Published: July 20th 2012July 19th 2012
Shangri-La is the new (2001) name for Zhongdian, used to attract tourists; they're the same city. People there do say that this city was the inspiration for the book, but there's not much to corroborate the claim. Still, it's on the edge of Tibet, and though not in the Tibet Autonomous Region, 80% of the people are Tibetan, and the city exudes the culture.
The main reason we decided to continue on to Shangri-La after Tiger Leaping Gorge is to see if we could enter Tibet. It's close to the Tibetan border, and there are flights from there to Lhasa. Also, given the unpredictable changes in restrictions, there were a lot of rumors about, so we weren't sure what to expect. But, when we arrived and checked a couple of places, we found that no one has been able to enter since late June. This news, along with two days of rain, led us to cut the China trip early rather than trying to figure out the long and difficult road to Chengdu, which would take several days, all for another big Chinese city.
Before we left, we visited SongZanLin Monastery for a day trip. Despite the steep entry
fee (85 RMB), this experience alone made the city worth the trip. We were there on a rainy day, so there were very few tourists, and it felt like we had the complex to ourselves. We were lucky enough to be there at the start of a ceremony that involved chanting, short and long horns, and burning offerings (see video and photos). It was a mind-blowing scene.
There are tour offices throughout the city, but even a two-day trek is pretty expensive. There are some hot springs nearby and some other temples, and some of the treks offer homestays with locals. I'd imagine that with some research and exploration, you could do it on your own.
The old town itself is another Dali, Lijiang-type tourist trap with a high number of French restaurants and coffeeshops. We first stayed at Kevin's Trekker Hostel, but despite recommendations, it was expensive and yet outside the old town. N's Hostel is pretty good; I stayed there for a night and they have killer pancakes.
There are more photos below