With the travel season upon us, now is a good time to look to getaway destinations around Yunnan. Today's post is the second in a two-part series by writer and photographer Megan Melissa True about her experiences in northwest Yunnan's Shangri-la.
On our second day in Shangri-la, we headed for the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. The monastery was built in 1679 and was home to the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1681. Today it is the biggest monastery in Yunnan and houses over 700 monks that live and study there. After a 15 minute bus ride we arrived at the entrance. After we bought our tickets we were herded onto a bus that took us to the monastery.
As soon as we got off the bus, rain began to pour down. We took shelter in one of the closest temples. The smell of fresh rain and burning incense permeated the air. After about fifteen minutes it cleared up and we started exploring the temples and labyrinthine alleys that lead to the monk residences.
We started down one of the alleys and soon ran into some monks in their mid-twenties. We greeted them with big smiles and "ni hao"s. They shyly smiled but ignored us, which we found strange at first as most Tibetans we had met were very friendly. We later found out it was because they are not allowed to talk to women.
We were curious and wanted to know about their life there. So we spent a good part of the afternoon trying to talk to the monks. We were successful with some monk kids and a monk in his late 70s. We discovered most of the monks come to the monastery between five and eight years of age - they have the choice to leave the monastery when they are eighteen. Many monks choose to stay - who could blame them when they are surrounded by such tranquil beauty?
After several hours at the monastery, we headed back into to town and looked for a place for dinner. Old Town is full of great traveler-oriented restaurants but a five-minute walk down Changzheng Lu (长征路) will lead you to an area filled with local restaurants. Their food is just as good and very inexpensive. If you are looking for good foreign food The Compass or Yak Bar are both recommended.
After dinner we walked around Old Town, which has a history that dates back over 1200 years. Every night around seven o'clock people young and old join in the main square and dance. The dances are all traditional dances. They dance around in two large concentric circles. The inner circle seemed to be the more experienced dancers and the outer circle was full of tourists or young kids trying to copy the experts.
After several minutes of watching the dancers, we jumped in and tried our best to keep up. The old men and women seemed amused as we mimicked their dances. After nine o'clock the dancing broke up and everybody retreated home for the night. We also headed home to get some rest.
Our last destination in Shangri-la was Bitahai Lake, the highest lake in Yunnan at 3500 meters above sea level. The lake is pretty far outside of town so it's best to rent a car or van for half a day. The lake is well worth the journey as it is surrounded by some of the most beautiful forests in Shangri-la. A peaceful hike down to the shores of the lake was a perfect end to our Tibetan adventure in Yunnan.
From Kunming, Shangri-la can be reached by plane or bus (there are daily buses from Xizhan Bus Station). From Lijiang, it is a three or four hour bus or car ride away. The best times to visit are during the late spring/early summer when the ubiquitous wild flowers are in bloom, or in autumn when the green leaves of the trees change to every color imaginable.
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