Shangri-la: A day in Lost Paradise

Aaron/ December 26, 2015/ China, Singapore to Europe Overland/ 0 comments

How I nearly died- and survived in the Tibetan town of Gyalthang, popularly romanticised as Shangri-la, 3,200m above sea level, surrounded by lush grasslands and soaring mountains.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si, Shangri-la/ Shangrila/ Zhongdian, Yunnan. Tibetan Buddhist Monastry. This blog post is about travelling to Shangrila, the lost paradise in northern Yunnan, places to see on a budget, without a tour.

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery.

 

Day 1: Journey to the fabled city of Shangri-la
Accounts of Shangrila (or Zhongdian, original name before a re-branding to promote tourism) tend to describe it as a fairy tale like place, romantic yet exotic at the same time. While such stories may feel somewhat over romanticised, it wasn’t hard to see how they may have been conjured. The landscape changed dramatically as we peeled away from Lijiang and climbed further up into the mountains, and at times it felt like we were almost in the clouds. A friend had joined me just before this at Lijiang and we were to be exploring northern Yunnan for the two weeks. I was really fortunate to have him in Shangri-la, as the circumstances were to turn out later.
Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Rising above the valleys on the highway from Lijiang to Shangri-la.

 

Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Different shades.

 

Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Rural villages. Almost surreal.

 

After another few hours on the bus, almost another 200km later, We alighted just outside the old town and began our search for the hostel. It soon became apparent that Shangrila was nothing like any of the earlier Chinese cities in my earlier stops, and Mandarin almost felt like a foreign language here (they’re mostly able to speak Mandarin but sounded noticeably different from people from the earlier cities). The population was mostly Tibetan and certainly a refreshing change of environment after almost 2 weeks in cities with seemingly much more identical cultural backgrounds (though still quite a vibrant mix). Other than the ethnic mix, the architecture and atmosphere felt distinctively different too, and at times I wondered if I were still in China.

 

Arriving by bus in Shangri-la, or Zhongdian, in northern Yunnan.

Searching for our hostel.

 

We got a little disoriented and asked a guy who was dressed like a cowboy for directions. Turns out he wasn’t a local but was here to start a business. Had a nice short chat, and he was able to provide directions for us to find our hostel, not too far away from where he was, at the Moonlight Square. I doubt he was moonlighting though.

Gate outside the old town. Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Gate outside the old town.

 

Golden Temple. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Golden Temple.

 

Streets in the old town. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Winding through the streets to get to our hostel, a little hidden.

 

At the hostel, we met a traveller from another part of China who had just arrived, and went for dinner together. It was a nice cultural exchange over dinner, though I thought some of his perceptions of the world, as a Chinese citizen, felt a little scary.

Yak butter tea at Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Yak butter tea. Pardon the VPN, I had to surmount the Great Firewall.

After hearing so much about yak butter tea, I was excited to finally be able to try it in Shangrila. It appears that there were fake ones around, but we were fortunate to find a restaurant opened by a very friendly Tibetan guy selling traditional Tibetan food. The tea comes in quite a huge kettle and is probably enough for 5 or more people. While the first few cups were interesting, the pungent smell was soon too overpowering and it became hard to appreciate the rest of the pot. I’d still recommend it to the adventurous though.

 

Yak butter tea. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Yak butter tea.

 

Berries from Yunnan. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Berries (Chinese bayberries, or Yang Mei) bought in Lijiang.

At 3,200m high, agriculture is hard and most fruits are brought in from the south, resulting in generally pricier fruits (and other foodstuff). Fortunately I bought these just before leaving Lijiang, where it was considerably cheaper (though not cheapest). I savoured the last bits of fresh fruit I was to have for the next few days.

 

Day 2: Not very funny altitude sickness

Not sure if it was the copious amounts of yak butter tea I had after dinner (which was suppose to help prevent), or something else, but I woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweat, with a mind numbing headache, and feeling incredibly nauseous and giddy. I had spent the past 2 weeks in Yunnan, over 2,000m above sea level, without much problem, but that night, at 3,200, I knew altitude sickness had finally struck. It was quite a scary experience for me, as I rarely fall sick, having to rush back and forth to the toilet and puking my guts out (felt like it, at least). It was too early to head out for help, yet I couldn’t fall asleep with that headache and nausea.

Morning finally broke after what seemed like the longest night ever, and with what little strength I had left, made it to my friend’s bunk to ask him for help in getting to some clinic. We made it to the hospital, and was put on drip. The nurse said it would take 20 mins, but after almost 20 mins, the fluid bag was still almost full, and I noticed my hand was swelling up. Turned out the nurse had missed the vein. Oh well, another 20 mins. And really thankful for my friend who just sat there waiting for me. It was the first time I had been on drip and I was surprised at what a bag of that stuff can do to my body. Felt much better after that but spent the rest of the day resting, while my friend explored the old town with another tourist. I’m really glad my friend did some exploring that day, as I would have felt really horrible if he had stayed in because of me.

It was probably one of the most terrifying experiences of my 50 days on the road, even more than being alone in the woods in Siberia. I was prepared to cancel my 4 day hike in the mountains just a few days later, but the rate at which my body recovered surprised me, and after all that trouble, it was just a little hiccup in the bigger adventure.

