[dropcap size=small]H[/dropcap]e is the archetype of the explorer-gentleman, his muddy boots and well-worn cowboy hat exuding an air of adventure that contradicts the sartorial trimmings of polka-dotted silk cravat – stylishly worn, of course – and pink pocket square tucked neatly into a khaki blazer.
Constantin De Slizewicz is not your usual outdoor guide. To start, he is a Frenchman living in Shangri-La county, Yunnan. The 37-year-old photojournalist and travel writer from Provence was first posted to Beijing and lived in various cities in China for more than a decade, before settling in Shangri-La in 2010.
Today, he resides in probably the most bohemian-chic traditional house in the county. Think wooden floor strewn with colourful Tibetan rugs, walls painted with brightly hued Buddhist motifs and tripod lamps sitting on vintage trunks, bathing the room in warm light. Complete with Wi-Fi and en-suite bathrooms – a rarity in these parts as outhouses are the custom – this haven is where De Slizewicz spends his days with his British wife, baby son and three dogs, including a gentle Tibetan mastiff named Georgy Porgy.
When he isn’t on the road leading an expedition, the author of two travel books holes up at home and writes. He isn’t idle; his is an idyllic existence.
Indeed, in Shangri-La, one can seek out a different way of living – a slow way.
Almost a century after American explorer Joseph Rock introduced this area to travellers seeking a little piece of heaven-on-earth, it has managed to stay, for the most part, magical.
The surrounding scenery is lovely. Hills are crowned by small temples such as the tiny Baiji Si, which translates to “Temple of a Hundred Chickens”, named after the fowl that are freed as an offering. There are monasteries such as the Songzanlin, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan; villages are dotted with traditional wooden houses exhibiting intricate carvings; farmland with neat plots of barley and potato; and lush mountains painted in different shades of cerulean by the light of dusk.
But it is really the people who make the region even more lovely. Even in the city centre, there are no restaurant or shop touts, or children pleading for you to buy a trinket or postcard. But smile at just about anyone and you will receive a hearty Tibetan greeting: “Zhaxi dele!” They are simple, down-to-earth folk who seem genuinely more interested in the strangers they encounter than their wallets.
Yet, it is not all untouched landscapes and rustic living. Shangri-La county is the capital of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and the city centre is lit up at night by neon signs of KTV lounges and hotels.
The most imposing building resembles a palace but is, in fact, a shopping mall with a massive LED screen on its facade. Porsche Cayennes and Audi Q7s are parked by the roadside, and tucked within the folds of the ladies’ traditional garments is usually an iPhone 6.
Just this August, the city welcomed its first international luxury hotel brand, with the opening of Hylandia by Shangri-La hotel group. For the holiday-maker, this translates to the option of experiencing the slow pace of life with the comfort of modern luxuries – just as how De Slizewicz has done.
To be sure, not all explorations are rough and rugged. After all, there was a time when only the privileged could afford to visit far-flung places. Rock, for instance, reputedly travelled with an entourage consisting of a cook who would prepare European meals daily. And he often had a rubber bathtub among his supplies, for hot soaks on the road. It was with this posh style of travelling in mind that De Slizewicz created Caravane Liotard.
His four-day expeditions across the Righa plains to the Aboudje Mountains are about glasses of pastis and whisky served at sundown, and candle-lit, three-course dinners served on Limoges and paired with some luscious bordeaux. Guests get to bed down in cavernous bell tents decked with carpets, skins and plush linen. There’s even a small corner closet, with mirror, basin, a thermos of hot water, and towels.
The journey, made on horseback and foot, is slow; but there is no better way to immerse yourself in the nature of Shangri-La. It’s a place where you would want to take your time.
LEARN A SACRED ART
Learn a sacred art Previously practised by trained monks, Thangka – Tibetan Buddhist paintings depicting deities, scenes from the scriptures or a mandala – is more than an art form. The detailed drawings painted in vibrant hues derived from precious mineral powders indeed have much artistic value and are highly prized by collectors throughout the world.
