Shangri-La, China

Elevation: 3,300 metres
Population: 130,000
Trivia #1: Original name was Zhondian; it was renamed to Shangri La after a book (yes!)
Trivia #2: Also known as “Little Tibet”


Ah, Shangri-La.

The mythical lost city in the orient. What could be more alluring than setting foot on a place that is, almost a legend?

Shangri-La was brought into the limelight when it was portrayed as a mythical Himalayan utopia by Lost Horizon, a book based on a fictional story about lost explorers by British author James Hilton. Telling of a hidden place filled with lush greenery, an abundance of natural resources, Shangri-La was romanticised as an earthy paradise, rewarding determined travellers with great abundance and beauty of the land.

Dao Jian, a third century famous Chinese writer, wrote a story about a man who found a narrow opening in some rocks, and when he passed through, found himself in a kind of paradise where everything was peaceful and the people had everything they wanted. The story has undergone many retellings and is even known in the West as the inspiration for the legend of Shangri-La.

I had that information in mind when I decided on exploring this fabled paradise on earth and had to see it for myself as I had heard so much about this place. It is like an urban myth. How can such a place exist on earth?

When I finally had my feet planted on the soil of the real Shangri-La, I was awestruck. Pristine, graceful and emanating a particular calm, I was greeted with nature’s raw beauty; I realised that the legend of the fabled land is true.

Do plan at least 2 days for this itinerary as the travel distance is long – the coach ride from Lijiang Old Town to our hotel was an arduous bus ride of almost 6 hours of bumpy dirt roads and winding mountain paths. As we neared our destination, the dirt road gave way to green pastures and pine forests. Our excitement grew.



Shangri-La. This must really be paradise. If such a place existed on earth, this certainly comes close. The blue skies are something out of a painting and the rolling green hills dotted the vast landscape in cute little bumps. Add the fluffy clouds to the scene and you’re in surreal land.

Sunrise at Sungtseling monastery (also known as Ganden Sumtseling monastery), the largest Tibetian Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. Built in 1679 on the divination advice of the Fifth Dalai Lama, this ancient architecture is a sight to behold. The monastery has another alias – the little Potala Palace, as it is created in the same traditional style as the mother of all Tibetian temples in Lhasa, Tibet.


Appearing grand and even majestic, it stood stoically amidst the harsh mountain scape. Like a faraway dream.

The magnificent monastery complex resides on top of a hill and consists of two Zhacang and Jikang lamaseries which take on the form of five-story Tibetan watchtowers – five gates, numerous sub-lamaseries and hundreds of rooms for the monks.

Curious side notes: Through research, I learnt that the name Potala Palace is named after Mount Potalaka,the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which was variably depicted and portrayed in different cultures as either female or male. In Chinese Buddhism, Avalokiteśvara has become the somewhat different female figure Guanyin. In Cambodia, he appears as Lokeśvara. (Source: Wikipedia)

I sprang out of bed real early to catch the sun rise – I really didn’t want to miss it as we were only staying in Shangri-La for a single night (read: big mistake!). My slumber was awakened by the gentle chirping of the birds. With lots of anticipation, I did a quick wash up, grabbed my camera and headed outside the balcony to prepare for the morning shoot.

Crap. It was really cold. I think it was about 2 or 3 degree celsius. Wearing only a t-shirt and shorts, I shuddered whenever the mountain breeze came. My breath was frosted. Quickly, I rushed back into my room and made a pot of hot tea to warm myself up. Sipping the hot beverage, I sat alone in the early morning light and savoured the awakening of another new day – gentle, quiet and peaceful.

As we can see below, Songzanlin monastery is located just by the Tibetian border. I would say that this leg would be the furthest any traveller would stretch if one is in Yunnan. It is as close as one can get to Tibet without actually being setting foot in Tibet itself.

Welcome to Tibet. Sort of. You’ll probably agree with me as we go through the rest of the travel story.

google-map_shangri-la_zhongdian_chinaImage credit: Google Map

The oldest lamasery in Yunnan, the monastery’s copper-gilded (or was it gold?) peaks glittered in the afternoon sun. There were a lot of intricately carved wall murals – works of master craftsmen – and they appeared to tell a grand story altogether. Statues adorned the temple ground, making it an interesting sight for one to explore and learn more about Tibetian Buddhism.



Inside the temple interior sanctum, its high walls depicted other worldly mythological creatures and I was quite puzzled by it. Later, back at the hotel, I read a book on Tibetian Buddhism and learnt that it is actually heavily influenced by local folklore and religions. I read that in order to understand Tibetian Buddhism, one has to understand the Bon religion, which was Tibetians’ ancient religion back in its olden days where they believed (or still believe) in mountain spirits and shamanism. So, that explains the other worldly creature carvings. Hmm. I guess that their ancient religions and beliefs were assimilated along mainstream Buddhism when it was introduced in Tibet many years later.


Of rolling hills, temples and falcons.

Falcon hunting, one of the age-old traditions of the tribespeople living in the area, is an endangered survival craft in this modern day and age where most of the younger generation took to the cities for better economic prospects.

