Going to Tibet is not for the spontaneous. You need to plan it well in advance, get a visa for China, a special permit to enter Tibet and you must book a tour. And hope China doesn’t close the border by the time of your trip. You can’t go there independently, like backpacking. And for many, this is too much of a headache.
Well, there is another way! Tibet region borders a few other regions in China. But people settled in these beautiful lands long before we knew what borders are. So there are still a few Tibetan towns located (technically) outside Tibet borders. You still need a visa for China, but then no need for another visa or an organised tour.
Tibetans in Northern Yunnan
A few months ago, I’ve spent some time in Yunnan region. I didn’t think about Tibet when I was planning it, I just saw some photos of Lijiang and it convinced me right away. But that’s because I love ancient towns.
While I was in Lijiang, I found out about a Tibetan town called Zhongdian. Not long ago, its name was changed to “Shangri La” in an effort to attract more tourists. The new name is taken after “Shangri La” fictional novel, written by English novelist James Hilton.
Why Shangri La
Shangri La is now synonymous with a hidden paradise, where people live happy lives, in harmony, somewhere far and remote. This idea is present in many other cultures, may be pulled out of our daydreams, a wish to escape the less pleasant aspects of the daily life and thoughts. In the ancient Tibetan scriptures, it’s mentioned the existence of seven such places.
Once a quiet Tibetan town, Shangri La is located in the Himalaya highlands, at around 3000m altitude. Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, or Little Potala Palace, overlooks the ancient town from the hills. It must have looked once like an unspoiled paradise, but now I would say it’s more of a modern Shangri La, if there is such a term. It is (almost) easily reachable by travellers.
How to get there
Shangri La has a small airport nearby, and that’s the easiest way to get there. There are a few internal flights, so to get there from Europe, it will be a multi-leg flight for sure. The other way is by land, taking a bus/car. From Lijiang (which also has a small airport), there are public buses to Shangri La, and the ride takes around 6h. The roads are in very good shape and the mountain scenery keep you company along the way.
I took a day trip from Lijiang to Shangri La, which is very tiring, but I loved it. I didn’t have time to stay overnight, but I do recommend a 2-day trip at least.
What to do in Shangri La Tibetan town
Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery
If you want to learn more about Tibetan monks’ lifestyle, then Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery is the first place to go. I went there with a hired driver who didn’t speak any English and another Chinese traveller who luckily know some English.
The driver left us at the entrance, where there is also a Tibetan culture expo centre. Past the entrance, there is bus waiting, which takes the tourists close to the entrance of the monastery. The monastery is located at some 3500m altitude, and there are many stairs to climb. I also went there on a sunny day, there is little shade, so by the end of the trip, I was feeling a bit dizzy.
The Little Potala Palace is so nice to visit though. You get to learn more about the peaceful Tibetan culture and lifestyle. I so wished to have had a guide in English, as I was relying on my fellow traveller translating just a few details. The highlight of the visit was the service, I could see the monks gathered together in one of the temples, singing. I was trying to be so careful even when breathing, to not bother them in any way.
Advice on how to behave: Do not take any photos/videos inside the temples, of the statues and of the monks. Do not step on the threshold, when you enter a building. Inside the temple, always walk clockwise. Keep it quiet.
Explore the Old town
Now, again I wished I learnt more about the places that I visited. As a foreigner, it’s difficult to find English speakers in this area, and even less English tour guides. Unless you are prepared to pay a lot. Budget traveller, embrace the frustration.
In the Tibetan culture, it is said that you should write down your wish and hang it somewhere up where the wind is stronger. The wind (god) will take your wish and make it happen. Each colour has a meaning too.
Unexpectedly, this view is strikingly similar to the colourful flags at San Juan Chamula church, in Chiapas.
Apparently here is the greatest fortune wheel in China. It takes at least 10 men to give it a spin. When I went there, a big group of friends managed to spin it for a little while. So you know now, if you want some luck coming your way, bring all your friends to help you out on this trip!
I wish I had more time to explore the town, but unfortunately time passed really quickly and I had to head back to Lijiang. Next time I should take at least a few days to fully explore this beautiful and peaceful town, Shangri La.