About Us | Contact us | Map | Feedback
Home » Travel News » The Postcard-like Beauty of Yunnan's Shangri-La

The Postcard-like Beauty of Yunnan's Shangri-La

In 1995 Bruce Connolly travelled to to Zhongdian (Shangri-La), a primarily Tibetan upland within Northwest Yunnan. In his previous piece Bruce discovered the fascinating Old Town. Today he explores postcard-like countryside while appreciating friendship at Songzanlin Monastery.

North beyond Zhongdian town a grassy hill became something of a vantage point both for solitude and to plan out my remaining itinerary. In 1995 there were no maps of the surrounding countryside and no smartphones to create instant records of where to go. But from the hill I could sketch out rough directions and ideas. Intriguing patterns of winding rivers, grasslands, black cattle grazing, patches of cultivation alongside villages spreading across the green plain that occupy much of the plateau where Zhongdian sits. A lot to explore. As I sat in contemplation lamas from the nearby Songzanlin Monastery would wander past, “Hello” being the regular cry. It was the presence of this, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan, that helped prompt the tourism-promoting name change to Shangri-La in 2001.

From my abode, the Tibet Hotel, I rented a heavy-framed cycle - a type previously common on China’s streets. The daily fee was amazingly inexpensive. It provided me the ability to roam into some of the enticing landscapes seen from the hill. Cycling as opposed to hiring a car and driver allowed the freedom of stopping regularly, of walking onto meadows, of being able to compose camera images and to exercise within excellent atmospheric conditions.

Eight kilometers north of town lies Napa Hai whose the name derives from Tibetan meaning a “lake by the forest”. The road I would follow could have taken me onwards to Tibet, if I had the stamina and plenty of time! With no gears an initial long uphill stretch resulted in dismounting and physically pushing but once at the top of the pass it was a thrilling freewheeling descent toward flat, marshy meadows.
Heading through farmland, passing villages a large sign announced “Napa Hai”’. Turning off the road a track led through flowering grasslands where ponies and long-horned black cattle, with clunking neck bells, grazed. Whenever I stopped for photography children would come over, trying to make conversation.

Initially it was difficult to reach the lake. The ground was boggy with numerous watercourses bisecting the surface while the bike was proving exceptionally heavy every time I had to handle it over physical obstacles. Then I spotted a route through a compact village of whitewashed buildings towards the shoreline. Reaching the water’s edge I must have sat there for an hour gazing across a stunningly serene landscape where it was easy to imagine that every photo taken would resemble a postcard. Clean air providing excellent visibility enhanced the scene.

Yaks, sheep, horses, cattle and black pigs roamed freely on the springy meadows, some actually standing in the lake’s shallow waters. Heavily garbed women sitting patiently nearby had no hesitation in throwing a stone at any of their animals tending to wander off!

Napa Hai was proving to be one of my most memorable moments in China up to that time. There was then no commercialization, just the opportunity of being so close to nature while watching in fascination timeless agricultural activities. Indeed I was the only intrusion onto this scene. Apart from curious children I was mostly undisturbed.

Due to seasonal water fluctuations few permanent structures rose near the shores but villages, seemingly of log cabins, could be seen clinging to lower slopes of surrounding hills, the calm waters reflecting the scene. Indeed the sheer beauty was also enhanced by views of distant snow mountains. It was a Shangri-La moment where simply sitting there induced a feeling of tranquility, of Shangri-La within my heart. I could honestly say that given an opportunity to escape from the modern world I inevitably had to return to, I would easily have stayed there to be a photographer, an artist or even just a dreamer.

The lake and surrounding area, packed with biodiversity, today forms a national nature reserve. Early summer warmth promotes snow melt on surrounding hills. The water flowing down into Napa Hai spreads over seasonal meadows attracting migratory birds, including black-necked cranes. Himalayan vultures have also been sighted. Commencing in autumn, the long dry season leads to water shrinkage and meadows reappearing.

On the lake floated a raft of three large tethered logs. Boys played on it, jumping into the water, before giving it over to five traditionally costumed teenage girls. Laughing, they shouted and gestured for me to join them. I declined while watching a girl leap off to chase a pig wandering away from the pasture. With virtually no sign of modernity, such scenes again were surely timeless?

Leaving the bike parked, I walked across simple log bridges to shoreline vantage points, sitting again for long periods under beautiful weather conditions. The joys of travel, I reminded myself.

It was hard to leave, but my route back to town was a deliberately slow detour along tracks leading through villages seen earlier from the hill. Tractor-hauled carts carried villagers curious and surprised at encountering me on my lumbering cycle - the roadways were indeed bumpy. I was fascinated with the many large corn drying frames - unique to Yunnan’s high uplands? The land became a sea of flowers - yellow, white, red, purple. Beyond the villages, no people and no mechanical sounds. I lay down, breathing in the aroma of the flora and listening to countless bird songs. I was totally alone and enjoying every precious moment.

Songzanlin Monastery, or Ganden Sumtsenling, was referred to as Guihua during the reign of Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735). Dating back to 1679 and surrounded by hills five kilometers north from Zhongdian its physical appearance suggests a “Little Potala Palace”. Belonging to the Gelukpa or Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism it is the most important monastery in southwestern China.

Today the principal attraction around Zhongdian (Shangri-La) it has been extensively refurbished and enlarged since my visit in 1995. Being there in the pre-tourism era it became for me a very personal travel moment.

I walked slowly from town, taking in every moment of what was becoming an increasingly stunning scene. As I approached, many lamas in their maroon robes were descending to a compact village of what I assumed were dormitories. A path led me up toward a white stupa or chorten at the northwestern end of the main monastery buildings. Sitting there listening to chants coming from nearby halls, it was time to go inside. At first dark, gloomy with an aroma suggesting antiquity, as I climbed narrow stairs a young lama called over and invited me into his dorm for butter tea. In exchange I helped treat some sores on his hand from my first-aid kit, leaving some useful items with him. He then led me to the roof of a prayer hall from where I could see extensive restoration work underway.

Going into another large, darkened hall there was a prevailing feel of incense. Four monks lighting flickering butter lamps stopped to invite me into an adjoining room. A kettle warmed above wood cinders on the floor. Again, butter tea was prepared in a tall wooden cylinder as I sat on a low bed taking in this experience. I was there at a time before people would have to purchase pricy entrance tickets. I just wandered in, unbelievable as it may seem. There were no tourist guides, no souvenir shops. For me it was more about young lamas extending friendship and hospitality while showing me around their home. Experiences difficult to find today where everything now comes with a price. It was a moment of stepping back into a world of simplicity, of tranquility and serenity. It is impossible to put a price on such a moment when at last I could feel the mystique of Tibet, my ultimate travel dream, flowing through me. Departing I followed a corridor adorned with many prayer flags to a courtyard where groups of Tibetan women stopped chatting and froze in disbelief at my sudden appearance. On an overlooking balcony a novice monk continually chanted sutras.

It was difficult to leave the monastery, indeed I only went as far as a nearby hill to sit for an hour overlooking the scene, to write up my notes and think about what had happened not just at Songzanlin but also throughout my time literally on the roof of Yunnan.

Before leaving Zhongdian, for that short time my personal Shangri-La, I revisited the market that had earlier provided so many vivid images. Reluctantly boarding the bus for Lijiang I pondered over what could happen to this area once the inevitable changes through infrastructure improvements opened it up for tourism-driven growth? Heading out of town I kept looking back toward the road leading north towards Tibet. So near yet so far. An impossible dream? Five years later it came true for me!