With Shangri-la so close to the border with Tibet, we had expected to eat a fair amount Tibetan food, which we first sampled in Chengdu and were eager to try again. Fortunately, Shangri-la delivered in a big way. Our third night in town, we enjoyed the best meal of our two-week Yunnan trip at Arro Khampa: Damien and Ting’s Tibetan Bistro. The restaurant, owned by a French-Chinese couple who met in Paris and moved to Shangri-la about two years ago, serves classic local dishes with a modern twist. Damien unhesitatingly recommended the foil-baked yak, which came delivered to our table as a steaming packet brimming with tender, juicy pieces of yak, onions, cilantro and a mouth-tingling blend of spices. The combination was so savory my mouth waters at the memory! The entree included our choice of two sides and we opted for the potato puree with olive oil and fried broccoli with garlic. We washed every delightful morsel down with glasses of Spanish red. Located in a restored two-story wood house in old town with fireplace and black-iron stove roaring, this is the kind of place I would return to again and again.
Tara Gallery Cafe & Bar is another expat-owned restaurant serving excellent Tibetan food in a restored shop house, although this house originally belonged to a successful trader and his rumored courtesan. The Indian owner, Uttara, told us the then-dilapidated building was going to be torn down for firewood, but she pleaded with its owners to let her take over the property. Uttara and a team of professionals worked for six months to repair and renovate the existing structure, preserving most of the original wood beams and packed-earth walls. The result is a beautiful, homey restaurant that is the perfect backdrop for the traditional artworks on display. Local ingredients are sourced for the food, which features classic Tibetan and Chinese cuisine. We enjoyed the steamed yak dumplings as well as a hearty soup with yak meat and handmade Tibetan noodles. The yaks-milk cheese is probably an acquired taste as it was surprisingly sweet with a unique texture.
When it came time for breakfast and afternoon tea, we were spoiled for choice. Old town boasts plenty of cozy cafes and you probably can’t go wrong with any of them. Our favorite of the several we tried was Compass Cafe which is managed by a friendly Dutch woman who fell in love with the region (common story) about four years ago. Drawn in one cold afternoon by the roaring fire, we enjoyed their spectacular moist carrot cake. The next day, we went back for a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and fruit. Another morning we visited the adorable Always in Spring cafe, where the big breakfast option was delicious and surprisingly healthy. Both meals were the perfect kick-start to a day of sightseeing!
If you’d rather sample more of the local offerings, most Chinese and Tibetan restaurants put out steaming woks filled with eggs and freshly made bread every morning. For lunch, just choose the cut of meat you’d like and they’ll cook it to order.
Shopping in Shangri-la requires knowing where to look. We saw a sign for a Handicraft Development Center and followed the arrow to the humble shop around the corner. A part of the Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation, this wonderful non-profit organization strives to preserve the cultural heritage of the region’s many ethnic minority groups. An on-site school provides students with the necessary skills for producing traditional handicrafts which are sold there. Items range from copper and wood bowls and clay pottery to yaks-wool scarves and beaded necklaces. The quality of the goods far surpassed what we saw in the trinket shops on more crowded streets, and we gladly bought several items knowing that the money was going back into the community.
Another shop in old town focused on preserving ancient arts is the Shangri-la Tibetan Thangka Painting Center. The manager explained that thangkas are scroll paintings which often depict scenes from the Buddha’s life and are very important in Tibetan culture. The incredibly vibrant paint colors are derived from powdered minerals, such as lapus lazuli, ocher and pearl, and are applied to the silk scrolls using a special glue. Every piece in the shop is exquisite – and expensive, with some costing thousands of U.S. dollars. While the manager wouldn’t let me take photos inside, similarly gorgeous works are on display at Tara’s Gallery.
We saw a few other local specialty shops selling yak products and traditional clay pottery. Silver shops abound, though the lovely teapots were well out of our price range. If Shangri-la is a stop on your tour of Yunnan, know that the shopping seems to be much better here than in Lijiang or Dali, where we found little evidence of the local ethnic culture. Had we known that before leaving town, we might have bought more handicrafts!