On the road

Golden rooftops and snow-covered mountains

Around the city of Shangri-La in China’s northern Yunnan province, a former documentary filmmaker has made it his mission to show the world the beauty and rich traditions of his homeland. His Songtsam Lodges – currently among the most exciting hotel projects under development – are set in some of the most stunning landscapes on earth.

Aaron Berkovic
Hendrik Lakeberg

The BMW X5 follows the winding road along the upper reaches of the Mekong River and up towards the Yakou Pass. As the rugged mountains soar majestically on either side, the sky here in the northern part of the Yunnan region seems almost close enough to touch. From the top of the pass, the view back down the valley stretches away into infinity. A sculpture made of four giant boulders stacked one on top of the other displays the altitude in red, blue, yellow and green numbers: 4,292 metres. It is draped in traditional Tibetan prayer flags. Up here, so remote from civilisation, thousands of kilometres from the country’s eastern seaboard and the high-speed bustle of modern China, the breathtaking scenery leaves you feeling small and insignificant as a human being, yet a part of nature as a whole. It is an uplifting experience; here the everyday stresses of the city seem as far away as the earth is from the moon.

Driving the BMW X5 from the isolated mountain peak down into the valley involves repeated stops to allow herds of yaks or cows to cross the road. A journey into northern Yunnan affords insights into a China that is rural, spiritual and in tune with nature.

Regional specialities: roadside vendors offer fresh fruit and traditional yak’s cheese.

And when you leave the isolation of the mountain top and drive back down to the valley – stopping the BMW X5 every now and again to let a herd of yaks or cows cross the road – a trip to the northern province of Yunnan near the border with Myanmar and the Tibet Autonomous Region provides insights into a China that is rural, spiritual and in tune with nature. But it isn’t just the natural landscape that creates this picture. More than 25 ethnic minorities with different spiritual orientations and social living concepts – more than in any other region of China – coexist here peacefully, maintaining traditions that have changed little over centuries.

Tradition and modernity form a harmonious whole

You can see it most strikingly in the streets of Shangri-La in the autonomous district of Dêqên, beneath the golden rooftops of the Songzanlin monastery, where women and children combine the colourful traditional fabrics of the area with equally vibrant lightweight fleece jackets. Far from modernity and tradition being mutually exclusive, in Shangri-La they unite to create a harmonious whole.

Promoting the region’s cultural diversity and making its abundance accessible to the world is the mission of Baima Dorje. The 52-year-old sits in the spacious restaurant of Songtsam Lodge in the city of Shangri-La. Dressed in a beige jacket, which he keeps on even while eating, the former documentary filmmaker doesn’t seem at first glance like a driven hotel manager with ambitious plans – more like an adventurer making his way in a new and uncharted region of the planet. In some ways the analogy is fitting, for Baima’s Songtsam Lodges project is really a journey of adventure: his ambitious boutique hotels centre on a region which until now has remained relatively undeveloped in terms of tourism and where the sustainable form of tourism embraced by Songtsam Lodges is as good as unknown. But for the Tibetan, who grew up in Shangri-La and converted his parents’ house into the first of six lodges in 2000, his home and his culture mean the world. You could say he has devoted his life to them.

Drive with caution: in the mountains around Shangri-La you can expect frequent encounters with cows or yaks crossing the road.

As a documentary filmmaker and now as a hotelier, Tibetan Baima Dorje (left) has made it his mission to open up the beauty of his homeland to the world.

As a documentary filmmaker and now as a hotelier, Tibetan Baima Dorje (left) has made it his mission to open up the beauty of his homeland to the world.

When he worked for the Chinese broadcaster CCTV, Baima made films about Tibet, Buddhism and the ethnic communities of Yunnan. “If people are to coexist in peace and harmony, they have to get to know each other. I want to improve understanding between minorities,” he says, his voice quiet but firm. He is seated beside a fireplace, its surround decorated with artful black tiles from nearby Nixi. For centuries the village has been home to the traditional craft of black pottery, in which ceramic pieces take on a characteristic black colouring as a result of the protracted firing process. Details like these are what make the Songtsam Lodges special. They are an indication of the seriousness of Baima’s intent and the attention to detail with which his hotels showcase the region.

