This is the second article in a series of unconventional destinations in China that we have prepared for you at Basecamp.
In 1939, British writer James Hilton published the book “Lost Horizon”, telling of a paradise that is cut off from the rest of the world, located on the Tibetan plain. His novel was an instant success and “Shangri-La” became a household name, a fascinating place that captured the imagination of dreamers and adventurers alike. The Chinese government thought to take advantage of the popularity of the book, and had a town – previously known as Zhongdian — that is a geographic fit with the imaginary utopia renamed Shangri-La.
Today, Shangri-La retains much of its quaint charm. As a city located in the north of Yun Nan and bordering Tibet, the people living here are Tibetans and they continue their way of life even now, just as they had for the last hundred years. They are a peaceable, friendly, honest bunch, possibly because of their religion – an overwhelming majority practice Tibetan Buddhism (think Dalai Lama and living buddhas). When you greet them, simply say “tah-shi-de-leh” (good luck).
There are some aspects of their culture that might give you a culture shock. Whether you can get past the initial shock and learn to appreciate the cultural difference is up to you. All of them hold on to the practice of sky burial – a procedure that involves defleshing the dead and grinding the bones, after which the meat and bone pieces are placed at a sky burial site for the birds to eat. To us, this may seem unacceptably gruesome, but to the Tibetans living in Shangri-La, this is how they honour their dead – by allowing their spirits to ascend into the heavens together with the birds.
Also, polygamy is still practiced. A man may take several wives. But wait, before you scream that it is the usual patriarchal world order at work, know this: a woman can also have several husbands. This practice is known as polyandry and is very rare nowadays.
Everywhere you go, you will see black dots on green plains. On closer inspection, you will discover that the little black dots are yaks (a.k.a. mao niu, “hairy cows”, in Chinese). They are a valuable asset to any Tibetan family as they provide free labour, milk and meat. However, do note that while yaks generally have a gentle temperament, it would still be foolish to chase after them like I did (I only knew afterwards that yaks can kill when enraged). Before you leave, don’t forget to have yak steamboat!
Things to do
- Napahai: Go horse-riding and watch yaks from afar
- Sumtsaling Monastery: Follow the tour guide and learn about sky burials and Tibetan Buddhism. To understand, a good grasp of Chinese is required.
- Potatso National Park: It is a beautiful place nearly half the size of Singapore with well conserved biodiversity.
- Dukezong Ancient Town: Eat yak steamboat here! Shop for souvenir; scarves, Chinese medicine and yak jerky are recommended. Dress up in traditional Tibetan garments and take pictures!
- Guishan Park: Spin the golden Tibetan turning wheel. Legend has it that if you can turn the wheel clockwise 3 times, good luck will come to you.
- Tiger Leaping Gorge: One of the deepest river canyons in the world. What can I say? Photos.
Caution: the average altitude stands at 3,160 metres above sea level. This makes you prone to altitude sickness. Personally, I puked and was immobilised in my hotel bed on the first day. Tips to alleviate altitude sickness (which I wish I had heed) include eating altitude sickness medicine days in advance, eating moderately upon reaching Shangri-La and not bathing on the first day.