This past week in Yunnan provided a much needed nature and culture detox for me and many of my American friends. I, for one, was frankly quite tired of the eternal white cloak of smog hanging over the horizon, flat terrain, and increasingly scorching days in Xi’an. I was more than thrilled when I heard that the weather in Yunnan would be temperate, and even brisk in Shangri La. I didn’t know what to expect culturally from the province, but I was hoping to see a change of scenery in that regard as well, and I was not disappointed.
During our journey through Yunnan I was constantly stricken by the beauty of our surroundings, whether manmade or natural. We went to the stone forest outside Kunming to see ancient natural rock formations, the leaping tiger gorge and it’s surrounded mountains and sheer cliff faces, the three pagodas in Dali, and the second largest prayer wheel in Asia in Shangri La. Better yet, the bus ride between these places was constantly breathtaking, lending us views of the jagged edge of the himalayas and clear, blue skies which are rarely seen in Xi’an. While all the places we visited were beautiful, the Songzanlin monastery took the cake for most memorable sight.
By far the most unusual place we visited, both geographically and culturally (from my perspective, was Shangri La, the city where the Songzanlin monastery was located. Along the six-hour ride from Dali to Shangri La, the temperature and landscape changed drastically. The temperature dropped from a pleasant 70 degrees to a chilly 50, and while there were mountains surrounding us in Dali, we were below them, whereas in Shangri La we were sitting amongst them. As we approached the city, yaks and black pigs began to appear on the side of the road. Linda, our consensus favorite tour guide, explained that in the yellow sect of buddhism practiced by most of the tibetans living in Shangri La, people should live in harmony with wildlife, hence the wildlife roaming the roads.
Our first destination after dropping our bags off at the hotel was a buddhist temple coupled with the second largest prayer wheel in Asia. While the site, settled on the top of a hill with cherry blossom trees sprinkled about, was beautiful, I didn’t really appreciate it to the fullest because I didn’t have sufficient historical or cultural context. We’ve seen plenty of beautiful historical sites in China, and they’re all essentially the same to me without the story behind them. We can see beautiful things in the United States. What made the monastery we would see the next day so special wasn’t how it looked, but the almost supernatural curiosity of it and the people living there. I’d never heard of let alone seen anything like it.
I had no background information on the monastery before our arrival at the scenic lake in front of it. The monastery wasn’t the most gorgeous thing from afar (it was pretty, don’t get me wrong), but as Linda reeled off interesting religious stories and facts about the site, it’s intrigue grew exponentially. I quickly became tired of walking around the grey swamp-like lake as my eagerness to step foot inside the monastery walls grew. Walking up the steps to the meeting building at placed atop the monastery, Linda took each frequent break we needed to catch our breaths to tell us more about the yellow sect of buddhism and the building complex itself. One piece of information I remember especially vividly is that when one of the monks from the monastery dies, the other monks cut it into 108 pieces. After doing so, they burning a piece of two of the flesh to attract birds, and if birds devour th corpse, the person was pure, and if not, they were not. Cultural tidbits like this contributed to the overall otherworldly aura of the place.
As we entered the main meeting hall, Linda told us that we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, and we all obliged, glad to be able to experience the monastery first hand. Almost immediately after walking in and seeing hundred of monks in matching red garb and walls painted ceiling to floor with elaborate religious scenes, the urge to pull out my phone and document the experience flushed over me. I soon saw that I wasn’t alone in feeling that way as a lone westerner with a camcorder walked briskly through the hall, taking video or photographs as he went. I fully understand wanting to document the experience in such a concrete way as videography, but looking back and reading my attempts at describing the scene, I see that the almost supernatural effect of the cultural relic can’t be transmitted through any medium; you have to experience it yourself.
– Nicholas Slayton