The largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in southwest China, Ganden Sumtseling Gompa (Songzanlin Si; ¥65; 7:30am-6:30pm), is located 3km (2 miles) north of town. The Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) monastery was built in 1679 by the fifth Dalai Lama. Modeled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the temple was shelled by the Chinese army in 1959 and officially reopened in 1981. About 700 monks currently reside here. The main temple at the top of the hill, a four-story structure with a gold-plated roof reached by climbing a series of steps (or you can have your taxi drive you up to the north entrance [beimen]), has a solemn main hall with 108 red pillars and scores of colorful thangka hanging from the ceiling. Ascend to the roof, where a simply glorious panorama of Zhongdian awaits you. In the living quarters of the Living Buddha, check out the smooth marks along the floor, where thousands have prostrated themselves in front of the Lama. Construction is ongoing as much of the original temple is demolished and then rebuilt.
Returning to town on Changzheng Lu, you'll see a large white chorten (Tibetan stupa) on a hill to the west. There is typically a stupa at the entrance to every Tibetan town which, as a symbol of protection, is usually decorated with prayer flags and jewels, and ringed with stones laid by pilgrims as expressions of particular wishes or prayers. Pilgrims entering town are required to circumambulate the stupa three times.
To the south, Zhongdian's old town is worth a tour. From the Tibet Hotel, head east on Tuanjie Lu until it curves south onto Cangfang Jie. You'll soon come to the Old Town Scripture Chamber (Gucheng Zangjing Tang). Admission is ¥10 and hours are from 7am to 8pm. The 300-year-old temple housed part of the Red Army on their Long March in 1936. The triple-eaved main hall contains a statue of an all-seeing and omnipotent Buddha with a thousand heads and hands (qianshou qianyan).
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