There are countless resorts in exotic locations all over the world vying for tourists dollars offering unique experiences, great service and vibes. Indeed, it’s a boom time for intrepid travellers as they are awash with innumerable choices. Having travelled consistently to many places over the last couple of years as a travel writer and photographer, I have to admit I am getting more, for want of a better word, “jaded” as the adventures stacked up. But the amazing Hidden Valley Resort effortlessly unravelled and made me fall in love all over again with wanderlust. If it sounded like hyperbole, then please read on, about why the Hidden Valley Resort is Shangri-La’s best-kept secret.
Shangri-La – the myth and location
I have to dedicate special attention to the location of Shangri-la, as most readers (myself included), may misconstrue the location with the famed Shangri-La hotel chain. In the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton, who enthuses Shangri-La as a dreamlike mystical and peaceful valley, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. In the novel, Shangri-La denizens seem immortal-like, age defying and lives beyond a hundred years old . The Shangri-La term itself has come to be associated with any earthly paradise, especially of a mythical Himalayan utopia.
Now the reality – Shangri-La or Xianggelila is a county-level city in northwestern Yunnan province, People’s Republic of China and is the location of the seat of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Shangri-La was formerly called Zhongdian County (中甸县; Zhōngdiàn Xiàn) but was renamed on 17 December 2001 and upgraded into a county-level city on 16 December 2014 as Shangri-La after the fictional land in that James Hilton novel in an effort to promote tourism in the area. (Wikipedia)
The Hidden Valley Resort
“Nestled high in the mountains of South-Western China, the air is fresh and the water runs clear. In the Spring, you will find the meadows carpeted in brilliant hues of pink or yellow. In Summer, the grass glows a rich green. In Fall, the hills are covered in golden leaves and pine needles. And in Winter, the snow glistens a pure white.” (excerpts from the resort website). Sounds like a fairyland indeed.
The resort sits on a 7-hectare site between two highland ridges, at the far end of the traditional Tibetan Bisong Village, just 20 minutes drive from the Shangri-la airport. It’s blessed with untouched beauty and serenity that befit the Hidden Valley Resort as Shangri-La’s best-kept secret.
The resort entrance is always welcoming and homely with a toasty fire ready to warm you up in chilly times.
The resort fireplace – is perfect for a chat or drink after a hearty meal or watching the scene at the meadow change before your eyes.
The resort watering hole- The Qingke Library and Bar. It’s a Tibetan culture that each family has their own special recipe for distilling qingke (highland barley) liquor. The qingke is distilled with unpolluted water from the snow to create a local Tibetan potent “moonshine” that is not for novices. The resort actually selected and acquired some of their fave qingke liquor from families in surrounding villages. I sampled the “Chinese Vodka” and must say it has a smooth mellow aftertaste packed with a powerful punch.
The bar also stocks a selection of the famous Black Yak Beer from the local Shangri-La Beer Company, which is brewed using local highland barley and the purest water. Their beers have also won several international awards.
This will be most guests’ favourite spot in the resort, where the amazing chef Aga (together with the general manager, Hazel, who is also an excellent cook) will transport diners on a gastronomic magic carpet ride with their masterful culinary skills.
Touches of beauty abound at the resort reflecting the resort’s founders’ sense of aesthetics and meticulous attention to detail, which makes me feel at home really quickly.
The fabulous resort staff
Our memorable experiences were made possible by the amazing staff who delivered service from the heart and took hospitality to a new level. The resort was built by the hands of local villagers and the manpower and resources to manage it are sourced from Bisong Village and surrounding neighbourhoods, promoting a sustainable mutually beneficial ecosystem.
The resort is a luxury-grade boutique set-up that currently comprises 5 tented villas that offer glamping (glamorous camping) and 10-room/suites in a 2-storey 150-year old Tibetan residence building. The resort is the first in Shangri-La to offer a glamping experience which is perfect for vacationers who want to be up close to nature but still prefer modern-day luxury amenities.
The Tibetan Tents
The 5 tented villa on a beautiful morning. The ambience, feel and raw beauty of the valley is something all guests will appreciate and savour. I would even list staying at such nicely fitted tents as a bucket-list item for many travellers.
The facade of the tent. Enjoy the serenity and beauty of the valley and for once, you will feel at peace, away from the hustle and bustle of city living.
Each spacious tent comes with a king-sized bed with a heated mattress, WiFi connectivity, fireplace and all the necessary amenities for a comfortable stay.
Even in the secluded highland valley, you can enjoy a good rain shower with a heating bar attached overhead to ensure you remained warm and toasty even if the temperature outside freezes over during the cold season. There is even a heated rack to dry your towels quickly.
