Songzanlin Monastery, also called Guihua Monastery, is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province. It is located at the foot of Foping Mountain, about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) north of Shangri-La County.
It was originally constructed in 1679 A.D., and it was finished in 1681. With an area of 33 hectares (82 acres), the monastery is one of the largest lamaseries in the Kangzang (tri-province area of Tibet, Sichuan, and Yunnan) region. Built along the mountains with a magnificent facade, the monastery seems like a group of ancient castles. A five-story Tibetan-style building serves as the main hall of the monastery, which is decorated with splendid frescos depicting Buddhist tales and legends. The gilded copper roof of the monastery was constructed in Tibetan style and the 108 (an auspicious number in Buddhism) columns downstairs feature the characteristics of Han nationality. The inside-halls are characterized by the cloisters which are adorned with wonderful sculptures and spectacular frescos. The two main lamaseries called Zhacang and Jikang are located in the center at the highest point in the complex, commanding the highest position in the architectural complex. During the monasteries golden age over 3,000 monks lived and studied there.
There are many treasures in the monastery, including golden figures of Buddha josses, golden lamps, Tibetan lections and silver censers. Amongst the treasures, the most famous one are eight gold-covered sculptures of Sakyamuni. In the early Qing Dynasty the Mu Family (rulers of Lijiang) presented the monastery with dozens of bronze sculptures, the Ganzur scriptures hand-written in liquid gold, scriptures written on pattra leaves, gold lamps, and many exquisite gilded silver incense burners. Much of these relics still remain for viewing today.
Because the monastery is a faithful imitation of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, it also called 'the little Potala Palace '. It is said that the Fifth Dalai Lama decided the location though divination and gave the name—Gedansongzanlin. It has become the seat of the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist theocracy in the big region around it east of Tibet.
It is in the far northern tip of Yunnan Province at an elevation of 3,380 meters (11,090 feet). So if you visit the area, make sure to do good preparation for altitude sickness. It snows even in August, and has a rainy season that runs from June through September. Therefore, spring and summer are the best seasons for people to visit it. In addition, the periods of the festivals are also favorable visiting time. About November 29 each year, the Gedong Festival is celebrated here by the Tibetans. Pious believers, with their knees and foreheads knocking the ground at every step, come here to pray. A highlight of this festival is when dancers do the Cham Dance. They put on masks and clothes that portray deities, ghosts and animals. A three day Horse Racing Festival is held sometime about June. Besides horse racing, there is wrestling and other sports.