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Two days in Shangri-La 香格里拉 Yunnan: all you need to know

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). You are now looking for something else to do in the area.

Thanks to the recent infrastructures like a 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 few nights.

Until December 17, 2001, Shangri-La was called Zhongdian (中甸), but the name was changed to match the mystical place James Hilton talked about in his novel Lost Horizon. It was a marketing move to get more tourists. In the novel, Shangri-La is an ancient and secret city of wise men, gathered from all over the world, of different sexes, cultures, religions, and temperaments, who live extremely long lives and are truly happy.

When is the best time to visit Shangri-La?

The city lies at an elevation of about 3100 meters, so it’s pretty cold in winter. It can rain often in summer so it’s better to visit in spring or autumn.

Regardless of when you decide to go, try to avoid all the national holidays and the month of August when students and teachers are on holiday. August is exceptionally crowded because most Chinese are trying to escape from the heat of the rest of the country.

Remember that Shangri-La is 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 is a small airport and a newly built high-speed train station. So you can either fly or get there by train. 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,, remember 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 when you arrive in Shangri-La.

Here you can book the train ticket.

Things to see in Shangri-La

Why do people want to visit this part of Yunnan? Well, first of all, this is an exciting area because it belongs geographically and ethnically to Tibet.

Visiting Tibet (here is my guide) is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming (although 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 entirely 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 city’s highlights 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 destroyed, and it has since been rebuilt. The local government tried to preserve the same architectural style, but it’s, in fact, a “brand new old town.”

The old town is small but lovely, with numerous local restaurants and small shops. It’s the ideal place to stay for a few nights while you explore the surrounding area. You can use to book a hotel there.

One of the most famous restaurants is Flying Tiger, a good restaurant founded by a French guy who unfortunately died. His wife still manages the restaurant. 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 easy since it’s only a few kilometres from the old town. Visiting the area is a bit more complicated. These are the main options:

  • Renting a bike: there are few bike shops, and if your time is limited, biking around the whole area is not an option. Also, unlike other places such as Yangshuo, there is no cycle track, so you must 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 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 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 is the best option but also the most expensive. You can find people around the old town handing out their contact cards. Tell them you want to visit Napahai 纳帕海, and they will drive you around the park. Don’t forget to bargain. If you choose this option, you can visit the whole area in about three hours and stop wherever you like.

There are also a few hotels in 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

shangri-la yunnan

The highlight of Shangri-La is, without any doubt, the 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, sometimes called 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, there are 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-meter-tall pagoda is impossible 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 is another smaller one inside the pagoda.

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.

Potatso/Pudacuo National Park 普达措

Potatso National Park, located about 1 hour from the old town, is a stunning place, and it’s worth spending a whole day hiking the area. There are buses belonging to the park that take tourists to different viewpoints. The unique thing about this area is that Tibetan people still live in the park, which reminds me of a Native American reserve.

You’ll see yaks and horses lazily grazing everywhere, and if you are lucky, you might even see a few wild White Eared Pheasants.

Pudacuo is my favourite area near Shangri-La, and if you have to choose between this place and Napahai, I recommend Pudacuo.

Here are a few more pictures:

When I visited the park, I also had the chance to visit a local Tibetan house, but you need to have special permission. There also is an overpriced Glamping site (about 1588RMB per night), but it is only open a few months per year.

Yubeng and North of Shangri-La

Yubeng Yunnan travel guide

I recommend visiting Yubeng and the surrounding area if you have more days. Here you can find my complete travel guide.

Park of the Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkey – Rinopiteco Bieti

Shangri-La can be a starting point to get to Tacheng 塔城, where the Snub-Nosed Monkey Park is located. It’s estimated that there are only between 2000/3000 left in the world, and this is the only place you can see these beautiful monkeys in the wild. In this article, I talked extensively about the conservation efforts to save these monkeys.

Final thoughts

Shangri-La is an excellent 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 lovely little old town and several exciting things to see in the area.

What makes it worth it is the location, near Tibet and Lijiang, and with a lot of nature surrounding it. I think it’s worth a trip, especially if you are already in Lijiang or Dali (here is my travel guide). Otherwise, if you want to visit a Tibetan area, you are probably better off heading for Qinghai or Sichuan if you cannot go directly to Tibet.

If you have a drone, it’s unfortunately impossible to use it in Shangri-La and Napahai because they are too close to the airport.

Here, you can find my travel guide to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, near Lijiang, and here is my Yunnan travel guide.

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