The town in Yunnan Province known as Shangrila is not the mythical paradise first created in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Hamilton’s vision was of a warm, water-abundant utopia where Buddhist monks sat with the sun on their shoulders and enjoyed perfection in harmony with the forces of nature. This idea of perfect harmony in a city as well as exceedingly long life for its residence is generally accepted to come from “Shambhala”, a mystical city common in Tibetan Buddhism. The name could also come from the name “Shang-ri-le”, meaning “Shang Mountain Pass” in the language of the people in what is now lower Tibet and upper Yunnan. Whether the town is actually the Shangrila that Hilton wrote about (some believe that the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan more closely fits Hilton’s description), the town is still worth a visit and the passing of two or three nights in the thin, cold air.
Pronounced “Shang-ri-li-la”, and called “Gyalthang” by the locals, the town was named Zhongdian until 2001 when local officials gave it the mythical name in an effort to increase tourism, thereby creating a small but stalwart theme park atmosphere on the Chinese side of town. Shangrila is neither the western nor Tibetan idea of paradise, but what it lacks in the gap between public relations and reality, it makes up with the fact that it is a genuinely Tibetan town located inside China proper. Travelers who don’t want to spend the money and time getting to Lhasa as part of an officially sanctioned tour group can travel to Shangrila and get a good idea of Tibet since the town is located less than a hundred kilometers from the Tibetan border and is populated mainly by Tibetans.
To get to Shangrila, the traveler must take a four hour bus ride from Lijiang, which proves to be an amazing random find of beautiful scenery and cultural insight. Most bus “tours” to Shangrila also visit the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge north of Lijiang, but travelers who don’t wish to run with the herd can get their fill of the breathtaking landscape of the Tibetan Plateau simply by taking a normal bus filled with normal Tibetans. Another advantage of this type of travel is that once you’re in town you can get a taxi from the bus station and not worry about over pricing.
Upon your arrival in Shangrila, immediately go to the Old Town, pronounced “Lao Choo”, where you can find a hotel along Shangrila’s main street of Changzheng Liu. Rooms with two single beds (pronounced “Shuan-ren-feng”) in these lodge houses go for roughly sixty Chinese yuan per night during the “off” season, which is generally considered any month besides June, when the town hosts a provincial horse-racing festival that is the highlight of Shangrila’s tourist year.
Once into Old Town, you’re transported back in time to a period of peace and simplicity. Yes, the Old Town has its tourist spots—bars and restaurants serving hamburgers abound—but there also exists the Tibetan spirit here, a dancing, celebrating spirit which doesn’t wish to haggle over the price of a silver bracelet or yak steak. It’s a spirit that seems at home among the wooden beams of the old buildings and dances better on the stone streets. It can be seen in the wild-haired youth who entertain themselves by running to the local temple at the southern end of town and spinning a fifteen-foot high brass prayer wheel, and then head back to the town square to spend the evening dancing. One amazing fact about the place is that regardless of tourists, tourist dollars, snow, or Chinese soldiers bedecked in riot gear, the dancing happens every night no matter the season and the atmosphere of happiness is rarely threatened.
While Shangrila has survived off of tourism, it’s still a good example of a Chinese town where the cultural exchange between the Han Chinese minority and the Tibetan majority is in full swing and constant change. On a short trip by local bus to Gamdang Sumtseling Monastery located to the north, the traveler can see the large influence of local Tibetan religions on the often contradictory Buddhist teachings from the early centuries AD, and understand the equally tumultuous relationship that Tibet has with Beijing. The monks at the monastery are always ready to talk and educate, ready to give guidance on both religious and political matters concerning the state of the modern church. After visiting the monastery, you can go ahead to The Emerald Pagoda Lake about twenty-five kilometers outside of town and sit at the edge of a truly sky blue body of water with deep religious significance. After seeing the lake, another important destination should be the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, a three hundred-year-old monastery
All in all, Zhongdian is a good destination for the traveler looking for reality. Even though no town could live up to the name, Shangrila is an eye-opener anyway and well worth the trip.