I have always been drawn to Tibetan culture, where Zen is practiced in great forms. Their very first teachings of Zen Buddhism encapsulates how individuals and humans can escape the endless cycle of suffering, often different from the way Hinduism is portrayed where one must pay dues by being reincarnated with no promises of escape.
There is so much more to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism such as their respect for nature and how their teachings is about removing delusion and seeing reality accurately as unsatisfactory, impermanent, and blunt as it is.
My recent visit to China in Shangri-La, the lost horizon provided an alternative experience to the Tibetan culture. Shangri-La is an area of China’s northwest Yunnan province that borders Tibet. A visit to Tibet is often impossible under the current regime of occupation, mostly because foreigners are not allowed to explore without a tour guide and doing it with one is not within my interest, travelling style and budget.
Being one of the best points of interest in Yunnan: Shangri-La (Zhongdian) in China closely mirrors the culture of Tibet, with less red tape. it serves up as a great opportunity to visit towns on the border of Tibet like Shangri-La, called Xianggelila in Zhongdian county even if you’re exploring China on a one-month itinerary.
Both a county and a town, the monasteries, architecture and local culture in Shangri-La reflect approximately 80 per cent of Tibetan population in the region. Horses and yaks are seen grazing at the remote grasslands with an occasional yurt every now and then were just some of the unique highlights we saw when I travelled to Shangri-La in China.
Off The Beaten Path in China: The Shangri-La Highlands in Yunnan
In and About In Shangri-La Town, Zhongdian
The end of our hike at the Tiger Leaping Gorge brought us to the gateway of Tibet. We took a 3-hour bus with our hiking friends that we met on our trail to the Land of The Lost Horizon, where the mythical name Shangri-La was first coined by James Hilton in his book.
If you’re a fan of Seven Years in Tibet, you will share the same sentiments and delight of reading James Hilton novel, ‘The Lost Horizon’ where the narrative pushes hard on themes like loneliness, ambition, greed, and one’s purpose in life.
Entering Shangri-La, we noticed the stillness and emptiness of the town where the trappings of the old world seem preserved and silent. After the 2014 fire which had destroyed the city, the struggles to live up to the hyper and grandeur of what was known as a mystical town were evident.
The town still promises of nirvana: three-storey buildings, towns painted in orange and reds resembling Tibetan architecture, with people nor vehicles in a hurry as a yak plods past restaurants and buildings pulling a cart. It felt strangely familiar to Ladakh in India minus the crowds and tourists.
Before the fire, I was told that a lot of the Han Chinese tried to cash in on the Shangri-La fever. A number of pseudo-chic shops were also catered to foreign tourists and the town fathers had adopted a revised building code to ensure the style and Tibetan flair were still maintained, however there were a number of shops and hotels that appeared shut-down or abandoned.
The fire had destroyed tourism and people often made day-trips to Shangri-La but it was not enough to sustain tourism.
It was nice to walk down the quiet streets of Shangri-La and have some breathing space compared to the crazy disney-land towns like Dali and Lijiang.
However, it puzzled me why shopkeepers had garish animal dolls outside their shops. It looked like they had captured the soul of the animal and transformed it into a permanent fixture outside their shops, forever trapping their lives.
The Interesting Flying Tigers Cafe
We stopped for a lunch break at Flying Tigers Cafe, a French run bistro who also runs a tour company in Shangri-La China. The cafe has an interesting history where it was built in honour of the foreign heroes, and an American fighter plane squadron that used to be based in Kunming during WWII who came more than 70 years ago to defend China against the Japanese oppressors.
We felt like we had entered a French chalet situated in the Alps when a Chinese young man emerged from the kitchen to greet us in decent English. The young 20-something Chef who hails from Sichuan province spends his time in a remote tent on top of the foothill of the monastery in Shangri-La. He shared his love for the mountains and how he opted for the less typical life here in Zhongdian.
He mentioned that he had gone on both biking and hiking trips across Shangri-La and gave us some golden tips on how to cycle to Napa-hai lake, which was perfect since we were looking for a short cycling experience to get another view from the roof of the world.
We continued our lunch and ordered the Yak Burger and their Mushroom Ravioli with Yak cheese which was divinely delicious. It was the perfect afternoon to just laze around at the cafe and browse through their reading shelf and little artifacts of the heroes who survived the war.
