Published: July 19th 2005June 25th 2005
Young monk reading a script
The Tibetan tradition is kept alive in the Sungtseling Monastery
We were leaving the Tibetan Autonomous Region but not Greater Tibet yet, flying from Lhasa to Zhongdian
(Chinese name, Tibetan name: Gyeltangteng). Public buses to the airport do exist, but since the airport is quite far from Lhasa (100km to the south) due to the high mountain ranges in its proximity, we preferred to take a taxi and start far earlier than we were supposed to. We already had some experience with road works in Tibet and did not want to run any risk concerning the flight. On the first kilometres the road was tarred and smooth, we once again came across the almost finished railway line that will connect Lhasa with the western parts of Tibet (the Chinese really do everything to unblock Tibet from its geographical isolation and to further integrate it into mainland China). We feared that we would arrive far too early and bore ourselves to death at Lhasa airport, when we had to leave the main road and settle for a narrow dust road once again. Here the taxi had to drive far more slowly and traffic almost came to a standstill when we had to cross the village next to Gongkar Airport. We arrived there
Entrance to the Sungtseling Monastery
These girls dressed in their finest clothes incited visitors to take a lamb in their arms
too early anyhow but could soon check in our luggage and were free to have an extensive look at the buildings. It being a provincial airport after all, the passenger capacity is not very high, there are some domestic flights and only one international flight once a week to Kathmandu. Due to Chinese magnanimity, there are three ‘terminals’, the original one that is out of use now, a more recent one for the international flights (there may be more to come than just one flight per week, one never knows) and the most recent terminal for domestic flights. The latest terminal can be regarded as a successful example of modern architecture in Tibet integrating several elements of traditional Tibetan architecture.
The flight passed without incidents and we landed in another small airport, even more provincial than the previous one in Lhasa. We were still at a high altitude, at 3,340m in the heart of the Gyeltang-che plain, at the southeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, east of northern Myanmar and west of the Chinese province of Sichuan. There was no public transport available from the airport to the centre of this city that the Chinese authorities ‘officially’ renamed as
Another huge monastery that appears like a city of its own
in 2002. Shangri-la describes a mythical country allegedly located in the mountains of Tibet, created by James Hilton in his novel 'Lost Horizon' (1935), in which he describes the perpetual youth and vigour of its residents. Some say his novel was based on ancient tales of remote parts of China, Nepal, and Tibet where folklore describes a valley of immortals living in perfect harmony. The name is now applied to any imagined earthly 'Paradise' or idyllic utopia. In typically incongruous fashion, China branded the tiny town of Zhongdian as Shangri-la, in order to cash in on the connection. China pinpointed Shangri-la via a long process of research. Candidates ranged across several craggy Chinese provinces and as far as Pakistan’s Hunza, Bhutan, Mustang and other Himalayan outposts. The crucial evidence remains controversial. Old stone tablets (in a museum in nearby Lijiang, itself a candidate for Shangri-la status) refer to a village called Xiang Ge Li La, which is how locals pronounce Zhongdian’s new name, Shangri-li-la. Well, to us it was rather doubtful whether this place should be paradise, but the Chinese proclaimed it so and it is not really up to us to decide. We were not pleased about the
Old and new
Not all buildings have been renovated yet, there is still a lot to do
absence of public transport and were forced to take an overpriced taxi, in addition to that the hotel we had chosen was being renovated or transformed into another shopping mall. We had no intention to stay in one of the numerous luxury hotels in town (we have no clue who would reside there), so Peter stayed with our luggage in an open-air shopping centre and Stephan and Klaudia went to have a look at a hotel on the other side of the main street. The hotel turned out to be middle-class and they gave us a very nice room at a cheap rate. The only hiccup was that the room was on the second floor, there was no lift and we had to cross a long corridor before arriving at the stairs. Still we checked in and did not linger for long, the city itself was not really attractive, very Chinese with hardly anything but shops (at least in the big street where the hotel was situated). Anyway we used Zhongdian as the location to get to the most important site in the region, the Sungtseling Monastery
, 8 km from the city.
