James Hilton’s book “Lost Horizon” captured countless imaginations and is probably remembered as the origin of Shangrila, a fictional utopian lamasery high up in the Tibetan Mountains. Shangrila when translated means the “sun and moon in the heart” which the Tibetans believe is an ideal home found only in heaven. Shangrila(Xiangelila) was formerly known as Zhongdian until 2002 when the Chinese government decided it would promote tourism with this romantic namesake and the Tibetans know it as Gyelthang(Jianthang) a long ways before.
We were on the 2nd leg of our journey having stopped over at the 1st Bend of the Yangtze River at Shigu for the banana boat ride and visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge by 4pm. It had been a long day, as we set out from Lijiang by car since 9am and it would take another 2 and a half hours drive before we reach our hotel in Shangrila.
The journey was mostly uphill on a 2 way mountain road which hugs the sides of the mountains. It was relatively safe as traffic was not congested like in the city, with the occasional heavy vehicle and cars travelling by. We passed many steep and bendy sections and fortunately no one suffered from motion sickness and our trustworthy Naxi driver Lao Yang handled the MPV superbly giving us a safe and smooth ride.
We stopped to soak in the atmosphere and I was actually busy clicking away because I was totally blown away by how unspoilt and beautiful the mountains and the environ was. It is really nature at her best, with the clouds surging and passing over quickly and literally gone with the wind. There was a slight drizzle at this juncture and with the overcast sky, the temperatures plummeted. Our driver cum guide paused mid-sentence, looked up at the sky like a wise old Shaman and predicted snow the next day. We chuckled at his suggestion, only half believing what he said and continued on our journey. It was already mid April and we did not bring our bulky winter coats nor woollens as it was unlikely to be needed.
All too soon we had to leave behind us the mesmerizing and majestic mountains and valleys. We arrived at the fringe of the Tibetan Plateau and the vista was dramatically pastoral. This rustic scenery was strangely drawing me in; an unassuming and rugged kind of charm that makes me ponder how the Tibetans have thrived for centuries and eke out a living in such harsh weather conditions and difficult terrain.
Here the average altitude is more than 3000m above sea level and the chief means of transport is via motor vehicles. Although many minority people live in this area, the Tibetans form the majority. The air is thinner here and the warmer months are brief and I believe the Tibetans have a fierce resilience and good constitution to match, to be able to withstand the bitter cold. Tibetan houses are square structures usually constructed out of stone, timber, clay and nowadays concrete that is adapted to the cold, dry, generally arid high altitude climate. Some interesting features are that the walls are thicker at the base and the windows are kept small so as to keep the already heavy walls stable. The ground level is usually for the animals and storage and the 2nd level is where the people live.
Chortens originated from ancient India where Buddhism began and were representative of the Stupa that contained the ashes of Gautama Buddha. These little piles of stone are sacred shrines where the predominantly Buddhists Tibetans pray for blessings on their land.
The main road leading to the Songzanlin Lamasery was closed for extensive road works and we were given instructions by the hotel reception to take this dirt track which would snake down into the valley. We were stopped abruptly by a man in an army fatigue requesting for entrance payment. Our driver explained that we were headed to Songtsam Shangrila Hotel where we were staying and he asked to see our reservation papers. We thought all was well and then he said we were booked for 2 persons according to the hotel listing and there were 3 of us and the haggling continued.
Amazingly our driver managed to pacify him and we were finally allowed to pass through. I do not know if this is a scam or if the local government is now enforcing strictly an entrance fee to Songzanlin Monastery which I thought should be collected at the entrance of the lamasery, not on this high road which is rather strange. Since 1st April, many tourist sites all over China have started to collect high entrances fees which is a boon for them but a complete nightmare for budget travellers.
Napahai Lake is about 8km northwest of Shangrila and the lake fills up a valley surrounded by mountains on 3 sides. During the dry season the water recedes to unveil a verdant grassland and in autumn the prairie changes to a golden hue where flocks of yak, sheep and horses graze. Years back I came here for a horse ride but I was unable to gallop and ride free with the wind as I did not know how to ride a horse. So I had a guide pulling the horse, which decided to trot gently for my sake. My first saddle back experience was at Petra, Jordan where we passed through a narrow siq that opened up to the rose-tinted Al Khazneh(The Treasury). Maybe one item on my bucket list should be to learn how to ride a horse.
We finally arrived at Songtsam Shangrila hotel late in the evening for our overnight stay. The Tibetan hotel staff gave us a warm reception right from the moment we stepped out of the car. It was lovely just sitting by the fireplace and enjoying our welcome drink, a hot ginger tea to help us ‘thaw” as it was getting very cold and dark outdoors.
It is here in Shangrila, that you get to experience snow-capped mountains, steep gorges, jagged peaks, azure alpine lakes, open meadows, horse and yak riding, Tibetan culture, dance, cuisine and architecture. What a privilege and eye opener for us city dwellers. Though the route from Lijiang to Shangrila is quite long, it is very scenic and enjoyable and I cherish this beautiful and memorable journey!