For those used to Japanese automated WC, the provision of this high-end WC in the wilderness of the secluded valley certainly keeps to that luxury overtone.
The Tibetan Residence
The construction of the Tibetan Residence, is one of passion, love for authenticity and respect for local culture. The 150-year-old Tibetan Residence was purchased from a neighbouring village chief, dismantled log by log, hauled all the way to the current site with yaks and reassembled in the traditional Tibetan style.
The Tibetan Residence facade, on a beautiful morning. Typically, Tibetan structures are constructed of natural materials such as stone, clay and wood with concrete being increasingly used. The most desirable building sites are on elevated land facing south. Flat roofs are used in most parts of the central and western Tibetan plateau where rainfall is slight. In prosperous agricultural areas, private homes may have up to three storeys. In herding areas where houses may be used only part of the year, they usually have only one storey.
A fireplace in the residence’s 2nd-floor guest communal rest area. Plenty of rest areas and cosy corners make this place ideal for couples, groups and families.
One of the suites in-room rest area with a fireplace. The staff will prepare the fireplace as part of the turndown service. But it’s a very pleasant experience to light up the fireplace yourself, especially for city folks from the tropics.
The rooms at the Tibetan Residence are not cookie-cutter. The restyled residence has a total of 9 bedrooms spread over 2 levels. Some of the rooms can be converted into 3-bedroom family suites on each floor.
Tibetan houses are simple but built sturdy to withstand the tough living environment of agriculture and graziers here. But the resort owner’s objective is to impart an authentic Tibetan experience but with comforts complete with modern fitting and heated bathrooms.
The heated mattresses are comfortable and assure a comfortable night’s sleep in the chilly night.
Lovely view of the meadow, tents and the mountain ranges right from the room on the ground floor. Every season brings forth a different look and colours.
The bay window came in handy as the ideal spot for a cuppa by the fireplace while enjoying all that beautiful scenery.
The gastronomic adventure
We had anticipated exotic culture and nice food experiences prior to our visit. But the food was way beyond our expectations. It was relatively simple cuisine but the taste and culinary mastery were simply unforgettable. So good that I would fly here just for the food if I had the chance. Using fresh, locally sourced ingredients and vegetables from the resort’s own organic garden, the dishes are expertly curated to celebrate the flavours of Shangri-la.
Aga, the resort chef, his amazing culinary skills will have you remembering the resort all that much better and longer. Chef Aga can cook up a host of delightful local dishes like homemade tofu in spicy meat sauce or roast suckling pig with roasted potatoes and vegetables. Having worked at an Italian Restaurant, he also serves up a delicious Yak-meat pizza or a spicy Spaghetti Bolognese.
The resort GM – Hazel, showed us her culinary prowess. Her Szechuan “biang biang” mian is simply superb. The “biang biang” term is an onomatopoeia of the sound when making the noodle, as it’s being slapped on the tabletop.
The stewed beef is sweetened with the resort’s organically grown carrots and radishes balanced with the perfect spices. I could go on but words can’t quite cut it. The proof is in the eating.
One of our meals came with a beautiful and colourful floral and vegetable salad. Paired with Chef Aga’s secret dressing, it was sublime.
A chef “at play” is a chef in love with his craft. I always like pizza but the pizza here tasted different. I think I felt the chef’s passion and love.
Chef Aga is definitely indulging us. No two meals are the same. The yak meat pizza was superb, and so was the cream of broccoli soup and the salad.
The stewed pork for dinner during our last night dinner resort makes us felt like changing our flight home to a later date. So totally in love with the food at the resort.
Experiential activities with the resort
The resort conducts day excursions to attractions in the surrounding area, enhancing the experience of the trip. Of particular interest are the activities exclusive to the resort, like visiting a local Tibetan’s residence or observing a seasonal highland barley dehusking session that is not run-of-the-mill, making the trip memories just that much more unique.
Local Tibetan residents visit
Lao Ye (Hidden Valley Resort caretaker) offering Tsampa (freshly knead highland barley dough). Tibetan breakfasts are high-energy based to equip themselves for the rigours of physical day work and the cold weather.
Lao Ye’s daughter-in-law making butter tea for us. Butter tea, also known as po cha, is a drink of the people in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, Bhutan, India and of course, Tibet. Traditionally, it is made from tea leaves, yak butter, water, and salt, although butter made from cow’s milk is increasingly used, given its wider availability and lower cost.
