By Patrick Scally in Features


The Legend of Shangri-la

Shangri-la today is a term used around the world to generally describe a utopia. When the expression originated it more specifically portrayed an isolated, mountaintop sanctuary inhabited by mystics who exert a benevolent influence over their little patch of the earth. Amongst the soaring peaks of northwest Yunnan, it is a real place, although one a bit less perfect than the mountain redoubt first described in the novel Lost Horizon.

With this literary backdrop in mind, Yunnan: The China You Never Knew host Jordan Porter explores the actual city of Shangri-la (香格里拉), focusing on the Tibetan influences in evidence absolutely everywhere. What he finds are art and architecture as varied and stunning as the Himalayan foothills that punctuate the surrounding landscape.

While visiting Shangri-la, Jordan first stops in at the region's most famous landmark, Songzanlin Monastery (松赞林寺). Built 300 years ago on a windswept plateau perched 3,300 meters above sea level, today it remains the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monastery in southwest China.

Intrigued by the beautiful tapestries he sees adorning many of the temple's inner chambers, Jordan heads to a local art center where he learns the ancient art of designing, illustrating and embellishing thangka. These scroll artworks typically depict the life of the Buddha, influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas central to the Tibetan Buddhist canon. His final two stops of the day involve an innovative local brewery and an odd natural phenomenon just as stunning as thangka — the gleaming white terraces of Baishuitai (白水台).

See the entire episode of The Legend of Shangri-la on YouTube!


Catch up on everything from Yunnan: The China You Never Knew

To watch the entire Shangri-la episode, head over to our YouTube channel, Destination China, where you can also catch the eight other episodes of our travel show Yunnan: The China You Never Knew.

The first of these centers on the provincial capital, Kunming, while the second through eighth find Jordan in the charming old towns of Weishan, Donglianhua, Dali, Heshun and then amongst the volcanic splendor of Tengchong. Just before heading to Shangri-la, he also visits Shaxi and rock climbs the cliffs around Laojun Mountain. Enjoy!

See the entire episode of The Legend of Shangri-la on YouTube!


More on China's Shangri-la

As mentioned, Shangri-la has long been a metaphor for a mountain utopia in which spiritual harmony and physical well-being are a way of life. English writer James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon first introduced the term 'Shangri-la' to the collective consciousness in 1933. The book was one of the first popular paperback novels, captivating readers around the world with its blend of mystery, adventure, fantasy and exotic travel.

Some believe Hilton's setting was partially inspired by the writings of botanist, explorer, photographer and ethnographer Joseph Rock, who visited and lived in the Tibetan areas of Yunnan and Sichuan in the 1920s. It is unlikely that Hilton's Shangri-la actually exists, but that has never discouraged people from looking for it.


In 2001 the mountain town of Zhongdian (中甸) in northwestern Yunnan beat out several other Chinese cities and was allowed to officially rename itself Shangri-la. Consequently, the city underwent a rapid transformation, from a place only visited by the most spirited travelers, to a growingly popular tourist destination.

Right in the middle of that transformation, tragedy struck. In 2014, Shangri-la's old quarter was ravaged by an hours-long fire that destroyed 242 homes and businesses. The old town was subsequently rebuilt. Today it continues to reboot its travel destination reputation, while also eagerly awaiting the completion of a bullet train in 2020 that should, once again, inundate the region with curious visitors.

See the entire episode of The Legend of Shangri-la on YouTube!