It’s a name which evokes a sense of wonderment: Shangri-la. In perhaps the most brazen ploy for tourism revenue in recorded history, the Chinese government renamed the town of Zhongdian in northern Yunnan to Shangri-la in 2001. While the name change was shameless and crass, Shangri-la isn’t entirely undeserving of the moniker. In fact, I’d say it’s the place I’d choose to live if I decided to move to China. So, with that in mind, here are five things to do in Shangri-la.
Then the whole range, much nearer now, paled into fresh splendor; a full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamplighter until the long horizon glittered against a blue-black sky.” – James Hilton
Shangri-la is in an area of mostly Tibetan ethnicity, something that is reflected in the architecture, the food, the language, and the food of the people who live there. One place to see a few of these differences is first on our list: Songzanlin Lamasery.
Visit Songzanlin Lamasery
Built in the late 17th century, Songzanlin looms over a small lake just to the north of Shangri-la and is a great place to see Tibetan Buddhism in practice. Lamas walk the cobblestone lanes and gold-gilded roofs gleam in the sunlight. Prayer wheels creak on their axles and smoke from burning incense wafts through the air.
Ride a Bike to Napa Lake
A seasonal lake, Napa Hai is home to a large number of wildlife species and a popular grazing area for livestock when its waters recede. Most guesthouses in town rent out bikes, giving you the perfect method for exploring. The lake is within easy riding distance of the city, just bring plenty of water and be mindful of the high altitude.
There’s also a small lake immediately south of the monastery if you don’t feel like going all the way to Napa Hai, but it’s not as impressive. Napa Hai is worth it just to see the huge drying racks put up in fall to get food ready for the winter.
Spin the Prayer Wheel at the Golden Temple
From just about anywhere in the Old Town, the Golden Temple is visible atop its mount. Make your way there, and look for the massive prayer drum just below the summit. You’ll need some help, but if you can get enough people together you should be able to give it a good spin. Just make sure to spin it clockwise.
We went to the temple at night and were able to see the city spread out before us. The colors of the building were illuminated brilliantly against the darkness and the smiles and laughter of those around us proved infectious. Grinning from ear to ear, we enjoyed the festive atmosphere.
Walk through the Streets of the Old Town
Just a couple years ago, a huge fire tore through the Old Town of Shangri-la and razed most of it to the ground. After the disaster, the whole community threw itself into rebuilding efforts, which are still underway. Aside from the ongoing construction, signs of the fire are getting more and more difficult to spot.
Sample a Craft Beer at Shangri-la Brewing
I got lucky and couchsurfed in Kunming with someone whose friend works at Shangri-la Brewing. After discovering our shared affinity for craft beer, she put me in touch and I was able to schedule a tour of the brewery. Shangri-la Brewing holds the distinction of being the first state-sanctioned craft brewery in China and cranks out some of the best brews I’ve had in Asia.
There you have it! Five great things to do in in Shangri-la. Any recommendations or experiences you’d like to share? Leave those in the comments below!