The Shangri-La of Yunnan
Journey Three / Chapter 32
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Journey Three / Chapter 32

The Shangri-La of Yunnan

March 2019

Striking contrast between a traditional Tibetan & Buddhist mountain dwelling and 60 years of Chinese development at a place recently famously renamed.

Yeah, it reallly exists. Shangri-La. While it is still definitely difficult place to get to, in reality it is rather distant from a fabled city of immortality hidden deep in the Kunlun mountains from a famous novel of James Hilton.

The Shangri-La of the Yunnan province is clever trick of the chinese government to rename an old picturesque Tibetian town with a beautiful ancient monastery above it to pump up tourism into this remote region. If the trick is working I can not tell (as the place was mostly deserted when we visited it), but the spectacular Zhongdian (previous chinese name) or Gyalthang (original tibetian name) is still well worth the visit.

The contrasts of ancient Tibetan villages and architecture, perfectly set in these remote mountains and of mass chinese development is visible from the start of our journey along the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (originally part of Tibet, but now a part of Yunnan province). Chinese industrial machine seems to be breaking all laws of physics and building thousand kilometer highway all the way to Tibet, cutting right through the mountains and valleys.

Once we reach the city of Shangri-La itself (elevation 3,160m) after tough full day bus journey through the valleys, we can see another fascinating contrast - on one side there's an old town full of picturesque buildings (but now mostly used for accommodation, dining or souvenirs) and ancient temples, on other side modern chinese city center.

And on a small hill hidden behind a larger hill, just above the city but smartly hidden, sits the magnificent Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. Being the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple complex in Yunnan Province, it is also called the Little Potala Palace. It was a main temple used by Tibetans who lived in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet and other areas in the southwestern part of China. It is said that the Fifth Dalai Lama decided the location though divination and gave the name — Gedansongzanlin, back in 1679. At its height, the monastery housed 2,000 monks. Now about 700 monks live there or around the region.

And spending a day walking in an around this ancient monastery and surrounding grounds, feeling the atmosphere, listening to monk chants and praying wheels, and sensing the peace may give ou a feeling, that maybe, for a while, you are closer to that legendary place than you thought.