Are you planning a trip to Shangri-La? In this article you can find all the info you need to visit the old town and the surrounding area.
If you are planning a trip to Shangri-La (香格里拉 Xiānggélǐlā or Śambhalaḥ in Tibetan शम्भल) it probably means you have visited Lijiang already (here is my travel guide) and you are now looking for something else to do in the area.
Thanks to the recent infrastructures like a brand new highway and the high-speed railway it’s now quite convenient to visit this little Tibetan city. Technically you can even do it on a day trip, but I recommend staying a couple of nights.
Up until December 17, 2001, Shangri-La was called Zhongdian (中甸) but the name was changed to match the mystical place that James Hilton talked about in his novel Lost Horizon. It was basically a marketing move to get more tourists. In the novel, Shangri-La, was an ancient and secret city of wise men, gathered from all over the world, of different sex, culture, religion, and temperament, who lived extremely long lives and were truly happy.
When is the best time to visit Shangri-La
The city lies at an elevation of about 3100 meters so it’s quite cold in winter. In summer it can rain quite a lot so it’s better to visit in spring or autumn.
Regardless of when you decide to go, try to avoid all the national holidays as well as the month of August when students and teachers are on holiday. August is particularly crowded because most Chinese are trying to escape from the heat of the rest of the country.
Remember that Shangri-La is located at an altitude of 3160 meters so you might suffer from altitude sickness especially if you fly from a much lower elevation.
How to get to Shangri-La
Right next to the city there is a small airport and a newly built high-speed train station (the line is not finished yet). So you can either fly or get there by train (in a few months from now). The other option is to get there by bus from Lijiang. There are buses every 20 minutes or so and thanks to a new highway it only takes 2.5 hours.
If you opt for the bus keep in mind that foreigners cannot book the tickets in advance using an app. So you’ll have to physically go to the bus station (bring your passport). I recommend doing so if you want to leave at a specific time because the tickets are quickly sold out. You cannot buy the return ticket from Shangri-La to Lijiang while you are in Lijiang. So I suggest booking the return ticket as soon as you arrive in Shangri-La.
Things to see in Shangri-La
Why do people want to visit this part of Yunnan? Well first of all this is an interesting area because it belongs geographically and ethnically to Tibet.
Visiting Tibet (here is my guide) is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming (although totally worth it) so this is a good alternative for many. You’ll see lots of Tibetan temples and Tibetan people, although the attire they wear is completely different from other Tibetan areas.
Here are some of the things you can visit in the area.
Shangri-La old town 独克宗
One of the highlights of the city is the old town called in Chinese Dukezong 独克宗 who, until the big fire of 2014, dated back to 1300 years ago. Unfortunately, it was completely destroyed and it has since then being rebuilt. The local government tried to preserve the same architectural style but it’s in fact a “brand new old town”.
The old town it’s pretty small but it’s quite nice with its numerous local restaurants and small shops. It’s the ideal place to stay for a couple of nights while you explore the surrounding area. You can use Trip.com to book a hotel there.
One of the most famous restaurants is called Flying Tiger, a good restaurant founded by a french guy who has since then, unfortunately, died. The restaurant is still managed by his wife. It’s a bit pricey but the food is good.
Half a day in Napahai 纳帕海 Nature Reserve
With a total area of 31.25 square kilometers and an elevation of 3266 meters, this wetland area was established as a Nature Reserve in 1984. It’s a flat area dotted by ponds and surrounded by mountains. Right before Winter, you can find some rare black-necked cranes looking for food.
Reaching Napahai is quite easy since it’s located a few kilometers from the old town. Visiting the area is a bit more complicated. These are the main options:
- Renting a bike: there are very few rental bike shops and if your time is limited, biking around the whole area is not really an option. Also, unlike other places such as Yangshuo, there is no cycle track so you’ll have to be careful. So to summarize: this is a good option only if you have the whole day, the weather is nice and you don’t mind the cars.
- Renting an electric bike: the same shops that rent bikes also rent electric bikes. There is a catch though: the stores are all located in the old town or just outside and this means that by the time you reach Napahai your battery is already 1/4 down. You’ll certainly won’t have enough juice left to visit the whole grassland. This option is only recommended if you want to visit a small area.
- Hiring a driver: this is the best but also the most expensive option. You can find people around the old town handing out their contact cards. Just tell them that you want to visit Napahai 纳帕海 and they will drive you all around the park. Don’t forget to bargain. The good thing is that if you chose this option you can visit the whole area in about three hours and stop wherever you like.
There are also a few hotels right into the reserve but in my opinion, they are overrated and overpriced. This is probably the most famous.
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery 噶丹松赞林
The highlight of Shangri-La is without any doubt the beautiful Songzanlin Monastery. Located only 5 km from the old town, it’s a beautiful Tibetan temple built in 1679. It’s the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan and is sometimes referred to as the Little Potala Palace. It’s also the most important monastery in southwest China.
Its architecture is a fusion of the Tibetan and Han Chinese. It was extensively damaged in the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in 1983. At its peak, the monastery contained accommodation for 2,000 monks. Now only about 700 monks.
The ticket for the area, which includes the temple and the park in front of it costs 100RMB.
Inner Harmony Stupa of Pagoda Tazhongta 塔中塔
Located just south of the old town, this 108 meters tall pagoda is difficult to miss. It’s allegedly the world’s tallest and largest Buddhist white pagoda, and I think the word “white” is the catch here.
It was built in 1997 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of Diqing Prefecture.
The interesting thing about it it’s that inside the pagoda there is another smaller one.
I couldn’t find any other info about it but I noticed that inside there are a lot of paintings dedicated to Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Buddhist Yellow Hat Sect also called Gelug.
Shangri-La is a nice place to explore if you have the right expectations. Don’t expect any Lost Horizon-like place. It’s a Chinese city, a small one, with a nice little old town and a few interesting things to see in the area.
What makes it worth it’s the location, near Tibet and Lijiang, and with a lot of nature surrounding the area. I think it’s worth a trip especially if you are already in Lijiang or Dali (here my travel guide). Otherwise, if you really want to visit a Tibetan area you are probably better of heading for Qinghai or Sichuan if you cannot go directly Tibet.
If you have a drone, it’s unfortunately not possible to use it in Shangri-La and in Napahai because they are too close to the airport.
Here you can find my travel guide to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, near Lijiang.