“In these days of wars and rumors of wars – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight? Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia…”
In 1933, James Hilton wrote a book called Lost Horizon, a war tale that unfolds in a fictional mountaintop paradise called Shangri-la. The imaginary monastery, set in the Tibetan Himalayas, was a magical place where the residents hardly aged and lived extraordinarily long and healthy lives. Naturally, adventurers started searching for the real-life version of this fountain of youth. In 2001, Chinese authorities in Zhongdian township decided that their mountain hamlet was surely the book’s inspiration and officially changed its name from Dukezong to Shangri-la. An influx of tourists ensued. So is Yunnan’s Shangri-la really the stuff of legends? Keep reading and decide for yourself!
We had low expectations of Shangri-la given the lukewarm reviews we’d received from friends who’d said that one night in town was probably enough. Throwing caution to the wind, we booked three nights at the Birds of Paradise Inn in the old town. While I don’t necessarily recommend the hotel, which lacked heat and sometimes hot water, I do strongly urge visitors to find accommodation in old town. Our hotel’s deck had a fabulous view of the town’s main temple, which was just around the corner in Guishan Park.
Guishan Temple sits atop a hill facing a large public square at the northern edge of old town. The steep climb is exacerbated by the high elevation, but you will be rewarded with panoramic views of Shangri-la and the surrounding mountains. The temple’s biggest “claim to fame” is its brand spanking new 21-meter-tall, 60-ton prayer wheel which reportedly takes at least ten people to turn.
A far more interesting site is Baiji Si, or 100 Chickens Temple, located atop an even higher hill about one kilometer southwest of Guishan Park. While standing at the base of the hill evaluating whether it would be worth the trek up, an elderly man passing by told us that the temple was hundreds of years old and very, very special. He also said that the yaks lurking nearby posed no threat so we started the ascent, giving the horned beasts a wide berth. The path through the field led us to a tall staircase carved out of mud, followed by a paved staircase the rest of the way up. The climb coupled with the altitude was difficult, but oh so worth it. Paths laced with colorful prayer flags flow across the hills. Chickens and pigs meander around the grounds hunting for food. Aside from a lone caretaker and a backpacker we passed on the way up, we were the only ones there. It was a little surreal to be in China and find ourselves so completely alone. Baiji Si can be tricky to find, but getting lost in old town is half the fun!
We spent most of our time in Shangri-la wandering the cobble-stoned back alleys of old town and ducking into adorable cafes to get warm. (Our trip was mid-April and it was FREEZING!) With periods of intermittent rain, the stones were slick, forcing us to slowly pick our way down the path. The only heat sources in town are black iron stoves, with pipes venting wood smoke into the air. Locals dressed in traditional attire walked by, carrying baskets and children on their backs. Still in the low season, the place was pleasantly devoid of tourists. It took on a dreamy quality at night, with the few lights reflecting off the water on the street and the steam in the air. Women gathered in the square in front of Guishan Park for dancing, though the effect would have been more charming had Chinese pop music not been pumping through loudspeakers.
Not all parts of town are quaint, though. The main drag through old town, a pedestrian street between Beimen St and Tuanjie Rd which turns into Changhzheng Ave at its northern border, we dubbed “Heinous Street” because of all the shops selling cheap plastic trinkets and fake tiger skins. Though it wasn’t terribly crowded when we were there, the authorities have taken a “build it and they will come” approach, with construction projects on nearly every block. The constant hammering and drilling detracted a bit from what could have been a very peaceful environment. There isn’t much to see in the new part of town, which has a just-built feel, and the could-be-pretty stream was sadly filled with trash.
Verdict: Once we got off Heinous Street and wandered the sleepy lanes of old town, we enjoyed our time in Shangri-la very much. The abundance of cafes and restaurants selling high-quality, modern versions of both local and Western-inspired cuisine ensured that we were well fed. Of the three cities we visited in Yunnan, Shangri-la was our favorite, beating out Lijiang and Dali (more on them to come soon). Is it a mountain paradise? Not quite. I still prefer Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, if only for the more agreeable weather. But you should visit and decide for yourself!
Have you been to Shangri-la? Do you have a favorite mountain town? What’s your idea of paradise? Share your comments!