In the far north of Yunnan, the town of Shangri-La (or ‘Zhongdian’ as it used to be known) occupies a high, mountainous plateau on the fringes of Tibet. Snow-encrusted peaks, exotic lamaseries and grasslands dotted with herds of grazing yaks combine to create a magical atmosphere which, for once, is not marred by excessive visitor numbers – a rarity in China.
On the outskirts of the city, the great Songzanlin monastery is a spectacular edifice second only in stature to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. After a decade of painstaking renovation work by the provincial government, its gilded rooftops and vibrant murals have been restored to their former glory. Framed by a backdrop of scrub-covered ridges, the monastery is best viewed from the boardwalk encircling its adjacent lake. If you stay in our favourite hotel here, Songtsam Shangri-La Lodge, you’ll be perfectly placed to view the monument before the day trippers descend.
Downtown, the prime attraction is Shangri-La’s delightful ‘Old Town’ – a fine ensemble of traditional-style cafés, Tibetan clothes boutiques and souvenir shops that were completely rebuilt after a fire in 2014. Early risers may also wish to sample the magical atmosphere of the Baiji (‘100 chicken’) temple, on a hilltop overlooking the Old Town, where locals go en masse in the mornings to leave offerings of fresh juniper incense. Beyond Shangri-La city, the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Region holds great potential for off-track exploration, thanks to the handful of delightful, Tibetan-style lodges established in the surrounding valleys.