Shangri-La, and the neighboring counties, Weixi and Deqin, lie in a remote mountainous region of north west Yunnan and are rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity. The area was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Shangri-la, or Zhongdian as it was previously known, is one of the region’s most historically important towns having developed in response to thriving trade and Buddhist pilgrimage routes that criss-crossed the region for centuries. The main ethnic group is Tibetan. Lifestyle of the local inhabitants reflects the cultural roots of the larger Tibetan community that live and trade along the mountains and valleys of the area. Other ethnic groups live in the area such as the Naxi, the Lisu, the Molimoso and the Yi.
The ‘old town’ of Shangri-La is made up of traditional wooden Tibetan homes, religious buildings, alleys and squares. It is distinct from the newly developed town that has grown up alongside it, and remains intact, having largely been ignored during the process of modernization. A Taoist Temple and Tibetan Monastery provide a focus for the town centre and the nearby
Gedan Songzanlin Monastery is a large and important religious centre that attracts pilgrims from far and wide. Many small villages are scattered throughout the pristine mountainous region making it an attractive destination for cultural and eco tourism
Tourism has been growing rapidly in the greater Tibet region. The development of tourism is seen as an important potential source of employment and income generation for the region. About 1/3 of Prefecture income is from Tourism. It is anticipated that by the end of 2006 to have had 300,000 tourists, of whom, about 30,000 are foreign tourists. Net profit per tourist is 200 Y/trip for Chinese and $200/trip for foreign tourist. From farming, the annual income is approximately 1400 Y/year, while tourism brings rural incomes of nearly 5-6,000 Y/year
Shangri-La, known by Tibetans as Gyalthang, is a unique Tibetan enclave in Yunnan Province. In Gyalthang, customs and dialects are found that no longer exist in other Tibetan areas, influenced by the surrounding multi-ethnic potpourri even as they influence those in turn. One of the world’s richest areas of biodiversity, Gyalthang region’s cultural and natural sights are a delightful surprise for the first-time and experienced Tibet traveler alike.
Shangri-La County is located in the eastern Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and borders Sichuan, Burma and Tibet. The town of Shangri-la lies at 3,300 meters and has a mix of ethnic groups in residence including Tibetan, Lisu, Bai, Naxi, Yi, Molimoso and Han. These groups mostly rely on the land for livelihood as Shangri-la is a dry, high altitude zone. Growing season is short. Harvesting of mountain plants is seasonal and includes exotic mushrooms, matsutaki being the most well known, snow lotus, snow tea, and saffron among them.
Gyalthang (3,344 m) is easily reached by a 45-minute (daily-operating flight) from Kunming, Yunnan. This historic caravan staging port holds numerous sights such as the chalet-style adobe houses of Dokhar Dzong (old town), 17th-century Gedan Songzanlin Monastery built at the orders of the 5th Dalai Lama which resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, or the revered Gyalwa Ringa temple in the countryside.
The hill adorned with prayer flags behind Songzanlin monastery offers a wonderful overview of the Gyalthang plains, including the marshy Lake Napa Nature Reserve, a bird-watcher’s paradise and sanctuary for rare species such as the Black-neck crane. We have a panoramic view of the old and modern parts of town, the Shikha and Haba Gangri mountain ranges at the edge of the plains, as well as the Womachu (“Milky River”) meandering across the Gyalthang plains.
Called “the bejewelled land” by its inhabitants, the Gyalthang region offers numerous day hikes in its vicinity. Magnificent views of Mt. Kawakarpo (6,740 m) are possible from the town of Jol, a 6-hour drive to the north. The summer’s uncontested highlight is the Gyalthang horse racing festival when Tibetans from all over Kham gather to contest in horsemanship, sports and archery.