The plan was to wake up at 5.30am in the morning and to walk about 2 to 3km away to a hillock to catch the sunrise over Songzanlin Monastery. I jumped right out of bed as my mobile alarm beeped; one of the many reasons why I love my smart phone besides the other wonderful features but I will eschew from digressing and boring you to tears. It was still pitch-dark outside so we went back to sleep for another half hour. Round about 6am, I took another peek through the window and this time I gasped in utter amazement……it was snowing and the landscape was pristine and indescribably beautiful. What a wonderful surprise!
We were excited like little puppies and made a beeline outdoors, eager to experience the cold and tranquil atmosphere. The challenge was that we did not expect the weather to be this cold and we did not bring our thicker coats. My waterproof Timberland boots would have served me better in this scenario.
We were practically sloshing about in the cold and wet outdoors, carrying our brollies as we made our way to Songzanlin Monastery which was about 500m away from our hotel. With the sun up in the overcast skies, some of the snow was melting into a slush and it was a little unpleasant getting my shoes soaked through and my socks and toes feeling clammy.
As we got through the gates, we were faced with this long stairway, all 146 steps to the top where Songzanlin Monastery is situated. The slush on the steps made the climb all the more precarious; we had to tread carefully as it was slippery and our shoes lost some traction on the icy surface. Fancy falling and rolling down the steps like Humpty Dumpty, not a pretty picture!
Songzanlin Monastery sits at an elevation of 3,380m above sea level and it lies at the foot of Foping Mountain. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery found in Yunnan Province and it was first built in 1679. Renovations were carried out some time in 1983 to rebuild parts that were destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This unique lamasery is a fusion of Tibetan and Han Chinese architectural styles.
The monastery complex has 6 main structures including 8 colleges and is sometimes called the ‘Little Potala Palace’ because it has a copper roof similar to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet though it is much smaller in scale by comparison. The Sakyamuni Temple has a 3 storey high atrium, with galleries on the 2nd and 3rd floors. The 1st floor walls are covered in colourful paintings and there is an enormous statue at the atrium.
The Tsongkhapa Temple also has a 3 storey atrium dominated by a huge statue of a deity on a platform. This temple is used by the monks for prayers and tourists can also be prayed for a token donation.
In this large main assembly hall up to 700 monks can gather to recite the Buddhist scriptures and it also houses scriptures written on palm leaves, an 8 metres tall gilded statue of Sakyamuni Buddha and numerous paintings depicting the life of Buddha. Yak butter lamps are used to light up the altar area.
The main door to the Zhacang Lamasery was closed and so we went to the side of the building and sneaked in through a door that was left ajar. It was dimly lit inside and there was a man kneeling and praying at the altar as I looked past numerous rows of pillars festooned with colourful banners and flags. There are apparently 108 columns built here as it is an auspicious number in Buddhism. I took a shot and in a flash, a young monk about 14 years old comes running to warn that no photography was allowed inside. I apologized for my ignorance and left sheepishly, feeling very much like an intruder.
It was nice and quiet without the usual hordes of tourist which we are accustomed to seeing in many different parts of China where millions of local Chinese are travelling to other provinces. But then again, it felt somewhat forlorn and deserted. This will all change come Nov 29th when Songzanlin will be jammed packed with devotees from the region who come here to celebrate the Gedong Festival. Some pious believers even kneel and bow with their heads touching the sacred ground each step of the way to pray here. This astounding degree of piety is also practised at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Spain.
These interesting gold ornamentations that decorate the corners and rooftops of the main and subsidiary buildings, the squarish architecture and the gilded copper roof gives the monastery its strong Tibetan flavour.
Some of the monks enter the monastery from as young as aged 5, and theirs is a life of austerity. A spartan and disciplined routine which includes rising early everyday, memorizing the sutras, studying Cosmology, medicine, meditation and learning the rituals that pertain to the monastic life. It was great watching them jostling and having a spot of fun instead of the straight-faced and reticent demeanour that monks usually display. They are after all very much human, just like us all!
This was the vista I was trying to capture at sunrise which was not to be, because of the snowfall but I am grateful for this ‘White Christmas’ experience which was a triple wow for me.
Tibetan artworks, tangkas and murals all bear really vivid and multi-coloured interpretations as seen in this doorway.
The visit to Songzanlin was worth every 146 steps of the climb and we were duly rewarded by the impressive lamasery, the priceless snow-scape, a splendid view of the Lamuyongcuo~’Lake of the Fairies’ and the surrounding Heng Duan Mountain Range. If you have time to spare, it is highly recommended that you engage a guide who could explain the architecture, significance of certain relics and the spirit behind them for a better appreciation of this place, Buddhism and Tibetan culture.