Finding Shangri-La

Finding Shangri-La

In writing about Shangri-La, heaven-on-earth, there are many ways I could start the story. I could go all literary on you and talk about Lost Horizons, after all, I did become a voracious reader this year, polishing off 25 books.  Or I could talk about paradise found, utopias and “places you should retire to”.  But the fact is, there is something more important you need to know about Shangri-La, it is the best place to buy a burger in Southern China.  For someone like me this isn’t a trivial side note, it’s a reason to go somewhere.

YUM!  The Yak burger at N’s Kitchen and Lodge.  There is an N’s Kitchen in both Shangri-La and Lijiang, I “tested” both several times and was never disappointed by the burger, the fries though were a disappointment.  They are delicious, but for reasons beyond me they only give you 5-6 of them.  OK, onto Shangri-La…

There are times that a fictional idea, character or concept outshines the story in which it was introduced.  Shangri-La is a perfect example, most people can tell you about it, but few could name the novel that created it: Lost Horizon.  The mythical place is a permanently happy land where people lived abnormally long and harmoniously.  The reason Shangri-La’s fame has overshadowed the book itself is simple; Shangri-La offered all the things humans want: living longer, healthier, happier.  We flock to this idea like flies to a bright light.

The novel places Shangri-La in the Kunlun Mountains, but the exact location is disputable.  Substantial effort, research and conjecture has been offered to find Shangri-La, but alas, it seems as though the place may be as fictional as the story itself.

Completely useless Shangri-La fact: The US Presidential Retreat was originally named Shangri-La by President Roosevelt (FDR).  President Eisenhower, who started the Vietnam War, decided to rename the retreat “Camp David” after his grandson.   Hopefully David was drafted to fight in the war…

It is believed that the author, James Hilton, was influenced by National Geographic articles of the era and his trip to Pakistan.  Then Shangri-La leaped from the pages of fiction into reality.

In 2001 a wise Chinese town came up with the idea that instead claiming to be Shangri-La, why not become Shangri-La?  As other cities were making marketing claims to be Shangri-La, Zhongdian took it one step further, they actually renamed the city Shangri-La.  Suddenly Shangri-La existed!

The setting couldn’t be better, situated in a beautiful valley with a huge Tibetan monastery, the city fits the bill for being Shangri-La, which is a good thing, because it now is Shangri-La. While other cities can claim to be Shangri-La, no other can lay claim to the actual name.

Happy monks, enjoying Shangri-La to it’s mythical best.  I would be interested in whether they will outlive us all and be unfailingly happy.  Maybe Blue Zones can research the town to see if simply changing the name creates the paradise that the title infers…



  • Make sure you hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge, an easy, stunningly beautiful hike about two hours between Lijiang and Shangri-La.  Learn more about the hike here.
  • Two words: Yak Burger.  For the Western-food homesick this cure is available at N’s Kitchen, a delicious local meat variation on the world’s best meal: burgers and fries.
  • Visit Songzanlin Monastery, the best Tibetan Monastery outside Tibet. Get a feel for what you’d see in Tibet without the red-tape and costs.  The monastery photos here are all from Songzanlin.  If you are interested in visiting Tibet, learn how here.


SIDE NOTE: My wife, LOCAVORista, would like everyone to know that she took the most of the gorgeous photos in this article, including the stunning photos of the monks and monastery. I did however take the photo of the delicious Yak burger at N’s Kitchen, which I was enjoying when she was at the monastery.



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» Holly Em :
Jan 22, 2012

Wow, I really enjoyed this post. Such beautiful pictures!

:-) Holly

» Holly Em :
Jan 22, 2012

I meant to ask, how long do you think someone would need to spend there for a holiday?


LOCAVORista Reply:

Holly, if you’re trying to determine how long to spend in Shangri-la, it’s a small city and you could see it in just 2-3 days. I would recommend spending a couple weeks in the area, making stops in Dali and Lijiang as well as taking four days to do the breathtaking Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. If you have more specific questions please feel free to contact us as we love to help with travel planning. Happy travels!

» Sandie :
Jan 27, 2012

Wow! Well done on capturing the essence of the city: beautiful architecture, a tranquil atmosphere, and people who seem genuinely happy. I’ve had Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan (supposedly the happiest place in Asia), and now Shangri-la is on my list.

After seeing a documentary called Blindsight, where one blind German woman founded a school and home for Tibetan children, who are seen as outcasts in their society for simply being blind, she teaches them life skills and 3 languages to boot! I’ve been fascinated by Tibet ever since. I really recommend the film if you guys ever get a chance to sit down! :)

LOCAVORista Reply:

Sandie, we’ll have to check out the film “Blindsight” when we get a moment, it sounds so interesting. As you can see we would highly recommend Shangri-la, Tibet is also beautiful and Nepal is on our list (we head there in April). Thanks for the compliments and if you need any help with trip planning just let us know!

» wanderin3 :
Feb 4, 2012

Thank you for the beautiful pictures! My husband and I will be traveling to Zhongdian for a few days at the end of February. What recommendations can you make for places to stay? And how well is one able to travel with only very limited Chinese (Mandarin)?

thinkCHUA Reply:

There are dozens of great places to stay in the old town for varying prices. We didn’t make reservations and were able to see several places and negotiate prices down. Speaking english should be fine in the old town’s tourist district, we do not speak any Chinese and didn’t have problems. If you are flying in you may find the transport at the airport lacking in english skills, make sure you have a guidebook with Chinese characters that you can show to people. Having the written characters is necessary throughout China.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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