Racing down Yunnan Highway 214 at 90 km/h with jowls flapping and eyes watering in a blast of cool mountain air beneath towering rocky peaks and past winding streams, I'm suddenly a believer: Shangri-La is paradise.
After brief missteps in Kunming (too modern) and Lijiang (reduced to a crowded theme park version of Tiger Leaping Gorge (beautiful, but paved for the lazy with endlessly intrusive walkways), I finally arrive in the mountain town still known by many locals as Zhongdian, but branded in 2001 as Shangri-La by marketing-minded government planners.
Also called Gyalthang by the region's Tibetan population, it is the capital of Yunnan's Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, often serving as a last stop en route to Tibet proper. And, despite the presence of tourist-friendly restaurants and hotels, the town has a relatively undeveloped and unexploited feel: authentic, but not without the bare essentials.
Home to a wealth of breathtaking landscapes—rugged mountains, green valleys, meandering rivers and lush plains—Shangri-La is a far cry from the flat, overdeveloped monotony of China's eastern seaboard. Seeking a taste of these natural highs and a dose of excitement, I also hope to discover something more profound as well.
The old town (gucheng) charms with cobblestone streets, stained wooden abodes, traditional handcraft shops and barbecue stalls, although it's the outlying regions of the larger Shangri-La County, largely untouched by the hand of modernity, that boast the most intriguing terrain and sights.
One prime area is Xiao Zhongdian. Though bordered by Shangri-La's Diqing Airport to the north and bisected by a 40-kilometer stretch of Highway 214 running southeast, "Little" Zhongdian is actually a vast expanse of undeveloped land crisscrossed with paths and trails, perfect for off-road motorcycling. This is where I saddle up and seek my own personal piece of paradise.
Before commencing my quest, however, I decide to see if I can't find a bit of spiritual guidance at the 328-year-old Songzanlin monastery, Yunnan's largest. I hope that the tranquil environs will have a calming effect on my anxious nerves, offering a moment of clarity.
Unfortunately, the shrine to Shakyamuni is in the midst of its own refurbishment. Rattled by this omen, I throw logic aside and hop on a nearby If the mysteries of the East have taught me anything, it's that the path to the sublime often passes through the absurd.
Once the pigment-less beast is tamed, I mount my 125cc MadAss and max out the speedometer, intent on exploring the depths of the sprawling territory, racipast countless stupas and the occasional monastery.
Barely piercing the surface of Xiao Zhongdian, my city-slicker pores are invaded by the fresh air as I zoom past vibrant autumn foliage, free-roaming herds of yak, the occasional foraging pig, grazing sheep and sturdy mountain horses. Though the rules of nature apply here, fortunately, natural predators remain absent.
In addition to the varied flora and fauna of this pastoral alpine utopia, the weather in Xiao Zhongdian is constantly shifting gears. As I negotiate yak trails and dirt country roads, the climate changes from a cool drizzle to bright and sunny in a matter of minutes. The result is an almost unnatural number of rainbows, but maneuvering the rocky and muddy roads requires enough attention that the spectral arches are all too easy to miss.
On one occasion, the precipitation is heavy enough to force me into the cover of a nearby yak hut, but after taking shelter for seven minutes, the sun is out again, and I use the wet ground to my advantage, digging and slashing around in the fresh mud and puddles, fighting a constantly fish-tailing back tire to increase the thrill factor.
Motocross moves aside, this is Buddha's country, and the vistas of the opposing mountains and river below are so awesome, that death-defying zigs, zags and skids take a backseat to the natural beauty all around me... besides, one false move and it's straight over the edge of the sharply graded slope.
Ultimately, free from all signs of contemporary civilization (my trusty bike aside, of course), Xiao Zhongdian is the perfect escape from the concrete jungles of China's ever-developing cities, a haven and retreat from modern society. It is an immaculate image of purity and an unadulterated landscape that can only be properly experienced behind a set of handlebars and atop two wheels.
How to get to Shangri-La
Shangri-La is easily accessible, with several Dali, Xishuangbanna and Dehong.
Where to stay in Shangri-La
Accommodations in Shangri-La range from extravagant to basic, offering all types of tourists, from luxury to budget, reasonable options. For higher-end lodgings, consider the Paradise Hotel, while the Longfengxiang Hotel is a decent mid-range choice. Backpackers and shoe-string travelers should check out Noah Café and Inn for clean and affordable rooms.
Getting extreme: Shangri-La motorcycle tours and rentalTurtle Mountain Gear and Outfitters is a local leader in adventure tours, equipment and rental. Motorcycle rental starts at RMB 250 per day and includes a full tank of gas, helmet and protective gear.
Photos by Will Rahtz, Hsuan Ying Chen and Dan ShapiroMore photos below and here: Shangri-La photos.