Skipping the red tape to Tibet by visiting Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces

Why Seek an Alternative to Tibet?

With Potala Palace, Mount Everest, and a deeply rooted spiritual community, there is no doubt that Tibet is one of the most unique and spectacular places in the world to visit. But as Tibet’s relationship with mainland China and the world is a complicated matter, travel to the “roof of the world” can be more difficult than many think. Applying for a Tibetan travel visa is just one of the many hoops you’ll have to jump through if you're considering visiting Tibet. With restrictions on solo travel, the occupation of the visitor, date restrictions, and attraction restrictions, it can be quite the headache especially if Tibet is just one stop on a larger journey through Asia.

Luckily, that strong and fascinating Tibetan culture isn’t constrained to just Tibet itself. In fact, in the 2010 China Census, there were around 7 million ethnic Tibetans scattered across Tibet and neighboring provinces Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan, and others. So where are the pockets of Tibetans in mainland China, and how similar are they to the Tibetan Autonomous Region?

Shangri-La, Yunnan Province

I first traveled through Shangri-la in 2015, and from the second my taxi rolled into the old town the city won my heart. Nestled close to the border of Tibet, Shangri-la used to be called “diqing Tibetan autonomous prefecture”, diqing meaning “place of good luck” in Tibetan. After the novel The Lost Horizon came out, the Chinese government officially changed the name of this city to Shangri-La (Chinese:香格里拉) in an attempt to gain more visitors. The good news is, they put a lot of money into the city to make it friendly for tourists, the better news is, still very few visitors (especially foreign) ever make it out to this tiny mountain city. 

Things to do

Maybe the most charming aspect of Shangri-la is the Dukezong ancient town. The cobblestone paths of this beautifully preserved Tibetan town are lined with a large variety of Tibetan shops, souvenirs, and restaurants serving national favorites as well as local delicacies like yak meat buns. At night the old town is lit up by various coffee shops and bars, live music, and traditional Tibetan circle dancing in the old town square. The ancient town also has lots of fantastic little guest houses where you can stay for very cheap. My go-to is the Dragon Cloud Guesthouse located within the ancient town, equipped with quaint little rooms, and a common room with a kitchen and a pool table where you can meet other travelers.

A quick bus or taxi from the ancient town will land you at the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet, Songzanlin Monastery.  Sometimes called “Little Potala” for its likeness to the world-famous Potala Palace in Lhasa, Songzanlin is an active monastery of the yellow-hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. You will see many faithful Buddhists here who have taken long pilgrimages to reach the monastery.

Similar to other famous cities in Yunnan, Shangri-la is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in China and the world. Outdoor destinations like Napahai Nature Reserve, Haba Snow Mountain, and Blue Moon Valley can all be accessed easily through local guides and day trips.

Surprisingly, you will also find a Western-style gem inside of Shangri-La, the Shangri-La Brewery. This truly one-of-a-kind Tibetan-style brewery was founded by Songtsen Gyalzur was born and raised in Switzerland but later returned to his mother's hometown Shangri-la to help local orphans and take a bit of Swiss brewing style to his family’s hometown. You can go enjoy a beer in the Tibetan-style taproom, or even book a brewery tour to see the production of one of China’s most special brews.

Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province

Another spiritual place that is held in very high regard by Tibetans everywhere is Daocheng Yading. Not far from Yunnan Province’s Shangri-la, Daocheng Yading can be found right across the border into southwest Sichuan Province, in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Ironically, within the Garze borders there is also a “Shangri-La Village”, not to be confused with Shangri-La City in Yunnan.


Much like Shangri-La, the majority of the Daocheng Yading population is Tibetan, and the architecture of the towns, villages, and temples is a clear reflection of that. 

Things to do

The most popular destination in the prefecture is the Yading Nature Reserve. In the reserve are two of the most famous hikes perhaps in the whole country, the hikes to Milk Lake and 5 Color Lake. Besides the sheer beauty of these natural wonders, they are also highly revered in many Buddhist scriptures and are often the destination of pilgrimages by devout Buddhists. 

Speaking of Buddhism, what Tibetan area would be complete without mountains dotted with ancient temples. Whereas Shangri-La had one of the largest temples, Daocheng Yading has some of the oldest and most quaint monasteries in the country. The most famous of these are Gongga Chonggu Monastery and Gongalongjiling, both of which are active monasteries that welcome visitors from all over the world.
 Shangri-La Village

All of these natural and man-made destinations can be accessed through either Yading Village or Shangri-La Village. Both of these tiny mountain villages are fantastic for immersing yourself in Tibetan culture. 

Summary; Where to Go for the Best Tibetan Experience

Summary; Where to go for the Best Tibetan Experience

Even though there are clearly many places to get an authentic Tibetan experience outside of Tibet, many say nothing compares to the real place. However, sometimes travel restrictions and limitations make that quite a difficult and laborious process. Therefore, outside of Tibet, Shangri-La and Daocheng Yading are two of the most authentic and fascinating places to experience Tibetan culture in the world. Reaching these two cities may be easier than you think, as both have an airport (Diqing Airport and Daocheng Yading Airport, which holds the title of the highest civilian airport in the world). 

In conclusion, whether you are planning a trip through China or a trip specifically to a Tibetan region, I highly encourage anybody to add Shangri-La and Daocheng Yading to the list to escape the crowds, get in touch with the deeply spiritual side of China, and escape the headache of more complicated travel permits and restrictions. 

Adam DiFrisco lived between Beijing and Inner Mongolia for 5 years working in the travel marketing industry. He is now the VP of Marketing at Cannsult, an international business consulting company, where he runs a modern-day Business Improvement Blog 

Instagram: adam_ofthe_valley

*All photos and graphics used are personal photos that belong to Adam DiFrisco

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