Orientis DMC’s Guide to Shangri-La, Yunnan Province

In 2001, the ancient town of Zhongdian – a stop on Asia’s legendary Silk Road – was renamed Shangri-La in an attempt to increase its appeal to increasing numbers of both national and international visitors.

In the Tibetan language this new name means “sun and moon in heart” although it may originally derive from the Tibetan word for ‘paradise’, Shambala. Shangrila’s location in the north of the Yunnan Province in southwest China close to the borders with neighbouring Tibet and Sichuan is certainly idyllic, if remote. Set on a high, green plateau surrounded by hills and backed by imposing snow-capped mountains, Shangri-La can be reached by bus or car, but a domestic flight from Chongqing, Kunming or Lhasa is a suitable alternative for the less adventurous.

To the southeast of a more contemporary residential area, shops, restaurants and hotels is Shangri-La’s Old Town. Established an estimated 1,300 years ago, until recently the Old Town consisted of many ancient buildings of authentic Tibetan architecture; some up to six hundred years old. However, in January 2014 a devastating fire swept through the Old Town destroying around two-thirds of this important architectural heritage. Nevertheless, the area of the Old Town that was unaffected by fire is still remarkable to visit, and a concerted reconstruction effort is underway.

Shangri-La seasons and when to visit

Unlike some of its neighbouring destinations in the Yunnan Province, Shangri-La enjoys four distinct seasons, although the climate of the plateau upon which the town is situated means that weather is changeable and unpredictable throughout the year. The best time to visit is in the spring and summer months from March to August, when the weather is typically favourable and Shangri-La’s remote Alpine-like scenery is at its most spectacular. Temperatures are generally at their highest in July and August, ranging between 25-32°C (77-90°F). Rainfall increases during September and temperatures begin to decline towards winter. Due to Shangri-La’s remote location, access by road can be cut off if there are heavy winter (December – February) snowfalls, although this is uncommon.

Shangri-La’s Cuisine

The greater population of Shangri-La is Tibetan and this is evident in local cuisine. Yak meat – particularly in the form of a hot-pot or stew – and cheese are commonly available. The preserved Pipa meat or Pipa pork is a delicacy whilst Zanba, a dough made from barley flour, yak butter and water is a filling staple. Buttered tea, a traditional hot tea flavoured with liquid yak, goat or sheep milk butter is the most popular beverage.

Whilst there are many restaurants specialising in Tibetan cuisine in Shangri-La, the town also boasts several international restaurants offering Chinese, Nepalese, Cambodian and even Mediterranean fare.

Key activities in Shangri-La

Shangri-La is situated in a region of outstanding natural beauty and is a must for those who enjoy outdoor pursuits such as hiking, cycling and horse-riding. It’s also possible to ski at the resort on nearby Shika Mountain, a fifteen-minute journey west of the town. Non-skiers may also take the cable-car to the mountain’s summit.

Other nearby places of interest include the exquisite seventeenth-century Ganden Sumtseling Buddhist Monastery which stands to the a few kilometres north of Shangri-La, in the Hengduan mountain range. For a small admission fee visitors can explore the monastery complex and admire the detailed and stunning Tibetan architecture and the collections of religious and other artefacts from various dynasties that are displayed within.

An hour’s journey east of Shangri-La, Pudacuo National Park is a beautiful conservation area and nature reserve renowned for its biodiversity. A must for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts, Pudacuo is home to around one hundred rare and endangered species. The park contains two freshwater lakes, Emerald Pagoda Lake and Shudu Lake, and various habitats including dense forest and open grasslands upon which yak graze.