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Enigma of Shangri-La is shrouded in magnificent scenery
2015-06-03
By Pete Wong

THE fabled Shangri-La of James Hilton’s “Lost Horizons” has long conjured up visions of an earthly paradise set somewhere in a forgotten valley of the Himalayas. Many places have claimed to be the cultural representation of this utopia, but perhaps the most famous where tourism is concerned is northwestern Yunnan Province, which actually has a town now calling itself Shangri-La.

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A gust of wind swept across the land causing the Tibetan prayer flags to flap. The first rays of daylight pierced the clouds, bathing the Meili Snow Mountain in a golden hue. We watched Mother Nature orchestrating the morning spectacle as we stood on the rooftop of a hotel in Feilaisi in sub-zero temperatures. Was this the Shangri-La that Hilton wrote about?

Our journey had started a week earlier in Lijiang, a city in Yunnan. In ancient times, traders trekked the arduous “tea and horse trail” from Lijiang to Zhongdian near Deqin County, and then onwards to Lhasa in Tibet. They braved high altitudes and freezing weather on foot and on horseback.

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Today, one can retrace part of that route on a modern highway threading through mountain passes and scenic valleys. We stayed a few days in Lijiang to get used to the 2,600-meter altitude before moving north to higher ground. Tourists in Lijiang normally stay in Dayan, the historic old section of town filled with clusters of 800-year-old Naxi-style houses. The locals in Lijiang are mostly from the Naxi ethnic minority group.

Although crowded, the labyrinth of old alleys and time-worn cobblestones still provides pockets of respite where one can have a cup of tea or a meal at one of the many refurbished cafes and restaurants. Dayan is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, hence its popularity. To get away from the crowds, one can head to the lesser known, smaller old town of Shuhe about 4 kilometers away. Other attractions outside Lijiang include the Baisha Murals, Lashihai Lake and, if you have time, the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

From Lijiang, it’s a four-hour drive (170 kilometers) north to Shangri-La, a nondescript town that was formerly called Zhongdian before authorities gave it a tourism makeover. As we arrived there, we couldn’t help but be taken by the commercial name. Was this the fabled Shangri-La?

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Shangri-La is divided into the old district called Dukezong, where tourists normally go, and the newer part of town where locals live. Unfortunately, a big fire in January 2014 razed almost two-thirds of Dukezong. The old town temple, which houses the world’s largest Tibetan prayer wheel, escaped the blaze. Many hotels and tourist amenities remain outside the old town area.

Attractions just outside Shangri-La include the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery and Napahai Lake. Sumtseling is the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan. It was constructed around 330 years ago in an architectural style resembling the famed Potala Palace in Lhasa. At Napahai, we saw locals working on the banks of the lake, while sheep, cows and horses grazed peacefully along the adjacent grassland.

About 3 kilometers southeast of Shangri-La is Wufeng Mountain, revered as a sacred place by the local Tibetans. The grassland at the foot of the mountain has been used for years to hold popular horse racing events. About 32 kilometers outside Shangri-La, visitors can also visit Bitahai and Shudu lakes. Travel further and you come to the White Water Terraces, a natural wonder created by limestone deposits, and Haba Snow Mountain, a famous nature reserve

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After Shangri-La, more surprises awaited us as we travelled north to an outpost called Feilaisi, about 10 kilometers outside the town of Deqin. Along the way, we visited a few monasteries and a boarding house for Tibetan monks, who were kind enough to share with us their breakfast of yak butter tea and barley bread. The scenery along the way is simply breathtaking, with the altitude reaching 4,292 meters.

Our sole reason for taking the five-hour road trip from Shangri-La to Feilaisi was to catch the fabled Meili Snow Mountain at first light the next morning. There are several hotels lining the road and facing the mountain, and most of them have rooftop viewing decks. After the morning display of nature’s best — which is subject to weather’s whims — we headed off to Deqin to savor a hotpot of fresh Yangtze river fish. Beyond Deqin is the border with Tibet and the road to its capital Lhasa. But our journey ended here, and it was back to Lijiang for us.

So where is Shangri-la? Like the paradise in the novel, it remains a tantalizing mystery. Perhaps its spirit was at the remote school we visited along the way, where we encountered smiling children living in the most austere conditions. Perhaps it was at Napahai Lake, where we met a beautiful young Tibetan girl who posed for our cameras, carrying her little lamb in her arms. Or maybe it was at the monk’s quarters, where we barged in as strangers but were greeted with warm hospitality. Wherever it is, Shangri-la beckons you to undertake your own personal journey of discovery.

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How to get there:

Several domestic airlines like China Eastern and Juneyao fly directly from Shanghai to Lijiang. You can also fly from Shanghai to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, via Air China, China Southern, Kunming Air and other carriers and then proceed on a connecting flight.

Where to stay:

At Lijiang, you will be spoiled for choice, ranging from luxury accommodation to budget hotels. By far the most impressive would be Banyan Tree Lijiang (www.banyantree.com), located at the edge of Shuhe, away from the busier Dayan old town. You will be impressed with the views. Rooms are luxurious, and you don’t even need to leave your bed to see the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the highest mountain in Yunnan. The hotel also offers the best spa treatments in town.

If you prefer a luxury right in the middle of Dayan old town, try Hotel Indigo Lijiang Ancient Town(www.ihg.com).

Around Shangri-la, you may want to check out Linka Songtsam(www.linkasongtsam.com), a luxury hotel right next to the Sumtseling Monastery. For budget stays, there are many choices near the entrance to Dukezong old town.

To catch the best view of Meili Snow Mountain, book a stay at the award-winning Songtsam Meili (www.songtsam.com). A cheaper alternative would be the Feilasi Pearl Hotel (Tel: 0887-8414-688) located just off the highway. The hotel rooftop makes for great viewing to watch the sunrise.

It can get very cold at night, so bring warm clothing and ensure that your hotel provides adequate heating before you check in. In budget hotels, beds usually come with electric underlays.

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When to go:

Spring and summer months are the best time to visit. It tends to rain more during the months of July and August. The most beautiful time in Lijiang is between April and May. The winter months of November to February are considered low season, with snow and sub-zero temperatures in places like Shangri-La and Feilaisi. Some hotels are closed for the winter.

If you want to catch the Tibetan festivals, plan your visit during the three-day Horse Race Festival that begins on June 20 at the foot of Wufeng Mountain. At the festival called Dengbashi on August 28, the gods of good fortune are worshipped. The festival of Gedon from October 2-19 features the famous mask dance. Spring festival, the Chinese lunar new year, is also popular tourism time.

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