The postcard-like beauty of Yunnan’s Shangri-La Ⅰ

In 1995 Bruce Connolly travelled to to Zhongdian (Shangri-La), a primarily Tibetan upland within Northwest Yunnan. In his previous piece Bruce discovered the fascinating Old Town. Today he explores postcard-like countryside while appreciating friendship at Songzanlin Monastery.


North beyond Zhongdian town a grassy hill became something of a vantage point both for solitude and to plan out my remaining itinerary. In 1995 there were no maps of the surrounding countryside and no smartphones to create instant records of where to go. But from the hill I could sketch out rough directions and ideas. Intriguing patterns of winding rivers, grasslands, black cattle grazing, patches of cultivation alongside villages spreading across the green plain that occupy much of the plateau where Zhongdian sits. A lot to explore. As I sat in contemplation lamas from the nearby Songzanlin Monastery would wander past, “Hello” being the regular cry. It was the presence of this, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan, that helped prompt the tourism-promoting name change to Shangri-La in 2001.

From my abode, the Tibet Hotel, I rented a heavy-framed cycle - a type previously common on China’s streets. The daily fee was amazingly inexpensive. It provided me the ability to roam into some of the enticing landscapes seen from the hill. Cycling as opposed to hiring a car and driver allowed the freedom of stopping regularly, of walking onto meadows, of being able to compose camera images and to exercise within excellent atmospheric conditions.

Eight kilometers north of town lies Napa Hai whose the name derives from Tibetan meaning a “lake by the forest”. The road I would follow could have taken me onwards to Tibet, if I had the stamina and plenty of time! With no gears an initial long uphill stretch resulted in dismounting and physically pushing but once at the top of the pass it was a thrilling freewheeling descent toward flat, marshy meadows.

Heading through farmland, passing villages a large sign announced “Napa Hai”’. Turning off the road a track led through flowering grasslands where ponies and long-horned black cattle, with clunking neck bells, grazed. Whenever I stopped for photography children would come over, trying to make conversation.

Initially it was difficult to reach the lake. The ground was boggy with numerous watercourses bisecting the surface while the bike was proving exceptionally heavy every time I had to handle it over physical obstacles. Then I spotted a route through a compact village of whitewashed buildings towards the shoreline. Reaching the water’s edge I must have sat there for an hour gazing across a stunningly serene landscape where it was easy to imagine that every photo taken would resemble a postcard. Clean air providing excellent visibility enhanced the scene.

Yaks, sheep, horses, cattle and black pigs roamed freely on the springy meadows, some actually standing in the lake’s shallow waters. Heavily garbed women sitting patiently nearby had no hesitation in throwing a stone at any of their animals tending to wander off!

Napa Hai was proving to be one of my most memorable moments in China up to that time. There was then no commercialization, just the opportunity of being so close to nature while watching in fascination timeless agricultural activities. Indeed I was the only intrusion onto this scene. Apart from curious children I was mostly undisturbed.

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