The Real Shangri-la


Tibet is world famous for its culture of Buddhism and holy mountains but its neighbor Diqing is a well-kept secret. When China drew the line around the autonomous region in 1951, they didn’t magically move all the Tibetan people and the centuries-old monasteries inside the new boundary…the Tibetan people and their culture live on in this far northwestern province of Yunnan. To navigate this far-flung world, we had the help of Songtsam Lodges, a small network of inns built into the Tibetan communities throughout the province with Songtsam Shangri-la as our first stop. Set at nearly 10,000 feet in the heart of the three parallel rivers area (the mighty Mekong, Salween, and Yangste ) Shangri-la was our gateway to the ancient Tibetan Kingdom  

Tibetan culture is particularly mysterious so to debunk some of this, the owner (a Shangri-la native) chose locations positioned to get the best view into daily life—be it in a remote holy mountain village or at the foot of the monastery. Songtsam Shangri-la is built from a traditional Tibetan dwelling with thick wooden beams and colorful carvings. The lodge embraces the area’s rich roots and a bit of the grandeur its next door neighbor, Songzanlin Monestary.

We walked into the lobby in from the brisk mountain air and felt ourselves instantly warm with the heat of the fireplace, a welcome pot of ginger tea, and cozy but sophisticated ambiance. The hotel’s use of local antiques and Tibetan art set the tone for a cultured stay.

Light streamed through our wall of windows (with the most gorgeous wooden panes!) into our well-appointed room. Roses, a bottle of wine, and fruit beckoned us to cuddle up on the couch and savor the suite.

Just around the corner from the hotel is the crown of the town and the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan: Songzanlin (also known as little Potala Place, after the former Tibetan home of the Dalai Lama). With over 700 monks still living here, this gorgeous gilded complex is not a museum; it’s alive with the soothing sounds of chants, the heady smell of incense, and scenes from daily life of monks at every stage of training.

Originally built in 1679 but with a very recent renovation (the paint was still wet in some places!), the series of buildings has all the classic Tibetan architectural details and none of the wear and tear.

After exploring the monastery into the final moments of daylight, we came back to the lodge for a rare treat…yak hot pot! With our very own flame-powered cauldron at our table, we simmered the surprisingly yummy yak meat, spinach, mushrooms, and more in the boiling broth.  Plus, it was such fun to make!

The breakfast offered all the western treats of eggs, cereals, fruits but also offered some intriguing Tibetan staples like Tsampa, a roasted barley flour mixed with yak butter tea.

Just outside the hotel in front of the monastery was his gorgeous pond, adorned with stupas.  We walked outside the hotel and into morning mist. The pond in front of the monestary looked magical with the colorful prayer flags cutting through fog and stupas rising from the water. (Look closely and you’ll see charming images of Buddha painted on the triangular tiles).

Old-town Shangrila is just a few miles down the road and wonderful place to spend the afternoon. With cobblestone streets, stupas radiating prayer flags, and the golden temple on the hill, the city lived up to its fabled name.

Much love from Shangri-la,
Anne & Mike

Note: Songtsam invited us to to be their guest; however, all opinions are our own.

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