“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” – Freddie Mercury.
You’ll probably have heard the words Shangri La before, as I had done. But maybe you wonder what they mean, or indeed where it is or what it is! The truth is that the town of Shangri La featured in a book called Lost Horizon by James Hilton. Visiting Shangri La was on my agenda while whackpacking in the Yunnan Province of China and it comes recommended!
What we know is that “Shangri La” is a town where the travellers in Lost Horizon ended up after a kidnapping (I’ve only started to read the book by the way – inspired by my visit there I bought it!). So this city I’m talking about is actually called Zhongdian and I visited it. However for tourism purposes it calls itself Shangri La, and is deemed to be the actual Shangri La by a lot of sources. For one post only, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and call this place Shangri La.
Firstly how do you get to Shangri La/Zhongdian?
I didn’t realise it but Shangri La/Zhongdian actually has an airport, with daily flights to Lhasa in Tibet and also Kunming. Though, you will more than likely arrive by bus, and if you take my route, you will arrive from Tina’s Guesthouse on the Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike, though it is possible to get a direct bus from the city of Lijiang.
Direct from Lijiang: It’s an epic 4-5 hour bus ride from Lijiang which passes through spectacular Chinese mountains and landscapes, dodging countless yaks on the way and passing by many towns with a huge Tibetan influence, which is what Shangri La is all about.
This bus journey leaves from two different bus stations in Lijiang. We left at 8.20 am from Lijiang Passenger Station (on the road Shangir La Dadao, Lijiang New Town) and our bus cost 66 RMB (Chinese Yuan) to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge, which I wrote about here. This is recommended as you get to spend a night or two in the incredible Yunnan mountains where you can do some amazing hiking (more on that to come).
Direct from Tina’s Guesthouse: I’d actually recommend doing this route, the one we chose as it means you get to see Tiger Leaping Gorge and do the hike, rather than passing it by. You will arrive at a quiet and scenic hostel (run by Hostelling International) called Tina’s Guesthouse. Buses run direct to Shangri La from here, every day. Ours left at 3.30 pm and we believe that is a consistent route that happens daily. The bus price was around 40 RMB each.
So once you’ve enjoyed your scenic journey to Shangri La, you’ll be dumped out virtually in between the Old Town and the New Town of Shangri La/Zhongdian and you’ll need somewhere to stay.
Where to stay in Shangri La/Zhongdian:
We loved the Barley Hostel and would recommend it. Colourful and cosy, we got an excellent double room for 100 RMB (so, 50 RMB each) and that included hot water, wireless internet and a TV! You can get it cheaper if you go into a dorm, probably around 30 – 40 RMB each. The Barley hostel sits on the main street in the Old Town as you arrive from the New Town. It’s also run by Hostelling International:
A perfect place to stay, if it happens to be full, I’m sure they can direct you to another cheap hostel in the town, or whip out your Lonely Planet guide to China which has a few options.
What to eat in Shangri La
In a word: YAK!! Shangri La has a huge Tibetan influence and the main meat in the entire region is Yak meat. There are thousands (or millions!) of yaks and the local dishes mostly represent this. There are many other options of course, but we ate locally and loved the Yak. Almost all restaurants sold it. Other popular dishes include Chinese hotpot and “Western” dishes (there are a few “Western style”, whatever that means, restaurants in the old town).
What to drink in Shangri La
1. Tibetan Yak Butter Tea:
2. Local Beer (Dali Beer):
Yes I love my beer on my travels, and while in Yunnan Province I drank only the local stuff, most of it is made in Dali.
What to see and do in Shangri La
The main sight to be honest is outside the city, and that is the spectacular Ganden Sumtseling Gompa – a Tibetan monastery about 5 kilometres from the city, which is so scenic and special I had to include a photo of it on this post too…
But in and around Shangri La/Zhongdian itself try the following:
Sifang Jie/Square Street
This street, this square and the nearby places are a lively and picturesque area to walk around. It’s so safe, relaxed and charming, you can move at a slow pace and take it all in! There are countless shops and market stalls and even live Tibetan Music, I’ve added a few of my videos at the bottom of this post to give you an idea.
Get a Tibetan Visa
Of course there can be problems and ongoing changes with regards to getting a Tibetan Visa, and I have never been, but Shangri La is only 100 miles from the border and all tour agencies here offer some kind of Visa and Tour option to visit Tibet. You will be bunched together with other of the same nationality and could end up in the magic of Lhasa. A dream for another day for me!
There’s the Baiji Si (100 Chickens Temple) and a temple on a hill at Guishan Park amongst other temples. All very colourful and Tibetan influenced. There’s also a Tibetan Stupa in a square on the cobbled streets of the old town. There is a ritual that you can do, which is walking round it, turning all the barrels round. I did it, though was woefully unaware of the actual meaning of it.
You can buy a range of souvenirs here, the most famous of which are Tibetan knives! Believe me, almost every shop has them. Don’t forget to Bargain!
Where to go next after Shangri La?
It depends where you came from, but these are the two main and best options, I arrived from Tiger Leaping Gorge and headed back to Lijiang:
1. Head to Tibet! Get that Visa, a flight to Lhasa and off you go for an experience of a lifetime!
2. Head to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Recommended, as I did it and loved it – the hiking is amazing, and the landscape one of the best ever from my travels. Pretty unmissable.
One Last Thing…
If you’re into the whole history and reasons behind the naming of this city Shangri La, then buy the book, Lost Horizons that it takes its title from. The book can be bought in most good bookshops and shops in Yunnan Province.
You’ll have a blast in the magical Shangri La, without even knowing whether it’s all just one big dream. Live your fantasies my friends, it’s a decent planet we find ourselves on!
My Videos of Shangri La:
Tibetan Yak Meat Shop in Shangri La:
Waiting on a local bus out to Ganden Sumtseling Gompa near Shangri La:
The Barley Hostel in Shangri La:
The Good Luck Ritual at the Tibetan Stupa in Shangri La:
Shangri La at Sunset:
Tibetan Dancing in Shangri La:
Shangri La Old Town:
I have dozens of videos of Shangri La, you can subscribe to my YouTube Channel to view them and get my latest travel video updates!