Tailor-made Tour 13 days from £4830 per person
Places Visited: Chengdu, Shangri-La, Tacheng, Cizhong, Meili, Benzilan
A chain of five beautifully sited lodges in the mountains of northwest Yunnan Province provide the backbone of this 12-day trip to the edges of the Himalayas. Stylish and luxurious, the Songtsam hotels enable you to experience the region’s most awe-inspiring scenery and Tibetan culture in regal comfort. Savour the early morning alpenglow on towering ice peaks through your hotel room window. Try your hand at throwing local blackware pots, or making incense in a remote farmstead. Enjoy a traditional lunch with Naxi villagers, and visit remote Buddhist grottoes in the hills. Unique in China, the Songtsam experience is very special. We bookend the tour with a visit to Chengdu, famous for its Panda Breeding Centre, and connected by non-stop flights to London. Transport is in a sturdy 4WD vehicle, and you’re accompanied at all times by an English-speaking guide.
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Depart from the UK on an overnight flight to Chengdu.
On arrival, you’ll be met by your guide and escorted to your hotel for an afternoon of rest and relaxation. In the evening, venture out for a traditional Sichuanese hot pot at Lao Ma Tou restaurant.
‘Hot pot’ is the quintessential Sichuanese dining experience. It basically involves sitting around a bubbling pan of broth into which you dip sliced meat or seafood while, drinking copious quantities of local Snow beer! Lao Ma Tou is the best place in the city to try this, and the smartest: waiters in immaculate white shirts whip up the dipping sauces and the placer is as popular with locals and visitors.
Spend the morning at the Chengdu’s famous Panda Breeding and Research Station, watching adult bears enjoy their bamboo breakfast, and cooing over the cubs in the nursery, before heading out to the sacred Taoist mountain of Qing Cheng Shan in the afternoon.
Qingcheng Shan can be ascended with the help of a cable car, or on foot via a series of stepped paths. Either way, culture shock is guaranteed as you enter the beautiful old temples and monasteries lining the route. Auspicious scarlet ribbons dangle from the fruit trees and monks in blue tunics and white spats tend giant bronze juniper braziers. Enjoy a traditional lunch at one of the temple restaurants, the return to the city to visit the Jinshe Ruins Museum, with its horde 4,000-year-old Bronze-Age artefacts and fascinating pit burials. After supper, check out a performance of traditional Chinese Opera in the lively ‘Wide Lanes, Narrow Lanes’ district.
Transfer to the airport in the morning for your short flight over the mountains to Shangri-La (Zhongdian), where you’ll be greeted on arrival and taken to Songtsam Shangri-La lodge.
Located at the foot of the Songzanlin monastery, your lodge enjoys a superb location facing a shimmering lake surrounded by Tibetan chortens and strings of prayer flags. Photographers should make the most of the beautiful light before sunset to follow waterside boardwalk, from where the views of Songzanlin are exquisite.
After breakfast, head with your guide to the hilltop temple above Shangri-La’s old town, where local people leave offerings of juniper incense in the mornings. The onward journey to Songtsam Tacheng takes around three hours.
Dropping down more than a vertical kilometre to a lush, subtropical area of rice terraces and fruit orchards, today’s drive involves a dramatic change of climate and vegetation. Recover from the journey with a leisurely stroll around the Naxi village next to your lodge. The best views in the area extend from the lodge’s own balconies, from where you can enjoy the spectacle of changing light and shadows in the valley before making your way to the dining room for a delicious hot supper of Sichuanese and Tibetan cuisine.
An early start will be required for your visit to the Snub-Nosed Monkey Sanctuary, a 40-minute drive into the hills above Tacheng. In the afternoon, drive to a sacred Buddha Cave, high on the rim of the valley, for a spectacular panorama over the Yangtze River.
Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys rank among the world’s most endangered primates, and the species that lives at the highest altitudes. Only around 1,700 survive, at the snow-line in Yunnan’s mountains, among confier and evergreen broadleaf forests, and the reserve near Tacheng, where the monkeys are fed, offers almost guaranteed sightings. On arrival, wardens will guide you through the forest to a feeding station where you’ll be able to observe a troupe at close quarters.
