Pretty much everything I read advised me not to go to Shangri La in the winter. Well, to be fair, some accounts recommended skipping Shangri La altogether. It’s a made up place anyhow, right? We thought a lot about it and decided that a) there was a ton of natural beauty to discover around the area even if the town ended up being a far cry from the place James Hilton described, and b) January is when we’d be in the area and so that’s when we’d have to go. We originally pictured ourselves doing some hiking, going up to Deqin, seeing a glacier, etc. What actually happened is we got really cold and altitude sick. Poor Kevin could barely walk down the street let alone hike up any mountains. It was a very loopy, oxygen deprived end to our trip, but a good one nonetheless!
The reason people advise you not to go to Shangri La in the winter is that the whole town basically shuts down. Looks like this:
In the winter almost nothing is open, it’s really cold, and you run the risk of getting stuck there because of snow. We didn’t get stuck, fortunately, but we did have to tread carefully over ice and snow which covered the already difficult to walk on (but pleasant to look at!) cobblestone streets. We were banking on prices being really low because it was off-season, however the holiday kind of cancelled that out. Luckily, it’s not a terribly expensive place to be anyway as long as you get out of the Old Town.
The Old Town is a smaller version of Lijiang more or less, meaning it’s really touristy and expensive. I can see why people would have had enough of that whole scene once you do the Dali/Lijiang thing. However, in the winter it is very peaceful and relaxing, and it’s nice to escape the cold by sitting around drinking tea and eating yummy Tibetan comfort food.
Because we were(/are) broke and had no energy due to the altitude, we kept our last 3 days really low key. Similar to Lijiang, Shangri La is a beautiful place where you can escape spending tons of money on attractions because it’s entertaining to just walk around and enjoy the scenery. We checked out the Old Town, the new areas of town (which I still thought were pleasant and quaint by Chinese city standards, but other people found disappointing), and the monastery. All of these things were free and easy to get to by either walking or taking the bus. The Tibetan vibe in Shangri La is pretty cool, although marketed heavily. To get a more authentic, and better priced, experience we tried to get away from the Old Town. Prices got cheaper, there were tons of local Chinese/Tibetan restaurants, and we were surrounded by Chinese people again instead of tourists.
Basically, this is a take it for what it is situation, which is a small town that’s growing fast and capitalizing on a fictional tie to a utopian paradise. The small town charm that is preserved is for your visiting pleasure, and you’re going to pay extra for it. Definitely a bit touristy and gimmicky but I think if you can’t find a way to get away from the people and enjoy the beauty of the area then you’re doing something wrong.
Do leave time to acclimate, though.
Also, to people who say it’s too modern now and lost it’s small town, old China feeling:
In how many of your hometowns do families of pigs disrupt the traffic? Just saying.
Will wrap up talking about this trip next time! Xo.