Shangri-La (香各里拉), Yunnan Province
Shangri-La: It’s a real place. Not at first, of course. The name Shangri-La was coined by the writer James Hilton in the 1930s to describe a mystical — and fictional — Himalayan valley, whose residents barely age and live in accordance the directions of local monks. But in 2001, the town of Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan Province decided to get in on China’s burgeoning tourist industry, which was already bringing tons of money to nearby Lijiang. They rechristened the town “Shangri-La” — its new Chinese name, Xianggelila, sounds surprisingly like the English original — and started constructing new “old” buildings in the southern part of town. Amazingly, it’s caught on, and Shangri-la is now one of Yunnan’s top tourist destinations. I would only recommend it if you are already visiting Lijiang and/or Tiger Leaping Gorge, and if your trip does not include any other Tibetan areas.
Places to See
Shangri-La’s “old town” is the centerpiece of its transformation from Zhongdian into Shangri-La. But there is not much old about it. The restaurants, inns and shops are uniformly bedecked with shiny new carved wooden panels — evidently someone’s idea of what an old building should look like. Aside from a small monastery south of the old town, there is not much to interest Western visitors.
Ganden Sumtseling Gompa
This is the most compelling reason to include Shangri-La in your itinerary, especially if you are not going to any other Tibetan areas in China. The monastery was undergoing a facelift when I visited in April 2010, but most of the main halls were still open for visitors. The electric colors used to decorate Tibetan temples always amaze me. However, I found it odd that we saw almost no monks anywhere in the monastery when we visited — a far cry from our experience at the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, Gansu. I’m not sure where they were, but it does raise concerns that the government is taking over the monastery in the name of tourism and destroying the religious community there in the process.
Entrance to the monastery is a steep 110 RMB, or 55 RMB for students. You will buy your ticket at a shiny new visitor center that is about 2 kilometers away from the actual monastery. You can walk along the road, or catch a bus from the visitor center.
A day is enough to visit the Sumtseling monastery and explore the town of Shangri-la, but my friend and I had an extra day before we needed to return to Kunming. On our guest house’s recommendation, we decided to walk out to see Napa Lake. Really, he suggested riding bikes, but we decided to walk — it was only supposed to be 10 kilometers. It must have been much farther, as it took us 4 hours to get there. But the larger problem was that the lake was completely dried up. It only has water a few months per year, from September through March. Without water, all you can see is grasslands and mountains in the distance.
If you are visiting in the dry months, don’t bother walking all the way out to where the lake is. If you walk an hour outside of Shangri-La, you will be surrounded by grasslands as far as the eye can see. The view doesn’t change if you walk any farther, and you’ll avoid this “village ticket” scheme:
The house where I’m staying is a real trip, the host is the head of the local tollbooth scheme and he tells us great stories every evening about stopping foreigners and nouveau-riche Han tourists, holding their cars for ransom until they buy a “village ticket.” Mind you he’s telling these yarns all the while chain smoking Yunnan cigarettes through a three-foot metal bong.
This is not the kind of place you expect to find in the foothills of the Himalayas, that’s for sure. Compass caters to foreign visitors to Shangri-la with excellent, authentic Western food. We went back twice: once for dinner (cheeseburger and fries) and once for breakfast (a puffed apple pancake and “baked oatmeal”). It made an especially nice treat after two days hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The cafe is located at the southeast corner of the main square in the old town. Dinner will cost 40-50 RMB per person, while breakfast will cost about 30 RMB, including coffee.
Kevin’s Trekker Inn
The couple who runs Kevin’s Trekker Inn is its biggest draw. They are super-friendly, make a mean cappuccino and speak flawless English to boot. Hanging out around the stove in the restaurant/lounge was one of the nicest parts of our stay in Shangri-La. Rooms are unheated and simply furnished, with electric blankets to take the edge off the nighttime chill. Note: Their two German shepherds have the run of the place, so if you’re afraid of dogs, this might not be the place for you.
Private rooms cost 40 RMB per person, and prices go up during Chinese holidays. The guesthouse is located northwest of the old town, tucked behind another fancier inn on Dawa Lu.
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Shangri-La Women’s Handicrafts Center
The old town proper is full of shops selling the usual range of Chinese “ethnic” “handicrafts,” most of which are machine-made and which are sold in every tourist town west of Xi’an. Thankfully, we saw a poster for the Shangri-La Handicrafts Center in one of the backpacker cafes. Tucked away in a less-developed part of the old town, the center sells locally-produced handicrafts at very reasonable prices, with the proceeds going to support development projects in local communities. I bought two painted wooden tsampa boxes (meant to hold barley flour) for about $10 each and a Tibetan cowbell for $5.
The center is located near the small monastery south of the old town. As you exit the monastery, turn right and look for signs pointing the way.
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Shangri-La is becoming easier and easier to get to as the government builds better roads. It is now less than 4 hours away from Lijiang, and the ride to Kunming (which can be done overnight) takes about 12 hours.
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