Day 2: Ganden Sumtseling Monastery and Shangri-la Old Town
Felt good enough to explore the next day and made a trip to the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, also known as the Songzanlin Monastery or the Little Potala Palace. After that bout of altitude sickness, I don’t think I’d be going to Lhasa any time soon and this was a pretty decent compromise.
There were mud houses beside the hostel/ hotel. Interesting as I’ve never seen houses made of mud before.
Houses made of mud in the old town. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.Houses made of mud in the old town.
We started the day at where mine ended two days ago, at the friendly Tibetan restaurant.
Tibetan resturant in Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Went back to the Tibetan restaurant in the old town for breakfast and had most of our following meals there too.

 

The monastery entrance was a short bus ride out of town, and it’s unlikely to miss the stop, as the bus travels into areas that are off limits to regular tourists after the monastery stop so staff will usher tourists out of the bus. After purchasing a ticket( ¥115), a shuttle bus took us from the ticketing building to the monastery itself (quite a distance away).

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Just outside the monastery.

The monastery had recently been restored and was in good shape (it had better be, with that admission price). Photography was not allowed inside prayer buildings thus most pictures are from the outside. It was a really interesting place to explore for a few hours, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Shangri-la. Or maybe unless you’re going to the actual Potala Palace. There were guided tours available for no extra charge at certain timings. We were a little early for the next tour so we explored on our own for awhile before joining the scheduled tour.

 

Tibetan Buddhism art at Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Tibetan Buddhism art.

 

Lots of stairs to get to the temples. Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Lots of stairs to get to the temples.

 

View from the top of the stairs. Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

View from the top of the stairs.

 

Mountains in the distance. View from Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Mountains in the distance.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.Main building with lots of monks praying/ performing rituals inside.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Respite.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Square in front of the main prayer buildings.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Amazing views all around.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

The side compounds looked a little more worn but still seem to be holding up.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Unique windows.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

A drawing of the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Beautiful roofs.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Spinning the Tibetan prayer wheel.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Songzanlin/ Little Potala Palace, over 300 years old, in it’s full glory.

 

It felt like a few hours in a totally different place, kinda out of this world, before bring brought back down to earth. We spent a little more time exploring the gardens outside the monastery, taking in the views all around, before heading back to the city.

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Took a walk around the area outside the main complex.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Tibetan prayer flags.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

View of Ganden Sumtseling Monastery from across the lake, which was a little dry in June.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Zoomed out.

 

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery/ Sungtseling/ Guihuasi/ Songzanlin Si. Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Lone house.

 

Back in the city, we went exploring Shangri-la old town.

Old town, Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Back in the old town.

 

Large parts of the old town was being rebuilt following a massive fire over a year ago that destroyed much of it. Nevertheless, the charm of the old town remains.

Old town, Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Old town under construction.

 

Old town, Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Perhaps one of the positives about having much of the old town under construction was that we didn’t had to fight with crowds to get around the place.

 

Old town, Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Nightfall.

 

At the the Moonlight Square (Yue Guang Guang Chang), locals engage in some sort of traditional dance every night. Quite a sight to watch, as I seldom see such large groups of people dancing in Singapore.

Moonlight Square (Yue Guang Guang Chang), Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Dancing in the main square every night.

 

Beside the square, there was a stairs leading to the Golden Temple, on a hill overlooking Shangri-la. Felt like there was a mix of styles in the design of the temple.

Golden Temple, Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Entrance to the temple.

 

Golden Temple, Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Similar to the temples at Songzanlin, had large black drapes covering the facade.

 

Golden Temple, Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

There was a really enormous prayer wheel in the temple which required many people turning it at the same time to get it moving.

 

Golden Temple, Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

My friend trying his hand at it.

 

Day 3: Continuing the adventure with hiking in the mountains to Yubeng
It was time for us to leave Shangrila and head towards the mythical village of Yubeng, deep within the Yunnan/Tibetan mountains. Glad I recovered sufficiently to make the trip by then.

 

Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian, Yunnan, China.

Statue at the roundabout where local buses stop to allow people like us to get off and walk to the Shangri-la bus station (not that near from the roundabout in fact).

 

Shangrila/ Shangri-la/ Zhongdian Bus Terminal/ Station, Yunnan, China.

The Shangrila bus terminal. Grateful that the driver on the day we arrived had dropped us at the old town instead of at the actual bus terminal. The bus ride+walk to the bus station from the old town took quite some time.

 

Yunnan bus routes map, at Shangrila bus station.

Yunnan bus network. Pretty extensive.

 

Bus ticket from Shangri-la to Deqin. Yunnan.

Ticket to Deqin.

 

Shangri-la (Zhongdian), Yunnan in Numbers

Actual travel dates: 25 May 2015 – 28 May 2015
Accommodation: ¥92(~S$20 for 3 nights)
Attractions: ¥115(~S$25)
Food: ¥60(~S$13) (I don’t remember eating anything the day I was sick, and some Tibetan guy I was trying to ask something from got us dinner for one of the nights. Amazing hospitality, and also why the amount on food was so low)
Transport (excl bus to Deqin): ¥3(~S$0.65)
Bus to Deqin: ¥67 (~S$15)
Total: ¥348(~S$76) (excludes medical bills covered by insurance, but I don’t think it was much)

 

And that’s it from the little lost paradise. Lots of other amazing natural wonders near Shangri-la, such as Pudacuo National Park, Baishuitai Water Terrace, Napa Lake and more, but unfortunately not on this trip, maybe next time. Next, to Yubeng.

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