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Published: January 10th 2011
Shangri-la is a fictional place; an isolated, utopian paradise in the Himalayas featured in James Hilton’s famous 1933 novel “Lost Horizon”. Sometime around 2001, China decided to capitalize on the tourism boom in Yunnan province (mostly centred around Dali and Lijiang) by claiming that the nearby city of Zhongdian was in-fact the place that inspired Hilton’s novel. They even went as far as changing the name of the city to Shangri-la. And that’s how fiction becomes reality.
In reality, the Chinese Shangri-la is very similar to other tourist destinations in Yunnan except with a Tibetan theme. It has the “old” town/new town relationship and a couple of “x-largest” items to add to China’s long list of superlatives. The Ganden Sumtseling Gompa or Songzanlin Monastery is the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan and is supposedly modeled after Potala Palace in Lhasa. Also, in 2002 they constructed the World’s largest prayer wheel as another tourist gimmick.
We had a great time in Shangri-la as the place was practically deserted because it is off-season. The town is at an altitude of approximately 3200 meters which means a couple of things: Thin air and cold temperatures. Our daily average hovered around +5C and
dropped to about -5C overnight, but the days were beautiful and sunny which made it feel much warmer. It took a bit for us to catch our breath and adjust to the altitude, but we managed to go for some nice walks in the area. The highlight was probably our hike up the hill to a place the locals refer to as the “Chicken Temple”. We’ve never seen so many prayer flags in one place and the view from the top of the hill was beautiful as you could see the mountains and grasslands below. We only saw a couple of chickens up there though. The site looked like it might have previously been a large monastery complex that was destroyed, as there are remnants of old walls along the surrounding hill-sides.
The one downer here was supposed to be the biggest highlight. Songzanlin Monastery became quite a source of frustration for us and once again left us jaded about the Chinese government’s approach to tourism. A couple of years ago, a person could visit the monastery for 15 yuan and you could get there by a public bus for 1 yuan. The public bus still goes there, but
dumplings filled with yak meat. yummy.
the access road is now blocked off by a huge visitor’s centre and foreigners are forced off the bus where they are supposed to buy a ticket for 85 yuan and transfer to a “tourist” bus that takes you to the monastery area. This rubbed us the wrong way as we knew that not everyone pays for a ticket (a couple we met who rode bicycles were not stopped and got in for free). We have also heard a rumour that none of the 85 yuan actually goes to support the monastery, which wouldn’t be surprising. We’d be happy to make a donation directly to the monastery if we could have actually made it there. For a bit of background on the monastery itself, it was almost completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and has since been reconstructed. Only the main building has been restored in the Tibetan Buddhist style, while the rest of the buildings have Han Chinese influence. We made it our mission to get in for free, but after two comical failed attempts on separate days we settled for the free stuff around town which felt more authentic anyways. Sort of like a few recent hockey games
by our favourite hard-luck team. We fired as many shots as we could but came up short against a team with a hot goalie which also had some help from the referees (that's our story anyways...).
Kathie & Jordan – 0, Chinese Government – 2
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