One of the roads from the Tiger Leaping Gorge was leading to Shangri-La. It was not really a mystical and mythical Himalayan utopia but a city originally called Zhongdian that since December 2011 changed its name to the place out of James Hilton’s novel to promote tourism in the area.
Located at 3,317 meters it was one of the coldest places I visited during my trip in China and also the last stop before heading back to Lijiang and Kunming and later flying to much warmer Laos.
I will be honest, it was not the novel Lost Horizon, which introduced Shangri-La to the world in 1933 but amazing photographs of the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery (Songzanlin Monastery), sometimes referred to as the Little Potala Palace that made me want to venture out all the way to this northwestern part of Yunnan province.
This 300 year old Tibetan Monastery belongs to the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism of the order of the Dalai Lama and is the largest of this type in Yunnan. Although it was heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution the temples and main parts of the monastic complex were rebuilt in 1983.
When I arrived in a morning a gilded stupa and tiles at the top of the temple were shining brightly in the winter sun. The views from a foothill gate entrance were already impressive and when I climbed to the rooftop of the Tsongkapa temple it got even better! Just picture this – the statues of two golden deer were flanking a Dharma wheel and overlooking the lake.
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery has two major lamasery buildings, Tsongkapa and Sakyamuni Temples and several smaller temples. Inside the main assembly hall I came across monks chanting with deep voices, playing the Tibetan horns and other instruments. It was fascinating and slightly haunting. In a smaller temple I found an old monk praying together with a novice, who was just a little boy, surrounded by Buddha images, golden lamps and Tibetan scripture.
After my visit and a walk around the lake I returned to Shangri-La’s old town, which sadly burnt down back in 2014 and is currently in the process of being reconstructed. With an exception of few shops, restaurants and the Golden Temple with a large prayer drum there is not much to see or explore. On top of the small hill behind the old town there is Baiji Temple also known as the 100 Chicken Temple. I definitely recommend the views of Shangri-La from that place. I also loved that it was covered in prayer flags.
Tavern 47 was an amazing place to stay while in Shangri-La. It was actually so highly recommended by other travellers that a group of hikers getting there from Tiger Leaping Gorge almost had to fight to book beds in a dorm – me included! Luckily the owners did their best to accommodate everyone so we could all enjoy a lovely atmosphere and brace the cold together. My tip – book in advance and try Tibetan porridge with yak milk for breakfast.