Discovering China's 'hidden' Himalaya

The mountains of north-west Yunnan, home to minority villages and snow peaks, offer the chance to experience a remote Himalayan enclave without forsaking creature comforts

3 mins

The phone cut like a cattle prod through my altitude-deranged dreams. “Good morning Mr David.” It was a 5.30am wake-up call from our guide, Renching. “Weather is good. Mountain top clear. Come!”

I stumbled through the gloom, pulled back the curtains and gasped in awe at the spectacle before me. Less than 10km across the valley, from a pedestal of shadowy forest, scree and broken cloud rose the vision of a Himalayan giant bathed in silver moonlight. 

The mist that had enveloped the massif had finally cleared, revealing the sacred Tibetan summit we’d travelled all this way to see: Kawa Karpo, spiritual home of the eponymous warrior god.

Stars were still crisp in the sky as we drove downhill towards a platform said to afford the most spectacular view in all China – a front-row seat for a lightshow on a sublime scale. By the time we got there, the sky above the summit ridge had grown paler, and the snow fields and glaciers sculpting Kawa Karpo’s flanks were more clearly defined: it looked as if the bank of cloud behind us was going to spoil the day.

The Mekong meanders past the Kawa Karpo (David Abram)
The Mekong meanders past the Kawa Karpo (David Abram)

But then, just as I’d given up hope of a clean sunrise and started to pack my camera away, cries of wonder erupted from the group of Chinese tourists standing next to me. 

The pyramidal ice peaks had fired up like a row of rose-coloured candles, radiating an extraordinary light. The effect was mesmerising. Camera shutters whirred. Renching performed ritual prostrations, bowing before the vision of dawn light and ice, intoning the Buddhist prayer, ‘Om mani padme hum’ – ‘Hail thee, jewel in the lotus’. 

It’s a line I’d heard countless times travelling in the Himalayas, but which had never seemed quite as poetic and apposite as it did at that moment.

Angering the gods

Kawa Karpo is the crowning glory of the Hengduan mountain range, in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. Culminating at 6,740m, the massif straddles the border of China and Tibet, and is regarded as holy by Tibetan Buddhists. Every year, between 10,000 and 20,000 pilgrims perform an arduous, 240km circuit of the snow mountain, known to the Chinese as Meili Xue Shan.

It has, however, never been climbed. An expedition from Kyoto University was mounted in the winter of 1990-91, but ended in tragedy after all 17 team members were killed in an avalanche. The locals interpreted this as a sign of the warrior god’s ire. A law has since been passed to prevent any further attempts.

Although no big hitter by Himalayan standards, Kawa Karpo and its 20 snowcovered subsidiary peaks nevertheless look colossal when viewed close up. The summit soars more than five vertical kilometres above the Mekong and Salween river valleys, which here flow north to south around the base of the mountain.

It was these parallel valleys, and that of the mighty Yangtze, which for centuries provided the principal trade routes between southern China and Tibet. Tea grown in the hills of southern Yunnan was carried in bricks on the backs of porters wearing only cloth slippers and sent to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. 

Here it was exchanged for thoroughbred horses, which the Tang and Ming dynasties needed in order to wage war against the Manchurian hordes menacing the Great Wall on their northern border.

The locals make offerings at White Chick Temple, Shangri-La (David Abram)
The locals make offerings at White Chick Temple, Shangri-La (David Abram)

Trade along the so-called Tea Horse Road continued well into the 20th century. However, after the Second World War horses were superseded by trucks, which nowadays lumber across the mountains on Swiss-style highways, complete with long, arcing tunnels and a chain of impressive concrete bridges.

During 15 years of double-digit growth, new roads and airports have brought sweeping changes to this formerly remote corner of China. Huge hydroelectric projects on the valley floors provide electricity to even far flung settlements, while a string of townships has sprung up along the river banks, where the Chinese government has re-settled nomadic Tibetan herding communities, local Naxi and Bai minority people, and migrants from the eastern plains.

The overall standard of living is amazingly high, compared with similarly mountainous parts of India and Nepal. On the way back from the platform, we paused to photograph one especially prosperous-looking Tibetan village, comprising around 20 whitewashed, tin-roofed farmsteads framed by strings of prayer flags and a backdrop of shining snow peaks. 

