Adventures Through the Real Shangri-La

Written by Hannah Casper-Johnson, (Georgetown University) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Kunming, Fall 2017

On a recent vacation, I spent a week traveling through 香格里拉 (Xiānggélǐlā, or Shangri-La), a county in the far Northwest of Yunnan Province, bordering Tibet.   I’d never read James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon, whose fictional idyllic land shares this name, but it still conjured up the image of a magically beautiful land—an image I’m happy to say I found to be accurate.

Although Hilton never visited China, and it is not entirely clear what he based his story off of (possibly Tibet or an area in Northern Pakistan), the Yunnan Province in China is one of the various real locations that claims to be its inspiration.  Whatever Hilton’s actual inspiration, in 2001, China seized the value of this name recognition and officially changed the county’s name from 中甸 (Zhōngdiàn) to 香格里拉 (Xiānggélǐlā).  Despite this and other efforts to boost tourism (building new hotels, creating new national protected nature areas, and increasing tour groups), I found the experience of traveling there much more relaxing than the chaos of most of the Chinese tourist sites I’ve previously been to.  For one thing, we weren’t there during a popular tourist time, and it’s also still a very new tourist location, as well as being pretty far removed from most of China’s major population centers.  The locals I talked to said that most of the tourists they met were foreigners, either from Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, or Europe, and that, in general, Chinese tourists tend to prefer more built up areas over the more rural and natural appeal of Shangri-La.

Without further ado, here are some of the highlights:

We spent the first few days taking in this nature by biking around a large alpine lake and through the fields around it.  Apart from the occasional tour bus, our biggest competition on the road was the wide array of pigs, goats, and yak that wandered freely from marsh to field to mountains, crossing roads as they pleased.



The view as we biked through fields, at one point just following a couple of piglets running down a path.


We also came across this interestingly placed basketball hoop, only available for use when the lake dries up for parts of the year (unless, of course, they’ve developed a much more interesting way of playing the sport).


For someone interested in religions (like myself), the Tibetan Buddhist influence in Shangri-La definitely has a lot to offer.  After climbing up a very long set of stairs (made all the harder by our elevation of more than 10,000 feet and exhaustion from flying early that morning), we reached what is called (the Chicken Temple) and its main attraction, a giant golden prayer wheel that can be seen from all around the Old Town.  I was instructed by a Chinese family to grab a piece of cloth and pull the wheel around clockwise three times (no easy feat, what with it being 80 feet tall and apparently weighing 60 tons, but I had the help from several children).



The Prayer Wheel at the Golden Temple


Continuing that Buddhist theme, the next day I visited the 松赞林寺 (Sōngzànlín Sì, or Sumseling Monestary), a huge complex built in 1679 by the Fifth Dalai Lama of more than a dozen temples, monks’ living quarters, and several small villages.


Sumseling Monestary

A view of Sumseling Monestary from across the nearby alpine lake.


After Shangri-La City, we took a bus to 虎跳峡 (Hǔtiàoxiá, or Tiger Leaping Gorge, so named for a story that recalls a tiger leaping over the river to escape a hunter), where we hiked along the mountain side along the bank of 长江 (Cháng jiāng, or the Yangtze River), through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in my life.  Despite a few very steep cliff faces, some scares with waterfalls running over our path, and the worry that we might not make it to our hostel before nightfall, we all survived.



Me at one of our many stops to take photos against this gorgeous backdrop.