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My journey on the Tea Horse Road (Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-la) part 3

by Winnie Wong | January 25, 2018

Coming down from the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, we continued our journey through Tiger Leaping Gorge, to Zhongdian, the “Shangri-la” city.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

We stopped at the narrowest point (25m) of Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Yangtze River cuts through, known as the Jinsha. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the steepest river canyons in the world at and at its maximum the depth is approximately 3,790m from the Jinsha River to the mountain peak. We climbed down more than 1,000 steps to get to the bottom of the gorge with the impressive view made more dramatic by the powerful river swollen by the rain and snow.

I was struck with emotion standing at the bottom of the narrow valley between two impressive snow-capped mountains (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain) rising at least 5,396m from the ground. It was worth climbing down and back up the thousand steps for although it was very tempting to be lazy and hire carriers to carry me up in a sedan chair.


Then the journey came to in my opinion, the most exciting stop, Shangri-la County (Gyalthang in Tibetan). Shangri-La (or Zhongdian as it was known in the days to the muleteers) was a major staging post for the caravans as they changed horses and teams ready to face the challenge of the dangerous ascent to the Tibetan Plateau. Shangri-la was a fictional place described by British author James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon in 1933. He described Shangri-la as an earthly paradise, a mythical Himalayan utopia isolated from the outside world. It was rumoured to spread across Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. In 2001, Zhongdian County in northwestern Yunnan was officially renamed as Shangri-la County. I am sure there are many reasons why this county in particular was renamed after this mythical place described by James Hilton. It was snowing while we were travelling to Shangri-la town from Tiger Leaping Gorge we drove passed many Tibetan villages and saw many beautiful and unique Tibetan houses along the way. At dusk, we headed for the heart of the old town of Dukezong, which is in the process of being faithfully restored following the disastrous fire that swept through it in 2014, and walked around its lanes before climbing to Guishan Temple with its huge Tibetan prayer wheel, the world’s largest. It is so heavy that it takes a super strong person or at least 7-8 people to turn it!

When we woke up in our hotel in Shangri-la, the snow had settled and the scenery was magical, we were so lucky to enjoy the view of the first snow in 2018 and we were very excited to visit the Songzanlin Lamasery at 3,380m, the highest altitude we reached on this trip.

Gedan Songzanlin Lamasery

The Gedan Songzanlin lamasery situated 5 kilometres from Shangri-la (Zhongdian) at 3,380m is sometimes referred to as the Little Potala Palace as they have a similar architecture style. The lamasery was established in 1679 under the religious rule of the renowned Fifth Dalai Lama. There are currently 700 monks living in 200 houses inside the lamasery. When we arrived at the Lamasery, the first glimpse of the impressive Tibetan complex was enhanced with a magical layer of soft white snow. The Lamuyangcuo Lake in front of the Lamasery was frozen, it was funny to see the ducks on the frozen lake trying to catch the fish under the ice for breakfast but they cannot and looked slightly confused.

We couldn’t wait to uncover the mysterious life of a Tibetan Buddhist. It was a quiet and peaceful winter morning with crisp fresh air. We set foot in the lamasery on a snow covered and slightly slippery frozen ground.
Walking up the 146 steps leading to the main prayer hall slowly and carefully as the altitude’s thin air left us short of breath, we caught sight of the monks who were doing their morning routine: chanting, praying with the prayer wheels, preparing for the day in the lamasery and clearing the snow lying on top of their accommodation. The main prayer hall can accommodate 1,600 lamas sitting in meditation or chanting, was filled with the essence of Tibetan religious culture. The architecture, the painting and sculpture within the lamasery were splendid. This was one of the highlights of the trip. I still reminisce about this spectacular morning visiting the Tibetan monks in the lamasery and sometimes can still feel like I am standing at the entrance of the main prayer hall overseeing the snow-capped view of all the monks houses and the frozen Lamuyangcuo Lake.

Lake Napa

Following our guide, we traversed the breathtaking driveway around the Lake Napa. We saw yak, horses and the winter migrating birds resting on the immense grassland, I have nostalgic memories of the peaceful yet lively feeling while I was observing lives on the calm water. Winter is when the birds migrate from the north, and we were lucky to spot the rare black-necked cranes on the lake. This incredible journey came to an end as we headed to Shangri-la airport. We loved the scenery of Yunnan in the winter even though it is the off-peak season for travel in the area. However, I would definitely like to go back to Yunnan in spring or summer for the aromatic and colourful booms and it would be nice to go trekking around the region.

A selection of tours for inspiration

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