Far from James Hilton’s novel, Shangrila offers neither the utopia nor tranquility that such a fantastical place would have. Up the hills from Lijiang for four hours, brings this large but quaint city on the main thoroughfare of Tibetan/ Kham travelers. As the city straddles the main thoroughfare for those travelling north to Litang and Lhasa, the city can often be flooded with tourists. This was not the case in March, where tourists are rare, but also places that are open.
Shangrila’s “old town” lies a bit off the main city. The town is nice and has quite decent views of massive snow mountains around the city (and open to travel to). At night the main square has some “dances” which are free and tourists are encouraged to participate in this staged ceremony. If anything, its a nice way for locals to get a bit of exercise and enjoy the quiet atmosphere (not to mention encourage tourists to buy souvenirs along the square).
The center of old town is crowned by a newish temple with a humongous Tibetan bell, which you can turn in circles (with the help of a lot of people). Another temple around the area is the “Chicken” Temple, known for being rundown and surrounded by chickens. It is a steep climb up from one of the alleys. Across from the giant Tibetan temple are two museums. The first is one about the area, but the top floor is a sort of doctor scam where they to tell you you have many problems. The museum is ok, not super interesting (or true).
Across from this museum is the most interesting museum. This is one is dedicated to the long march and the “liberation” of Shangrila from those evil Tibetan rulers to the most gracious communist forces. If only they knew liberation comes paired with subjugation and exile of their religious leader. The museum is dingy and portrays the long marchers as having to deal with so many toils to make it so far up to help the poor inhabitants.
In the center of the new city there is a new museum that is slowly being built. It is often surrounded by police because this museum is an active monastery that is open for free and can offer an english speaking tour guide (also free). The museum is impressive and has a lot of history about the Tibetan peoples and their culture. Furthermore, the authorities placed much control to the local tibetan/minority communities (random fact: there are minority groups in the area that are not tibetan but have the dalai llama as their spiritual leader). In the center of the museum is a massive golden buddha statue and monks worshipping.
Shangrila has little to offer if one just stays in the city. Outside there are many great hikes and day trips. Pudacuo National Park can not be missed. The park is genuinely eco, with eco buses and severe limitations on where tourists can travel. This is great since so many local slob tourists can be seen destroying their national heritage from Huangshan to Jiuzhaigou. Too often do you see Chinese tourists lighting up cigarettes and throwing trash on China’s most pristine natural heritage. The park itself is quiet and lonely, a 2 km stretch towards the end is walkable and goes across forests and lakes. Although you can not compare with Jiuzhaigou, Pudacuo in some aspects is better.
On the way to Pudacuo is a “natural” hot spring, don’t bother paying. It is popular with national tourists, because it is where a popular Chinese TV series is filmed there. The natural aspects are gone, and it is just a warm swimming pool. We were told locals are not allowed to use the facilities as they are thought to be “dirty”. They have a separate and more authentic hot spring somewhere else. If you are lucky and have a minority local driver, you could go up the ridge above the hot spring. It is a very old rock barren path used long ago by monks, religious travelers, and herders. There are cave temples under the path and old writing from travelling monks. Above there are some pavilions with scenic outlooks. If you go further down there is a lover’s perch where lovers apparently go. The path is mostly used by locals, it would be hard for a traveller to know anyways (and unfortunately absent from guidebooks).