Close enough to the spotlight yet still unknown (and not for long): The Valley of Benzilan
Few peaks away from Shangri-La, away from the crowds, away from the picturesque façade of an ever-hiding Buddhism faith is a little valley that has kept its original warmth and authentic sense of Tibetan culture, it is called Benzilan.
Don’t expect the fancy kind of ancient town, which, if you are reading about Benzilan, you most probably already visited. Benzilan is an unpretentious gathering of few houses along one of the turns of the Yangtze River, right before the Great Bend.
Here the caravans of the Ancient Tea Horse Road used to restore animals and hire few sturdy muleteers before venturing across the passes of Baima Snow Mountains and beyond until Lhasa.
Today, Benzilan doesn’t offer the elaborate Tibetan experience that would daze you in Zhongdian. This is a place where you can regain spiritual strength, be intrigued by its ever-changing mountains and don’t feel guilty if you gain a pound or two with its genuine food. A short hike away from town is the beautifully restored monastery of Dongzhulin and its Yellow Hat Monks’ community.
Young believers are seen walking around the monastery in the early morning hours, reciting prays before taking their breakfast, commonly made of Tsampa and water. Tsampa is fine flour compost made of sundried barley and it is considered a crucial element of their diet.
Take off your shoes, leave your camera behind and enter a world of rhythmic chants sang by a chorus of monks wrapped in their red and purple vestals, almost like hypnotizing lullabies, their chants seem to sooth your mood as you slowly move around the room, your back against the wall, your eyes glued on the ever-smiling Buddha.
Imbued with a strong smell of yak butter candles, the main pray room’s high ceilings are crossed with thin rays of light, bright enough to reveal dark red walls and a joyful array of timeless Tanka paintings. Legend has it that this monastery used to be the ultimate true spiritual retreat of the area, long before its noisy neighbor Songzanlin in Zhongdian got under the spotlight.
To visit a monastery here is something one should not take lightly. Local communities are strongly connected to the essence of their spiritual origins. Spirituality has bond tribes, unified mountaineers with the people of the valleys. Nothing beats a humble chat with an old trader peacefully seating on the steps of his house the warm afternoon sun.
Tibetans follow what is known as ‘the wheel of life’, a circular path of truth that embraces all passages of one’s existence, before and after the short time on Earth, which we call life.