Trekking in Shangri-la: Songzanlin Monastery

In late July of 2010, a colleague and friend of mine attended and spoke at an academic conference at Yunnan University in Kunming. Since we were in a wonderful and scenic part of China, we decided to take some time after the conference to do some trekking. We both have interest in Tibet and the border regions of Tibet where about half of all Tibetans live. Yunnan Province in China’s southwest has three Tibetan Autonomous counties. One of my former students had traveled to the Shangri-la region in upper northwestern Yunnan and the region seemed really interesting with a high Tibetan population. My friend had also visited the city in the 90’s.

In 2001, in order to attract tourists, the city of Zhongdian 中甸 zhōngdiàn was renamed Shangri-la 香各里拉 xiānggēlǐlā. The name Shangri-la came to the west from the novel written by James Hilton about a mysterious Himalayan utopia isolated from the world. Several places in the Himalayas have been thought to be this place described in his novel, but only China was brazen enough to actually name a town Shangri-la.

In the old days, (in the 90’s and previously) Zhongdian was a dusty, almost one street town, where it was not uncommon to literally see Kham Tibetan “cowboys” ride into town on their horses. The old town consisted of narrow winding alleys through a large cluster of old wooden frame buildings.  After 2001, that all changed as the Chinese spent millions of yuan “improving” the city. These improvements included completely rebuilding the old city gearing it toward the tourist industry, widening streets, building luxury hotels, restaurants, an airport, and so on.

After our conference, we flew to Shangri-la from Kunming. We had arranged to stay at a small guest house (Kevin’s Trekking Inn) where my former student had stayed. It was also recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The place was run by a Han Chinese guy and staffed with a couple Tibetans. It was a bit of a mixed bag. The rooms were okay, but the water was unreliable, meaning we only had water for a short time each day, and what we did have was pretty weak and very cold. They claimed that their well was low on water, but we suspected there was some politics going on, that and the fact that the guesthouse was on a hillside where it was probably more difficult to get water.

Songzanlin Monastery

Our first objective was to visit the large Songzanlin Monastery 松赞林寺 sōngzànlín sì outside of town. We took a local bus that ran the length of one of the main roads in town up to the monastery. The bus was full of Tibetans. It made a mandatory stop at a new building where we were forced to get off and buy a ticket to the monastery (all part of the tourist plan). From there we boarded another bus that took us up to the monastery. The monastery itself was originally built in 1679, and is the largest and most famous Buddhist monastery in the Kham region of Tibet. It is also known as the little Potala Palace because of its traditional architecture. It sits on the side of a mountain at 10,827 feet. The whole complex consists of the temple, two lamaseries, and a large jumble of small wooden living quarters clinging to the hillside. My friend had visited this monastery in the early 90’s and reported that the monks were very friendly and showed him all around. We were looking forward to this kind of reception but were disappointed that even though we spoke Chinese, we received a pretty chilly reception. They did not seem to be interested in talking to us. I suppose at this point they were tired of all the tourists traipsing around their monastery.

Yak butter candles

Prayer wheels

We spent several hours wandering around the complex of temples and houses. All the structures were made of wood and a maze of narrow alleys cut through the dwellings.

Houses around the monastery

Houses adjacent to the monastery

House facing the monastery

Behind the monastery were many more houses, many of which seemed to be made of rammed earth and wood.

Houses behind the monastery

We walked through this small village and climbed to the top of the hill behind the monastery. There were the customary prayer flags as well as beautiful views of the valley.

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags are inscribed with prayers and mantras and are said to bring good luck. The wind carries these prayers across the countryside. For more information on prayer flags see, From the top of this hill there were nice views of distant Shangri-la, as well as distant mountain ranges, and surrounding farm and grazing land.

Shangri-la in the distance

We hiked off the back of the hill down into another valley with a few traditional Tibetan houses.

Traditional Tibetan houses

Racks for drying the barley crop

At the end of this valley was another small village full of traditional wooden framed Tibetan houses. These houses consist of a gate that leads into a courtyard. The houses are three stories with animals, (pigs, chickens, cows), on the ground floor, living quarters on the second floor and storage on the third floor. These houses were pretty nice. We would later stay in a much more rustic Tibetan house.

Songzanlin Monastery from a nearby village

Typical gate at a traditional Tibetan house

Traditional Tibetan house

After walking around for most of the day, we were really feeling the altitude and were tired, thirsty and hungry. We found a nearby restaurant and had a pretty basic (i.e. not very good) meal. But it was nice to sit and rest a bit before we took a bus back to Shangri-la.

Monks in front of the small restaurant

Feeling the altitude

Tibetan girls in the restaurant

I do not recommend that you go poking around in restaurant kitchens in China as they can be pretty unsanitary. But I couldn’t resist a peak into the kitchen of this place. After all it was right next to where we were sitting. They certainly weren’t trying to hide anything.


76 thoughts on “Trekking in Shangri-la: Songzanlin Monastery

  1. Wow…looks like you’re having quite the adventure so far! Your photos are amazing, but I have to say…I felt so badly for you when I saw the one with you feeling the altitude sickness. That must’ve been brutal!

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

  2. Interesting travelogue and pictures! I’ve only been to China once, to Shanghai, but as a travel destination the country seems to offer almost limitless possibilities. Yunnan would be high on my list of places to visit there, though after reading your story I understand that travel in China is still something of a mixed bag! Thanks for sharing your experiences and photos.