Cycling Through Napa-Hai Lake in China
We woke up early, walked out of our guest house (Shangajoy Seasons Inn) to the bike shop that was 200m away from our dwellings — a nondescript shack with dusty Giant bicycles lined up. Run by an old toothless lady, we tested our Giant bikes that looked like throwaways. It wasn’t the kind of bike that you can rely on for safety, and the mere mention of “helmets” drew puzzled looks from our friendly Chinese lady.
Following cobbled streets in Shangri-La’s OldTown, we exited the back way and hit the navigation routes on our Maps.Me app. It would take us approximately 1 hour to cycle to Napa-Hai Lake eventhough it was only 11km from the Old Town. With a lot of stopping on our unstable bikes, we foresee it taking longer than usual, but we were fine with that.
We had no expectations and stuck to the main roads which was easy, straight-forward and filled with minimal vehicles. We were blown away by the low cloud cover and wondered if we had stepped into a Windows wallpaper. Eventually we arrived at a lush plateau, with black yaks were seen grazing on the field.
There were rolling hills and a wide stretch of asphalt as we cycled towards Shangri-La’s Napa Hai Nature reserve. Situated at 3,270 metres above sea level, the Napa-Hai Nature reserve was a well-kept secret in China’s Tibetan Valley. If you’re a naturalist, it is the perfect spot for bird watching and the wet grasslands makes it an ideal viewing point to witness migratory birds like the black-necked cranes.
Flapping prayer flags and a tiny shack serving homemade Yak yoghurt was the kind of refuel we needed on this long and relaxing ride through China’s wetlands.
It wasn’t a China I had seen much of. It had mountains, animals, colourful yurts and the kind of peace one would feel when you’re on the Silk Road trail and off the beaten path in China. This was the place where the bare minimum essentials were the only few luxuries you could be contented with.
We continued on with our journey, stopping to take it all in and wondering how time doesn’t seem to matter over here anymore. Back in the city, I am constantly reminded of the evils of being shackled to the march of time. I am now no longer doing things faster and definitely not adhering to a timetable.
This definitely felt like a place of peace and contemplation where everyone is satisfied by practicing the ethic of moderation.
The 100 Chicken Temple aka Baiji Temple
By late afternoon, we found ourselves cycling back to find some semblance of civilization and to meet our friendly Chef who would take us to his humble dwellings, and a short hike to a prayer-flag-caked temple on a mound which was strangely called the 100 chicken temple.
The next day we woke up early and made our way to the 100 chicken temple. The temple is a short climb away from the city that gives you a sweeping panoramic view of the Shangri-La town. We saw a lot of chickens around the temple, but definitely did not see 100 chickens. The entire place is covered in prayer flags and it was a quite a sight to see the Tibetans saying their morning prayers while the smell of incense wafting through the cold morning air.
It was a quiet reflection of what spiritual places can do to your soul. Perhaps next time, I would like to stay longer so I can find out more about the tales of the monastery and how these lamas lead extraordinary existences and at the same time, explore the other alternative Tibet, Sichuan province via the Sichuan-Tibet highway.
How To Get To Shangri-La City, China?
Situated at 3,000m above sea-level, it is quite a challenge to reach Shangri-La city as there are no railways leading to this place.
To get there, most people will typically begin their journey in Kunming, traveling first to Lijiang and then taking the long-distance bus in Lijiang to get there. It's about 175 kilometers from Lijiang to Shangri-La.
The best way is to fly to Kunming, take a bus to Dali and Lijiang, do the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek on your way and grab the next bus to Shangri-La. On your return trip, you can take the bus to Lijiang from Shangri-La, and book a train back to Kunming via China’s CTrip App,
Another option is to travel by air. Diqing Shangri-La Airport operates flights to/from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Kunming, Lhasa, and Shanghai.
Where To Stay In Shangri-La, China?
When Is The Best Time To Visit Shangri-La, China?
The best time to visit Shangri-La is from March to October. The months from March to August are the best times to see wild flowers in bloom and the climate is temperate.
September and October are the next best time to visit, when the mountains are in full view and you get to experience a cool pre-Winter chill.
I visited Shangri-La in May and the days were long and not too hot, while the nights were cool averaging at about 18 to 22 degrees.
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