James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, describes Shangri-La as an earthly paradise secluded from the outside world and full of permanently happy people. While Hilton’s Shangri-La was fictional, Shangri-La County, China is every bit of the paradise that its name evokes. Located at the point where Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan all meet, the county serves as a doorway to the rich history of Tibet. The tall mountains, endless grasslands, and grand gorges offer a stunning backdrop for your adventures. So what are some of the top sights and attractions in this magical land? Read further to find out.
1. Tiger Leaping Gorge
The Tiger Leaping Gorge derived its name from the tale of a hunter who was chasing down a large tiger. At the canyon’s narrowest point, the tiger supposedly leapt 25 meters (82 feet) over the river and escaped unharmed. In the gorge’s name, this legend lives on. You won’t have to jump over any rivers, but this trek is a must-do for any visitors to Shangri-La. While Tiger Leaping Gorge is a relatively easy hike that can be completed in 2-3 days, the magnificent vistas will make you want to spend the full three days completing this trek.
From Shangri-La, you can take any of the busses headed to Kunming, Lijiang and Dali. They depart every hour and cost about 30 CNY (approximately 4.35 USD) per person. The starting point for hiking the gorge is Lijiang. From here you can take a mini bus until you reach the start of the hiking trail (it will take around 4 hours). An open ended ticket to the trail is 65 CNY (approximately 9.43 USD) and this can be purchased from ticket booths at either end of the trail.
There are many guesthouses located at different points along the trail. The accommodation ranges from dorm-style beds to private rooms with an ensuite bathroom. This allows you to choose your accommodation based on your pace, and the weather conditions. Unless you’ll go with a big group or during one of the big Chinese holidays, there is no need to book accommodation in advance.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Address: Shangri-La, Deqen, Yunnan, China
Website: Tiger Leaping Gorge
2. Songzanlin Monastery
The Songzanlin Monastery is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Yunnan province. Construction was completed in 1681 after the Dalai Lama selected the site by divination. The monastery has been rebuilt and remodeled many times in its long history, but its traditional Tibetan style has endured throughout the centuries. There are two lamaseries in the Songzanlin Monastery, the Zhacang and the Jikang Lamaseries. The main halls in the monastery are decorated with wonderful frescos depicting Buddhist tales and legends. The inside-halls are all decorated with beautiful sculptures and elegant frescos. The monastery is also home to the largest prayer wheel in the world.
The monastery is situated at an altitude of over 3,300 meters (10,827 feet) high. The area has a rainy season that extends from June through September. Spring and summer are the best times to visit Songzanlin as the weather is at its most pleasant during these seasons. In the winter months, the monastery is covered in snow. While this might make for some beautiful photos, it can be quite cold and some may find this to be unpleasant.
The No. 3 auto bus in Shangri-la County will take you to the Songzanlin Monastery without stoping. To enter the monastery, there is an entrance fee of 115 CNY (about $16.68 USD). Plan to spend at least two hours in the monastery to explore all of the wonderful sights.
Address: Shangri-La, Deqen, Yunnan, China
Website: Songzanlin Monastery
3. Potatso National Park
Potatso National Park was the first national park on the Chinese mainland. It is located in the centre of “Three Parallel Rivers” and is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. In the Tibetan language, Potatso means “reaching the opposite side of the lake by boat under the help of deity". The park is home to beautiful lakes, wetlands, forests, meadows, streams, rare plants and animals. Tibetan culture and custom are also component parts of the park. The park is 13.5 miles (22 km) southwest from the Shangri-la downtown area and covers an area of 115 square miles (298 km2). The admission fee is 138 CNY (approximately 20.03 USD) and there is also a 120 CNY (approximately 17.42 USD) sightseeing bus fee. Plan to spend at least half a day here if you would like to see the main attractions.
The park has a designated route and you travel between the sites via a sightseeing bus. The bus first takes you to the Shudu Lake, then the Militang Grasslands, and finally the Bita Hai Lake. The sites are connected by walkable wood planks and there are numerous resting areas, snack shops and signs to guide you. Potatso National Park is open from November 1st to March 31st from 8:00am to 4:00pm and from April 1st to October 31st from 7:30am to 4:00pm.
Potatso National Park
Address: E Ring Rd, Xianggelila Shi, Diqing Zangzuzizhizhou, Yunnan Sheng, China
Website: Potatso National Park
4. Dukezong Ancient Town
Dukezong is the largest and best-preserved Tibetan City among China’s 147 Tibetan counties. It is also home to the largest ancient Tibetan community. The town has a history that spans 1,300 years, and it was once a key stop on the Ancient Tea-horse Road and a meeting place of the Han and Tibetan peoples. The city is known as the ‘footstep of Shangri-La’ and the 'moonlight city,’ due to the fact that on a clear night, the ancient town reflects a silver sheen. The old Tibetan way of life is well-preserved in Dukezong Old Town.
Tibetan chess is played in local households as it has been for the past 1,000 years, and horse bells still ring along the ancient caravan path. Bonfires that are lit in the town square every night illuminate local musicians as they sing to and play traditional instruments. In 2014 a large fire destroyed many structures in the Ancient Town and it was closed to the public for nearly two years. Dukezong is once again open for business and it is a must-see destination if you find yourself in Shangri-La. Dukezong Ancient Town is only a short walk from anywhere in Shangri-La County. Prepare to spend at least 3 to 4 hours wandering through the town and exploring the shops and traditional architecture along the way.
Dukezong Ancient Town
Address: Dukezong Ancient Town, South-east of Xianggelila, Shangri-La County 674400, China
Website: Dukezong Ancient Town
Finding your own Shangri-La
Shangri-La is home to a myriad of beautiful scenery, friendly locals and excellent food. Even if the main focus of your trip might be the mountains of Lhasa or the Yunnan Province, don’t make the mistake of treating Shangri-La as a simple starting point. Come view the land that Hilton immortalized in Lost Horizon with the lines, “My goodness, if you think of all the folks in the world who’d give all they’ve got to be out of the racket and in a place like this…”
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