It’s the old dilemma: How do you improve life for the very poor, while at the same time protecting the environment? Perhaps tourism could open a door to further environmental protection. Songtsam lodges are working hand in hand with NGOs around the world to help educate their staff and their families, providing them with new, more sustainable ways of earning money.
Suddenly, just below more road excavations, we came across the ethereal 17th-century Dong Zhu Lin monastery, which seemed to float above a deep valley. Wandering through its richly painted halls, I understood how different Tibetan Buddhism is from other Buddhist schools. Graphic shamanistic paintings cover its walls, while the statues are more like Hindu gods than Buddhas. There were monks chanting in the main hall while others delicately tapped out brilliantly toned pigments to create a richly colored mandala nearby. Outside, ravens circled and the wind rang the temple roofs bells.
By the time we entered the Baimang Snow Mountain nature reserve it was impossible not to be swept away by the scenery. Glistening, snowy peaks towered over the rolling highland moors of copper-leafed wild azaleas, which in May form a sea of flowers. Monolithic rusty purple rocks jutted at odd angles high above us as we reached a barren high pass, marked by a thousand prayer flags.
Finally, we descended to Songtsam Meili at Deqin, amid bubbling streams and wild woods of rhododendrons, berberis and pines draped in lichen. The forest shimmered scarlet, gold and dark green in the brilliant light. We stepped into the warm comfort of the stone lodge — all wood stoves, rare old rugs and vases of wild berries — but our eyes were constantly drawn to the view.
Every one of the 17 rooms looks on to the sacred Meili Snow Mountain (Kawagebo in Tibetan). As we sipped our sweet ginger tea, I felt that this is why we travel. Before me lay the delicious possibility of clambering up the mountain behind the hotel to see yaks grazing in a meadow or riding up to the Mingyong glacier. For the time being, I was content to gaze at the snowy Tibetan mountains rising out of the clouds. As I watched, they glowed pink in the setting sun before turning silver in the moonlight.