Prices for an A4-sized contemporary piece start from about US$200 (S$280). Last November, a 15th-century Thangka was sold at a Christie’s auction for US$45 million.
At the Thangka Academy Shangri-La, 32-year-old senior Thangka master Lobsang Khedup, who has been studying the art since he was seven years old, guides tourists on half-day classes, as well as students on year-long courses.
The classroom is a spartan hall on the second level of a traditional house within Dukezong Old Town – and within this same space, trained artists paint works for the likes of Songzanlin monastery.
It looks impossibly daunting, but beginners will discover that Thangka painting is all about proportion, and there are set ratios to follow for just about every single detail, so even a novice can manage.
And there is something very therapeutic – almost meditative – about an afternoon spent sitting on the floor of the studio, drawing lines, while watching the young artists engage in occasional jokes and banter while working on a massive commissioned piece.
LOSE YOURSELF TO FOLK MUSIC
Tibetan artist Zhaxi Tsering-Tan has fond memories of listening to the sounds of dusk on the grassland: elderly people making barley tea; children’s laughter as they played; the yaks groaning as they are herded back; and in the background, the tremulous bass of yak herders singing their happiness at the completion of a day’s work.
To Tsering-Tan, singing is the most natural form of expression, and apart from performing the music of the nomadic people, he also travels through the land in his capacity as founder and president of Shangri-La Folk Music Preservation Association (SFMPA), to collect folk music in a bid to preserve this expression of his people’s spirit.
For his work, Tsering-Tan is often invited to symposiums around the world, including one at Stanford University last year. As the SFMPA is one of the cultural NGOs supported by Hylandia, Tsering-Tan also holds the occasional performance within the property, giving one and all an opportunity to be touched by folk tunes, performed the way they should – that is, accompanied by simple traditional musical instruments and not mired in fashionable electronic sounds.
This is a far cry from sleep-inducing classical music. One session held at the property’s sheltered courtyard saw music students, hotel guests and monks alike sitting knee-to-knee on cushions and synthetic turf, and eventually singing – and even dancing along – to the hypnotic melodies. It could be a Buddhist chant or boisterous drinking song.
SAVOUR SLOW FOOD
Situated at just 3,200m above sea level, the landscape of Shangri-La is less harsh than those of Lhasa or Lijiang. This translates to a land rich with delicious produce, nourished in the pure, untouched natural environment.
While highland honeys and walnuts make delicious food gifts to bring home, a visit to the farmers’ market – especially towards the end of August – will reveal the true local speciality: mushrooms, from golden chanterelles to massive matsutake foraged from the wild at the break of dawn. Picked in the pine forests of Shangri-La, top-grade matsutake with its umbrella yet to unfurl and the membrane intact is often shipped to Japan and sold for some US$100 per piece.
But here, if you know where to look, Grade A specimen can be purchased at trade price of around 500 yuan (S$110) per kilogram (which is about 15 pieces). Freshly picked, these mushrooms have a heady perfume and an intoxicating flavour akin to a fine daiginjo, and are best enjoyed as raw slices with yak sashimi.
Yet, Shangri-La holds more gourmet treasures, with some of the best known to few outside the region. One such local speciality is zangxiang zhu, which translates to Fragrant Tibetan Pig. Cultivation of this unique breed is painstaking. Come mating season, sows of local breeds are put out into the wild to couple with mountain hogs. The resulting piglets are raised free range on the grasslands for a year and eight months, until they reach optimal size and attain the best flavour.
For the guests of Hylandia, a wood-fire barbecue in a picturesque village overlooking the mountain ranges, specially organised by the hotel as part of an excursion to Nixi, is perhaps the best way to savour zangxiang zhu and other local delicacies in their purest form. The food ranges from a variety of mushrooms and brittle sun-dried chilli that is as wonderfully earthy as they are fiery, to succulent cuts of pork and a comforting soup made using a local breed of free-range chicken. They are coupled with some nuanced wines from the Shangri-La Plateau “A” series by Yunnan Shangri-La Winery Company – a range that has won several international accolades.
For food-loving globetrotters, here’s a slice of Shangri-La.