  3. I spent three weeks in Nepal trekking the Annapurna trek and also recently went to China. I fell in love with the Buddhist culture and prayer flags. I would love to go to Tibet! I also hope to someday make it to Bhutan as well. Lovely pictures! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Very interesting! It’s really moving to see the simplicity and natural goodness of these people…they do so much with so little. I’m thinking more and more what an absolute “scourge” plastic bottles are…we must must must stop using them…why is it so hard to carry a refillable bottle? I thought the kitchen looked ok but I’m sure it wouldn’t pass inspection here…so what? We probably should be eating the cock roaches anyway…you know? Although I’ve been raised to revile them so I won’t be joining the feast…but “someone” should…they really do freak me the fuck out! You would think they’d have a lot of chickens…? The countryside looks breathtaking and the prayer flags!!! It’s heart warming to see such simple devotion…moving piece! Thank you!

  5. What a stunning photo-essay! I truly relished this post — in fact, so much, that I feel like taking off to Shangrila !! You are an awesome photographer. Cheers.

  6. Just a quick note of clarification. These past two posts were in and around the city of Shangri-la which is located in the upper Northwest corner of Yunnan Province and which borders Tibet. Traditional this area was a part of the Tibetan kingdom, as were parts of Sicuan, Gansu, and Qinghai Provinces. The western parts of these provinces are still predominantly Tibetan. In fact, about 50% of Tibetans live outside the Tibet Autonomous Region.


  7. Tibet is one of my have-to-visit places. Thanks for sharing this. Means a lot to me especially the photos… 🙂

  8. The difference between seeing photos of a place when researching it online and reading a blog with personal photos is that…, you feel the place through the experience of a real individual. Somehow, if only for a moment, their photos and stories transport you there and you even think to yourself “i can’t wait to go back”. Because momentarily, you were there.

    Thanks for the trip!

  9. I’m really enjoying your blog…I live in China so Tibet has always been on my wish list for travel, sadly its not so easy to get to due to political issues and travel restrictions these days…Hopefully one day I will get the chance to reach this very special part of the world and experience the peace and tranquility that its spiritualism has to offer.

    I just started my own blog showing images of China, if you get the chance please take a look

    A great blog, well done 🙂

  10. You have painted a picture of a region of the world most of us will have a difficult time reaching. However, you have inspired me to make the effort to take my 80 year old mother. She would have no objections to the few disadvantages you so honestly presented:
    Lack of reliable water for half the day – My mother would have advised suitable water storage;
    Lack of a kitchen that would pass muster in USA or the “developed world” – My mother would say well, are not the Tibetans far healthier and live longer lives? Do you not go there to learn how that is happening without all the medicines and clinical grade cleanliness in the “developed” world?

    Unfriendly monks – Perhaps, these were Chinese and not Tibetan monks, since the region is “mostly” Tibetan and not “all” Tibetan.

  11. A most instructive and beautiful post to experience. You may wish to read
    The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Anagarika Govinda first published in
    1966 in Great Britain, then in 1970 by Shambala Publications, Berkeley, Calif.

    Please visit me at Pipedreamsart.wordpress

    May you walk in beauty……

  12. A most visually expressive and insightful experience to see Tibet through your eyes! Thank you. You and others may wish to view the movie- Lost Horizons…….and may I also suggest
    the book… The Way of the White Clouds..a buddhist pilgrim in tibet first published in
    Great Britain in 1966 and reprinted by Shambala Publications, Berkeley, Calif in 1970 written by Lama Anagarika Govinda. Please visit Pipedreamsart at Word Press to view my
    paintings …a landscape of Tibet would be nice I am thinking….a new project? Jim-bob

  13. Pingback: Community « Out of a fired ship…

  14. It’s quite a beautiful part of the country. I didn’t make it as far as Shangri-La because of altitude sickness, but the Tagong Grasslands in Sichuan were quite similar by the looks of your photos.

  15. Thanks for this fascinating post! I too have an interest in Tibet and have travelled there a number of times. Chinese “improvements” were well under way across the whole of the occupied Tibetan region last time I was there in 2001. Unfortunately, for political reasons access to the TAR was impossible on my last visit to China in 2008, but I finally have a visa to visit “Shangri-La” (only the Chinese would have the audacity to name it that, LOL!) later this year. A shame that the monks were disinterested in you as this is so uncharacteristic of the Tibetan people, and wonder whether their attitude is also being influenced by politics? Certainly I became conscious of at my last visits to the Sera and Drepung monasteries, with Chinese “minders” lurking not quite out of sight and intercepting any monks who responded to visitors attempts to interact with them… ANyway, great post, and thanks for the heads up!

  16. What a wonderful post! I honestly feel like I have ben there. You have captured the essence of the place with your shots of the nuances that make this place a home to those that chosoe to live there and love it. Enjoy FP! Well Done! AmberLena

  17. Fascinating. I didn’t know that a city had actually been named Shangri-la. It looks like you had quite an adventure! Thanks for sharing it with us. – MoSop

  18. One day, I too wish to trek to that location…and become SHAOLIN KUNG-FU MASTERRR! HIYAA!

    But seriously; I’ve been to a number of Buddhist monasteries and these places have something different about them in comparison to other religious structures. They run right through you.

    “I used to have a classmate in high school that kept cheeseburgers in his pockets. Seriously. And this was before Napoleon Dynamite ever came out.”

  19. Wow, this is a whole different world, so beautifully captured in your words and pictures! There are a few mountain towns on the Indian side of the Himalayas, where many Tibetans have settled down and made a little Tibet of their own out here. If you are ever in this part of the world, do visit Mcleodganj and Dharamsala.

  20. Nice pics ! Haven’t yet been there but been to Tibet and hopefully will be able to visit the
    Little Tibet …Thanks for sharing !

  21. I love your photos. Re the unfriendly monks, if they were Tibetan, maybe it was precisely because you were speaking Chinese that they were unfriendly. When we were there last year, there was enough tension between the Chinese and the Tibetans that the border was closed.

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