Shangri-La: Gateway to Tibetan China
January 1, 1970
by Sacha Tijmstra
Shangri-La, situated in the Northwest of the Chinese province of Yunnan at the edge of the Himalayas, is the gateway to Tibetan China. This is the town (a small village by Chinese standards) where you will have your first encounter with yak butter tea and see signs written in Tibetan and plenty of colourful prayer flags. I travelled through this place last summer and I felt immediately at home.
When I arrived in Shangri-La
When I arrived in Shangri-La with my newly met travel buddy after our hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge, I had been in China for 10 days. This was the first time however, that I thought: this is what I came for; now I feel like I am where I want to be. Shangri-La felt very different from the other Chinese cities and towns I had been in; it was smaller, less overrun by tourists. This was most likely caused by the fact that a fire destroyed most of the historical city centre in 2014. Even though the buildings are now being reconstructed to their former glory, the masses have not yet returned.
The town is characterised by narrow, winding streets of cobblestones, which leads you to get lost in your first day or two before you get a hang of it. Wooden houses line the streets and are housed by small restaurants, guesthouses and shops. I had made reservations in a hostel, but as we stood on the spot in which Maps.me (the offline maps app every traveller in Asia is probably familiar with) said it was, we found ourselves between Chinese women who had no clue what I was talking about (both in terms of language and in terms of hostels). Therefore we turned around back into town and stumbled into the first hostel we came across.
I spent 4 nights in Shangri-La, 2 before my hiking adventures in Meili Snow Mountain National Park and 2 after. The second time around it felt as if I was coming home. This is what I did and what you absolutely cannot miss in and around Shangri-La.
What to do in Shangri-La
Temples and Monasteries
When you’re in Shangri-La, you are bound to visit a temple or a monastery.
There is a small monastery complex right above the main market square on the hill, called Guishan Si (temple). Its giant golden prayer wheel is hard to miss and at night the temple site is magically illuminated. The two of us tried getting the prayer wheel to move again after it had stalled, but it was way too heavy for the two of us.
The ‘100 Chickens Temple’, Baiji Si, lies on a hillside above the town, about ten to fifteen minutes walk from the centre. This temple is named after its most prominent citizen: the chicken. Be prepared for climbing some stairs, loads and loads of prayer flags, a lovely view over the valley, pigs and – of course – chickens.
Further away from the city centre, about an hour walk, also lays a big monastery, named Ganden Sumtselling Gompa. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to go there.
If you didn’t pass through touristy Lijiang, this will be the first place where yak products are on the menu. Yak meat, yak yoghurt, yak cheese and yak butter tea: they are all there. Other Tibetan dishes can also be enjoyed here: the dumplings will now be called ‘momos’ and you will start hearing the word ‘tsampa’, which is a barley mix, often mixed with butter tea to make a doughy product that you eat with your hands for breakfast.
If you are prone to altitude sickness or you already got some signs of it – Shangri-La is also the gateway to altitude sickness, for it lies at an altitude of 3200 meters – try drinking some yak butter tea. It is a buttery, salty tea, probably nothing like you’re used to, but they drink in a lot of places in the Himalayas and it is supposed to beat altitude sickness.
I can highly recommend Bodhi: they serve a traditional Tibetan breakfast with tsampa cookies, yak yoghurt and yak butter tea, and they also make delicious yak cheesecake and tsampa (chocolate) cake. They have two establishments in Shangri-La: the cafe only serves coffee and cake and the inn serves a great deal more. In the same street as Bodhi Inn, there is a Nepalese restaurant that also serves great yak yoghurt – with sprinkles!
Circle dances in the squares
Every evening from 7:00 pm until 9:00 pm people gather on the two main squares to dance folk dances on Chinese/Tibetan music. These dances are performed in circles and the dance is focused on getting the people moving along the circle. If there are many people dancing, two or three circles may be formed.
It is a great sight to see: all people, man and woman, young and old, traditionally dressed or in more contemporary clothing. Every song has a different dance, and since many of the residents often come together every night or at least a couple of times per week, they know all the steps to every song by heart. This also makes it easy to pick out the (mostly Chinese) tourists. There we were, two blonde girls from the Netherlands, dancing along with all the Tibetans and Chinese. It felt amazing to be a part of something so joyous and it is one of the best travel memories I have.
You can go on to other great destinations from Shangri-La, especially if you’re in the mood for hiking. Three major hiking destinations are reachable from Shangri-La. In about two to three hours you can be hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is one of the most famous hikes in Southern China. A day’s bus ride away, high up in the mountains, are both Meili Snow Mountain National Park (direction Deqin) and Yading Nature Reserve (direction Daocheng). Please keep posted for blogs about these awesome parks.