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Not many places find their origins in fiction, in fact, it’s usually the other way round. But not with Shangri-La. Once a figment of James Hilton’s imagination, etched out in his bestselling 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, this Tibetan alpine utopia is now a living, breathing earthly eden. Known as Zhongdian before its name change in 2001, Shangri-La won its claim to the moniker having beaten stiff competition and proving itself to be the worthiest contender for the title to China’s governing body. And what a prize – a dramatic region defined by its spectacular valleys, snow-capped peaks, colourful culture, rich forests and ever-smiling people, officially marked as China’s answer to heaven on earth.
And it’s not just this ancient city that has taken it upon itself to embody the name. Signifying “an imaginary, beautiful place, often far away, where everything is pleasant and you can get everything you want”, it’s not surprising that most businesses want their piece of the Shangri-La pie. Most notably of course is the renowned hotel franchise that has dominated the world of luxury accommodation since 1971 – you’d be forgiven for having assumed that this page was dedicated to discuss such hotel chain, its fame is certainly overshadowing. But the real thing, a destination shrouded in mystique and deliciously deserted like it is, is far more enticing.
Sat high in the Himalayan Mountains, the journey to Shangri-La is an experience in itself. From Lijiang, you just keep climbing. Away fall the tourists – and the 21st century for that matter. Blankets of golden barley fields are dotted by traditional farmhouses, whilst women wander the fields with wicker baskets upon their heads. Here, at more than 3,000 meters above sea level, modern day recedes before your very eyes. Behold, a land steeped in rich traditions and living on the very cusp of political and religious unease, or “Little Tibet”, as it has aptly been dubbed. With a population that is in fact 82% Tibetan, make sure to note the cultural and architectural changes, of which there will be many. This is as close to Tibet as you can get without officially crossing the border.
An authentic old town that is yet to be overrun with tourism, a stillness to the air that’s only broken by the jingle of a roaming yak’s bell, Khampa Tibetans easily spotted by their vibrant dress, wooden houses sporting hand-carved roof tiles and a stunner of a temple complex that will have you whipping your cameras out in an instance. Here, life is simple, but beautifully so.
Whether taking in the picturesque surrounds with a hike, wandering the historical Songzanlin Monastery – that still houses around 600 monks – or exploring the day-to-day life of the town, Shangri-La is the perfect location for slowing down and immersing yourself in the unique culture of the himalayas. Oh, and if you want to go all in on the traditional experiences here, you’re going to have to quickly adjust to yak’s cheese and butter tea (a bitter, black-leaf tea boiled with water and churned with yak’s butter and salt). In a climate where the air is so thin and the temperatures can drop so low, this substantial tea, overflowing with healthy fats, is much of a life saver.
A place that has quite literally been dreamed up, Shangri-La really is rather special. Spend a few days of your summer exploring this beautiful region and you’ll learn a whole lot about Tibetan culture. Intrigued? Read our blogs to find out more.
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