Shangri La: China's Heaven on Earth

...And the Magic of the Three Parallel Rivers Area

Shangri La Mountains China

"Shangri La is a land of mystery and matchless beauty, where life is lived in tranquil wonder, beyond the grasp of a doomed world... It is here where destinies will be discovered and the meaning of paradise will be unveiled..."

Shangri La was immortalized in James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon". Since its publishing in 1933, many places came to debate and claim to be the inspiration behind this fictional heaven on earth.

Where is Shangri La? Several areas in Western Sichuan, North-West Yunnan and Tibet promote themselves as the real Shangri La.

The city of Zhongdian in North West Yunnan Province has gone a step further and changed its name officially to Shangri La (Xianggelila) in 2002, but in fact, this whole area, the so called Three Parallel Rivers area, could very well be James Hilton's classic land.

A land of majestic mountains, deep river gorges, rich forests thriving with wildlife, and kind and gracious people:

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The Three Parallel River National Park, is the hilly area in north-west Yunnan Province flanked by three of Asia's main rivers: the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween which run parallel north to south through the 300 km area accross a great diversity of landscapes and topographical features. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This region is also home to forests thriving with wildlife and more than half of China's species, some endangered like the Yunnan Golden Monkey.

And many colorful ethnic cultures and their traditions endure despite the pace of modernization.

Exploring Shangri La

Natural beauty abounds in the area and so are the chances for outdoor activities for the active family. But even more so, the cultural offerings of the area are quite unique as North-West Yunnan is home to a high number of ethnic minority groups giving great opportunities for interacting and learning about their folklore and traditions.

Tibetan stupas, prayer flags, the local women in their colorful costumes, bustling markets, handicrafts and local foods are all part of the picturesque landscape.

Tibetan Stupa in Shangri La

Despite its remoteness, there is a large range of facilities and accomodations, from budget local inns to small boutique lodges so no, you don't have to rough it.

We spoke to Ling Li from Songtsam Lodges, which operates four lodges in pristine villages in the Three Parallel River area, regarding traveling to the area with kids and elderly grandparents. They offer family-friendly tours and outings and their concept is to bring guests to off-the-beaten path in absolute comfort.

A lot of emphasis is given to cultural activities while preserving the ecological and traditional integrity of the area as well as exploring the natural wonders of Shangri La.

There is much to do and see, or if you prefer, you can just relax and take it all in. Songtsam offers a range of activities that are suitable for the entire family, if you are traveling with kids and/or grandma and grandpa, there is much to choose from streneous hikes with rewarding vistas, or simple short walks to pick wild flowers or mushrooms for dinner...

Cultural activities and opportunities of interaction with the locals are quite special, and really the highlight of the Songtsam travel experience. Check these out:

The Meili Snow Mountain Range in Shangri La
Mind-blowing scenery: The Meili Snow Mountain Range
Shangri-la Hiking
Lots of trails for walks and hikes suitable for the entire family and all levels of fitness
Picnic in Shangri La
Picnic in Shangri La
Come face to face with the endangered Golden Monkey
Dinner with local family in Shangri La
Dinner with local family
Shangri-la Handicrafts
Great variety of handicrafts, locals are proud to show their skills, here crafting wooden bowls
Making Local cakes in Shangri La
Try your culinary skills with the locals
Shangri-la Hiking
Visit the local markets, lots of folklore and color and all matter of vegetables, fruits, handicrafts...
Picnic in Shangri La
A local bee keeper
Picnic in Shangri La
Learn the local dances!

* Some of the above photographs have been provided by ©Yue Han from Songtsam Lodges and used with permission.

Zhongdian and the Songzanling Monastery

Songzanling Monastery

The town of Zhongdian is mainly a Tibetan town, the main Tibetan monastery in the South West is here, Ganden Sumtseling Gompa.

Songzanling Monastery is a sprawling complex home to approximately 600 monks. You get sweeping views of the town and the surroundings from the top of this 300-year-old relic.

Some Tips for Families Visiting Shangri La China

If traveling with children, what age is most appropriate to be able to enjoy what this area offers?

As mentioned before, there is a wide variety of activities which are rather soft-adventure in nature. But still, elder kids would enjoy and benefit more from activities such as family visits, pottery-making, cooking classes, and treasure hunts. Besides, outdoor activities often require some walking (1 hour at least). So I think children over five would be more likely to enjoy the trip.

What about the altitude? What are some precautions we should be aware of?

A Note to our Readers: The following is not and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please consult your physician if you have any health concerns

Different people may react to altitude differently, age might not be the most important factor. We have guests in their sixties who visited and stayed at Meili (3,600m, 11,800 feet, the highest of all Songtsam Lodges) with no problem at all. Physical condition, on the other hand, is important. People with heart disease, high blood pressure should consult their doctor before going to the highlands.

To help adjust, we usually recommend starting your trip from Tacheng (2,020m, 6,600 feet), and gradually climb up to Meili and Shangri-la (both above 3,000m, 9,800 feet). There are oxygen bags at the lodges just in case.

Shangri La Kagebo Peak
Kagebo Peak in the Meili Xueshan Range, 6470 m. (21,351 feet)

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