A Taste of Tibet

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Whenever possible we try to coordinate our visits to a country or city with its festivals, so when we found out about the annual Gedong Mask Festival in Benzilan, China we knew it could not be missed. After our stay with Songstam Shangri-la, we continued deeper into the holy mountains of Deqin to their sister property Songtsam Benzilan, a charming lodge in a traditional Tibetan neighborhood and a perfect launchpad for the celebration of a lifetime.

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A valley of terraced barley fields and white-walled Tibetan farmhouses, Benzilan is a place the owner of Songstam discovered on a “treasure-hunting” trip he took into the mountains. It was a place virtually untouched and inaccessible to the outside world until the road was built in 2008 but when he found it, he knew he had to create his lodge here.  Today the 10-room Benzilan gives a taste of Tibetan living with the luxuries of a five-star hotel.

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We arrived from Shangri-la just in time for afternoon tea. We sat under the flower-draped trellis alongside the hotel’s vegetable garden, settling in nicely with Benzilan’s complimentary green tea and scones.

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Our room was pristine with a fluffy white bed and a chic seating area to gaze out to the neighborhood temple on the hill.

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In the morning we couldn’t wait to see the Gedong mask festival and raced to Dong Zhu Lin monastery. Built in 1574 and escaping the demolition of the 20th-century’s Cultural Revolution, Dong Zhu Lin is one of the best preserved monasteries in Yunnan. With sweeping golden eaves and colorful wooden carvings along its roof line, the beauty of Tibetan architecture had us in awe.

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The monastery was flooded with locals ladies with their cloth-braided hair, monks swaddled in crimson robes, tribal Naxi families bundled up in their yak-wool sweaters, and about two westerners. When we talked to the other two “tourists,” we found out one had been living in Yunnan for five years and the other was a Tibetologist who had made a pilgrimage to Benzilan to see this remote festival. We couldn’t have felt more honored to be there.

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Surrounded by monks playing leather drums and massive horns, masked dancers pranced around the monastery courtyard to appease the gods. Though largely cryptic to us, the general gist of the Buddhist mask festival is to familiarize believers with the frightening faces of hell and show them an alternate path to paradise.

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This creature, seemingly a mix between a human, pig and a deer came into the festival to much fanfare, both from the audience and the musicians. After completing the dance it proceeded to use its antlers to tear through a fake human heart, perhaps displaying the fragility of the human body and its irrelevance in the afterlife.

 
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The performances were completely magical, enchanting everyone…monks included.
 
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To let the audience know that the first half of the procession had come to a close, four monks wearing ladies dresses and old-man masks ran around the monastery throwing fists of chalk powder all over anyone who dared remain. Sending guests running, giggling and squealing out the door, the monks tactics proved very effective.

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Outside the monastery courtyard was a carnival of shopping, food, and games. Seeing the typically shy monks let loose added to the fun.  

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After an 90-minute break, the mask festival was ready to resume. These two monks opened up their pipes and let the farthest reaches of the valley know it was time for the second act.

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This quartet of dancers, donning very ornately carved wooden headdresses and the most exquisite cloaks, each grasped a bundle of twine in one hand and a knife in the other (when we tried our normal game of “Chinese Charades” to clarify what those two items signified we didn’t come up with a definitive answer).

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After a dozen more dances and a ceremony to cast out bad juju were performed, we all waited in great anticipation for the grand finale. Once a year and for one day only, this massive embroidered thangka is revealed to the devoted attendees of the Gedong Mask Festival. The crowd meditates on its beauty and symbolism for as long as they need to hold the image in their minds until next year then runs inside to pray and give offerings to Buddha.

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The next morning our heads were spinning from the energy of the festival.  We rehashed the epic day over a delicious breakfast in the Benzilan dining room. The passion, devotion, and pageantry involved in this Tibetan festival was like nothing we’d ever seen and an experience we could have only dreamed of for a perfect China honeymoon.

Much love from Benzilan,
Anne & Mike
HoneyTrek.com

Note: Benzilan invited us to be their guests; however, all opinions are our own.

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