Absolute perfection on earth. That’s pretty much the dream of the mythical land of Shangri La. We often refer to an idyllic place as a Shangri La without ever really considering (let alone knowing) what we’re actually referring to.
Originally, Shangri La was a fictional place, scribed about in great detail in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. In short, the story is all about a secret Himalayan utopia, which is cut off from the rest of the world, and where people live extremely long and contented lives. It’s “discovered” when a small plane crashes, and the survivors are taken there. Ever since then, people have been fascinated by the concept, and the potential reality of Shangri La actually existing in some form or another.
Many believe that Hilton was inspired by the Tibetan legend of Shambala, a place of similar myth or legend. Others assess that Hilton’s inspirations came from the writings of Joseph Rock, an Austrian- American explorer who travelled through and lived in Yunnan around that time – hence, the assumption that the town of Zhongdian, in the north of the province, is actually Shangri La. This is why local authorities re-named it, to capitalise on the tourism benefits associated with Shangri La seekers.
The small town rests on a high plateau in the lower reaches of the Himalayas, at a shimmering 3,000m above sea level. It’s flanked by truly wide and big country, and it’s near to picture perfect and very wild. Tibetan culture runs rich here, and you really could believe that you were indeed in Tibet, or even Shambala.
A visit to Shangri La is an adventure in culture, and it really will leave you breathless – in so many ways.
There are many great hikes to be found straight out of town, especially around the two hills to the east of the centre, from where you get some great views.
For bigger hiking adventures, you don’t need to go too far, though it is advisable to hire a guide or book a tour in town to make the most of things, as few people speak English, making it problematic if you get lost. A more serious option is to hike Shika Mountain, which also has a cable car (for the ski station).
There’s some really sweet and rolling cycling to be had around the area, though it can get windy at times.
Many choose the very scenic and short ride around Napa Lake, just north of town, though great dirt trails can be found all around the area, especially to the southwest of town.
The main road northwards is a classic bike-touring route, although it does take in a huge mountain pass, and the road gets really busy with trucks. There are several options along the way to use the old road, which runs parallel to the new one.
You’ll see many options for riding Tibetan horses, especially at the large centres to the north of town; however, these are not really a great option.
Check out what you get for your money in advance, or head to www.thinairtrails.com.
ON THE PISTE
From late October through to early March (weather permitting), you can ski at the Shangri La Ski Park. Covering some 40 sq km, it’s not the biggest or the best facilitated ski station around – but it is relatively close to home.
KL-Kunming is a well-served route (AirAsia, MAS, etc.). You can comfortably connect by flight from here and several other Chinese airports, but prices can be high.
It takes 12 hours by bus from Kunming to Shangri La and, given the altitude, it’s well worth stopping overnight here first, and preferably along the way too.
WHERE TO STAY
There are many hotels and guesthouses in Shangri La. The best option is to book at least one night online in advance, and then to walk around.
EATING AND DRINKING
There are many restaurants, a couple of coffee shops and a few bars in and around the old town, and the food here is pretty good.
You really should try the local yak milk tea and the dried yak meat – it might not be to your taste, but you cannot go all that way and miss out.
WHEN TO GO
It can get very cold between October and March, though it’s usually sunny during the daytime, making the fringe autumn and spring periods best (avoid CNY and Golden Week).
Mid-summer (May to August) is also a very colourful time, with warmer temperatures.
It really is not a great idea to fly straight to Shangri La. You might well get sick from the altitude. Try and step it up by starting with a night in Kunming, and then one to two nights at slightly higher altitudes along the way. Be sure to take physical exercise very easy for at least a week.
Sort out a visa in advance at the Chinese Embassy. This usually means that you will need to book at least your first night in advance, have a flight and itinerary plan, travel insurance, and also show funds to cover the trip (this varies, and simple unpaid reservations usually work).
Costs are very similar to Malaysia.
Stay warm – it can get super cold up there, though you can buy warm clothes really cheap too.
Haggle – you will be a target, so always hustle and agree any prices (especially transport) in advance; either write down the amount or take a picture of it to avoid any conflict.
This place really is a little more than special. Don’t forget to stroll around the old town and visit Songzanlin Monastery, which is located on the outskirts but well worth the trip.