Shangri-La’s Lamasery Bastion

Today is our last day in Shangri-La, and we wake up at our hotel eager to explore through our last hours in Western China. Our hotel, decorated with elaborately crafted mats and traditional Tibetan architecture, provide a mixed aura of warmth and exoticism. We gather for breakfast downstairs and discuss our day ahead while feasting on some freshly made rice noodles and warm yak tea. Belongings packed and hunger quelled, we march towards the bus stop cruising through the old town and its quaint family stores. Our final destination: Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery.

It is a brisk, lightly clouded day in Shangri-La. At the back of the bus, my classmates and I chat about our memories of Yunnan while playing chess to pass the time. To get to the monastery, we are told, we first need to check into a local tourist center that vets entrance into the region. From there we have arranged tourist transportation that will take us to the entrance of the lamasery. As an enthusiast of Buddhism, I am eager to explore the most renowned monastery in Southwestern China. Even if I identify with the Rinzai Zen school more than the Tibetan line of Buddhism (I find the mysticism surrounding Tibetan practice overwhelming and far-fetched), my interest was peaked by the historical significance of the spot, its importance to the surrounding region, and the fact that a few hundred lamas trained there. We arrive at the tourist center and aided by our friendly Tibetan guide make our way into the reserved bus. Interestingly, one of the members in our group was told her shorts were too short and she would need to purchase pants in order to be admitted. It remained a place of serious religious observance, after all, despite its touristy allure. As the bus sways through the twisting, hilly roads we catch a glimpse of the grandeur of this monastery.

We arrive and gather outside its gates. As we are in high altitude (11,090 ft) we are told to decide rather or not to ascend its many steps — I see a couple of Chinese men going up with oxygen bottles. Most of us feel fine and we agree that seemed exaggerated. Still, to err on safety, the more tired of us remained downstairs. The willing gather their belongings and head upwards. As you can see in the picture, the actual monastery stands towering alongside the complex of surrounding buildings. The other houses, we are explained, serve as homes to the lamas that practice in the temple. We slowly progress upwards and eventually reach the top steps. We take a short break before exploring the main hall.

There are three main adjacent halls filled with paintings of traditional Tibetan Buddhist mysticism and tales. We are not allowed to take pictures inside, and the halls constantly receive followers for prayers. Many kneel and revere the idols portrayed. In the second and third hall (from left to right) there were lamas inside chanting and meditating. In the third one, there was a lama chanting with a microphone — his peaceful mutterings echoed throughout the chambers setting a deeply spiritual feel to our presence. We are told that the Sumtseling monastery was established by the Fifth Dalai Lama several centuries ago. However, original parts of the monastery were partially destroyed in the 1950s in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Since the 1980s, thankfully, circumstances changed, and now the monastery buildings have been mostly renovated. Its arts are restored to their amazing detail and the fact that lamas continue to meditate and study there provide for a deep dive into Tibetan spirituality. We explore its surroundings a bit more before heading downwards, where we gather for a group picture and prepare to head towards the airport for our flight eastwards.