Breathing (Thin) Tibetan Air

At the moment third-country foreigners in China are not allowed to enter Tibet without a tour group visa or a special permit. But the north of Yunnan is part of the Tibetan plateau and home to a large population of ethnic Tibetans. We took a bus from Lijiang to Shangri-la along slowly winding roads that lead continuously uphill to 3,000m altitude and above to discover what lies up there. As soon as we had reached the beginning of high plateau we seemed to have crossed an invisible border within Yunnan. Colourful prayer flags fly in the wind, white stupas dot the landscape, stoic yak cattle graze in the fields and the snow capped peaks of the Haba Snow Mountain range gleam white in the distance.

The houses are built in a completely different style from what we have seen before. They are two storeys, with a square base, large wooden support columns and a large timbered loggia area cover their front. Most have big heavy wooden doors and a tin roof with stones covering the middle and a prayer flag on a long pole flying on top. There are noticeably less Chinese curved roofs around here. Some big houses have a walled front courtyard with a big glass winter garden. Despite the cold temperatures and snow up here in winter, most houses have enourmous windows. We assume to catch warmth from the sun during the day.

Outside the houses hay was being dried on big wooden beam constructions, which we had not seen anywhere in China before. As we near Shangri-la we see some of the typical Chinese square apartment blocks found in many other cities, albeit some have Tibetan looking red decorations. Many Han Chinese have settled here. In the regional propaganda museum we learn not only about the Long March of the Communist Party passing through the area or about the various ethnic minorities living here, but also about the designated special economic district as well as the rather ambitious tourism goals for the region.

Shangri-la was called Zhongdian until the late 1990s when authorities decided to rename the city ‘Shangri-la’ according to the mythical paradise city in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. (Christoph recommends reading it.) The city became such a popular tourist attraction (not just because of the name, it is interesting in its own right, although the name kind of worked on us too) that shops and guesthouses practically opened on top of each other in the wooden old town. In the absence of proper planning and fire precautions, in 2014, most of the old city got destroyed in a massive fire. So now, almost 4 years later it is still being rebuilt. There are empty lots left and massive construction efforts are still ongoing to remake the old wooden houses in the same style as before. We were there in November, which meant almost no tourists, and more than two thirds of the businesses were closed, which gave the city an eerily empty atmosphere. In summer, we are told, however, it is almost congested with visitors. And there will be even more soon. As of right now visitors either take the (rather slow) bus or fly into the city. On our way up to the plateau our bus passes many huge concrete stilts, that are being built for the tracks of the Lijiang-Shangri-la high-speed railway bound to open in 2019.

One true highlight (in every sense of the word) of our entire trip so far was the visit of the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, just north of Shangri-la. Built in 1679, the monastery is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province and is sometimes referred to as the “Little Potala Palace”. It is also the most important monastery in southwest China. From a religious point of view, it belongs to the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelukpa order of the Dalai Lama.

The monastery was built by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1679. Unfortunately it was extensively damaged in the Cultural Revolution and subsequently rebuilt in 1983; at its peak, the monastery contained accommodation for 2,000 monks and now accomodates about 700. For us it was amazing to walk through the different halls and breath in this Tibetan Buddhism air! It was also not really crowded so we had time and space to soak in everything. To be honest, we were a bit suprised of the many quite violent images on the various Thankas! Also quite a few halls felt very dark. Still, you can feel the calmness and “zen-like” atmosphere everywhere. We did not see many monks but it was still cool to observe a few sitting on pillows and chanting their mantras.

One bonus for us was that we followed a monk in the main hall up a few stairways. Suddenly we were on top of the building on the roof!We still don’t know if we were allowed to be up there but it was definitely an amazing view! We also tried to understand as much as possible about the different types of gods that are placed in different areas of temples. To get a taste of Tibetan Buddhism, feel free to start with the Bhavacakra – an amazing Thanka that is full with symbolism! Below is a gallery of some of the impressions of the monastery. It was a beautiful day and we hope we are able to convey some of its beauty!

A final note to the relationship between Tibetan monasteries and the government in Beijing. It is common knowledge that this is not the best relationship and that the Dalai Lama has to live in exile in India. We learned that some monasteries collaborate more closely with Beijing than others. Apparently the Sumtsenling Monastery is part of those who collaborate more closely and therefore also receive more money.

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