When I think of Shangrila I imagine springs erupting from green pastures that neighbor grassy plateaus adjacent to rolling hills that are gradually folded into epic snow capped mountains of almost biblical proportions. Shangrila is supposed to be that kind of mythical place.
In 2001, Zhōngdiàn (中甸) decided to attempt to cash in on the Shangrila myth, and renamed itself to Xiānggélǐlā (香格里拉). Shrewd marketing aside, Zhongdian (locals still refer to it as that) is home to grasslands, mountains, streams, and Tibetans. Not exactly mythical, but plenty full of pretty spots indeed. Like Lijiang, Zhongdian is a major player on the Chinese tourist hit list. So the same rules apply: beaten path and places accessible by bus, car, stairs, or walkways = think twice.
Nonetheless, don’t confuse Zhongdian with Han-centric tourist spots. You’re in a Tibetan area of China now, which automatically makes everything a little more interesting, i.e. cultural & political tensions, buttery and salty tea, bad-ass bright colorful cloaks with massively long sleeves, and people carrying knives.
- The Old Town
Shangrila’s Old Town (or ancient city: Gŭ Chéng – 古城) is like a Lijiang-lite. It’s basically a place to buy Tibetan trinkets and gifts. You’ll find plenty of Tibetan food, knives, clothes, prayer related things, and more. It’s nice, but there isn’t anything ancient about it. I’d spend the better part of a day exploring it. With cobblestone streets and prayer flags lining the sky, we found it especially tranquil and charming at night.
- Shika Mountain
Our primary experience at Shangrila was hiking Shika mountain (石卡山 – shí kă shān). We had one day and were told by two separate people that hiking Shika was the thing to do. The reason to do it is because literally no one else does this hike and you can do it unguided. So you’ll have an amazing mountain all to yourself. It’s a mystery why more people don’t hike it, because it’s an awesome (if not exhausting) one day trek. If you go to Shangrila and decide to hike Shika mountain, please use the following information responsibly and only share it with cool, earth-loving people.
Shika mountain is only about 30 minutes outside of the Old Town. Start the hike early so you can go at a comfortable pace without worrying about running out of light on your way down. Now whatever you do, do not take the cable car up the mountain. The best part of Shika is seen while hiking up it. If you buy a ticket and take the cable car up you’ll be vastly underwhelmed at the top.
To get there, tell the driver to take you to the main gate of Shika mountain. The key to finding the hiking trail is to look for the dirt path on your right directly before the row of stupas (as shown below).
Follow the dirt path to an apricot colored school (pictured below on the right side). If you go left around the school, you’ll have to walk through a grazing field. If you go right around the school you’ll find a logging path that goes up the mountain. Either way, you’re looking to get up the ridge that lies in front of you. Once up on the ridge you’ll follow a very clear logging path that will force you left up the mountain. From the ridge line the valley looks like this:
Continue up along the logging path (there are deep ruts in the dirt from trees being dragged down the mountain). The logging paths weave back-and-forth up the mountain, so there are potentially many different ways go. Just know that they all end up in the same place. As a rule of thumb, follow the biggest path. (If you do find yourself at a dead end, then just backtrack and choose a different path.)
After a couple hours you’ll hit a grazing pasture with little stone huts made as animal shelters. If you plan on camping on the way down, this would make a great camp site, though we were told to watch out for fleas in the animal shelters.
Keep plugging on and you’ll eventually come to a clearing directly under the main peak. From here to the top you’ve got to scramble up some loose rocks. By this point we’d been hiking a solid 6 hours and were pretty beat, but the peak being so close was good motivation. Once you get to the top you can see all the different ridge lines leading up the mountain, so don’t worry if your path is a little different from the one described above.
At the top, I ran into some grazing horses. At the same time it started to rain. The combination of galloping horses, rain, and blue skies in the distance made for a pretty magical moment. It was the feeling I wanted to find in Shangrila.
At the top you’ll also find a wooden platform and walkway, which leads to the cable car. And you’ll find people who took the cable car up. You can then feel good about yourself and look down on those loafers.
Since we were totally buggered, so we took the cable car down. Those of you in better shape can find another way down the mountain along the same lines you came up. Just know that the cable car is there for you if you’re really tired.
Again, enjoy and respect the Shika hike. It’s one of the few convenient places around Shangrila where you can have an awesome one day unguided hiking experience without crowds.
