Exploring Yunnan: Day Trip in Shangri-la (Zhongdian)

The Monkey King entered the temple and learned from the master, the immortal, for many decades. When the master saw his potential, he taught the king in secret to show him the sacred techniques, such as the somersault flying cloud and transformations. The Monkey King, his Buddhist name Sun Wukong, learned very quickly and became proud of his powers. He once showed off to his fellow monks by transforming into everyday objects. The master became enraged and banished from the temple warning him never to tell a soul that he taught him, such an egotistic beast. Though he didn’t tell Sun Wukong, the master felt an ominous presence and future from the monkey, and regretted teaching him the Way. “What have I done?”

After getting breakfast and buying tickets back to Lijiang, I called my friend who gave us ambiguous directions that would take us to the large Buddhist Monastery that is nestled in the mountains outside of the city. We took the number one bus to the last stop, then followed a road that the bus driver pointed out to us where we passed a large stone stuppa. After reaching a fork, we turned right and followed the path into a large field where we saw a white house in the distance. We were to walk behind the house and hike through Tibetan towns before approaching the temple. We were taking this strange route so to avoid the 80yuan door fee.


Shangri-la in the Distance

The group I walked with (including four Germans, a Korean, and one identical twin) were very patient as I made them trek with me all around the Shangri-la countryside. Shangri-la is supposedly the “Paradise of the Orient,” at least that is what Western folklore has engrained into my eurocentric mind. The Chinese government destined the small town of Zhongdian to be created into Shangri-la in 2001 for touristic purposes. For more than ten years, this place has been “Heaven on aEarth,” but it seemed like any other tourist town within the ancient city, and like any other town in the countryside. It was nice to get out of the touristy part of the city and see what average Zhongdian citizens do each day. For instance, we were invited to a Tibetan birthday party when we entered one of the Tibetan towns. I saw more Tibetans outside of Shangri-la than in the main city.


“One of these things are not like the other, one of these things do not belong…”

Everyone was very inviting and asked us to sit at one of the tables. They gave us a tray of cookies and dumplings and then many glasses of yak butter tea. We were all pretty bashful for crashing the party, but everyone seemed pretty excited to have so many foreigners at the party. They then invited us into the home, which was beautifully decorated with woodcarvings, paintings, and elaborate carpets. I set next to an old man who was wearing traditional Tibetan garb and was missing some teeth. He kept smiling at me and welcoming me to his town. After an hour, we politely excused ourselves. We made a card for the birthday man (he turned 60 years old) and then continued our way to the monastery. We were almost there.

We walked along the wall of the temple and looked for a back door. We passed Tibetan who were walking around the temple clockwise, while we were walking counter-clockwise. We later learned we were walking in the incorrect direction. We hit the top of the steps and got this view:


Songzanlin Monastery

We found a broken part of the wall and entered through there. We walked up alleyways and alongside crumbling houses before we approached the beautiful monastery. We were about to enter the front of the temple when I saw a little monk shivering in a large, wool blanket. I went up to him and asked him if he studied here and how old he was. He said he was brought here when he was two years old and has studied ever since (he is now 14 years old). He had just finished class and was walking around the temple. I noticed my friends has continued walking forward, so I smiled, thanked him, and told him to stay warm.

I found the group standing in front of the tower monastery. We all slowly walked in, in awe of the tall walls, the beautiful statues, and paintings that lined the walls. We all split apart and walked through the maze of hallways. I went into a center room on the second story and looked into the room of monks (a room we were not allowed into).


Playing Cards and Chatting with Each Other

We somehow found each other at the top of the temple on the balcony looking out onto Zhongdian and the mountains. A lone monk was looking off into the distance when I came up. When talking to the professor the other night, he said that in this culture, spiritual leaders believe that ravens communicate to them. I noticed that there were many ravens flying in front of the temple…maybe he was watching or listening to them?


Older Monk

We stayed up there for a while until we realized we had to get back to catch the bus. We walked through the maze of hallways and found ourselves back outside in the brisk weather. We walked to the front gate and took bus three back to the ancient town. Molly, Jason and I said goodbye to the Germans, while the three of us both planned to travel back to Lijiang together. We grabbed dinner and then went on our way to Lijiang.

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