Sitting on top of the world — almost

On my last day in Shangri-La, I hiked to the top of a hill overlooking the city. The incline wasn’t steep, but every 20 paces or so I had to stop to catch my breath. The city has an altitude of 3,200 meters, and my body still hadn’t completely adjusted to the elevation.

Along the hike, I passed several tombs that had been dug into the hillside. Some were very elaborate, with sculptures of lions and carvings of people dressed in ethnic attire. I assume families chose this spot as their loved ones’ final resting place because of the view. From the hill you can see a giant golden prayer wheel – the largest in the world – and rows of mountain peaks that grow taller as you look farther into the horizon.

Near the top of the hill, a walkway decorated with prayer flags led me to a Tibetan temple. Every 10 minutes, someone would walk inside to pray. A couple of monks sat near the entrance, burning incense.

Shangri-La is located in northwest Yunnan province, close to the border of the Tibetan autonomous region. Its proximity to Tibet is part of what attracted me, since travel to the region by foreigners is heavily restricted by the Chinese government.

The Tibetan plateau is commonly referred to as the roof of the world because of its elevation (on average, it exceeds 4,500 meters). I guess that makes Shangri-La the gateway to the roof.

If the old souls on this hillside could speak, I’m sure they’d tell you there are a lot worse places to spend eternity.

Mountains.

It takes a couple of days to get used to the elevation in Shangri-La.

Prayer flags outside a temple.

Tibetan prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion and wisdom.

Closeup of a prayer flag.

Prayer flags are often strung along mountain ridges.

Tombs.

Some of the tombs I passed during my hike to the top of a hill overlooking Shangri-La.

Shangri-la old town.

The old town of Dukezong in Shangri-La.

View of Shangri-la's prayer wheel from my hostel. It's believed to be the largest prayer wheel in the world.

This prayer wheel is believed to be the largest in the world.

Pulling the wheel.

It’s so heavy that it takes at least 15 to 20 adults to turn it.

Men pray next to giant prayer wheel.

A man prays next to the prayer wheel.

Women dressed in ethnic clothes.

Yunnan province is home to 51 of China’s 55 minority groups.

A series of prayer wheels.

The cobbled streets of Dukezong.

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