Photo of the Day: Approaching storm on Coogee Beach, Australia

Photo of the Day

This sky is my favorite kind: the sun is still in one part of it, brightening everything up, but the impending blackness of the clouds means trouble is brewing. Not that that is any bother for the sunbathers, who are catching a few last-minute rains before what has to be some serious rain. Thanks to Flickr user ssabedin, who shared this via Gadling’s pool.

Have any awesome sky shots from your travels? Upload them to Gadling’s Flickr pool, and we just might choose one for our Photo of the Day feature.

South of the Clouds: Songtsam Retreat, Shangri-la

Songtsam Retreat

Set on a hillside directly overlooking the Songtsam Monastery, the Songtsam Retreat offers a taste of Tibet to the traveler in China. The collection of buildings are built in the style of Tibetan stone houses, and despite its grandeur, the quietly unassuming Retreat blends nicely with its surrounds. Heavy blankets cover thick doorways (which are locked with wooden bolts) to trap heat inside, and every room has a wood stove, all of which manages to infuse a bit of rustic and give it a “lodge” feel.

Gadling visited the Songtsam Retreat in November on a tour with WildChina. Here are our impressions.

The Check-In

The lobby of the Retreat is filled with Tibetan antiques and artifacts, as well as the requisite wood stove. Roomy chairs and couches sit in front of low tables lit with candles, and the ambiance manages to be both grand and cozy. Staff serve you a warming cup of ginger tea, and then you’re lead cross the stone walkways to your room. There you’ll find a warm fire already glowing.

%Gallery-114505%The Rooms

There are 75 rooms at the Songtsam Retreat, and even the smallest can be considered a suite. Big beds, a sitting area with a wide coffee table topped with magazines and fresh fruit, a wardrobe, large TV, and a fireplace make up the expansive rooms. Windows gaze out to farmland and the monastery, and back porches with lounge chairs offer the same view (but with a bit of a chill). Large rugs cover hand-laid wood floors.

Beds are large, set on low, wide platforms and topped with thick mountain blankets. Reading lamps and a “captain’s” headboard for storing water and books take up less space than regular nightstands. Water, fruit, and tea-making appliances are provided, and the rooms are equipped with wifi.

The Bathrooms

Our bathroom was a bit on the small side compared to the room, but still perfectly adequate. Some rooms come with deep timber bathtubs, but ours had a simple stand-up shower. Stone walls contrasted nicely with the modern facilities. Shower products were kept in ceramic pitchers – definitely one of the more unique and charming presentations we’ve seen. A small, frosted-glass window let in natural light.

The Bar and Restaurant

The drinking and dining facilities are located in a large, three-story building. High ceilings and low tables and chairs add space to the dining room, an appropriate continuation of the wide open space outside. Rooftop dining terraces also connect you with the surroundings, while the sunken bar/library lounge area creates intimacy.

A large breakfast buffet offers both Western and Chinese choices, from an omelet bar to rice porridge. Tibetan specialties such as yak hot pot are on the menu and shouldn’t be missed.

The Facilities

Spa services such as massage are offered and can be booked at the front desk. A meditation room furthers the “retreat” experience.

The Bottom Line

The Songtsam Retreat is definitely something special. Ninety percent of the lodge’s staff are from minority groups; most are Tibetan but there are also many Naxi. They receive language and skills training, and are genuinely friendly. Furthermore, the Retreat’s rural location and overall design ensure both a comfortable stay and a unique experience. There’s nothing quite like waking up and pulling back the curtains to a view of the monastery rooftops, smokey mountain air, and farmland. And while many hotels that try to create a “feeling” can come off as cheesy and chintzy, the Songtsam Retreat does a fine job of establishing a mix of Tibetan-rural and lodge-comfortable.

Read more about Gadling’s travel through Yunnan, China here.

Though our stay at the Songtsam Retreat was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all our own.

Paris reflection: Photo of the Day

Paris

The normally rigid lines of this Left Bank Paris building are softened and distorted in a rear window reflection. Besides the definitely Parisian building, I also like that there are blue skies (so rare in Paris), and the fact that the reflection is off of a compact car — too bad it’s
not a Renault! The photo’s caption, (by Flickr user nicocrisafulli) reads: “It’s all in the way you look at it,” which tends to be true.

Have any distorted vacation photos you’d love to share with the world? Upload the to Gadling’s Flickr pool, and we just might select one for our Photo of the Day feature.

South of the Clouds: Shangri-la, Yunnan, China

Shangri-la YunnanGadling’s last stop on Yunnan’s ancient tea horse road was Shangri-la, China, a high-altitude Tibetan city named after the mythical town in John Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.” Full of snapping prayer flags in high-altitude sunlight, the town has only been called Shangri-la since 2001, when a successful marketing venture changed its name from Zhongdian to appeal to adventure-seekers. Most Chinese still refer to it as Zhongdian, though it’s worth noting that its Tibetan name is Gyalthang.

Shangri-la’s residents are mostly Han and Tibetan, and it’s common to see red-cheeked Tibetan-Chinese dressed in traditional clothing. The architecture, especially in the countryside, is uniquely Tibetan: large, square, three story homes house animals on the ground level, with human living quarters above. New homes are still being built in this style. Wood stoves (frustratingly drafty) occupy space in every restaurant, home, and guesthouse, often with the staff huddled around them.

%Gallery-113848%Things to see and do

Like Dali and Lijiang, Shangri-la has an “old city,” with the usual cobblestones and new-old architecture, as well as a very Chinese “new city,” full of traffic and electronics shops. The Thangka Academy is a center in the old town for Tibetan culture and learning. Students, usually orphans, are taught the ancient art of Thangka, an intricate style of Buddhist painting of deities. Foreigners can study Tibetan or meditate here.

Though Shangri-la’s narrow, old-city streets are pleasant for a wander, it’s the town’s surrounds that make the trip worthy.

The Songstam Monastery houses monks of the yellow hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the biggest Tibetan monstery in China, and certainly worth a visit. Besides monks and temples, you’ll see juniper burning in the mornings, pigs snuffing around the dusty grounds, tourists snapping photos, and a hodge-podge of colorful buildings built on several levels.

The monastery was built during the Qing Dynasty in 1679, and now houses 700 monks as well as 11 temples. In the tea-horse road days, the monastery stored tea, waited for the price to rise, and then sold it for a profit. The complex was destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and has since been rebuilt, though remnants of ancient mud walls still linger.

Beyond the monastery is Napa Hai, a lake and wetland with misty mountains backing them. More than a dozen Tibetan villages surround the lake, which is also home to black-necked cranes. We rented mountain bikes from one of the many bike rental shops in town, and road the often-muddy, sometimes treacherous roads out to the lake. A new highway being built ought to smooth the ride out significantly.

Getting there

Buses bound for Zhongdian depart regularly from Lijiang, Dali and Kunming. Diqing airport has daily flights to Kunming.

At nearly 10,000 feet, Shangri-la takes a day or two to acclimate to, especially if you fly in. Take care when drinking alcohol your first couple of nights, and be sure to drink lots of water.

For more about Gadling’s travels in Yunnan, click here.

Though our trip to Shangri-la was partially funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all our own.

Photo of the Day (1.8.2011)

Photo of the Day

Most people either take photos from bridges, or of them from a distance. It’s rare that you see this perspective. And it’s rad not just because of the angle: I like the straight, rigid lines contrasting with the circular. Good colors, too – nice and cool. And my favorite part is the one dude near the center, peering down at the camera. Flickr user Ohad* snapped this at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Have any cool photos to share from your travels? Upload them to Gadling’s Flickr pool, and we just might choose one for our Photo of the Day feature!