Just outside the city of Shangri-La, China, my cycling group hit a slight-but-very-long incline toward a temple and mountain pass. While the grade was mild, the altitude was not, and it made for slow, tough going. Along the way, we came upon a trio of old, Tibetan cowboys (yakboys?) sitting around a small campfire just off the road. We must have looked like a sad, struggling lot because they motioned for us to stop and stay a while.
Panting, we happily obliged. The men were smoking cigarettes, drinking tea, eating snacks, and taking their own break away from the yaks. They were just as curious about us as we were of them and, with the help of our translator-guide, we swapped stories about our lives.
In 2001, the government renamed the town formerly known as Zhongdian as Shangri-La in a blatant attempt to increase tourism. The city is the seat of Shangri-La County, a district bordering Tibet with an 80 percent Tibetan population and a passing resemblance to the fabled locale—Himalayan peaks, as well as Buddhist monasteries, temples, and stupas, jut up from the green Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. In 2008 when I visited, the city had not yet become Disneyfied as have Yunnan Province’s tourist centers to the south, Dali and Lijiang. It still had many rough edges and loads of authentic charm. I hope it can stay that way.