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.
The admission charge is 115 RMB — a bit steep for a religious site and more than a little grating after paying just 80 RMB for access to the entire Old Town of Lijiang. A tip from a local led us around the back of the lamasery, where we found a gate left ajar and snuck inside. Once in, no one bothered checking our tickets. Do whatever you’re comfortable with!
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.
The Old Town has been largely restored and is still a magical place to walk around. Wander the streets and cobblestoned lanes as you please, just be sure to make your way to one of the main squares at 8pm. Locals assemble and dance in a circle to the night’s soundtrack. They laugh, clap, and kick up their heels, and welcome tourists who feel the urge to join. Give it a shot!
Sample a Craft Beer at Shangri-la Brewing
I got lucky and couch-surfed 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.
They use glacial water and Tibetan Highland barley in the brewing process and hire locals from a nearby orphanage to work in the brewery. The labels and names of each beer are inspired by Tibetan mythology. All in all, it’s a fascinating operation, and I loved the opportunity to check it out! Check their website out here for info on scheduling a tour.
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!