Diqing – Plateau Wonderland


DEEP in the snowy mountains of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, legend recalls, is a blessed valley in the shape of an eight-petal lotus. Spectacular snowcapped mountains, steep gorges and alpine meadows sprinkled with wildflowers are found here. It is Shangri-La in Yunnan Province’s Di-qing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

Diqing, or Deqen, sits in the transitional zone between the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Its ancient history, distinctive landforms, mysterious religions and diverse ethnic groups lend a great appeal to this faraway land.

The Gedeng Neolithic Site in Weixi County attests to human habitation as early as 7,000 years ago. And inscribed slates unearthed in the region reveal a thriving civilization dating back 2,400 years.

Located on the ancient Tea-Horse Trail, also known as the Southern Silk Road, Diqing is an intersection of exchanges between China’s east and west, north and south. In addition to Tibetans, who account for one third of the local population, it is home to 25 other ethnic communities, including the Lisu, Naxi and Bai. They all live in concord with each other, while retaining their respective cultures, which have converged and co-developed over the past generations.

The Ganden Songtsen Ling Monastery, Dondrup Ling Monastery and the Dongba pictographs are among the most iconic manifestations of Diqing’s diverse and mysterious folk traditions, which add brilliance to the region’s scenic panorama.

Diqing remained unknown to the outside world until 1933, when English writer James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon, which describes an isolated but pleasurable valley called Shangri-La whose residents of different ethnic backgrounds enjoyed peace and longevity. The novel was made into a film in 1937, and the theme song “Beautiful Shangri-La” then spread across the world.

The book was thought to present Shangri-La as an imaginary place. The exact location could not be identified, though a number of countries around the world have claimed it is on their territory. Now 60 years of research provide sufficient evidence that Diqing is none other than Shangri-La.

The English “Shangri-La” sounds like it originates in the Tibetan dialect spoken in Zhongdian, capital of Diqing. In the Tibetan language, the word means “moon in one’s heart.” Moreover, the folklore and natural environment depicted in the novel bear a strong resemblance to Zhongdian. In 2001, the region officially changed its name to Shangri-La.

Diqing boasts a wide diversity of landforms – mountains, lakes, glaciers, karsts, meadows – and climate zones, owing to its peculiar geographic location, complex geological structures and sharp altitudinal differences. What’s more, the region is rich in biodiversity. Almost all plants that usually grow in the tropical, temperate and frigid zones of the northern hemisphere can be found here. The region is thus treasured as a botanical gene bank.

The Ganden Songtsen Ling Monastery

Shangri-La is about 200 km from Lijiang, an ancient city inhabited by the Naxi people. Heading north from Lijiang, the scenery changes dramatically with the increasing altitude. The sight of wildflowers bathed in glorious sunshine and cows and sheep grazing on the meadows lightens the heart.

No visitor to Shangri-La should miss the Ganden Songtsen Ling Monastery, known as the soul of Diqing.

Built in 1679, at the order of the fifth Dalai Lama following an augury, it is the largest Tibetan Buddhist shrine in Yunnan Province. Rising along a hillside, this majestic complex, with its towering roofs of gilded brass tiles gleaming in the sun, along with vermilion walls, white windows and black curtains standing out against a clear blue sky, evokes a heavenly aura. This design wins it the renown of “minor Potala Palace.”

Ganden Songtsen Ling was significant for the seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso. Before the sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyasto (1683-1708) passed away, he predicted, “The white crane will not stay afar. Someday, it will return from Litang.” It turned out that his soulboy was indeed found to be born in Litang, now a county in Sichuan Province.

Unfortunately, the boy’s life came under threat due to a Mongolian clan leader who had faked a reincarnation for political gain. The monks had to send the true soulboy to the Ganden Songtsen Ling Lamasery for refuge. As soon as he arrived in Shangri-La, he proclaimed: “This is the land I have been dreaming of. I am indeed blessed to see this land myself.” Years later, he was recognized by Qing Emperor Kangxi as the genuine reincarnation, and formally became the seventh Dalai Lama.

Kelzang Gyatso was deeply obliged to the lamasery and threw his full support behind it. The bronze statues of the fifth and the seventh Dalai Lamas are enshrined in the front and back halls. It was their contributions that developed the lamasery into the most significant Tibetan Buddhist temple in Yunnan.

Ganden Songtsen Ling not only boasts imposing architecture, but also a large collection of antiques such as the eight gold-plated figures of Sakyamuni made in the period of the fifth and seventh Dalai Lamas, palm-leaf manuscripts, and gold butter lamps. The frescos on its winding corridors are also exquisite and stunning.

1   2   3   4