A Taste of Tibet: Diqing, China

Gedong Mask Festival - Benzilan China
Tibet is world famous for its culture of Buddhism and holy mountains but its neighbor Diqing is a well-kept secret. When China drew the line around the autonomous region in 1951, they didn’t magically move all the Tibetan people and the centuries-old monasteries inside the new boundary…the Tibetan people and their culture live on in this far northwestern province of Yunnan. To navigate this far-flung world, we had the help of Songtsam Lodges, a small network of inns built into the Tibetan communities throughout the province, where we relished in local cuisine, hiked the holy mountains, and experienced the most impressive cultural event of all…the Gedong Mask Festival (watch the VIDEO here).


Where is Shangri-la in China
Our first stop with Songtsam was in the fabled town of Shangri-la, set at nearly 10,000 FASL and in the heart of the three parallel rivers area (the mighty Mekong, Salween, and Yangstze), it’s considered the gateway to the Tibetan Kingdom.


Songstam Shangri-la in China
Built from a traditional Tibetan dwelling with thick wooden beams and colorful carvings, the Songtsam Shangri-la embraces the area’s rich roots and a bit of the grandeur its famed 17th-century neighbor, Songzanlin Monastery. We walked into the lobby from the brisk mountain air and felt ourselves instantly warm with a pot of ginger tea, the heat of the fireplace, and the cozy ambiance of handwoven textiles and storied antiques.


Dongzhulin Monastery Benzilan
After a trip to Old Town Shangri-la (see slideshow for pics), we continued deeper into the mountains with a four-hour ride to Songtsam Benzilan and the home of the Gedong Mask Festival. Whenever possible we try to coordinate our visits to a country or city with its festivals, so when we found out about the annual festival at the neighboring Dong Zhu Lin monastery, we knew it could not be missed.


Gedong Mask Festival at Dongzhulin Monastery Benzilan
Built in 1574 and escaping the demolition of the 20th-century’s Cultural Revolution, the Dong Zhu Lin monastery is one of the best preserved in Yunnan. With sweeping golden eaves and colorful wooden carvings along its roof line, the beauty of Tibetan architecture had us in awe.


Locals ladies in their cloth-braided hair - benzilan china
In anticipation of the festival, the town was flooded with locals ladies in 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 rare remote festival. We couldn’t have felt more honored to be there.


Gedong Mask Festival dancers Benzilan China
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.


Gedong Mask Festival, Benzilan China
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.


Tibetan Monks Dongzhulin Lamasery
The performances were completely magical, enchanting everyone…monks included.


Crazy monks in drag throwing chalk
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.


Chinese Gambling in Benzilan China
Outside the holy monastery it was a veritable carnival of shopping, food, dentistry (no joke, check the slideshow) and games. Little gambling booths like this with a board of animal pictures and matching dice drew intense contestants. Guys shouting, throwing money, and holding some serious poker faces made for the best people watching.


Tibetan horn players in Benzilan
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.


Dancers at the Gedong Mask Festival
This quartet of dancers, donning very ornately carved wooden head-pieces 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).


Thangka at Tibet Monestary
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.


Songstam Benzilan Hotel China
Heading back to Songtsam Benzilan our heads were spinning from the energy of the festival. The passion, devotion, and pageantry involved in Tibetan Buddhism was like nothing we’d ever seen and may never see again.


  • so wondrous and colorful.. I want to play the gambling game … what is the currency? Did you get an dental work done??? (you are due for a cleaning) hahahhaa well just amazed and loving the story. thanks!

    • yeah we wanted to play too (if you were there i am SURE we would have made our way into that crew). currency was the YEN or RNB as they call it now (“the peoples money”). same all through china.

      yes, we DO need dental work, but that was not the right time….i dont need a dremel in my teeth. hahahah…

  • Dad

    Truly beyond “colorful.” Great images and coverage (242 images!) Tibet falls into my category of a “foreign” place…somewhere between Miami and Katmandu

    • So glad you liked it and made it 242 images deep. When we get home, perhaps we’ll have to give Miami another visit…that’s sounding more foreign by the minute

  • Looks like you had great timing with that festival. Those masks are incredible!

    • It completely worked out. If anyone is traveling to Yunnan or Tibet, look out for the Gedong festival. It happens at a couple different monasteries at different times. And oh yes the masks! Almost kabuki like at times ; )

  • Just came across your blog. You have some great posts and photos up here! Would love to go to Tibet one day. If only it wasn’t so difficult to get there. Every time I decide to go they close the border again.

    • Thanks for saying hello Tammy, great to meet you. Thanks for the love on the posts and photos. They closed the border on us too when we were in Nepal….they are so finicky about it.

  • valcope

    Do you think this is where Julie Taymor got some of her ideas?

    • I have to be honest, I looked up Julie Taymor to know who you were talking about—but yes, perhaps! It looks like a broadway muscial from the photos but check the video we just posted, it was surprisingly serious.

  • so wondrous and colorful.. I want to play the gambling game … what is the currency? Did you get an dental work done??? (you are due for a cleaning) hahahhaa well just amazed and loving the story. thanks!

  • David Carillet

    A magical place. I’ll bet you took a bus on some horrible eroded “roads” to get there though.

    • You are so right David…check the first two photos of the slideshow and you will get an idea of what we drove through. that said, China is on a tear with their roads and i feel with a year from now all the major spots will be smoothly paved roads….oh and the train system is fantastic!

  • Extraordinary! I don’t know how you continue to make us feel as though we were there with you – the details, the colors, and those amazing faces! I especially love little vignettes that capture the essence of a place and its people! This was a truly special experience!

    • Franky #1. thanks for all your amazing comments lately, you are on a tear. and anne and i were just saying how cool it is that we keep in touch. re: the blog it is so great that the photos and story connect with you in such a way, that is more than we could have hoped for! oh and the faces at this festival…it was non-stop!

  • Maria Falvey

    The color and costuming – quite an event!

    • so true maria, and my photos do nothing to capture it, but the drums from the monks and the ohh’s and ahhh’s from the audience made it even more magical. quite the even is RIGHT!

  • Mom

    Today is dad’s birthday – I am sure he would be awestruck by your adventures! I think you inherited his travel “gene”!! I am sure he is with you in spirit. xoxo – miss you 🙁

    • Happy birthday Dad! He was such a traveler in his day, not sure if he would be awed….but thanks for the love mom. i think I definitely inherited it….and from nana howard too!. Miss you too….we will be home before you know it!

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  • It’s a good idea to coordinate visits to a country or city with its festivals. When I’ve traveled to a city, I’m usually never there when its super cool festival takes place (Although I did luck out once in Kurashiki, Japan, and I ended up there during a really popular festival).

    • We try for this but we’ve had a lot of dumb luck too. Being in Sapa, Vietnam for Tet and Hoi An for their full moon festival were two great scores…more on those in upcoming posts. What was the festival in Kurashiki?

      • I wish I knew what the festival in Kurashiki was about. I still don’t know even know its name (It took place during Golden Week). The best thing about the festival (It was a two day festival that took place both nights I was in Kurashiki) was that I randomly met a Japanese person who spoke excellent English and had lived in both the U.K. and the U.S.

  • yeah so did we, but those guys were ruling the table :), plus we didn’t have a clue what they were saying, or the odds. currency was still Yen….and no although we did debate it, as it’s been almost 450 days since our last cleaning (dont tell our moms).

  • Hahaha but plenty of fresh air and sunshine… Moms love that for their “kids”

  • carol laager

    love the dancers and just beautiful scenery as usual!!

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