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A View That Takes Your Breath Away

Adam Minter is a writer based in Shanghai. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, ARTnews, the Rake and others.

The symptoms of acute mountain sickness, better known as altitude sickness, include headache, nausea, loss of appetite, dizziness and fatigue. The cure is time, analgesics, fluids or descent, or what I found in the minibar in my room: a 1.7-ounce bottle of Johnnie Walker Black for $31 and a canister of oxygen. I wanted the Johnnie Walker but I needed the oxygen, which, handily, was free.

As I fought the urge to faint amid the lacquered, silk and velvet appointments of the 1,883 square feet where I would be spending a long weekend, I questioned the wisdom of building a 32-room resort on the edge of Tibet in Yunnan Province. It is literally breathtaking: At nearly 11,000 feet above sea level, the new Banyan Tree Ringha is the highest high-end hotel in China.

But after a while, when I felt a bit more stable, I opened the carved wood door leading to the balcony--and looked out on the vast Ringha Valley.

Thin veils of smoke rose from the chimneys of whitewashed farmhouses, and pack horses moved through meadows wending toward the shimmering Ringha River. A breeze blew past with the faint smell of smoke from cooking fires, charcoal wisps trailing the narrow length of the foothills of the snow-capped Hengduan Range, where Meili Snow Mountain, one of the most sacred peaks of Tibetan Buddhism, hides behind clouds for most of the year, unconquered by mountaineers. Just out of sight, the Mekong and Yangtze rivers tumbled out of the flats of Tibet. Laos was over one border; Myanmar beyond another. And in the great distance of the imagination, I could hear the magical scrape of prayer wheels endlessly turning as golden stupas caught the dying light.

I was in Shangri-La.For centuries, Tibetans have called this land Gyalthang. The People’s Republic of China in 1957 christened it Diqing-Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, hardly a name tailor-made for tourist brochures. That didn’t much matter when Beijing decided in the early 1990s to open Yunnan Province to outsiders, encouraging tourism and the exchange of foreign currency. Most early takers were backpackers and mountaineers eager to see a revered morsel of the Himalayas and happy to rough it along the way in tents or small guest houses.

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Local governments, though, were keen to attract bigger spenders. Before long, several in Yunnan were marketing themselves as Shangri-La, the famous invention of British writer James Hilton. In his 1933 novel “Lost Horizon,” which Frank Capra made into a movie in 1937, Shangri-La is a Himalayan paradise ruled by monks who have discovered the secret of immortality. (Hilton, who never stepped foot in Tibet, might have been inspired by the Sanskrit word Shambhala that, in Tibetan Buddhism, suggests a spiritual utopia.)

Scholars and explorers were soon arguing about where the real-world setting for Hilton’s dreamland might be, and over the decades expeditions were launched to pinpoint it. Teams of experts, including one in the 1990s dispatched by the National Geographic Society, looked for the things that Hilton’s characters see--"the loveliest mountain on earth,” the pavilions of a monastery clinging to a mountainside “with the chance delicacy of flower petals impaled upon a crag,” a valley that is “nothing less than an enclosed paradise of amazing fertility.”

In 2001, the State Council in Beijing decided that it had the long-sought answer. Without explanation, the council granted Zhongdian County in Diqing-Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture the sole right to rename itself Shangri-La, which it promptly did. And a slow but steady upgrade in tourist accommodations began, with Banyan Tree Ringha, which opened in September, the first luxury hotel on the scene. Rooms start at about $400 a night.

For Singapore-based Banyan Tree, which operates resorts in the Maldives, Seychelles and other exotic locations, the decision to tackle high-altitude China was part of a corporate strategy to refocus on what’s known as the soft adventure market. “We are in a very challenging, harsh locality,” said General Manager Richard Neo. The resort is for well-heeled explorers who want to vacation in one of the world’s most beautifully rugged environments, “but want to do it in comfort.”

