how to go from tiger leaping gorge to shangri la

How to Go From Tiger Leaping Gorge to Shangri La – China

The road to Shangri La is a winding, climbing, series of mountain passes that are designed to make your heart beat a little faster, and that’s even before you get on the bus from Tina’s Hostel.


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We’d bought our tickets early the day before, so we had (unknown to us) seats 1 and 2 on the bus. Unable to decipher any of the chicken scratch on the tickets, we were first in the line and first on the bus, so picked the seats with the most legroom, just behind the door.

It caused a bit of a commotion when one Chinese man decided that he MUST HAVE HIS SEAT (we were in 4 and 5) so it was then we realized what the chicken scratch was. The seat numbering on this bus isn’t designed for couples traveling together – seat number 1 is a single seat behind the driver. Behind seat 1 are seats 2 and 3. Across the aisle – where we’d been sitting, are 4 and 5. So in purchasing the first two seats on the bus, we were supposed to be sat one behind the other.

It rapidly became clear why the Chinese man didn’t want to sit on the left hand side of the bus as we departed Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge and set off on the 23 kilometer journey just to get to the beginning of the gorge. This road is prone to landslides. It’s also prone to the landslides not being completely cleared off the road. Boulders the size of small cars and larger litter the road. Gravel, debris and mud coat parts of it. It quickly becomes a slalom for our driver.

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We should have known it would be an interesting journey when, as we all boarded and sat waiting, the driver gunned the engine and began revving her to within an inch of her life as we wheel spun our way out of Tina’s hostel car park.

The journey from Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge to Shangri-La takes two and a half hours. And that’s probably two hours of sheer, unadulterated terror. But there is also a short break in the middle. If this were the only bus journey you were to take in China you would think that the Chinese drive on the left hand side of the road. You’d think that horn is something that is set on an automatic response, perhaps once every 5 seconds. And you’d think that the driver was so short sighted that he could see neither the brake lights of the vehicle in front nor the oncoming lorries in the middle of the road.

Once we’d slalomed our way along the gorge road, we turned towards Shangri La and began the long climb, to rise from an altitude of 1850 Metres to the 3,000 metres that the town once known as Zhongdian is at.

Made famous by James Hilton’s 1933 book, Lost Horizon, Shangri La is a fictional place, the author never even visited China, yet appears to have based his fictional Eden on the travels of Joseph Rock. Driven perhaps by a relentless quest for the tourist yuan, towns in China competed for the right to change their name to Shangri-La and it was Zhongdian, who, in petitioning Beijing an astonishing 15 times, won the right, and so in 2001 the city changed it’s name.

Unesco got in on the act and bestowed the status of World Heritage Site on the ancient city in 2003 and so fiction became reality. At least until January of 2014, when a large portion of the ancient city burnt to the ground. Speaking with travelers as far back as Ulaanbataar we’d hummed and ha’ed as to whether we should visit Shangri La or not. It was when we found the train that we wanted to take north to Chengdu was full for days and we’d have to fly that we decided that we could just as easily fly from Shangri La as Lijiang

The rockfall strewn Tiger Leaping Gorge road is just the beginning, but it’s a good primer. Once you leave the gorge, you turn right and start the climb up through the mountains to Shangri-La. This is a well traveled route. The main vehicles on this road are buses, from the minivans seating perhaps 7, to the 35 seaters. There are 17 of us in here. Most Chinese, our fellow Westerners are three French girls, who end up in the middle three back seats and, who by the time we stop for a break are well practiced at shrieking, which seems to spur on our driver.

He’s perhaps in his early 30’s. The left sleeve of his grubby white T-shirt is permanently rolled up around his shoulder, while the right stays in its regular position. His mirror sunglasses give off no indication of his mood, perhaps the fidgety, fast tapping of his long fingernails on the window does. Obviously most of the time, he’s only holding the steering wheel with one hand.

SEAT TIP: Don’t buy seat number 1. You can see far too much.

I tighten my seat belt as we roar uphill, engine screaming, Chinese rock music pumping, tailgating a truck to within inches before we slam left, out, onto the left hand side of the road as we approach the blind summit. There’s another shriek from the back seat as we seemingly miraculously slammed back right in front of the truck, to the blazing horn of the oncoming bus.

Our driver is something else.  There’s not a blind bend, summit or narrowing piece of road on this route that he doesn’t see as a challenge. It seems a shame, really, to pull in at the rest stop and take a breather, to return our heart rates to normal. Or for the man WHO MUST HAVE HIS SEAT to light three cigarettes off the preceding one in an attempt to maximize his nicotine to time available ratio.

Driving aside, this is an incredible road and it’s worth the trip for the change in scenery, as we climb the mountain and leave behind the rice and corn terraces, we reach the flat grasslands of the high country. The building style changes almost as though a switch has been flicked. We see large white, obviously family buildings, with two windows on an end, ornate square wooden archways and covered inner decks. We see drying stacks for grass, hay and foodstuffs lining the road. It seems we’ve reached the Tibetan influence and I feel myself reaching for Lost Horizon, it just seems right.

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Travel Tips for Exploring China

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