In James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon”, it describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western and of Kunlun Mountains. James was inspired by the Shangri-La of the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, where human beings, animals and nature lived in harmony under the rule of a Tibetan Monastery. This monastery in Shangri-La is called Songzanlin Monastery, also Ganden Sumtseling Monastery or Guihua Monastery. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan Province which belongs to Yellow Hat Sect of Gelug. It is also the most important monastery in southwest China.
Built at the foot of Foping Mountain with a magnificent facade, Songzanlin Monastery is a faithful imitation of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Hence, it is reputed as the “Little Potala Palace”. Being a collection of Tibetan culture, Songzanlin Monastery is also reputed as “Tibetan Art Museum”.
Songzanlin Monastery is located 5 km north of Shangri-La County. It is convenient to transfer from Shangri-La Dukezong Old Town to the monastery. Travelers can take No.3 Bus at the front of Moonlight Square with 30 minutes to Songzanlin Monastery. You can get there by biking (20 minutes) or by walking (about 1 hour). Many minivans are available at Moonlight Square that travelers can hire a van to go there. You need to discuss the price with the drivers before you get on the van.
About 5.6 km from Duzekong Old Town and Guishan Hill
About 26.2 km from Pudacuo National Park
About 85.6 km from Tiger Leaping Gorge
Songzanling Monastery was originally built in 1679 and finished in 1681. During Ming Dynasty, Songzanlin Monastery was a small temple belonging to Nyingma Sect. In the early Qing Dynasty, the Fifth Dalai Lama decided to establish the monastery in Zhongdian to release the pain of people. After three years’ construction, it was finished and the Fifth Dalai Lama gave the name “Ganden Songzanlin Monastery”. “Ganden” has relationship with Ganden Monastery in Tibet which was built by Tsongkhapa of Gelug Sect. In the reign of Yongzheng in Qing Dynasty, it was named “Guihua Temple”. In the reign of Qianlong in Qing Dynasty, Songzanlin Monastery was under the charge of the Seventh Dalai Lama, making it flourishing at that time. It became the most magnificent monastery in northwest of Yunnan and in Kangzang area.
Built according to the structure of Potala Palace, Songzanlin Monastery has three main structures – Zhacang Hall and Jikang Hall standing in the center of the monastery, and eight colleges, namely Jaya Khamstsen, Duke Khamstsen, Dongwang Khamstsen, Rongba Khamstsen, Xiangcheng Khamstsen, Gro Khamstsen, Yangtang Khamstsen, and Jidi Khamstsen standing beside the main halls.
The entrance gate is at the foot of the Foping Hill and provides access to the main hall of Songzanlin Monastery through 146 steps. The main hall of the monastery features 108 imposing pillars and on both the left and the right sides of the hall are wonderful frescos, depicting Buddhist tales and legends. More than 1600 monks can sit to chant and meditate in the hall. The halls are lit with incense and yak butter oil lamps. The altars are permanently decorated with yak butter flower sculptures. The inside-halls are exquisite with cloisters running through. The cloisters are all decorated with beautiful sculptures and consummate frescos.
Lamuyangcuo Lake is located in front of the Songzanlin Monastery. Lamuyangcuo, meaning the Soul of Heaven Fairy Lake, is a holy lake dwelled by the soul of Goddess Bandanlamu, a guardian goddess of universe. Conggulong Village is located in its east, Xiaojiezi Village and Sacred Dongqusheng Hill in its west, and the celestial burial platform in its south. In every important Buddhist ritual or the occasion of making major decisions, the monks and believers led by the Rinpoche chant sutras and pray around the lake. The believers and followers usually go for circumambulation clockwise in the path around Lamuyangcuo Lake.
The ring road of Lamuyangcuo Lake with the total length of 2110 meters and takes about 40 minutes to 1 hour by walking. On the way, you’ll pass two best spots to shoot Songzanlin Monastery panoramic view, one is near Conggulong Village and the other is at the central location of the lake. Travelers should follow the clockwise and enjoy the beautiful scenery and shoot along the way.
Many travelers choose to visit Songzanlin Monastery only which takes about 1-1.5 hours. For travelers who are interested in photography or in well physical condition, you can take a walk by clockwise around Lamuyangcuo Lake to explore more Tibetan Buddhist culture before or after your Songzanlin Monastery visit. Along the way, you can encounter some local believers who are praying on foot. The whole length takes about 2.5 hours.
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is suitable for photography all the year around. There is a grand religious festival called Gedong Festival which is held annually during Dec.26 to Dec.29 by Tibetan calendar. During these days, people with the masks of the horse, cattle, sheep, crow, yak come to the square of Songzanlin Monastery and dance together with a very mysterious atmosphere. While the yak butter oil lamps burn in the hall of the temple and the pilgrims pray very devoutly in the front of Buddha. This is a rare chance in Shangri-La to experience the Tibetan Buddhism culture and religion.
Songzanlin Monastery is a religious site, so travelers should dress modestly, behave with good manner. When visit the temple, please visit by clockwise. Don’t talk too loud, don’t smoke inside the temple. If you want to take photos of monks or pilgrims, you’d better get permission first. And photography is forbidden in the chapels.
When visiting the halls and eight colleges of Gaden Sumtseling Monastery, travelers should climb 146 steep stairs to reach the halls and temples. At an altitude of 3300m, it can be a little tired to walk up. The ring road of Lamuyangcuo Lake is 2110 meters which takes about 40 minutes by walking which demands your energy to finish it.
The best location to shoot the panoramic view of Songzanlin Monastery is CongGulong Village Viewing Deck which is located on the road to Lamuyangcuo Lake. The sunrise is around 07:00 and the sunset time is around 20:00. To shoot the sunset view, you’d better arrive early and wait for the amazing view. In the monastery, photographers could shoot Thangka, palm-leaf scripture, censer, light and more. The Lama and pilgrims could come into your pictures.
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