Discover the rich Tibetan heritage and picturesque streetscapes of this Eden-like town enveloped by velvety green hills and national parks.
Shangri-La, a Tibetan phrase that translates to “the sun and the moon in the heart,” rose to fame as the name of a mystical fictional paradise in Edward Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. It is believed that the writer was inspired by the stories of eastern Tibet when creating his novel’s Eden, so the high-plateau town of Zhongdian adopted the name in 2002. Stroll though the town’s preserved streets and you’ll soon see why the name fits. Admire historic monasteries and tiny temples adorned with fluttering Tibetan prayer flags. Look out toward the rolling hillsides or ride a bicycle around the town’s tranquil lake.
A walk through the Old Town is a great introduction to Shangri-La. Fires swept through here in 2014 destroying some of the preserved architecture, but much of the historic streetscape remains. Make your way to the Golden Temple to see an enormous prayer drum and a large Buddhist statue. Continue walking up the hill to reach Baiji Temple, more commonly known as Chicken Temple for the hens that can be seen pecking around the grounds. See the brightly colored prayer flags and watch as locals perform prayer rituals.
From the hilltop, look down across the town and admire the surrounding landscape. Spot the Songzanlin Monastery, which is an exquisitely restored monastic structure that houses a complex of beautiful temples.
Rent a bicycle or book a tour on horseback and go on a trip around tranquil Napa Lake. You’ll see some of the region’s pretty grasslands and the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. See if you can spot Shika Mountain, which can be accessed via a cable car.
As you explore, you’ll learn about the mingling cultures in Shangri-La. The Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation preserves Yunnan’s mixed heritage. Pick up Tibetan and Yi handcrafts or purchase some Naxi pottery.
Shangri-La can be accessed via winding mountain roads from Daocheng, Lijiang, Dali and Kunming. Bus rides can take between 6 and 12 hours, but are a good way to adjust to the altitude. The town’s regional airport is called Diqing. The best time to visit is in spring and summer, when the landscape is lush and green.