Into Thin Air – Shangri-La (Zhongdian), China

We pulled into Shangri-la, were feeling ’bout half past dead,

A long bus ride combined with the high altitude left us stumbling into Shangri-la.

We just need some place where we can lay out heads,

The view from our door at Kevin’s Trekker Inn.  It was a fantastic place to stay, with hot water, a western toilet, and the only comfortable beds we have had so far in China.

Hey Mary, can you tell us, where some Canadians can find a bed?

She just grinned and shook our hands, “Ni Hao” was what she said.

Mary and her husband Kevin own and operate the guesthouse.  Kevin doesn’t speak any English, so Mary mostly deals with the guests.  We had some fantastic chats with her, and she helped with local advice and with booking our onward travel (bus tickets).  She also cooked us breakfast every day, even when we had to get up really early for the bus.

Shangri-La, or Zhongdian as it used to be called, used to be the last the major stop on the “Tea Horse Road” between China and Tibet. It was the last chance for caravans to stock up with supplies and animals before heading into the Himalayas-proper. Nowadays, Shangri-la seems to exists for tourism. In the early 2000s the government decided to try and increase tourism to the area by renaming the city after the fabled city/monastery from James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.

Temples in the centre of the Old Town.
Monks wander the Old Town.

Today, Shangri-la remains a gateway to Tibetan culture, which is evident in the Old Town by the number of stores advertising “Tibetan Handicrafts” or “Tibetan Food”. In and around the city we also started seeing prayer flags, which are common in Tibet and throughout the Himalayan Region. The Buddhism practiced here is noticeably different from the traditional Chinese version.

The world’s largest prayer wheel – 24m tall! You have to walk clockwise around the wheel, the same direction it turns.
Turning the wheel is hard work, but a fun way to interact with everyone else at the temple.
Emily one-handing it. Actually there were a lot more people turning it during this shot.

We spent three nights in the city, which in truth was probably one more than necessary. But Shangri-la is at 3200m above sea level, so we wanted to give ourselves time to aclimatize to reduced oxygen content in the air. There is around 33% less oxygen in the air at 3200m than at sea level. This was noticible right away, even compared to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Walking uphill or up stairs had us breathing heavily, especially if we are carrying our packs. We are going even higher in elevation after Shangri-la, so the extra day is time well spent.

Prayer flags on the way to 100 Chicken Temple, on a hill above the city. Great views, but we were short of breath when we reached the top!
Apparently it’s named after the many chickens wandering freely in the temple grounds.  We didn’t count them, but saw at least 3. Only 97 to go! We wondered if this one was nesting (it’s a chicken right? Or is this a Little Jerry Seinfeld situation?) since it let us get so close without moving.

We rented an e-bike and went out of town to visit Napa Lake and the Li Ti grasslands, located just north of the city in a beautiful valley. We pulled up expecting a huge lake, but in truth it took us time to find it – despite the open fields. This time of year the lake really is more of a wetland, and is quite small in size.

We ran into Jackie O on the way to Napa Lake.  This high up its important to cover skin and use sunscreen because you can get burned really fast.
The Li Ti grassland, grazing land for horses, sheep, cows, and of course yaks. It looks a lot like the foothills west of Calgary.
But they don’t have Yaks in Calgary!
We watched this horse herd for quite a while as they ran, played, and rolled around in the dirt. There’s a small foal on the right-hand side.
There are plenty of birds in and around the lake.
This friendly horse didn’t want us to leave.
We ran into a couple doing wedding photography in the grasslands.

We would have driven around the lake, but we were concerned with the range of the battery on our e-bike. The store we rented it from didn’t speak any English, and we couldn’t tell if they were saying 14km or 40km range. After nearly running out of battery in Angkor Wat, we have learned to stay on the safe side. Next time we will stick with a gas scooters or motorbikes.

Shangri-la is undoubtedly touristy, but we really enjoyed our time here. The people were friendly, and the scenery was excellent. Plus, we saw lots of yaks.

Every night in the Old Town square the locals come together and dance for hours. Someone is chosing the music and apparently someone is leading the dance, though everyone seems to know the moves. There are lots of women in traditional dress.
Emily joined in and did quite well, but for Doug it was his Amazing Race nightmare! Travel to this square, learn the local dance and perform it to the satisfaction of the dance leader to get your next clue. We might have had to take a penalty on this one!
There is lots of great people watching to be done in the square.



After dancing, a well earned treat of local and surprisingly decent Cabernet Sauvignon. This particular winnery is over 100 years old and was started when French missionaries in the area taught the locals to grow grapes and make wine.

For most travelers, Shangri-La is the end of the road in Yunnan province. But our plan is to travel north overland, onto the Tibetan plateau and into the historical Tibetan province of Kham.

  • Doug and Emily / June 11, 2017 @ 11:00pm / Litang, China @ Potalo Inn

4 thoughts on “Into Thin Air – Shangri-La (Zhongdian), China

  1. Nice North Face puffy jackets you guys! Doug – the one of you pushing the bell could be an ad for them! Loving the prayer flag pictures, those are always so beautiful! Miss you guys xo


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