Referencing the book The Lost Horizon, the P.R.C. changed this town’s name to Shangri-La (originally called Zhongdian) in order to attract tourism.
We arrived after a long, long sleeper bus ride from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. The elevation and the brisk weather caught me off guard – especially in comparison to the tropical temperatures of Kunming. Shangri-La is home to a large Tibetan population, making it a vibrant, beautiful location to visit.
We visited the Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet. The monastery is located two to three hours up a windy mountainous path, and it’s well worth paying a driver. In fact, we were just a hop away from Tibet. Not only does the monastery have one of the most ornate, exquisite temples I’ve ever visited, but we also ended up befriending the driver. He invited us into his home and served us yak butter tea and yak cheese, which is more appealing than it sounds.
The town of Shangri-La itself is very touristy and cute, with many vendors selling knick-knacks and the like. I found the rocky, sometimes-slippery paths to be charming. Additionally, the streets are lined with delectable food, from Indian to Thai, Tibetan and Chinese.
We also went on a touristy horse ride to discover the area outside the town. Although I had my reservations about anything touristy, we were able to enjoy majestic surroundings while observing how the typical ethnic Tibetan lives. I cannot even to begin to describe how beautiful Shangri-La is, with its bright blue skies and green, mountainous scenery.
Although Shangri-la may be the Chinese government’s version of a tourist trap, I still believe it’s possible to have an authentic Tibetan experience here.