THE TRAVELER Christian Pucher, development director for Six Senses Resorts & Spas, a Bangkok–based hotelier known for its high-end eco-resorts in pristine locales. Pucher leaves home every other week to identify sites for future properties in remote parts of Asia and the Middle East.
THE PLACE Few places evoke paradise like the mythical Shangri-La, the mountainous valley depicted in James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. And that's just what Pucher found when he encountered the northwestern area of China's Yunnan province, which borders Tibet and was renamed Shangri-La in 2001 for its natural beauty.
The Swiss native is no novice when it comes to mountains, but the snowcapped peaks, Alpine lakes, and deep gorges of the Tibetan Plateau were unlike anything he'd ever imagined. "I was in absolute awe," he says. "Mountains of up to 22,000 feet would rise and drop into valleys of 6,000 feet or more. The roads crossed some of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. It created a very serene and peaceful feeling."
Pucher spent hours perched on a rock gazing at the landscape and drinking po cha: a traditional Tibetan brew made from yak butter and tea leaves that's a natural remedy for altitude sickness. "It's not too tasty, but the humor, hospitality, and smiles of the local Tibetans more than made up for it," he recalls.
The entry point for most visitors to Shangri-La is the rapidly modernizing tourist town of Zhongdian, an hour's flight from the provincial capital of Kunming (in turn, a three-hour flight southwest from Shanghai). Pucher advises staying put for two days for altitude adjustment—a good time to fuel up on lean, succulent yak steak at Arro Khampa Restaurant, housed in a two-story historic building in the city's old town district. Pay your respects at Zhongdian's majestic 300-plus-year-old Songzanlin monastery, home to hundreds of red-robed monks.
When you're ready to head into the countryside, Songtsam Hotel, a 22-room boutique property next door to the monastery, can arrange a jeep and driver to take you along the old caravan route toward Lhasa, Tibet, which is dotted with small villages and centuries-old Buddhist temples that hug the mountains. "The changes in scenery, vegetation, and even climate several times within a day's drive are absolutely incredible," says Pucher.
THE DETAILS China Eastern operates flights daily between Kunming and Zhongdian's Diqing Airport, flychinaeastern.com, from $140 one way; Arro Khampa Restaurant, Pijiangpo 28, 011-86/887-822-6442, yak steak $7; Songtsam Hotel, songtsam.com, doubles from $97; jeep tours about $90 per day; Khampa Caravan, day tours from $60 per person (for groups of two), khampacaravan.com.
Your turn! Have you discovered a place like these while traveling? Share your stories by posting a comment at the bottom of page 1: Binn, Switzerland.