The main staple of Tibetan food – Highland Barley (Qingke). It is the principal cereal cultivated on the Tibetan Plateau, used mainly to make milk tea or tsampa (roasted flour, usually barley flour and sometimes also wheat flour). It is usually mixed with salty Tibetan butter tea and alcohol. Today, it is used to make beer, flour, bread, cakes or noodles.
Our resort host helps to “open” the gate to the family food compound, where radishes and highland barley are hung out to dry. It’s an important source of food for the coming winter and the whole year-round. Their plot of agricultural land is located elsewhere among the highland.
Lao Ye showing some Qingke. The size of a family or wealth can be estimated by the amount of Qingke they have in the compound, as it relates to the size of arable land.
Visit the Old Tibetan Ladies at Mani Stones
A short 5min drive from the resort brought us to the three Mani Stones mounds that see a group of aged Tibetan ladies who turn up daily to offer their prayer ritual – walking around the Mani Stones for about 30min, placing pebbles after each round at the mound. An intriguing and amazing sight indeed.
The ladies turn up at the Mani Stones whether it rain, shine or snow. And most of them walk quite some distance from their house.
Their prayer bracelet, as they walk, counting one bead at a time.
I see stoicism in their eyes and face. A life city-folks can never quite fathom. Younger Tibetan ladies no longer practise such disciplined rituals and this fascinating sight will slowly fade into oblivion as each of them passes on in time. It was a privilege to be able to capture this moment.
Local Village Culture
On the way back to the resort, we spotted a group of villagers dehusking their highland barley crop. The village has a strong communal spirit with the young and old from various households helping each other. We only saw women here as the men are out in the fields on other tasks, like tending to their cattle.
It’s a backbreaking task but the strong and fit ladies make it look easy.
The pace and swiftness of the ladies as they go about their task belies their age. Certainly lending credence to the fabled Shangri-la strong and fit denizens.
The ladies’ joyful attitude as they go about their work will put many of us to shame. We have much to learn from them on how to stay happy and be happy.
Tibetan Bonfire dusk dance
The chilly night at the meadow with Tibetan music playing in the background and Lao Ye raking up a lovely bonfire at the residential compound is one of the most memorable “in-resort” events that guests will savour. You won’t get to experience such activity at hotels in the city.
Having a BBQ in the tropics is totally different from enjoying a bonfire in a secluded meadow with a 2-3ºC chill and stars popping out in the clear night skies.
Everyone gets to enjoy the warmth of the bonfire and friendship. Priceless moments are made of these.
Enjoying the warmth and glow of the bonfire amidst the serenity of the meadow, among newly made friends, makes it a special moment quite unlike most other “tourist activities”.
Stargazing outside just your tent or room.
The low-light pollution of the area makes it ideal for stargazing and astrophotography, as long as the cloud condition permits. Prepare to be enthralled as the night skies open up, with shooting stars, Milky Way and the constellation laid bare for all to see.
The Milky Way right above the tented villas. It’s an amazing sight for any city folks, as it’s impossible to catch sight of it in highly urbanized cities.
The Tibetan Residences with the stars out in full force. Truly a spectacular Tibetan night in the highland.
Getting artsy at the resort meadow
The valley’s gorgeous beauty can trigger the artist’s instinct, uncovering perhaps the Monet or Van Gogh in you.
Ride the resort Tibetan Ponies
The resort owns the Tibetan ponies, so horseback riding are complimentary for guests who are keen on a taste of Tibetan “transport”. Lao Ye takes the ponies on rides daily around the meadow to ensure the ponies remained tamed and used to humans.
Go trekking in the hills behind the resort
Great trekking up the hills located just beside the resort for a panoramic view of the valley. In the right season, the resort staff will also guide guests up the hills to gather wild mushrooms and bamboos shoots and chef Aga will cook them for you at mealtime. This activity is truly interesting and an eye-opener for city folks.
Excursion to Shangri-la attractions
The resort provides for day excursion to renowned attractions in and around the Shangri-la region. The following are just a few of the amazing locations guests can elect to visit.
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. Built in 1697, the monastery (also known as Sungtseling and Guihuasi) is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery situated 5 kilometres from the Shangri-la city at an elevation of 3,380 metres in Yunnan province. It’s also the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the province and is commonly referred to as the Little Potala Palace.
Photography within the inner prayer halls is prohibited as dictated by the monastery rules. Do adhere to local rules for an enjoyable moment.
Songzanlin Temple, is another temple within a short stroll from the main monastery ground. The colourful and ethnic artwork of the monastery is certainly a photographer’s heaven.
