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Lost in the City of Moonlight

Sprawling across northwestern Yunnan listed as one of top 10 China tours, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is home to China’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site in terms of area: Three Parallel Rivers. Here, three magnificent rivers tumble down from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau - the Nujiang, Jinsha (upper reaches of the Yangtze), and Lancang (upper reaches of the Mekong) - and combine to form a spectacular vista as they torrentially roar abreast through deep gorges between Yunling, Nushan, and Gaoligong mountains of the Hengduan Mountain Range. Historically, this area also witnessed frequent passage of trading caravans along the Ancient Tea-Horse Road.

In his 1933 bestselling novel, Lost Horizon, English writer James Hilton described a permanent and serene mythical land hidden deep in the faraway mountains. Under his pen, the utopian land, with snow-capped peaks, secluded ravines, resplendent yet mysterious monasteries, tranquil lakes laced by forests, and boundless meadows dotted by flocks of cattle and sheep, was bestowed a beautiful name - “Shangri-la.”

Shangri-la turned from fiction into a reality when scholars discovered how closely Diqing matches what James Hilton described. More interestingly, the capital of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Zhongdian, is known as “Shangri-La,” which in Tibetan means the “sun and moon in heart” - heaven on earth to Tibetan ears.

In Shangri-La, an ancient town known as Dukezong to Tibetans has survived more than 1,300 years. There, visitors are whisked back to the region’s glorious past when the clacking of hooves from the caravans and pleasant jangle of horse bells resonated through the bustling hub along an ancient trading trail.

Meandering among the steep mountains, the Ancient Tea-Horse Road (similar as the ancient Silk Road, now you can have Silk Road tour) was the earliest commercial passage serving historical merchants traveling between Yunnan and Tibet. For a millennium, it wove history and legends across China’s western frontier like timeless music, whose melody continues to linger through endless eternity. Historically, the route connected Yunnan and Tibet, via Pu’er, Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian (Shangri-La), Deqin, Zayul, Zuogong, Lhasa, Yadong, and Shigatse, and even extended beyond China’s border to Myanmar, Nepal, and India. It traversed the Jinsha, Lancang, Nujiang, Lhasa, and Yarlung Zangbo rivers, along with five snow-capped mountains each rising more than 5,000 meters. A round trip often took a caravan a full year to complete. Dukezong, occupying a strategic position at more than 3,000 meters above sea level, accomodated a relatively comfortable leg of the route and served as an important stop for horse caravans to take a break.

Dukezong’s history can be traced back to the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Tubo (ancient Tibet) established a regional governor’s headquarters in Tacheng Town, Diqing Prefecture, and constructed an official stone fortress on Dagui Mountain, naming it Dukezong. Legend has it that city construction was inspired by a saying that a Living Buddha on the opposite mountain thought Dagui Mountain resembled Padmasambhava (founder of the Nyingmapa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism) seated on a lotus. So, the town was built in a layout of an eight-petal lotus flower.

With Dagui Mountain at the core, the town contains myriad streets and lanes radiating in all directions, a style matching the architectural layout of legendary Shangri-La. Within its territory of 1.6 square kilometers, a total of 1,084 old houses are arranged in conformity with Tibetan Buddhist geomantic theory, making the town the largest and best-preserved ancient Tibetan community in China. Shangri-la is a must-see for your AFFORDABLE China tours.

The old dwellings were built with local materials. Builders used a local white clay to paint the exterior walls, and the style has been handed down to this day. Tibetans regard white as a sign of respect for their forefathers, who worshipped white stones. This explains why the city built with white clay was named Dukezong, which in Tibetan implies two meanings: “a white stone city” and “moonlight city.”

In daytime, the white stone houses shimmer in sunlight, and when night falls, the ancient town reflects a silver glow.

The old flagstone paths together bear resemblance to lotus pedals stretching in different directions, and authentic Tibetan residences scattered around Dagui Mountain radiate a lasting nostalgic charm.

It was said that in the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La, which is hidden deep in snowy mountains, the citizens lead peaceful and happy lives void of desire or obsession. However, the utopian land doesn't seem easily accessible to anyone, and only after practicing spiritual cultivation can one find the way into Shangri-La. This way, visitors to the town would discover the surrounding snowy mountains in the shape of an eight-pedal lotus blossom.

Probably aided by another coincidental similarity, the aura “free from obsession and greed,” Dukezong offers visitors a marvelous experience in the land of holiness and purity. Tourists often feel that time seems to have stopped in this untouched ancient town.

Today, with horse bells tinkling away just off the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, new “horse caravans” have flooded in from across the world, and some have settled down in Dekezong. The old town’s new residents, speaking different languages and with different cultural and religious backgrounds, continue to write Dukezong’s history as a land of cultural convergence. Some call Dukezong a place where any culture can be easily accepted and assimilated.

Dukezong, the ancient posthouse, is now a spiritual sanctuary to those seeking a respite from the busy city life. They come to recover the meaning of life and then embark on paths towards new dreams. As one destination of popular China tour package, Zhongdian will give you a different travel experience.

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