The drive from Tsedang to Gyangtse covers a distance of 350 kilometers and weaves through three mountain passes and two lakes. The first part of the journey hits one with its sheer desolation. The terrain is dry and barren to the extent cracks tear up the mountains while a river bed glitters empty in the harsh sun; the landscape a monotonous shade of gold. Through ancient dirt roads clinging to mountain edges, I drove higher and higher, my SUV twisting and turning around crags of rock on to the first pass of the journey, Kambala pass, at a height of 4,794 meters. Draped in prayer flags the pass is breathtakingly beautiful. A nomad came from nowhere and placed a one day old little black goat in my arms. I could only look around me in awe, and at that little face with love.
On the other side of the pass is Yamdrok lake, one of the four holy lakes of Tibet and an important center for pilgrimage. The lake is a dead salt lake—no rivers feed it—and is considered to be the abode of various protector deities. Yamdrok has a surface area of 638 square kilometers at an elevation of 4,441 meters; over 20 islets with rich, picturesque pasture grounds surround it.
My journey took me by the banks of its turquoise waters reflecting the vivid blue skies above, further on to peaks and valleys clad in mountain grass and ice to the Karola pass at 5,050 meters where a glacier hissed slowly in the silence on the slopes of Nosin Kang Sa Mountain, which rises to nearly 7,300 meters. The last pass to cross was Simila pass at 4,330 meters overlooking a man-made lake with the most vivid green waters and red cliffs. And on we drove, through strange eerie shaped valleys and little remote villages huddled under austere peaks, to finally reach Gyangtse in the late afternoon.
Gyangtse, where pilgrims, merchants and travellers converge
The old town of Gyangtse is Tibet unadulterated. The third largest city in Tibet, it used to be an independent country but is now part of Shigatse. It sits by the road from Lhasa to Sakya, Shigatse and Yatong and has from ancient times been a center where pilgrims, merchants and travellers converge. Gyangtse is also known as the hero city. In 1904, the Young Husband British expedition invaded Gyangtse leading to the flight of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia. The Tibetan monks fought the British for seven days and seven nights at the Dzong, Gyangtse’s hilltop fort dating back to 1268, with mere stones and sling shots.
The 15th Century Pelkhor Chode Monastery is the most famous site in town. It was built in 1418 and houses all four Tibetan sects. The monastery is a veritable museum of Buddhist artifacts including holy scriptures written in gold ink on ancient paper made of poison and grass, and hence kept safe over the centuries from the hordes of mice that scramble through the rooms. The scriptures consist of the Genju which are 108 volumes of translated commandments and Tenju, the 200 volumes of translated commentaries.
Other treasures are original effigies of Buddhist deities, namely, Sakyamuni, also known as the present Buddha and depicted seated in a lotus position or reclining; Maitreya or future Buddha portrayed seated; horse headed Buddha, the protective Buddha; Taras or female Buddhas; and Avalokiteshwara, the boddhisattva of compassion. There are 21 Taras in Tibetan Buddhism of which the Green Tara and White Tara are the most important. Avalokiteshwara is commonly depicted with 11 heads facing three directions to enable the boddhisattva to see mankind everywhere. The image usually has 1,000 arms and 1,000 eyes in his hands to see and help all suffering.
The assembly hall, the core of the building, is decorated with smaller 15th Century thangkas. In the main chapel is a bronze statue of Sakyamuni about eight meters high, together with 16 clay boddhisattvas from the 18th Century; their long ears and big feet represent wisdom. A tiny statue of White Tara in the top floor is said to speak to those who have done good karma. One hundred and twenty monks live in the monastery today.
Gyangtse’s other claim to fame is its horse festival in June replete with horse races and archery contests. The event is preceded by a religious dance wherein the town’s monks wear fantastic masks, originating in the ancient Bon religion, and dance. A massive thangka is displayed on an outside wall of the monastery as part of the festivities. When not in use, the thangka, dating back 500 years and woven of silk, is stored inside.
Adjacent to the monastery is the splendid octagonal Kumbum stupa made of nine tiers, 77 chapels, and 108 gates. It is the largest stupa in Tibet and was built in the 15th Century by Nepalese newari craftsmen. The stupa houses a large number of miniature Buddhist paintings, estimated at about 100,000 altogether, and is, as a result, known as ‘the Pagoda of 100,000 Buddha Images’. The Kumbum’s liturgical collection also includes over 1,000 clay, bronze and gilded sculptures of the Buddha, and numerous thangkas. So the monks tell me as we chat between chants.
[In 2004 I travelled to Tibet on my own. I hired a 4X4, got a driver and guide, and drove through the mountains for seven days, stopping at monasteries on the way. My Tibet series documents this journey.]