From its perch above the valley, Banyan Tree is a jumping-off point for natural wonders that have awed adventurers and invaders since this was ancient Tibet: Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world’s deepest; Baishui Whitewater Terrace, which from a distance looks like a silver waterfall; the enormous Napa flood plain, a lake from July to September, a meadow the rest of the year and home in winter to the rare Black-necked Crane; Shudu Lake, surrounded by alpine meadows and pine forests.

The Songzanlin Monastery, built on a site chosen by the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century, is 45 minutes down the road, and the 700-year-old Temple of the Five Wisdom Buddhas, where yak butter candles burn near the altar and prayer flags flutter in the wind, is a short walk up a steep hill. The resort’s guides lead treks into the wilds, at $60 to $250 a person, and arrange visits to farming villages. The rambles take guests past turnips drying on tall racks, and fields of barley and wheat. Women in colorful headdresses, rucksacks on their backs, pass by on dusty roads. Peaks with lovely names such as Jade Dragon Snow Mountain loom in the distance, 18,000 feet or more in the clouds.

The Shu Du Gang Acclimatization Trek is a three-hour tour through the forests and foothills near the river. But for some, even this stroll might be too much. By Neo’s estimate, 80% of the resort’s guests suffer from altitude sickness. He told me that the symptoms should dissipate after an evening, but medical literature--and my experience--suggests that acclimating to altitudes in excess of 10,000 feet requires up to four days. Banyan Tree acknowledges this obliquely. “People always ask where our gym facilities are,” Neo said, laughing. “But we couldn’t have one at this altitude.”

The resort doesn’t skimp on other luxury-hotel necessities, though. Rooms and suites are sumptuous, decorated in deep shades of red and gold, with thick rugs and carved furniture. Handcrafted wood hot tubs grace the bathrooms. Fireplaces, with hammered copper flues, are in the middle of some rooms in the traditional style. The buildings on the property, in fact, are authentic Tibetan farmhouses that Banyan Tree purchased from area villagers, moved to the site and renovated.

In one of the main lodges are two restaurants and a bar; in the other is a “tea house” (actually, a lacquered table in a corner of the lobby) that offers six varieties. And, of course, there is a spa, where treatments are said to be inspired by the ancient Chinese Five Elements philosophy of earth, water, fire, wood and gold. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a humdrum Swedish massage or straightforward manicure. But considering how I felt on my first day at close to 11,000 feet, I wanted something out of the ordinary.

My choice: The $180 Ringha Relief package, which features three types of massage--yoga, Chinese Tui Na and Himalayan Gui Shi hot stone--and an Indonesian spice warming wrap. Suki, a Thai graduate of Banyan Tree’s massage academy in Phuket, worked my oxygen-deprived muscles for more than two hours. Then she left me alone for the green tea bath that caps the event. The water was so hot and the air so thin that my heart rate shot up and I nearly blacked out. Later, when Neo asked me if I had enjoyed my massage, I considered mentioning that I had almost died, but because I had alluded to that on the post-massage comment card, I let the opportunity pass.

To reach paradise, you can take a 15-hour bus ride from the Yunnan Province capital of Kunming or a 40-minute flight from Kunming International Airport to the new Diqing-Shangri-La Airport, a 15-minute drive from the city of Shangri-La.

Until 2001, the city was called Zhongdian. For hundreds of years before it had been a loose collection of sleepy villages known for their proximity to Songzanlin Monastery, home to 800 monks, and for the hospitality that residents offered travelers on the ancient Tea Road between China and Tibet. Now--15 miles and 1,000 feet below Banyan Tree Ringha--its Old Town is the thriving center of Shangri-La tourism, jammed with bars, cafes, handicraft shops and trekking guides who hire out for about $45 a day.

For many of its 100,000 residents, the Shangri-La boom is welcome. Along with other hotels and businesses catering to tourists, Banyan Tree has brought new wealth to the area. Zhuoma, the 26-year-old daughter of the former chief of Ge Nuo village at the edge of the resort, said many villagers now have indoor plumbing. At the same time, Zhuoma (who, like most Tibetans, doesn’t use a last name) worries that the guided treks--on foot, horseback or four-wheel-drive SUV--taken by Banyan Tree guests might disrupt valley life.