One of the most spectacular routes in the world

The Songtsam Lodges are making use of the resources of the region, and with them meet the standards of international five-star hotels. They are built to traditional designs, the walls decorated with antique Thangka paintings and tapestries depicting Tibetan and historical Chinese motifs. Many members of his family are employed by the Songtsam hotels. The vast majority of the remaining staff come from the immediate vicinity, some of them from the villages where the lodges are sited. In future, the project will benefit even more people. 29-year-old Tsering, for example, who after studying in Beijing returned to his native Shangri-La to take over management of the Songtsam Lodges. Baima has plans to expand his Songtsam Lodges as far as Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Over the next two years he aims to complete five more sites along the route. It is whispered that the route to Lhasa, today still relatively inaccessible by car, is set to become one of the most beautiful stretches of road anywhere in the world. Taking the traveller along thousand-year-old trading routes, it sweeps through majestic mountain ranges and steep-sided valleys. In about a year from now they will have completed a new road, which will make the journey considerably easier. “Eastern Tibet is even more beautiful than Switzerland,” says Baima, who has just returned from visiting his daughter in Lausanne. She is attending a hotel management school there, so she can follow in her father’s footsteps and take over management of the Songtsam Hotel in the years ahead. “But only if that's what she wants,” explains Baima with a broad grin.

The Songtsam concept – to be not just a hotel but a cultural ambassador – was very well received from the outset by western tourists. The proportion of foreigners has remained constant in recent years. However, the volume of Chinese guests has been growing steadily. The Songtsam Hotel project and above all the imposing landscapes and walks on offer in the natural surroundings of Shangri-La and the other lodges scattered around the region, not to mention visits to traditional artisanal workshops and local monasteries – all this increasingly caters for the requirements of a growing number of Chinese, for whom prosperity alone is no longer enough and who seek a counterbalance to the high-speed, consumer-driven lifestyle of the cities.

Sustainable tourism

Most of Baima’s guests do not stay in one place during their visit, but spend their week sampling the distinctive character of different lodges. Hotel staff may chauffeur them in a BMW X5 xDrive to Meili, for example, a solitary and isolated village of just six families, which in good weather offers spectacular views of the white peaks of the Meili Snow Mountains. Here, the all-wheel-drive capability of the BMW Sports Activity Vehicle is virtually indispensible. For around a year BMW has been involved in a partnership with Songtsam Lodges. What links the two brands in particular is their joint aspiration for sustainability and prudent growth.

In the BMW X5, visitors can undertake one of the many tours to the surrounding villages. Perhaps to the above-mentioned village of Nixi, for example, home to the 1,000-year-old traditional craft of Black Pottery. We call on Losang Endrup, who a few months ago took over the family business started by his father. His brother, a buddhist master, is supervising the monastery of Shangri-La where he is overlooking 1,000 monks. With warm hospitality, he invites guests to try their hand at producing their own creations using clay made from the region’s sand. In a side room at the pottery, an exhibition displays cups, teapots and the tiles we saw at the Songtsam Hotel in Shangri-La. A little surprisingly, perhaps, payments can be made using WeChat, the simple and versatile Chinese messaging service.

The aim of the Songtsam Hotel project – and others that may follow – is not just to make these beautiful and diverse regions accessible to China and the rest of the world in a responsible manner, but also to foster their economic development. The same idea is now supported by the Chinese Government, which is increasingly introducing measures to promote tourism.

A mysterious place isolated from the world

On the road back to Shangri-La, we frequently pass groups of people standing at picturesque points by the roadside, seemingly doing nothing but enjoying the view. Nang lada the people of Tibet call it – “moving the sun”. A poetic expression for enjoying the moment.

That, too, is a tradition in this region. Perhaps it has something to do with the name Shangri-La. It was coined by the British writer James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon, in which he describes a mysterious monastery populated by people who live long and happy lives, despite being cut off from the rest of the world. The story is based on tales about a place called Shambhala, a mystical kingdom lost in the mountains of central Asia – a kind of paradise accessible by a secret road known only to a few.

It would perhaps be going too far to describe the modern city of Shangri-La, the northern Yunnan region in general or the Songtsam Lodges as a mystical paradise, yearned for by many over thousands of years. But Baima brings a little of this to his luxury retreats: “These are places of beauty and tranquillity. I want Songtsam to transport my guests to a world that is reminiscent of Shambhala, and inspire them during their stay to a different way of thinking.” And his concept works. It is not just an overnight stay at one of his Songtsam Lodges: for many, it may be simply a drive through the majestic mountain scenery – far from the megacities that many of his visitors call home. In some ways, a journey through this region is also a journey into one’s own soul.

At 4,292 metres on the Yakou Pass the sky feels close enough to touch. Here the everyday stresses of the city seem as far removed as the earth from the moon.

Model facts

BMW X5 xDrive 28i*

Displacement cc


kW (hp)

180 (245)

Torque Nm


Top speed km/h


0–100 km/h in s


Fuel Economy (EU)
l/100 km


*with this engine only available in China