- Songzanlin Temple
Sōngzànlín (松赞林) is apparently the largest Buddhist temple in Yunnan, and dates back to the mid-17th century. It’s a working temple, so you’ll get to witness monks in their natural state.
It’s hard to really put into words what it’s like going to Buddhist temples. Over the course of our travels we’ve been to our fair share. If you’ve ever gone on a castle tour of England or visited the Wats in Cambodia, you know the feeling of seeing amazing things, but at the same time being a bit tired of seeing the same thing over and over. Same goes for Buddhist temples. But don’t let that dissuade you from visiting Songzanlin or any other important temple for that matter. They each have their own character, and are extremely important for understanding the Tibetan culture and Buddhist religion.
We spoke to one Tibetan monk living in the temple. His small and tidy room was connected to a kitchen on the third floor of a temple. He had come from a neighboring area, and had been living at the temple for a number of years. He said he enjoyed his simple life and that it made his family proud that he had become a monk. He had no plans or desires to move anywhere else, and was quite content to spend the rest of his life there.
When asked about the Dalai Lama, he told us they weren’t allowed to have pictures (this is a touristy area, so rules like this are strictly enforced, which is not the case in many other temples across Yunnan and Sichuan). While reticent to expand on any political issues, he seemed extremely at peace (for lack of a less cliché phrase) with where and who he was. Indeed, his calm demeanor made the perceived complexity and struggle of our own lives seem rather artificial or self-fabricated. Then again, we agreed we had nowhere near the amount of belief or devotion to occupy hours upon hours of chanting and meditation. Not necessarily good or bad, just who we are because of where we’ve come from.
One thing that always bothered (‘bothered’ is not the right word, it’s more like a slightly confused disappointment) me about Buddhist temples, in Thailand and China alike, is just how gold they are. These things are gaudy icons of wealth. Even when you try to dial down the saturation of a picture (see below), the temples still look rather flamboyant. I’ve read a number of translated sutras, so I get the idea that a lama or whoever can have stuff (even really nice stuff) and not actually be attached to it. My only issue with that is, why tempt yourself?
I saw more lamas with iPhones (real ones) than I ever expected. Sure, being a lama doesn’t mean you can’t partake in modern society. All I’m saying is that the golden roofs, which are made of real gold plating, the Nikes, iPhones, and fancy SUVs (all of which we witnessed over the course of our travels) don’t scream piety and distance from the material world. But, I’m not a practicing Buddhist, let alone a monk, so maybe I just don’t get it. I think I probably just have an overly romanticized view of what a monk should look and act like. At the end of the day, and at a more fundamental level, they are real people just like anyone else. And Buddhism in practice has many of the same contradictions that other religions are guilty of.
We had two really good meals, both of which were right next to our hostel (see below). The first good meal was at a Yak hot pot restaurant. It’s basically Beijing style hot pot (i.e. the shape of the hot pot), but with all yak meat. The meat was savory, tender, and sliced just the right thickness.
The second good plate was a hearty bowl of cut noodles (面片 – miàn piàn). It was a simple dish with pork, vegetables, and a salty soup. It reminded me a lot of the soup noodles I had in Xinjiang.
We loved the hostel we stayed in at Shangrila. Shangrila is inundated with hostels, so there are probably a lot of good options, but I can only recommend the one we actually stayed at. It’s called Kersang’s Relay Station (website; phone: +86 (0) 887 822 3118; +86 (0) 139 8878 9193).
It’s run by a Tibetan family. When we got there a friendly Tibetan girl, her German boyfriend, and her uncle greeted us. The walls were lined with pictures of the girl’s sister, who married a Belgian guy.
The owners and staff are all super friendly and very knowledgeable of the area (hiking, motorcycle tours, horse trekking, etc.). Best of all, the boyfriend recommended staying with the rest of the family in Jiabi (Tibetans pronounce it Jaa-bay. Our post on Jiabi.), which we eventually did. The hostel has a cool open courtyard area in the center and the rooms are all as clean as advertised on their website.
- Arrived by bus in the early evening from Tiger Leaping Gorge, spent the night walking around the Old Town and planning the next day’s hike.
- First full day, left early in the morning for Shika mountain, hiked all day.
- Second day, went to Songzanlin temple in the early afternoon. Walked around for about 3 hours.
- Departed in the late afternoon on the second day. Found a car and driver to take us to Déqīn (德钦).
Finding Shangrila on a Map