Day in Shangri-La Review – A Unique Learning Experience Thanks to Viking


We would not have had the knowledge to know that the unique visit that Viking planned for us to Lijiang in Northwest China would be so informative, enjoyable, and enlightening. The stop, part of our Undiscovered China Tour run by Viking River Cruises, was one of the most jam packed days of new sights and experiences.


Photo by Dianne R. Davis


We remember the Frank Capra movie, Lost Horizons, and the mythical mystical city of Shangri-La in the foothills of the Himalayas. The term Shangri-La became slang for heaven or paradise.We looked forward to visiting Lijiang because the locals suggest that it is in fact Shangri-La, the centerpiece of James Hilton's well known novel Lost Horizons.



Patrick was an amazing guide with an incredible wealth of knowledge and wonderful disposition * Photo by Dianne R. Davis


Patrick, our outstanding guide for our entire trip, told us that Lijiang is located in the northwest corner of Yunnan province near the convergence of the Qinghai-Tibet and Yunnan-Guizhou Plateaus. With a population of 1.2 million people, it is small by China standards, but it is quite unique.

Courtyard of Joseph Rock house * Photo by Burt Davis

Local tourist agencies claim that author James Hilton was inspired by the writings and photographs furnished by National Geographic's explorer Joseph Rock who lived in the area during the 1920's and early 1930s. Viking took our group to visit the Joseph Rock House. The Rock House is a simple structure with a courtyard which is typical of area dwellings. It is full of period photos and other fascinating historical memorabilia.


Could Shangri-La be in those cloud covered mountains * Photo by Burt Davis

As we rode the bus through the countryside and then walked up a hill through a residential area to the house, we could see why folks could call Lijiang Shangri-La. Clouds and mist covered the numerous hills in the area giving one a feeling of peace and tranquility with a tinge of mystery.


Photo by Burt Davis

We passed numerous small dwellings, including some with Tibetan Buddhist symbols on the doors and roofs * Photo by Burt Davis


Our next stop was a small shopping area near Lijiang where we visited a Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute teaching school. It is known to be the largest and best embroidery institute in China. There are eight masters, 16 teachers, and more than 100 students. A display of their work and a talk about how the locals benefit from the sales leads many visitors – ourselves included - to leave with the needlepoint artworks.


Women sat hunched over intricate needlepoint which is sold mainly to tourists * Photo by Dianne R. Davis


The two of us strolled the village on our own and visited a small eatery where we enjoyed a lunch of Yak meat, a local favorite. Well, we were in the Tibetan foothills * Photo by Burt Davis


After lunch, we took an optional fascinating not to be missed tour of Lijiang's Old Town markets and the Mu Palace. Our local knowledgeable guide Alvin (aka Wang Sheng Kuan) told us that the Old Town is over 800 years old and is a UNESCO Heritage site. This area of winding narrow streets was originally settled by the Nakhi people. We learned that the moats that flow through the Old Town were constructed in order to provide a source of water to fight fires.


Old Town at night * Photo by Burt Davis


Much of the Old Town now consists of trendy or souvenir shops, restaurants and night clubs. It is clearly a tourist town, but the majority of the tourists in this case are not from other countries, but rather the Chinese themselves.


Photo by Burt Davis

Photo by Burt Davis

Photo by Dianne R. Davis


The locals' market is an integral part of Old Town. Alvin led us through the maze of small shops selling all types of fresh produce, fruits, and both live and dead fish and animals.


We couldn't help but notice that most of the workers, including the butchers, were females * Photo by Dianne R. Davis


According to Alvin, Lijiang is a man's paradise where the women do most of the work. (Maybe it is Shangri-La?) Alvin said that about 1,000 people work here and over 3,000 folks shop there daily. Most of the locals still prefer shopping there for fresh products rather than visiting the local Walmart.

If you need a tailor, you can find one in the marketplace * Photo by Burt Davis


Next we visited the Mu Palace. Alvin filled us in on the history. The palace was built by the ruling Mu family in 1647. The Mu ruling Dynasty was part of the Nakhi clan that ruled the area from 1253 until 1723. Much of their income was derived from collecting taxes from the silk road caravans passing through the area.

As we toured China with Patrick, we were joined by many local guides such as Alvin


The original palace was partially demolished during China's cultural revolution and completely destroyed in the 1996 earthquake. The local government rebuilt it at one third scale in 1999.


Mu Palace Meeting Hall * Photo by Burt Davis


The palace consists of six separate buildings built on higher levels on a hill. The top building is a Taoist Temple. The central palace contains a meeting hall. Other buildings are devoted to a library and justice court. The architecture has a strong Tibetan influence. Numerous four finger dragons, the symbol of power, and deer, the symbol of good luck, adorn the buildings.


The architecture in Lijiang differs from what we saw on the rest of our travels in China. We were told that a cat on the roof is considered good luck * Photo by Dianne R. Davis


There are so many unique structures and so much beautiful scenery surrounding the town that one could easily spend a week or more in the Lijiang area. In fact, many Chinese consider this to be a prime vacation get-a-way area. We could relate it to New Yorkers getting out of the city for a week-end in the Berkshires or Poconos. Surrounding the area that we saw are a variety of outdoor destinations where visitors can enjoy canoeing, skiing, hiking, or picnicking.


We were glad that Viking Tours included Lijiang and would recommend a visit there. This location certainly qualified for a spot in the “Undiscovered China” tour. Viking runs three tours to China - Hidden Jewels of China, Roof of the World, and Undiscovered China. All three include a six day cruise on the Yangtze River while the Roof of The World includes a trip to Tibet. A detailed review of The Hidden Jewels of China tour can be found in the excellent article by Jodi Kaplan --


China is a huge complicated country and we recommend that uninitiated travelers use dedicated tour guides to get the most out of their trips. Viking River Cruises did an outstanding job of guiding - and just as importantly - teaching us about this massive and unique country. This was our third experience going on a Viking Tour and we will certainly travel with them in the future. For more information on Undiscovered China or other tours contact Viking.

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