At this early hour, the hamlet was swathed in purple-blue smoke belching from what looked like oversized chimenea. “Juniper,” explained Renching, “Tibetan people burn for good luck.”

Prayer flags decorate a village near Meili (David Abram)
Prayer flags decorate a village near Meili (David Abram)

Easily four times the size of your average British three-bedroomed mid-terrace, each house was set amid rambling gardens of barley stubble and fruit orchards. Mulberry bushes rustled by the banks of babbling streams, as the sound of bells from herds of grazing goats and yaks drifted over the treetops.

“These people making lot of money from yartsa gunbu,” said Renching, reaching for his smartphone. “See – caterpillar fungus.” He swiped through images of smiling friends and relatives proffering palm-fulls of a worm-like mushroom. 

Prized in China as a cure for ailments ranging from lung cancer to erectile dysfunction, the fungus lives as a parasite in the larvae of the rare ghost moth, unfurling a sprout in late summer that can fetch as much as £52,000 a kilo on the open market. “Everyone here now has iPhone 6s – caterpillar fungus phone!”

Finding Shangri-La

They may have 4G, but the Tibetan inhabitants of the Hengduan mountains have maintained their distinctive, traditional way of life to a great extent, as we discovered in the course of a week-long tour around the valleys of the upper Mekong. 

The backbone of the trip was a series of beautiful Tibetan-style lodges, run by the Songtsam chain. Built of stone with handsome, hand-carved windows and polychrome painted doorways, each was located on the edge of a village, in delightful spots evidently chosen for their views and tranquil atmosphere.

The first was on the outskirts of the region’s capital, Shangri-La, where we’d originally arrived by plane from the capital of neighbouring Sichuan, Chengdu. Originally known as ‘Zhongdian’, the city acquired its exotic name in 2001 as part of an attempt to boost tourism. 

However, the connection with the legendary Himalayan kingdom featured in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, is entirely spurious. That said, Shangri-La is encircled by snow peaks and grassy plains dotted with herds of yaks and horses. And it does boast a fabulously picturesque monastery – one of the most spectacular outside Tibet proper – and our hotel was right below it.

The 17th-century Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, Yunnan (David Abram)
The 17th-century Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, Yunnan (David Abram)

Sometimes referred to as the ‘Little Potala’ because of its resemblance to the great palace in Lhasa, the Ganden Sumtsenling dates from 1679. Badly damaged in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it has since been painstakingly reconstructed, and its ornately decorated roofs, gleaming golden finials, monks’ quarters and ochre-walled prayer halls today form an arresting spectacle when viewed from the shores of the adjacent lake.

We took it easy on our first day, to acclimatise to the altitude – Shangri-La lies at an elevation of 3,300m above sea level. We took leisurely strolls around the reed banks on the lakeshore, interspersed by rounds of tea and yak-butter biscuits back in our room, which had a dreamy view over the water.

During one of the circuits, I remarked to Renching that most of the visitors to the monastery seemed to be Chinese rather than Tibetans, and asked him where all the locals went to make juniper incense offerings in the morning. “White Chick Temple,” he replied, pointing to a hilltop on the opposite side of the city.

Our visit to the shrine the following morning proved to be one of the highlights of our trip. From around 7am, streams of worshippers filed up the steps leading from town to the temple, dressed in wildly contrasting attire that reflected the changing times: from miniskirts and diamanté baseball caps to traditional rainbow aprons and raw-silk headscarves.

Naxi people (David Abram)
Naxi people (David Abram)

The atmosphere in the precinct was joyful. Three generations of families were making the ritual kora around a walkway lined with multi-coloured prayer flags, pausing to murmur mantras and leave offerings of smouldering incense. 

Afterwards, we sat in the shade of a conifer tree with a party of monks to gaze across the rooftops of Shangri-La’s Old Town. Destroyed by a fire in 2014, the historic quarter is being rebuilt from scratch. Carved-wood facades and terracotta-tile roofs with upswept eaves are rapidly taking shape in what promises to be a large, and quite beautiful, Tibetan-style shopping centre pitched at visitors from China’s big cities.

