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Throwback Thursday: Shangri-La, China (July 2010)

June 27, 2013

I’ve appropriated the recent social media rage #throwbackthursday to start a new weekly series!  Throwback Thursdays share pictures and information from some of my earlier travels between 2007 and 2010 that have yet to make it onto this site.  After a long blogging hiatus, this series is to catch you, my readers, up on these past travels, while using the rest of the blog to recount my more recent trips.

We arrived in China’s Shangri-La after a four-hour bus ride from the nearby tourist hell-hole of Lijiang.  Shangri-La was the final stop on our journey through Yunnan Province, and we spent a couple days exploring the town and its surrounds while battling the altitude sickness that accompanies being 3,200 meters (or over 10,000 feet) above sea level.

Outside Songzanlin Monastery in Shangri-La.

Outside Songzanlin Monastery in Shangri-La.

The town of Shangri-La (originally Zhongdian) was renamed in 2001 to reference the fictional paradise in James Hilton’s novel The Lost Horizon, a move the local government hoped would drive more tourists to the city.  Though the town is surrounded by gorgeous countryside and has a rich Tibetan heritage, it experiences nowhere near the level of tourism we saw in nearby Dali and Lijiang.

Tibetan prayer flags strung along the Old Town Temple perimeter.

Tibetan prayer flags strung along the Old Town Temple perimeter.

Shangri-La is one of the few places outside of Tibet to interact with China’s Tibetan ethnic minority, and many travelers pass through the area on their overland journeys there.  However, this would be the closest we would get the the “Land of Snows” before continuing our journey south to Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Shangri-la (20)Shangri-la (95)

When the altitude sickness inevitably hit, we were grateful to be staying at the cozy Kevin’s Trekker Inn.  For a large chunk of our two days in Shangri-La we holed up here for long naps, hot coffee by the fireplace, and pleasant chats with the staff.

When we finally dragged ourselves away from our warm beds at the hostel into the crisp and brisk (the average high in July is only 67 degrees) mountain air, we were ready to soak in all Shangri-La had to offer.

Songzanlin Monastery

Songzanlin Monastery from the road.

Songzanlin Monastery from the road.

The Songzanlin monastery is a massive complex a few kilometers north of town and is probably the most visited sight by tourists to Shangri-La.  The complex includes a number of separate temples decorated with elaborate wall paintings, thangka hangings, and sculpture.  Several chorten or Tibetan stupas can also be seen.

Shangri-la (91a)

In 2005, an extensive renovation of the complex began, underlining its value as a draw for tourists.

Shangri-la (124)Shangri-la (133)

Songzanlin is a rather expensive sight to visit by Chinese standards, especially for Yunnan, with foreign tickets costing 85 RMB and 55 RMB (reduced) respectively.  The cheapest way to reach the monastery is to take the Number 3 city bus to the final stop for 1 RMB; however, taxis will also take you for quite a few times that amount.

Old Town

Central square with stalls in Shangri-La's Old Town.

Central square with stalls in Shangri-La’s Old Town.

The Old Town in Shangri-La is similar to those in Dali and Lijiang, with streets lined with tourist shops, hostels, and restaurants.

Car parked in one of the Old Town squares next to a stupa.

Car parked in one of the Old Town squares next to a stupa.

However, the area hasn’t completely given over to the kitschy side of things, and some charming alleys can be found tucked away from the main areas.

Shangri-la (162)Shangri-la (174)
Entrance to the temple and golden prayer wheel.

One of the highlights of the Old Town is a Tibetan Buddhist temple with a giant golden prayer wheel.  This complex can be seen from almost anywhere in town due to its position at the top of a large hill.

Yak cheese with crackers and sweet red wine.

Yak cheese with crackers and sweet red wine.

Visitors to Shangri-La should also stop by the Shangri-La Cheese Shop in Old Town to try some of the area’s famous yak cheese and sweet red wine.  Yak meat burgers and Yunnan coffee are also a must and can be found at many of the restaurants and cafes in Old Town.
Yi style lacquer bracelets; photo courtesy of

Behind the hill of the Old Town Temple is the Shangri-La Handicraft Center which is locally run by a non-profit called the Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation.  The Center includes a shop which sells handicrafts (including baskets, textiles, and silver jewelry) made by the local Khampa Tibetan, Naxi, Mosuo, Lisu, and Yi ethnic minorities.  Sales of these fair trade items provide a solid income for the artisans, and profits also benefit local projects to preserve Shangri-La’s cultural heritage and promote sustainable eco-tourism.

Though I would not go so far as to call Shangri-La a paradise…and certainly not a lost one, there was something special about the town.  Its sometimes startlingly blue skies and striking scenery gave the entire place a majestic feel, and the colorful costumes of the diverse ethnic minorities added to its “picturesque” nature.  Furthermore, the golden prayer wheels, tall stupas, and ubiquitous prayer flags served as a constant reminder of the town’s strong ties to the esoteric and often romanticized Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Have you ever been to Shangri-La?  Do you think it stands up to Hilton’s lost paradise?

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