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Shangri-La, China: More Than Just a Name?

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The name Shangri-La has become ubiquitous with paradise. It calls to mind visions of picturesque landscapes untouched by human hands, a last vestige of truly pristine nature, where people live in harmony with the world around them. It’s a place cloaked in mystery, part fantasy, part reality, where the legend is older than the place itself.

Needless to say our expectations were high. I pictured a town where nature meets culture, where traditional Chinese architecture was still the norm, and monks outnumbered civilians. Little did I know upon arriving in Shangri-La, that the name and the legend preceded the town. The tale of Shangri-La was popularized not due to this place on the map, but from a novel called the Lost Horizon by James Hilton. In his novel, James Hilton details a valley, high in the Tibetan mountains so remote it has remained untouched from modern society, the sole occupants Tibetan monks living in a monastery on the side of a mountain. Untouched by war and human destruction, the people of Shangri-La lived in peace and harmony amongst themselves and with nature.

Perfect pyramid shaped snow capped peak above the valley, as described in the book Lost Horizon.

While Hilton popularized the tale, this story of a lost civilization high in the Himalayas is said to have originated from old Buddhist teachings many centuries ago. The teachings told of a place called Shambala where people knew no violence or discord, and lived peacefully in the most beautiful valley, living by the principles of Buddhism. It is speculated that it’s this tale that inspired the creation of Shangri-La in the Lost Horizon.

The name Shangri-La, while fictional, developed so much clout that towns in the Himalayan region of China started a bidding war over the name, multiple places claiming that the place described in the book was based on their town. With such a widely known name and story, calling your town Shangri-La would bring immense benefits from tourism.

The town of zhōngdiàn 中甸 won the bid based mostly on the fact that its towering peak of Mt. Kawakarpo 卡瓦格博, rising to 6740 meters, and its surrounding valleys most closely resembles the scenery described in the Lost Horizon. In 2001 the town of zhōngdiàn was officially renamed Shangri-La, where we were to spend the day before riding down the mountain the next morning.

Guishan Temple

After our massive climb on the bike the day before we were definitely looking forward to a leisurely day checking out this mystical mountain paradise. Here’s the thing with paradises though, they are notoriously hard to find, and this one was no different, the mystery strengthened even more by the fact that the place goes by 3 different names (xiānggèlǐlà 香格里拉, zhōngdiàn中甸, and dúkèzōng独克宗), and there is no synchronicity at all as to which name appears on the road signs. This was then compounded by the fact that there was, in typical Chinese fashion, construction (Shangri-La had a huge fire in 2014 that destroyed 2/3 of the old town, from which they are still rebuilding).

I think it’s safe to say that the real life Shangri-La no longer resembles the tale from which the name arose. In fact if I could describe it in just a few words I would say it’s like a smaller version of Lijiang. There, I said it, paradise lost.

This is not to say that there is no reason to venture into the land of Shangri-La. While the old town is not too impressive when compared with the likes of Lijiang and Dali, the surrounding scenery and monasteries were absolutely breathtaking and certainly left us wishing we had more time and energy to explore. Sitting directly above the old town is Guīshànsì, a gorgeous Buddhist temple next to which lies the world’s biggest prayer wheel, a 21 meter tall gold cylinder that consists of 100,000 smaller prayer wheels. The wheel can be spun only with the help of multiple people.


Unfortunately, this was the only temple we got to see, and bysee I reallymean stand outside and take a picture of. As we learned from the receptionist at our hostel, all of the attractions in and around Shangri-La are outrageously expensive (by China standards). You’ll be paying about 20 USD for entrance into each of the monasteries, temples, and parks, which might not seem like a lot, but when compared to the 10 USD (and that’s the most expensive we’ve ever paid) to see the Giant Buddha an extremely famous and tourist laden attraction, the prices in Shangri-La are pretty steep.

As we would be riding by a couple of the scenic spots the next day on our way out of town, we chose to spend our afternoon just exploring the sights in and around the old town, which was certainly enough to fill up our time. The old town is small, but there are still plenty of shops and restaurants to explore, along with the Guīshānsì temple and the Shangri-La Thangka Academy, a training center for young monks.

With stunning scenery, historic monasteries, and a rare lack of tourists, Shangri-La is the perfect place for those looking for an off the beaten track adventure. Just don’t forget to pad your wallet, as touring the legendary Shangri-La doesn’t come cheap.


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  1. Aileen Coward

    You are such a beautiful and creative writer. Thanks for taking me to Shangri-La. I would never get there without your writings. Love and miss you both xxoo

    1. Cara Crawford

      Thanks so much! We really enjoy sharing these experiences with our readers. Sending lots of love back your way, we miss you too!

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