James Hilton’s diplomat in his book 'Lost Horizon' talked of Shangri-La where he found peace, love and a sense of purpose. Although Shangri-La was a fictional place, Zhongdian was allegedly the inspiration for it and has now been renamed Shangri-La. Perched on a plateau at an elevation of 3,300m, Zhongdian is home to rugged scenery, remote temples and the start of the Tibetan world.
The town is divided into old and new with store signs in Tibetan, Mandarin and English. The old town is an intertwined network of alleys with plenty of souvenir stalls selling Tibetan crafts and cafes with an array of Tibetan cuisine. North of town is Songzanlin, the largest Mahayana Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. Songzanlin is embraced by solid walls with five gates. Two main lamaseries, Zhacang and Jikang, command the highest positions within the complex. A five-story Tibetan-style building serves as the main hall in the compound. The 16 colourful paintings which hang aloft in the hall are said to be the work of renowned lamas who painted with a golden liquid given to them by the fifth Dalai Lama. Brightened with numerous butter-oil lamps, the hall can hold 1,600 lamas sitting in meditation or chanting Buddhist scripture.
Further from town is Bita Lake, the highest lake in Yunnan. Passing through serene and stunning landscapes of hills teeming with wild flowers, populated by herders and Naxi women working in the fields in their colourful traditional garb, the lake is located in a beautifully maintained nature reserve.
Neatly dividing China into north and south, the 6340km-long Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world, winding ...