Into the hills

Having made our good-luck offering of juniper at White Chick Temple, we re-joined our driver at the bottom of the hill for the start of our trip north to Benzilan village, our first halt. Along the way, we paused at a traditional pottery, where we made a Tibetan blackware cup that would be fired and delivered to our hotel at the end of our tour. 

Splashes of yellowing larch and poplar trees carpeted the mountainsides as we pressed further north into an altogether starker and more grandiose landscape. Tucked up a secluded side valley just off the main road, Songtsam Benzilan lodge provides a perfect springboard for explorations of the wild, forested country above it.

As shafts of golden evening sunlight shone through the leaves of walnut trees, we drove high up the valley to a spot just clear of the forest, where a little shrine festooned with prayer flags offered a glimpse of the snow-dusted peaks to the north-west.

On the way back, a water-driven prayer wheel glinted at the entrance to a farm whose occupants made traditional Buddhist incense from rare aromatic pines harvested on the mountain. I’ll never forget the wonderful scent of the grinding room, where the timber was powdered and rolled with medicinal herbs into sticks.

View from White Chick Temple, Shangri-La (David Abram)
View from White Chick Temple, Shangri-La (David Abram)

Clutching a bundle as a souvenir, we gratefully accepted the family’s invitation to fill our bags with fresh peaches and apples from their orchard, which we munched the following morning on our way to the next stop on our journey.

Fronted by swirling rice terraces, Tacheng enjoys a warmer, wetter, subtropical location. The vista of misty green hillsides from our balcony was sublime, and we were glad we’d decided to spend a couple of nights there, as it gave us time to enjoy a harvest lunch with a local Naxi family, visit a sacred Buddha cave high on a mountain overlooking the Yangtze Valley, and travel to a nearby nature reserve where we observed a troupe of endangered black-and-white Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys tucking into a breakfast of fresh lichen.

Rooms with a view

The most exhilarating leg of our journey, however, was without doubt the stretch along the Mekong Valley as it twisted northwards below the Kawa Karpo massif. Every now and again, visions of ice-encrusted summits would appear at the head of canyons cleaving deep into the mountain’s flank. 

Villages nestled amid terraces of barley, against backdrops of wine-tinged scree and ridges rising at dizzying angles towards glaciers shrouded in swirling cloud. On the roadside, parties of foot-sore, wild-haired Tibetan pilgrims limped towards Deqen town, their faces nut-brown from weeks on the Kawa Karpo kora.

Our final destination, perched on a natural balcony high above Deqen, was an exquisite, wood-lined lodge filled with evocative Tibetan antiques – a haven of warm colours and wondrous vistas. 

From our room, we had an uninterrupted view of the snow mountain to the west. The window seat seemed made for a cosy read, but I spent hours with my nose pressed against the glass gazing at the gleaming ice fields.

Sun shines through the windows at Songtsam Benzilan (David Abram)
Sun shines through the windows at Songtsam Benzilan (David Abram)

There were many ‘perfect moments’ on this trip – climbing through forests draped with prayer flags and fronds of pale-green lichen, and having a hilarious lesson on how to eat bean jelly with chopsticks from a sniggering six-year-old Naxi boy, to name but two. But the one that stands out came on our last evening. 

After a supper of creamy, homemade tofu and vegetables fresh from the lodge garden, my travel companion and I retired to our room for coffee, as the sun set and the great mountain turned pink, then molten red.

I’ve trekked several times in my life for weeks on end, enduring sleepless, freezing nights under canvas and a diet of relentless barley flour and noodles for views not half as enthralling as this. 

And I can say without a trace of shame that a Himalayan sunset never looked as fine as it did on that evening, Gaggia latté in hand, and a pocket-sprung mattress to crash out on once the last traces of alpen-glow had faded from the phalanx of saw-toothed summits. For me, the seat of the Tibetan warrior god will always represent a vision of eternal bliss.

The author travelled with TransIndus (0844 879 3960, A 15-day private tour of the region, including the Songtsam Circuit, plus time in Chengdu (to see the pandas and nearby Bronze Age sites) and Lijiang, costs £3,045, including return flights, accommodation, guides, transfers and meals. Shorter trips are possible.

Main Image: The Himalayas (David Abram)

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