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Songzanlin Monastery Shangri-la

5 kilometers from the seat of Zhongdian County, located at the foot of Foping Mountain, Songzanlin Monastery is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan, and it is one of the famous monasteries in the Kang region.

Songzanlin Monastery, or 'Little Potala' as it is affectionately known, is a spiritual place that invites you to discover the mystery and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Since the 5th Dalai Lama chose the site through divination in 1679, the monastery has grown into the most important community of its kind in Yunnan. Construction began in 1679 and was completed in 1681. In 1724, during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng in the Qing Dynasty, the monastery was renamed the "Guihua Monastery". Naturally, throughout its history spanning 325 years there have been ups and downs - the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), for instance, saw the lamasery almost completely destroyed - but the strong faith of the people of Shangri-La has always prevailed, and today Songzanlin once again houses more than 700 monks and lamas.

Built in the style of Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, the magnificent monastery complex resides on top of a hill and consists of the two Zhacang and Jikang lamaseries - which take on the form of five-story Tibetan watchtowers - five gates, numerous sub-lamaseries and hundreds of rooms for the monks. Walking up the 146 steps that lead to the main hall is really a tiring exercise at 3,300 meters above sea level. The gilded copper roof endows the monastery with strong Tibetan features and the 108 (an auspicious number in Buddhism) columns downstairs also feature the monastery with characteristics of Han nationality.

The five-story Tibetan-style main hall in the center of the compound is the highlight of any visit, especially during prayer time in the morning or during auspicious festivals when devotees come from all over the province to take part in the festivities. The hall itself can accommodate some 1,600 lamas sitting in meditation or chanting Buddhist scriptures. The 16 colorful pictures hanging high in the hall are said to have been painted by renowned lamas with golden liquid given by the Fifth Dalai Lama.

Amongst the monastery's many treasures are rare Buddhist scriptures written on palm leaves, which have been used by previous Dalai and Panchen Lamas, as well as the eight famous gold-covered sculptures of Sakyamuni. Colorful murals painted by renowned lamas show guardian deities, scenes from the Lord Buddha's life and the ''wheel of life'' that depicts the six realms of existence: heaven, demigods, humankind, hell, hungry ghosts and animals. The hub in the wheel's center symbolizes ignorance, hatred and greed, the three poisons of life.