I read that the huntsmen don’t really control the falcon. As in, yes, they can try and make him hunt an animal, but what happens next is really up to the bird. Will he make it back? How do you get him back afterwards when he can take off to the sky any moment?

The people of Shangri La: A falcon huntsman, a young monk and a woman going about her rounds in the morning market.


We settled at a really nice inn for dinner. Local bread, roast lamb, and rice wine. Did I also mention that the butter milk tea with roasted barley powder was divine?

While we had our dinner, we were entertained with local plays and traditional music. It felt like a grand feast with the party atmosphere and merrymaking. Everyone was having a great time and the performers really engaged the crowd well. After the stage performance segment, guests were invited outside for a tribal dance, located just outside the tavern. I recalled that it was really chilly out there, especially in the evening. With the boost from the rice wine, we let loose and made our (silly) dance moves around the bon fire. It was really fun!

Random, every day sights of life in Shangri La – a villager taking his leisurely stroll, a young child playing by himself and a woman labouring at the construction site.


And yes, some details about the gorgeous hotel we stayed in – Songtsam Retreat.

And yes, not forgetting the all important bathroom, in which, the bath tub isn’t located in the separate bath room.

Below we have a fantastic restaurant with a magnificent view. I could sit there all day to admire the beauty of the the surroundings.

The next day, the last leg of our Shangri-La visit, we booked a driver and went for a river cruise. Which turned out to be an eye-opening education about Tibetian burial customs.

Cruising through the sacred river (I didn’t quite catch the name, unfortunately) with a local oarsman. Apparently, from what our guide had told us, water burials are considered inferior to sky burial (more on that later) as the latter is the generally preferred funeral rite. The reason behind this likely originated from central Tibet, where trees for firewood are scarce, hence water burials are considered a low form of burial, reserved commonly for those who can’t afford fuel for cremation.


My guide told me that in this part of Shangri-La, water burials are reserved for the poor and those who have been convicted of crimes – even as small a theft, back in the olden days. So, there we are, learning about cultural practices with its origins in class divisions.


In a water burial, the corpse is wrapped with a white cloth and then deposited from the beginning of the river and the body will be consumed by the fishes and, nature itself over time when the body sinks to the bottom of the river. Tibetians rarely bury the dead in the ground, as the land is largely mountainous and hard.


I spotted a couple of human skulls and bones as we coursed through the river – this was one of the many travel moments which I was truly astounded. Out of respect for the dead, we did not take any photos of them.

However, to give our readers a glimpse of what it is like, the below shot contains the skeletal remains of a buffalo at the water burial site:


Up next – Sky burial (བྱ་གཏོར་ in Tibetan):

As we coursed along the river, we can actually spot the sky burial site from a distance. It actually appeared like any other forested hill.


In Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed that sky burials represent their desire to ascend to heaven upon their death, thus making it the most widespread way as practiced. Upon performing certain funeral rites, the corpse is then transported up to the holy site in the mountain. There, the lama will conduct a sacred rite that sort of summons the vultures to congregate and finally, the body will be devoured by the vultures.

Our guide told us that as soon as the lama chants the holy scriptures, the vultures will appear almost instantaneously and will begin to perform their role.


While this funeral practice may seem shocking to outsiders, if we peer deeper into the Tibetan culture and history, one will learn that Buddhists regard death as a manifestation of the Buddha’s beliefs in impermanence. They believe that after dying, the body returns to the four elements – earth, water, air and fire – while the soul reincarnates. Therefore, this trip has been an extraordinary eye opener for us as we traverse to different parts of the earth to learn more about life – and death. Finally, we learn that Tibetans follows six ways of burial: sky (celestial) burial, water burial, incineration, stupa burial, inhumation, tree burial.

Curious side notes (Source: wikipedia):
The majority of Tibetan people and many Mongols adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, which teaches the transmigration of spirits. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it or nature may cause it to decompose. The function of the sky burial is simply to dispose of the remains in as generous a way as possible (the source of the practice’s Tibetan name). In much of Tibet and Qinghai, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and, due to the scarcity of fuel and timber, sky burials were typically more practical than the traditional Buddhist practice of cremation. In the past, cremation was limited to high lamas and some other dignitaries, but modern technology and difficulties with sky burial have led to an increased use by commoners. 

In the second half of the 20th century Shangri-La was called Zhongdian (Chinese: 中甸 Zhōngdiàn) but was renamed on 17 December 2001 as Shangri-La (other spellings: Semkyi’nyida, Xianggelila, or Xamgyi’nyilha) after the fictional land of Shangri-La in the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon, in an effort to promote tourism in the area. The original Tibetan population previously referred to this place by its traditional name Gyalthang or Gyaitang (Standard Tibetan: རྒྱལ་ཐང།; Wylie: rgyal thang, ZWPY: Gyaitang), meaning “Royal plains”. This ancient name is reflected in the Tibetan Pinyin name of the town of Jiantang (建塘; Jiàntáng), the county seat.

Well, as an after note, despite being only in Shangri-La for 2 days, we felt that we knew Tibet. Shangri-La is, after all, a rather comprehensive preview of Tibet.

Travel Story Contributor:
Daniel Chen

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