to help handprint lung ta (prayer flags) in theirprayer room.Travel in this part of northwestYunnan may conjure up imagesof rough and ready hostels andguesthouses, but after even a fewnights staying in the wonderfullycomfortable Songtsam Lodges,it’s hard not to feel at home with thewarm hospitality, big smiles andkindness that oozes from the staffwho are scattered throughout thesewildly scenic and remote locations.