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  “Shangri-la” is a name that has worked its way into the English language. Synonymous with "utopia", the word was first used in 1933, coined by the English author James Hilton in his novel "Lost Horizon."

  Shangri-la was a fictitious paradise, characterized by towering snow-capped mountains, lush forests, vast gorges and idyllic lakes. The beautiful scenery described by Hilton made the name stick in popular memory and arouses a certain curiosity and mystery whenever it is heard.

  However, there is a real Shangri-la, located in the Diqing prefecture in Yunnan Province and it actually manages to live up to it's mythologized name.

  A one-day trip to Shangri-la isn't nearly enough, however it can help make one feel like the turmoil and stress of city life has never been farther away.

  Shangri-la's peaceful atmosphere could be described as spiritual, and with the amount of religious heritage, that seems quite a fitting description. Only about three kilometers from the downtown area, Songzanlin Monastery, or "Little Potala" as it is affectionately known, is a spiritual hub for people to discover the mystery and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

  It is also the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhism complex in Yunnan. The magnificent temple sits on top of a hill and faces a vast grassland that used to be smothered by a lake. On a sunny day, the tiles of the temple glitter and shine a brilliant gold.

  The journey up the steps that lead to the main prayer hall can prove to be an arduous undertaking. However, it allows people to briefly experience the hardship of the pilgrimage route that generations of Buddhists living on the plateau take every year.

  The main hall in the center of the complex features imposing pillars and murals, which vividly depict the traditions and beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism, such as the "wheel of life" that illustrates the six realms of existence—heaven, demigods, humankind, hell, hungry ghosts and animals.

  The incense drifting in wisps, the fragrant oil lamps and the number of old monks instructing younger ones, can give one the impression that time has stood still in this little paradise since the creation of the temple.

  Bitahai Lake, also close to Shangri-la, is regarded as a "holy lake." In Tibetan, "bita" means "piece of land as soft as cattle hair" and the locals often call the lake "hai," or "sea" in Chinese.

  The lake is surrounded by spruce-covered mountains, and the water is tranquil and clear. If it is a bright day, you can see schools of fish swimming deep below the surface.

  The surrounding mountains are also spotted with fields full of azaleas. Each year, in late spring and early summer, the flowers bloom. The wind carries the petals down into the lake and the fish rise to the top, vying with each other to eat them. These petals are slightly poisonous and the fish become lethargic and slothfully, intoxicated by the flower's chemicals. This is an enchanting scene, known to the locals as "fish drunk by azalea." To preserve the delicate, natural harmony of the area, tourists are required to either walk or ride a horse around the lake.


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