Existing Member?

xEurasia Odyssey

Shangri La / Zhongdian, Yunnan Province

CHINA | Thursday, 3 October 2013 | Views [2423] | Comments [2]

Shangri La / Zhongdian, Yunnan Province

 Touristy or not, this is a great place!  In about 2001, the government changed the town’s name from Zhongdian to Shangri-La to increase tourism.  There are a number of places from Kashmir to Tibet to other places in China and India which lay claim to being the inspiration for James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon” that was centered around a Himalayan Utopia, but this town is now officially named for the fictional place.  The town has almost doubled in size since the transition, mostly due to tourism.  Chinese tourists swarm here and some intrepid Westerners make it as well. There are a number of Tibetan Buddhist temples and a very important monastery, the Sumtseling Gompa, which adds culturally interesting elements to the natural beauty of the mountains and lakes that surround the populated areas. 

 The Old Town has maintained the ancient building styles, while the New Town is well organized and easy to get around. In the New Town, I saw an architectural style that was new to me, a glass encasement around a house or at least a portion of a house. This is being done on the newer houses to save on energy as the wind and cold in the winter gets through the strongest structures, with the glass casement the sun’s energy is captured.  It’s a different source of solar energy. 

The Old Town is the main tourist area and is where the Golden Temple with its huge Golden Prayer Wheel and the city’s museum are located.  Like most major Buddhist temples, The Golden Temple is up a set of stairs that can prove somewhat difficult for those not acclimatized to the 10,000ft altitude of the town. Many of the Chinese tourists seemed to struggle on their way up, as they did with the Sumtseling Gompa’s 147 steps, which is a lot less than the 300+ for the Potala, although it is called the Little Potala.  The Golden Temple has a couple of buildings, but only the main temple was open to the public.  The monk in charge allows people to do a kora, circle, inside of the temple to look at the amazing wall paintings and statues of Buddhist deities and Tsongkapa, only if one gives a donation, for which one then gets three sticks of incense. The kora outside the temple leads to the largest Prayer Wheel I’ve ever seen.  It is an amazing work of art, with reliefs of deities near the top, landscapes below them, then a row of Chinese and Tibetan figures in common tasks, and below them a row with images of the eight auspicious symbols, the bottom has lotus petals.  The wheel is impossible to turn alone. Even a handful of people can’t get it to move.  Only when there are people by most of the pull ropes working together can this 60 ton mass send its blessings to the heavens. It is an interesting comment on the necessity of working together.

The museum is relatively small but has a good collection of images from Tibetan medical texts, and there are consultation rooms with Tibetan physicians on the second floor. There are two main sections downstairs, one on the archeology of the region, with a number of Neolithic artifacts and the other a history of the region since the Long March.

Outside of town there are three major attractions, the cable car up the Shika Snow Mountain, the 100 Chicken Temple and the previously mentioned monastery. The cable car is in two sections, separated at a mountain meadow filled with nomad herds of yaks, horses and pigs. There is also a small stage for performances, and there was a dance group performing while I was there, although there was almost no audience.  After the dancers a couple of singers performed solos, and for those I was the only person watching, even though they were quite good.  They were singing about the beauty of the region in a mix of traditional Tibetan folksong and modern Tibetan/Chinese tunes.  After the performance I went up the second cable car to the top of the mountain for amazing views of the town and valleys on the other side.  This is the place where according to the Hilton novel, the Dead Valley lay which was the entrance to his Shangri La.  There is a low pass with flat valley that leads to the top of the cable car site that is now thought to be this “Dead Valley” although Hilton was never in the region and couldn’t possibly have really had Shika in mind.  Traditionally, it is the mountain of the town’s protective deity, and that makes much more sense.  There are meditation caves high up in the granite peaks. Below the granite, which goes up to about 4550 meters, lie pine forests that continue as far as the eye can see.  As one goes down the mountain, the fall colors of the deciduous trees come into view, with a few yellows and many bright red maples acting like islands in a sea of green. 

As this is the highest peak right outside of town, there are many legends of the protector mountain. One that I hadn’t heard before was that when the universe was created and mankind had just been formed it wasn’t clear how much the new species was supposed to eat.  A messenger was sent to the heavens to find out. He was told that man should eat one meal every three days.  On his way back to earth, he fell asleep.  When he woke up he was a bit confused and didn’t quite remember the message.  When he arrived he mistakenly said that people should eat three meals a day, which is why we are now eating more than we need to. The meadow is named after the mistaken messenger.

On the way back, I passed horses with their Tibetan herdsmen, yaks on the road, and barley drying on large racks which will be used for fodder as well as to make tsampa, a staple of the Tibetan diet, as well as alcohol.

The 100 Chicken Temple is just outside of the New Town, up one of the surrounding hills. This isn’t a normal tourist temple, but one that is used daily by the locals.  It has its name because if one brings a chicken to the temple it is said to bring good luck.  There are a number of chickens running around, although I’m not sure there are a 100 of them. There are 1000s of prayer flags flying, however.  They form a forest of color in the wind.  The temple is fairly small, but has an absolutely fabulous collection of Guan Yin’s and Chinese Treasure Buddhas in the foyer.  For me, this was an amazing find as the figurines fit perfectly into my research and actually prove one of my theories about the synthesis of Guan Yin with Tara and Mary.  From the temple grounds there is a wonderful view of the Old Town and the entire Golden Temple complex.

 The Sumtseling Gompa (which has a variety of spellings) was originally built by the 5th Dalai Lama as a smaller version of the Potala, although I failed to see the similarity as the Potala is far more vertical, is separated into two major sections, and has a winding stairway rather than a central corridor.  Nonetheless, both are large complexes.  The Sumtseling Gompa was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but was rebuilt starting in the 1990s, with major new buildings starting in 2005.  The latest one opened yesterday, the Temple dedicated to Maitrya, the Buddha of the Future.  Today, this monastery is the largest in Yunnan, with 700 monks in residence; although, with all the tourists it seems more like a commercial than a spiritual site.  For a sense of spirituality, the small 100 Chicken Temple was far more effective than the brightly colored, beautifully painted, elaborately housed impressive deity and teacher statues of the monastery. The Gompa is a testament to the durability of the teachings, however, and demonstrate how China is now supporting Tibetan Buddhist sites.

 This part of Yunnan is primarily Tibetan and Han Chinese, but there are also Naxi and Bai people here as well.  Many people have written about the similarities between Tibetan art and architecture and the Navajo’s, but I was surprised to find a connection in food as well.  Tibetan fried bread is basically a less oily Navajo Fried Bread, the kind that is sold throughout Flagstaff.

 Shangri –La is truly a haven in this mountainous region. It is blessed with both cultural and natural beauty. The building construction in Tibetan style throughout the valley is a testament to the economic well-being of the region, and it seems that most people are doing fairly well. The large numbers of domestic tourists indicates that it is not just here that people’s financial situations have improved dramatically over the past ten years, but seems to be a thread throughout much of urban China. I am very glad to have had the opportunity to come here and hope to return. Tomorrow I head south to Lijiang for a night before going to Lugulu Lake and the Mosuo matriarchal culture.




What are some great products to buy in Shangri-la?

  Aiswarya Jun 9, 2014 4:18 PM


There are a wide range of very nice fairly high priced scarves, skirts, and accessories available in the center of the old city. Much of the really nice clothes in these stores seems to be handmade. In the new town, there is a local market with the typical cheaper products that are available everywhere, but offset by local tea stalls serving locally produced teas and breads,

  krista rodin Jun 9, 2014 8:01 PM

Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.

About krodin

Follow Me

Where I've been


Photo Galleries

My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about China

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.