Potatso National Reserve
The amazing Potatso National Park , about 22km southwest or a 40 minute drive from the Shangri-la downtown area, covers an area of almost 300 square kilometres and ranges from 3500m to 4160m high. It is renowned for its well-preserved primitive landscape, which is endowed with lakes, wetlands, forests, meadows, streams, brooks, rare plants and animals. Meanwhile, Tibetan culture and customs are also component parts of the park.
As the first national park on the Chinese mainland, Potatso was opened to visitors in 2007. In the park, there are three main scenic areas open to visitors: Bita Lake in the south, Shudu Lake which is a part of the Three Parallel Rivers Scenic Area in the north and Militang Alpine Pasture in the middle. Some parts of the park are closed at the moment to facilitate rejuvenation.
The sightseeing buses run among these scenic spots and stop at fixed stations. Passengers can get on and off freely with one ticket. Drone owners will be delighted as drone flying is permitted at the park. Just remember to ensure all the registration is properly carried out.
There were so many birds at the park but I only managed to catch this ultramarine flycatcher at the end of our trek along the Shudu Lake.
The chipmunks in the park were so timid that they only run out only for 1 melon seed each time, sprinting back to their nest and then back again for another one.
Toward the end of the day, the skies opened with a momentary streak of light, lighting up the two pine trees, just 15-20s and it was over. I Felt blessed to capture this fleeting sight.
Napa Hai Nature Reserve
Amazing scenery abounds at the Napahai Natural Lake Reserve, which is 3,270m above sea level and covers 660 square kilometres. It is about 8km northwest of Shangri-La town. It is both an ideal field for herdsmen and a paradise for many species of birds. This is a seasonal lake as when summer comes, snow on the adjacent mountains melts and flows down into about ten rivers forming a vast lake.
In the dry season, Napahai becomes a vast green grassland – the best time for herding sheep cattle. Every December- March, the lake again turns into a temporary sanctuary for migratory birds such as bar-headed geese, wild ducks and black-necked cranes which is one of the 12 rarest bird species in the world.
DukeZong Ancient Town
Two years after the catastrophic fire in 2014 which gutted large swathes of historic Shangri-la, the city’s old quarter was reopened to visitors. Although much work remains to be completed, remade sections are now safer and more modern than before.
The 2014 fire burned for 14 hours and destroyed or severely damaged more than 300 Tibetan-style homes and businesses. Most of the affected structures were located in the old town area called Dukezong. The severity of the blaze was partially a result of old and sometimes ancient, interconnected wood buildings lining congested streets. Five hundred firefighters and some 1,500 volunteers were unable to quell the flames largely because fire trucks were too large to navigate the old quarter’s narrow cobblestone lanes.
Mini Tibetan prayer wheels souvenirs for sales. Some come with battery power to spin the wheel.
Do stroke some of the prayer wheels located at the town centre, at least for good luck.
City and provincial officials pledged 100 million yuan (US$15.4 million) for rebuilding efforts that they say will “respect local culture and restore the town to its original appearance”. For a first-timer to the ancient city, the ambience is still decidedly archaic and worth a visit.
Shangri-La main wet marketing and shopping area. According to our guide, the rates here are easily 30% lower than elsewhere. It’s quite a big area and a great way to observe local culture. Wet markets are my fave from a photographic perspective too, as it will warm up your sense of novelty.
All cuts of meat available for sale, the cool weather meant the meat stay fresher, at least for a longer period without refrigeration.
A preserved meat vendor. The local cool dry air facilitates the making of such meats. It’s like the Yunnan version of Parma Ham.
A group of Tibetan women selling their own products, either self-made or harvested from the highlands.
Strange looking product unique to this region – these pyramidal mounds are cheeses made from yak milk.
Fried “liang fen”, sort of radish cakes, sizzling in the pan. A great eye-opener for food that we do not see in our hometown.
This short visit to The Hidden Valley Resort was truly a memorable experience quite unlike anything else I have experienced to date. With spectacular natural scenery, fabulous food, exotic location and impeccable service, the resort certainly scored all the ticks in the right places and more. My only regret was that the trip was too short but that’s the perfect reason for a revisit again in the near future.
One of the concerns that may crop up in the mind of most readers would be the location’s high altitude (above 3300m above sea level). I like to assure you that the risk of high altitude sickness can be minimized by appropriate medication and trip planning. Another bugbear would be the flight cost as there is no direct flight from Singapore at the moment and domestic transfer flights do add up a fair bit. But on the bright side, this means that the region is not overrun by hordes of tourists, so you can see why the Hidden Valley Resort is Shangri-la’s best-kept secret.
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. This trip was a sponsored event but the opinion expressed is non-prejudiced, factual, objective and that of the author.