A long-time lover of a tropical holiday in Bali, Sarah Richard, discovers an unexpected new favourite getaway in a different direction altogether: Yunnan Province in China.
When it comes to travel, I generally know if I’m going to like a place or not almost instantly upon landing. The atmosphere, the smells, the people, the surroundings: those first few experiences in a new place are the most exciting.
I knew I was going to like Yunnan from the start; but I never realised quite how much I would fall for it. This is a place unlike any other – much of it is far less explored and spoken about than touristy beach destinations, and truly magical.
It helped that I was staying in some seriously sublime accommodation, in the form of the Banyan Tree Lijiang Resort, a 40-minute drive from the city’s international airport. My room at the resort, one of the Garden Suites, felt more like a cosy apartment. Welcome features included the timeless oriental décor, a huge bed, and my own private garden looking out onto the famous Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. For those wanting an additional touch of luxury, there’s a range of Pool Villas and Jet Pool Villas.
Wherever you lay your head, it’s clear that Banyan Tree takes each of its five stars very seriously. From the gowns hanging fresh and ready for you every morning, to the seasonal fruit and complimentary snacks, you can expect to find every extra. For me, though, the most specular thing about the property is its surroundings. My first night was spent gazing at the breath-taking mountain views – to the point that I was in danger of spending more time on my balcony than in my bed; that was until I realised that the bed was possibly the comfiest I would ever sleep on.
Despite all this, I was up early the next morning and raring to go. After a buffet breakfast of Asian and Western food, my English-speaking tour guide was waiting for us at reception with a huge smile on her face. “You’re going to love Lijiang, Sarah,” she said, and I couldn’t help but smile back at her and reply, “I think I already do.” Heading up through the mountains, the sun beaming onto our windows, we passed sunflowers that were just coming out of season yet still dominating the fields.
At our first destination, the Wenhai School, we were greeted by shy local children hiding one behind another. As soon as I said “Hi”, they all burst into giggles and ran around in circles. Banyan Tree helps local schools in the surrounding areas in many ways, such as funding infrastructure and education and providing clean water; it was great to see how much the children appreciated these things.
Next stop was Baisha village, one of Lijiang’s old towns, bursting with life and character. I immediately fell for its charm. Local Naxi women sold fruit while men sold old antiques. Just wandering around the streets was great entertainment in itself, with new sights at every corner, and my tour guide happily spent the hours talking me through Lijiang’s history and culture.
We headed back to the Banyan Tree for lunch at Ming Yue restaurant, which serves superb local and international dishes, featuring vegetables grown in the resort’s own garden. Following that it was a short walk to the ancient town of Shuhe. Here, autumn was in full bloom and colours were popping in every direction. Locals and tourists buzzed around, and the restaurants and cafés gave off sounds of laughter and clinking coffee cups. It felt like a European metropolis yet with a distinct Chinese feel, a place you always wanted to visit, yet never knew existed.
Another thing on my agenda in Lijiang was relaxation. Banyan Tree really is the ultimate relaxation resort; the rooms are beautifully arranged, providing complete privacy, with amazing views either from a balcony or a private garden. I got into my bath that extended along two huge windows, put on some music, lit the complimentary incense and shut off from the outside world. By the next morning I’d almost melted into my bed.
In a strange yet comforting way, Lijiang made me feel nostalgic. It reminded me of childhood summers in my hometown in England, surrounded by sunflowers and cobbled streets. I’d fallen head over heels in love with it, and I really didn’t want to leave.
I must have looked unhappy because my driver said, “Don’t worry, Miss Richard, Ringha is even more beautiful.” Surely nothing could beat the view of the sun hitting the snow-capped mountains each morning? The four-hour drive north to Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian, and the nearest town to Ringha) soon put this to the test, and the sights from my car window made it seem like I was in an episode of National Geographic.
Visa: If you don’t have a Chinese passport you’ll require a tourist visa to enter China, to be obtained before arrival. Different charges apply for different nationalities, so check the government website before you travel.
Getting there: Tigerair flies direct from Singapore to Lijiang (4 hours 25 minutes), but only once a week. Other options include a four-hour flight to Kunming on SilkAir or China Eastern, followed by a short connecting flight to Lijiang.
Banyan Tree staff will be waiting for you at Lijiang airport in a private car, ready to take you direct to their haven. If you stay in both resorts, they will organise a private shuttle to drive the four hours from Lijiang to Ringha.
More info: banyantree.com
Want more travel stories or ideas? Head to our Travel page.