James Hilton’s “Shangri-la” is a mystical harmonious valley isolated from the world by the Tibetan Plateau, and home to people who live years beyond the normal lifespan, in peaceful harmony with the earth.
This is ZhongDian in Northwest Yunnan province, re-named Shangri-la, after the novel, in 2001. The name alone was enough to deserve a slot in my travel route, and it was as close to Tibet as I could get.
The place definitely has a sort of sacred feel to it – maybe due to its high altitude? Everything seems quieter… normal people do normal things, but with a kind of respectful hush.
The Prayer-wheel. An awesome structure that seems impossibly large, and only with the right amount of people does it start to turn. We were there at 6am and were definitely not alone. Early prayers are just part of the daily routine here. Turn it three times to get your prayer heard.
This temple is called the Chicken Temple. Way to go, tourism board! It’s actually really great despite the unglamorous name. Great views, and full of local people doing their daily thing: walking the circumference of the temple again and again. It’s a thing called, “circumambulation” apparently and the clock-wise direction is important.
As I was doing a sunrise tour, I was determined to get a sunrise in every place I went to. So I dragged my friend Katie up at 5:30 am and marched her up a hill. Turns out the sun doesn’t rise until 7:30am in this place, but hey, we made up for it with chicken-watching. When the sun did rise, it may have had a glorious golden colour… on the other side of our cloud blanket. We are never to know. But we consoled ourselves with the pretty colours of the prayer flags:
There was even a hut made of prayer flags – a veritable pool of colour to dive into!
A tragic fire in January 2014 burnt most of the old town down, so there is nothing much left. It has filled Shangri-la with juxtapositions of shiny against… not so shiny. It makes the place even more intriguing to explore in my opinion, not a deterrent as warned about online.
It is definitely worth going to, but you should be well-prepared. It’s cold – we were there in mid-July and caught off guard in our short sleeves and bare legs. We stayed in an awesome tavern – Tavern 47: all wooden and cosy, and best of all – a huge fireplace to huddle round in the living room. Oxygen bottles are sold in the convenience stores around, but we didn’t need them.
It is owned by a very friendly Korean guy who has lived in Shangri-la for many years and witnessed the fire. He said it came very close to the hostel but didn’t touch it. Apparently the fire was started by someone who had left a heater on under their bed. He caught us up with all the latest stories and gossip of the town while we sat by the fire and dried our muddy shoes.
All photos by me.