Ker & Downey invites you to go off the beaten path and discover the wonders of China hundreds of miles away from the bedlam of traffic and tourists in the Fall 2012 issue of BESPOKE magazine.
Beyond the Wall and the warriors, the Bird’s Nest and the Forbidden City, the sprawling country of China harbors cultures and communities as diverse as they are ancient. In these often forgotten areas hidden in pristine valleys or teetering on the edge of impossibly steep cliffs, life moves at a relaxed pace, traditions outnumber technologies, and the breathtaking scenery is a welcome contrast to the quickness of tourists and vehicles humming through the crowded streets of more popular and populous destinations.
The mighty Yangtze, what could be considered China’s Nile, nourished the first Chinese civilizations and winds its way through thousands of miles of rural countryside. In modern times, the demands of a growing population led to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. The resulting modifications to the river ignited a renaissance for the area and renewed interest in the multitude of cultures that flourished at its banks for centuries, prompting the relocation of several ancient villages and artifacts. Exploring the evolving Yangtze has become a new adventure, and Sanctuary’s Yangzi Explorer is leading the way in ferrying passengers on what seems like a new waterway.
Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer endeavors to erase the hectic, cramped feeling of bustling city life as soon as guests step on board. Floor-to-ceiling windows and private balconies are standard in each luxurious cabin – all the better to spread out and marvel at the passing spectacle of cliffs and the verdant landscapes of the Yangtze’s three crown jewels: Qutang, Wu, and Xiling Gorges. The yacht is unprecedented among cruises, with a one-to-one crew-to-passenger ratio and amenities that rival those of a Caribbean cruise liner. Onboard activities abound, with live performances in a full-size theater, open-air Tai Chi instruction on the top deck, Chinese cooking and traditional calligraphy classes, and an indulgent spa among the many options.
Excursions take passengers even closer to the beauty of the river and its tributaries, including Shennong Stream. The clear waters snake through limestone cliffs that have been inhabited since the Han Dynasty, as evidenced by the carved-wood coffins placed along the cliff like stairsteps and balanced on beams 100 feet or more above the water in the crags that disrupt the face. Some coffins are thought to be as old as 2,000 years, and the logistics of burials in this precarious location have baffled Chinese historians and archaeologists for generations. Visitors navigate the Shennong on traditional rafts and are literally dragged through the shallow waters at the stream’s end by a team of boat pullers – a method used by river vessels since ancient times. The paths on which these men tread as they haul boats ashore were carved before the first stones of the Great Wall were laid, worn smooth by a millennium of feet clad in handmade straw sandals.
Skirting the Himalayas, China’s Yunnan Province is characterized by a wealth of minority groups and small mountain ranges, with the historic town of Lijiang nestled in its undulating terrain. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at a point in the Jade River where the water flow forks into three sections. Colorful medieval buildings sprout up next to the many canals and streams that create a web throughout the city, a layout that has earned it the nickname “the Venice of the Orient.” Isolation in the shadow of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the city’s romantic atmosphere makes Lijiang one of the more popular destinations among Chinese honeymooners. It was the flocking of lovebirds that drew the interest of hoteliers more than the formerly infrequent trickle of Western tourists – a leisurely drip that is approaching a surge as the area grows in popularity.
Located just north of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain’s peaks, the award-winning Banyan Tree Lijiang embraces the town’s quaint atmosphere. From the sloping roofs to the colorful handcrafted details in each spacious suite, influences from the local Naxi and Tibetan cultures permeate both the interiors and the facade of the resort. Banyan Tree’s hallmark spa experience involving centuries-old holistic treatments is not to be missed, but perhaps the hotel’s best feature is its proximity to the surrounding countryside and all its treasures.
Old Town Lijiang is a mix of eclectic shops and cafés helmed by smiling faces, and the combination of natural beauty, relaxed attitudes, and the reflection of the vibrant buildings in the still waters of the town’s canals create an air of quiet jubilation at all times. Bonfires in the city center happen almost nightly with locals turning out in droves to dance and play music, and visitors welcome to join in the revelry. Beyond the life in Old Town, the silence of the mountains beckons. Some of the best views in China can be glimpsed from the banks of Black Dragon Pool, or on the edge of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, among the deepest and most treacherous in the world.
North of Lijiang, the gateway to Tibet can be found in the town of Shangri-La. Formerly named Zhongdian, the city has adopted the moniker of the fictional valley of unending peace and otherworldly longevity from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Whether or not it was the inspiration for the novel, this Shangri-La does capture the thoughts of Asian charm conjured by its name. Like Lijiang’s, Shangri-La’s cultural blend is extensive, with the majority of residents from Tibetan heritage, and rural Tibetan culture can be experienced here without having to travel into the sometimes tense special administrative district. Dozens of Tibetan farmhouses compose the elegant Banyan Tree Ringha, the premier resort in the area. Each structure was relocated from a nearby town, restored onsite, and enhanced with modern amenities and superbly detailed artwork and finishes. Authentic country life is on full display, with scads of pigs, yaks, and goats shepherded lazily through the cobblestone streets and residents eager to welcome visitors into their homes. Perched on a hill just north of town is the Songzanlin Monastery, a unique collection of temples that embrace religious aspects of both Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism and shelter a wealth of artwork and intricate prayer wheels.
China’s secret, picturesque destinations offer another side of this unique country, a glimpse into the past of a place where expansion is constant and where the peaceful may one day be eclipsed by the hustle and bustle of an ever-growing population.