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Friday, August 28, 2015

Hotel Review: Songtsam Lodge at Shangri-La

This incredible view greeted me as my driver from Songtsam Shangri-La Lodge rounded the corner and began the last couple of kilometers towards the hotel.  If that temple above looks familiar, it should.  That is Songzanlin Monastery (also known as Ganden Sumtsenling) - the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan and a mini-me version of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.  Built in 1679, the monastery, which is hugely popular with tourists and devotees alike, houses more than 700 monks and is a 15-minute drive from the town of Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian.)

We were fortunate to stay within a few hundred meters of this historic monument at the flagship Songtsam lodge (which by the way has absolutely zero relation to the luxury hotel group bearing the same name as the destination.) This is one of five intimate Songtsam branded lodges that the founder Baima Dorjie has strategically built throughout the north western corner of China, in relative close proximity to the Three Parallel Rivers National Park.  By the way, the scenery in this region is spectacular and extraordinarily varied, with verdant terraced valleys, soaring mountainous peaks, deep gorges, virgin forests, and designated World Heritage sites abound.
Courtyard entrance at Songtsam Shangri-La Lodge
I have to admit that after roughing it a bit at Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, checking into Songtsam Lodge was like slipping into a warm soothing bath in a lost paradise.  Fashioned after an atypical Tibetan residence, the lodge was decorated with tasteful furnishings and artworks sourced by the founder himself, very much reflective of the surrounds.  From the moment we arrived, the friendly staff was all over us, but in a gentle, unobtrusive manner.   All guests must take off their shoes, leave them in wooden footlockers by the front door, and wear the proffered canvas slip-ons which were not only comfortable but had the added benefit of making each footstep that much quieter on the wooden floors. 
Our exceedingly comfortable Deluxe Room with a terrace and views overlooking the lake

At 3,600 metres above sea level, the air was decidedly much thinner than at our last destination - Lijiang (which was at 2,400 metres.)  Luckily, we had spent a couple of days at the latter city (also home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites) to acclimatize and it was only a 90-minute drive to Shangri-La, but still, I was taking in much deeper breaths just to not pass out whilst climbing the stairs to our room that's on the third floor (there are no elevators at the lodge.)  Honestly, I felt like a geriatric who'd just wheezed her way to a marathon finish line every time I returned to my room, and I had to literally take several gulps of air before doing something as strenuous as turning the key in the lock.

The sitting area of our Deluxe Room
Copper washing sinks in the bathrooms, handpicked by the founder; guest slippers
Tibetan antiques and artifacts that are displayed throughout the lodge.

The framed embroidered tapestries adorning the walls at each guest floor; the gift shop at the lobby.
Our tree-top view from the restaurant

As a wine region, it's not as well known as, say, Bordeaux, Sonoma, Mendoza, or even Okanagan Valley, but Yunnan's viticulture reputation is slowly growing in, if not the general public's, then the wine growers' consciousness.  Mo√ęt Hennessy has already opened a winery in Deqin county, and Pierre Lurton (of Cheval Blanc and Chateau d'Yquem) may soon be making inroads in the province. 

This was the best dinner I had during my week in Yunnan. A hearty hot-pot of simmering broth filled with fresh chicken, sliced ham, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, and a whole lot of coriander and chili padi.
The well-stocked library of Songtsam Lodge.  It was a luxury just to sit here quietly and read, but I also gave in occasionally to the impulse to gaze at the meadow, lake and the horizon beyond.
For one evening, we ventured to the sister Songtsam Retreat at Shangri-La MGallery Collection for dinner. This is a much more modern construct about a 10-minute walk from our hotel.  Don't be fooled by the similar names; this one is managed by Accor and is set behind Songzanlin Monastery.  At 75 rooms and sprawled over a larger space on a hill, the hotel is more suited for groups and doesn't have the same cosy, residential feel as the smaller Lodge I was staying in.   But the views, I must admit, were no less spectacular.
I took this photo from the restaurant at the Accor-managed Songtsam retreat just about 20 minutes before the sun set.  You're looking at the beautiful light that beamed down for a few minutes on the back of Songzanlin Monastery and the surrounding farmland. 

Songtsam Lodge at Shangri-La 
Yunnan Province
China 674400
Telephone: +86 887 8288 889

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