Thursday, Apr. 23, 2009

Heidi with Yaks

Best Autumn Hike
Zhongdian, China

Experienced travelers know that the town of Zhongdian (now renamed Shangri-La) in northern Yunnan province epitomizes all that is worst about tourism in China — hastily built hotels, cheap souvenirs, fake folklore and, out of sight of the visitors, miserable living quarters and pinched shops. Luckily, there's nothing the crowds can do about the sublime country all around. In the villages and mountains of this ethnically Tibetan region, you can find hikes that are unforgettable.

About 40 minutes out of town, the Banyan Tree Ringha resort,, offers a whole-day Nomad Alpine Trek. If you take the walk in the autumn, there'll be thick frost on the ground as you set out and mist creeping along the fields. The trek starts easily, along a valley past a small hill, atop of which sits the ancient and very lovely Ringha monastery; note the prayers carved into stones on the monastery's boundary. After an hour or so, the path climbs steeply uphill, through a forest (glorious fall colors) and with occasional views of snowcapped mountains rolling to the north. The walk's quite stiff — and you're starting at over 10,500 feet (3,200 m), so it helps to have acclimatized — but the guides will bring horses along, and it's no shame if you use one.

Eventually, the path opens out onto a quite stunning alpine meadow, where herdsmen take their livestock in summer. Think Heidi, with yaks. After a lunch in a hut, you climb a little higher, topping out at about 12,500 feet (3,800 m), before taking a logging track back through the forest. If you're lucky — we were — you can accompany a pair of yaks dragging some of those enormous logs that are used to build Tibetan houses. Then it's back to the hotel for some ginger tea and a massage.

The Banyan Tree website says the hike takes nine hours, but if you're fit and well equipped, you should be able to shave a few hours off that. China wants northern Yunnan to become a center of eco-tourism. In Zhongdian itself, you'd think that aspiration was a bad joke. In the Yunnan mountains — underneath the biggest sky you've ever seen, in the cleanest air, and with views rolling on forever — it's not.