Zhongdian county (中甸县) is primarily a Tibetan region located in Yunnan, in southwest China. Located in the Tibetan plateau, the elevation here is well over 11,000 ft. The air is thin, and the weather is unpredictable. Around a decade ago, this town was yaks, pigs, and poverty. A crossroads for agriculture and logging routes, it was known for its beauty, but so remote and undeveloped, that it drew little in the way of visitors. With the conservation of headwaters and unique geological eras in the valley effectively banning the logging industry, leaders had to turn to another industry to sustain the region. With Neighboring Lijiang booming from floods of tourists, officials renamed Zhongdian after James Hilton's fictional "Shangri-La
" from the novel The Lost Horizon
and began planning for a tourist infrastructure. A decade later, hotels have sprung up, parks established, and shops and bars have taken hold.
The Chinese officials have their reasoning for naming the valley after the fictional paradise. It has been speculated that stunning photos of this region were published in National Geographic at the time of the book's authoring. As well as the description of the location, as well as many features seem to be a match for the geography of the valley. Famous name or not, Shangrila, Lijiang, and Dali together make one of the most scenic and culturally-rich areas of the world.
Although the snow-capped mountains, Tibetan temples, grass prairies spotted with horses, lakes and hot springs will last an eternity, the real attraction to this remote valley, its undeveloped state, is dwindling fast. Hotels were springing up, streets becoming paved, and opportunists flooding in to open cheap souvenir markets. Everything is turning into a business now, and parks are starting to charge large fees, non-local artists are selling their wares, and restaurants are diluting the local cuisine. Now is the time to visit before the peacefulness and calm of this beautiful valley turns into a boiling mess of tourism like Lijiang.
The best time to visit Shangrila is during the summer bloom, where the grass prairie, surrounded by mountains, blooms with yellow and blue flowers. Tibetan horses and yaks will eat many of them, a great deal are used for medicines and teas, and some are even baked into pastries. I came too early for the bloom, and
the tourists that flood in for it. I was also way to early for the fall change, when the dry gasses, iron-rich soil, and forest-covered trees paint he valley red. Maybe I will return for that. Right now, I was here to experience remoteness, quiet, and the culture.
I took more photos in my trip to china this year than I did in my past trips. Not every shot is a winner, but I wanted to document the experiences even if I couldn't get a decent shot.
My hotel was a fusion of traditional colors and style with modern art and fashion. It definitely won on style, but bombed on service and comfort. I guess they have a lot to learn Shangrila.
A bar outside my hotel
Waking down the alley from my hotel into the old town. The alleys are cobblestone, very old and polished to the point of slippery by hundreds of years of millions of shoes stepping. Autos are not generally allowed on the old town cobblestone.
Wall of a Tibetan restaurant.
In the evening, the villagers leave their nearby shops and stalls, gather in the square, and sing and dance in a circle.
What's noticeable about Shangrila is the darkness. Outside of the old-town center, things get dark... very dark. The rest of China is so well lit day and night. Here, things turn black at night.
The Courtyard of my hotel.