But Zhuoma herself is taking full advantage of Shangri-La: She co-owns the Treehouse Cafe & Bar with her boyfriend, Wesley Tanaka, 28, a Caltech graduate who moved here in 2004; he had first visited the city in 2003, after being laid off by a software development company in Oakland. “Some of the expats say that if you stay here 10 days, you end up staying longer,” he said. “I stayed longer.”

The Treehouse is typical of what you’ll find on an expedition to the city. It’s in a small wood building on a cobblestone street. A steep staircase leads to a blanket-covered door and, inside, a small room dominated by a wood-burning stove and a curved bar. The space is dim and cozy, outfitted with tables and a PC that serves as the jukebox while providing free Internet access to customers. Local and foreign beers sell for about $1; at the Banyan Tree bar, a bottle of Budweiser will set you back $6.

Restaurants in Old Town print menus in English and serve Chinese and Western food; a Tibetan local probably wouldn’t eat stir-fried yak, but you can find it in Old Town. For the real deal, visit the city’s “new town,” where natives live and hang out. There, try beef or mutton hotpot, so spicy that you’ll think your hair is going to catch fire. Or go for the delicacy a waitress brought to my table one evening in the new town: deep-fried burnt pigskin.

Meals at the resort are generally safer. At dinner in the main restaurant, Zhuoma, Wesley and I enjoyed a pan-seared scallop salad and something called Idaho Potato and Asian Troupe Soup (a sort of potato puree with salmon roe mixed in) as part of a $40-per-person set menu.

Llamo, as the restaurant is called, is spectacular, with an open gas-fired hearth and dining areas divided by hanging glass beads. By Wesley’s estimation, it’s the most expensive restaurant in northern Yunnan, but it had some kinks to work out. There were no hand towels in the restrooms, and the table knives were dirty. “You’d expect better for these kinds of prices,” Wesley complained. He found it interesting that the tables were all scalloped inward at a roughly 10-degree angle, tilting our glasses and plates away from us.

For the main course, Zhuoma and I chose pan-fried yak meat with peas and rice. It was my first time for yak and I found it tough, not unlike flank steak. Zhuoma, who grew up eating the meat, gave it an enthusiastic thumb’s up. Wesley’s salmon, served on pumpkin puree, was another matter. “A little old,” Zhuoma said, picking at the dry, flaky meat as Wesley frowned. Clearly, it had been frozen. But considering the part of China in which we were dining, he said, “Who expects fresh?”

In these parts you might not expect fish at all. One of Banyan Tree’s trekking guides, Nonu, told me why: Some villagers follow the Tibetan Buddhism practice of water burial. “Yesterday I saw a head floating in the river,” he said. “That’s why Tibetan people don’t eat fish.”

The genius of Banyan Tree Ringha is its location: It was built so that patrons can straddle two worlds, or come close. As a foreigner, you can move freely between them, unhindered by the language barrier if you’re accompanied by a native, which a handful of Banyan Tree employees are (most are Chinese or foreigners). The city is a $20 ride down the road in one of the resort’s SUVs, while the village of Ge Nuo is a few steps beyond the Banyan Tree guard shack.

Zhuoma escorted me to the village and introduced me to her family. Their home reminded me of my lodgings at the resort: The ceiling and walls were covered with complex, hand-painted designs, and floor-to-ceiling pine beams were carved into sinuous shapes. We lazed about on fat cushions, sipping tea and nibbling on flat bread, soft and warm and with the faint hint of butter.

Afterward, I strode up a wide stone path that began at the guard shack and ended at a lovely two-story Tibetan building. By placement and its gentle architecture, the structure suggested a temple, though it was actually the resort’s housekeeping department. On both sides were narrower cobblestone trails that diverged in a V, providing access to the world of broadband Internet service and $70 facials.

Suddenly, a flock of sheep dashed across the path, chased by an angry farmer and, not far behind him, two resort employees. I watched as they circled and then, together, descended toward the flickering fires that sparkle in the night in Ringha Valley.


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