Shangri-La, a small town high up in the Himalayas that for some is the beginning of a journey into Tibet, for many the end of a foray into Yunnan and for others just a taste of Tibet (if they don’t plan on going on any further). For me personally it was a mix of end of Yunnan and a taste of Tibet, coz as Indians we need additional permissions to enter mainland Tibet. And my own first impressions of the town itself were quite disappointing as all I initially saw were numerous commercial buildings and a very sleepy touristy town. However I soon realized that the way to explore Shangri-La is to keep it as a base and explore the beautiful landscape all around it.
And based on our own experiences and learnings, please find below the top 5 things that you should do in Shangri-La –
1. Pray at the Songzanlin Monastery – This is an impressive monastic institution on a small hill very close to Shangri-La town. Modeled after the “Potola Palace” in Lhasa, this monastery has the typical Tibetan gilded copper roof, numerous prayer halls, magnificent idols and beautiful frescos (with Buddhist tales and legends) drawn all around in the halls. And no matter how crowded the place, inside any of the prayer halls it’s really quiet and peaceful.
My recommendation – visit around late afternoon and just wander through the huge campus, interact with the local monks to learn more on Buddhism and post that just sit inside one of the prayer halls to imbibe the positivity and spirituality from your surroundings. Post that photograph the stunning vistas of prayer wheels against the setting sun and the vibrant sky. Read more on my own visit here –Adding a dash of spirituality to our Yunnan trip – Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Zhongdian
2. Drive around the countryside and experience the scenic landscape – Shangri-La is strategically located amidst beautiful mountain ranges and alpine forests, and a drive through it’s immediate countryside is a treat for all city folks like me. There are beautiful mountains some green some white, multicolored fields with red & green bushes, green pastureland lightly populated with many yaks, sheep and goats, temples with the traditional prayer flags and a few meandering streams to make the perfect picture.
My recommendation – pack a nice picnic basket, books and games then drive around till you find your perfect spot to lounge around for the day.
3. Visit the Pudacuo / Potatso National Park – This is the first national park in mainland China and mainly comprises of the Bitahai and the Shuduhu Lakes and the Militang Pastures. It is part of UNESCO’s natural heritage sight of the Three Parallel Rivers region and also functions as a natural reserve. The environment here is very well-preserved with mountains, marshes, lakes, forests, brooks, springs, and rare fauna and flora. All major spots are connected by walkable planks, boats and buses. Read about my own trip here –Visiting China’s first national park – Pudacuo or Potatso National Park
Natural masterpieces created by dead trees and their roots, Pudacuo National Park, Shangri-La
My recommendation – Visit the park early to avoid the crowds. Then just walk leisurely to soak in the atmosphere and read the useful information listed about the local flora and fauna.
4. Explore and dance in the Old Town – Like all old towns across the globe, this is a fun place to generally walk around through the small cobblestone alleys packed with all kinds of touristic souvenirs and western cafes and pubs. You can also walk up the hill and visit the local hill temple, enjoy the nice views and see the huge prayer wheel. I wasn’t able to enjoy much of the old town as there had been a fire in January this year that pretty much burnt everything down. A lot had been already rebuilt but still there was a lot more to be done.
My recommendation – In the local town square dance with the locals (dressed traditionally) in the evening and scout the surviving shops for some unusual souvenirs.
5. Visit a local Tibetan Village – There are numerous small villages at the outskirts of Shangri-La and a visit to one of them to experience the local Tibetan way of life, is a must. Their houses are built-in a traditional fashion and in many cases the main source of income is farming. And if you visit just before winters, you can see huge drying racks with all possible vegetables etc drying for winter consumption. Read more on my own trip –Photo Essay: A glimpse of the Tibetan Countryside
My recommendation – Visit one of the private homes in the village and interact with the locals to understand more about their lifestyle and their own unique culture. For a small fee, you can enjoy a meal with them (also try stuff made from yak milk), try a hand at farming and also horse riding on the local Tibetan horses.
Tips for the trip –
- Reaching Shangri-La –Shangri-La has an airport, Diqing Airport (DIG) with connections to many Chinese cities. You can also reach here via a 4 hour drive from Lijiang.
- Shangri-La is at quite a height and hence many people feel dizziness, nausea etc due to low oxygen. Please carry your medications for the same.
- Food is not a problem here for vegetarians, as there are numerous cafes and restaurants around that provide veg options.
- In terms of things to explore around, our hosts recommended a trip to Shika Mountain / Blue Moon valley. But we had done something similar earlier and hence dropped it. Another activity that locals recommend is cycling around Napa Lake. We did this and can safely tell people to drop this for a couple of reasons – There are no birds or a lake here, the path is not exactly meant for cycling and the fee is pretty steep (RMB 600). All you can do here is enjoy the views, which frankly you can do from anywhere around in the area.