In the hotel they informed us that
Way up to the Sungtseling Monastery
Tibetan monasteries are not so easy to discover, you need a lot of stamina
we could use a public bus to get there, we quickly found one of the small green buses, it was definitely cheaper than the taxi (1 Yuan = 10 cents per person), which the passengers threw into a laundry basket to the driver’s right side when disembarking. We had taken it in the wrong direction, but the driver didn’t care, we simply stayed seated until the terminal stop which was not far anyway and rather enjoyed our ride. We saw Chinese getting on and off, but also people from different minorities apart from the Tibetans (Zhongdian lies in the Yunnan province which is home to a colourful array of minorities). A man was transporting fresh fish that actually were still fidgeting on the lines (that’s what we call fresh!), a young woman was loaded with bags full of market merchandise. Quite soon we left the city compounds behind and found ourselves on the countryside, in the middle of an incredibly green landscape dotted with beautiful farmhouses. They did not look very Chinese, were robust whitewashed buildings with painted cross beams and one side was made up of a balcony formed of complete logs, which opened onto the farm courtyard. We
Peter bravely climbing the infinite stairs to Sungtseling Monastery
observed shaggy yaks dragging ploughs across nearby fields, turning loamy soil into fertile oatmeal and huge racks were set up everywhere to dry the hay. It all looked so familiar to us, like any green valley would in Austria’s south or west. The bus arrived at the terminal stop, a small square not far away from the entrance to the monastery. The way there was once again lined with curio shops and opposite the entrance gate we discovered a bus station, maybe fore private buses, which was rather full. The newly arrived visitors were greeted by a group of girls in very kitschy costumes holding lambs with pink or red ribbons on their heads in their arms. These lambs should be taken up by tourists, so that another kitschy picture could be taken by them (not for free, of course). We refused the generous offer, but many Chinese visitors did not restrain themselves, the scheme was obviously made for them. The entry fee was rather hefty, 70 Yuan (7 EUR), but we had already been warned that in certain respects China was a rather expensive place. The costs of course did not deter us and once again a long ascent
Top of the stairs
The first buildings you see after the long ascent are quite impressive
awaited us. Peter had once said that Tibetan Buddhism intends to keep the devotees (or interested people) in good shape, this once again was the case in this monastery. We were positively surprised about the buildings’ state, they had either been renovated recently or were currently undergoing restoration. The Chinese authorities seemed to confer an important place to the Buddhist tradition, and the huge amount of Chinese tourists (we were the only Westerners present) seemed to confirm their policy. Tourism might be the means to save at least part of the Tibetan cultural heritage.
Apart from the usual elements in Tibetan Buddhist temples, the fine murals beside the entrance door and within the halls, the large dimly lit assembly hall mostly divided by columns, and the images of buddhas, protecting deities, bodhisattvas and other holy men, there was a striking Chinese element: stone lions guarding the entrance. These represent one of the highlights of Chinese sculpturing, it has to be a male and a female lion, both with a movable ball in their mouths (the ball has to be sculpted at the same time as the head and not be put in separately), the lioness holds a cub under
Chinese decarative elements
These Chinese lions guard the entrance to a Tibetan temple - apt illustration of the political situation
her left paw and the lion another ball. Two recurrent mural motives
especially fascinated us by their expressionism: one is the famous Wheel of Life. This depicts in dramatic form the cycle of existence into which beings are repeatedly reborn unless they attain Nirvana. Not only is it rich in symbolism, but it also captures key aspects of the Buddha's teaching, including rebirth, karma and dependent origination. The other one was like a comic, illustrating how a black elephant and monkey meet a Buddhist monk, walking with him they are obviously instructed in Buddhist principles, so by and by their black colour turns into a snowy white, in the end they no longer walk separately but form a community. Well, this is our interpretation at least, since we found no one to explain the mural to us. We again did a good amount of hiking (fitness programme), climbed to upper floors and down again and left all the tour groups behind. We visited temples that were obviously hardly ever visited (the groups do not have enough time for that) and observed a very lively monk community, what we really appreciated. This monastery was no museum but a place where religion
The roof decoration has already been gilded and the entrance carpets are also quite impressive
was still practiced every single day. In the end we came to a spot, where a complete temple was being rebuilt from the scratch, under the austere supervision of the Buddhist monks who walked on planks at the height of several metres with absolute sureness.
We did not descend the stairs to go back to the bus terminal, but used a pathway, where we passed a workshop of copper smiths in which they produced statues for the temples that would later be gilded, more small temples and a stupa on top of a hillock. We were lucky and immediately caught a bus back to town. Although the monastery is not very striking from the artistic and architectural point of view (as the Jokhang Temple for example), it is an important stronghold for Tibetan Buddhism in a Chinese environment.
In the evening we were walking a bit through Zhongdian, maybe the city would prove more attractive during nighttime than by daylight and came across a brightly illuminated thing that turned out to be a gigantic prayer wheel with a turning top close to an equally illuminated temple. It was as Chinese as could be! We then only looked for
Erect lion in a corner
This unusual statue of gilded copper was most probably made in a workshop nearby
a restaurant and went into one where a guitar player was very active and loud, but the food was decent, and went to bed rather early due to the lack of alternatives. Next morning, we returned for breakfast to an area that we had discovered last evening, and could not believe our eyes. A complete indigenous village was being rebuilt inside the city, the houses were mainly made of wood and had some beautiful carvings. When we followed the steep cobbled streets, we were reminded of a skiing village somewhere in the Austrian or Swiss Alps, had we not seen so many ‘foreign’ faces and red Chinese lampions. An unbelievable building frenzy was going on, everything was done to attract future visitors (foreign and Chinese alike) to this place. We were sure that it would turn out beautiful and that the tourists would flock to Zhongdian’s old city in the future. The only strange thing is that whatever place we went to with the architect Peter, there was always a construction site around, which naturally aroused his professional interest.
Our time in Zhongdian had come to an end, we took a bus to Lijiang from a hypermodern bus station.
Beautifully decorated windows in a colourful wall
After few kilometres in the beautiful landscape that had reminded us of Austria, the road dramatically turned downhill, in a whole around 2,000m. The main road was again being refurbished and we had to drive on a minor one, though still tarred. This afternoon we waved good-bye to the Tibetan plateau, what resulted in a dramatic change of scenery.
There are more photos below