Most of today’s drive follows the dramatic Lacang (Mekong) Valley northwards. You’ll reach Songtsam Cizhong by lunchtime, in time to visit the old Catholic church in the village, and walk up a side valley to a remote farming hamlet.
As you ascend the Lacang Valley, notice the contrast between the traditional, wood and stone Tibetan villages terracing the valley flanks and the modern hydel projects recently installed by the Chinese government at the river level to harness the power of the meltwater crashing south. In the evening, you’ll be offered a bottle of local wine with your meal – a legacy of the French missionary presence in Cizhong a century ago. If you can, pay a visit to the church when Mass is being sung in the local Tibetan dialect – an unforgettable experience.
The scenery on the eighth day of your tour grows increasingly spectacular as you ascend the valley to Meili – quite simply one of the world’s most breathtaking road trips.
The route snakes along the bottom of a vast canyon, overshadowed by the towering peaks of Kawakarpo, the sacred mountain marking the Tibetan border. You’ll have gained around two vertical kilometres by the time you reach Songtsam Meili, from where the views of the nearby snow peaks are magnificent.
Rise at 5am to reach the Kawakarpo viewing platform in time for sunrise – your reward, weather permitting, will be one of China’s most exquisite panoramas, as the first rays of daylight burnish the ice peaks rising from the massif’s razor-back ridge.
Return to the lodge for breakfast, when you’ll discuss walking options with your guide. Routes range from gentle forest ambles to day-long hikes to the snow line. Or you can simply relax on the sunny terrace of Songtsam Meili lodge, sipping Italian coffee and watching the cloud shadows drift across the east face of Kawakarpo.
More amazing scenery awaits on Day 10, as you swing south over a high pass festooned with prayer flags towards Songtsam Benzilan, calling at the Dongzhuilin Monastery en route. Spend the afternoon exploring the delightful wooded valley above the lodge, where you can visit a local incense maker.
The concluding day of your tour passes through landscape reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. You’ll arrive back in Shangri-La in time for a trip to the city’s main square to watch the nightly communal dancing – a sight not to be missed!
An enjoyable stop on the journey between Benzilan and Shangi-La is the village of Nixi, where you will be invited to try your hand at making traditional Tibetan black-ware pottery – a local speciality.
Transfer to the airport for your return flight to Chengdu. Spend your last evening souvenir shopping and soaking up the atmosphere of Jin Li Street, followed by a meal of traditional, spicy Sichuanese dumplings.
It’s time to bid farewell to China as you transfer to the airport for your flight back to the UK.
Tailor-made Tour 13 days from £4830 per person
✓ International flights from UK
✓ 10 nights accommodation
✓ Domestic flights in economy
✓ All road travel and transfers by private chauffeur-driven vehicles
✓ English-speaking guides
✓ Breakfast daily
✓ Entrance fees to sites and monuments listed in tour itinerary
Places and Experiences in this tour
On the western edge of Sichuan’s Red Basin, Chengdu is the largest city in Western China, with an ultra-modern, high-rise centre that belies its role as a regional capital for ove...
This province, or, to be more precise, the flat, circular ‘Red Basin’ forming its heartland, is the economic powerhouse of Western China. Thanks to a humid, subtropical climate an...
Giant Panda Base
The bamboo forests of southern Sichuan are the last stronghold of China’s national treasure, the Giant Panda. Around 1,500 of these adorable black-and-white bears survive in the w...
On the very edge of the Sichuan basin, where forested mountains of the Qinghai–Tibet plateau surge from the plains, the sacred Taoist peak of Qingcheng shan is just an hour from d...
In the far north of Yunnan, the town of Shangri-La (or ‘Zhongdian’ as it used to be known) occupies a high, mountainous plateau on the fringes of Tibet. Snow-encrusted peaks, exot...
For Chinese people, ‘Yunnan’ represents everything that’s most exotic about their own country. Bordered by Tibet, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Vietnam, the province encompasses extra...
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