Gyantse – Jewel of Tibet
Gyantse is easily the most beautiful and atmospheric town in Tibet. There is so much to see, we could easily have stayed a week – but, unfortunately, our 17-day adventure to Mount Kailash allowed for only one day in the photogenic town. Sometimes, you just have to make due with what you have.
To take full advantage of our single day, we started early; in fact, we were up and out before sunrise. This may sound a little too early, but the sun doesn’t come up before 8 AM in Tibet – China can’t be bothered to introduce time zones. Having said that, sunrise was the perfect time to catch Tibet’s stunning morning light.
As we walked from our hotel to the Gyantse Dzong, a fortress high atop a hill in the middle of town, vendors opened their stores, workers swept sidewalks, and children in blue school uniforms (which looked more like jogging suits) stared at us curiously as they passed us on their way to school. The Dzong itself is quite a spectacular sight in the warm morning light. The hulking, thick-walled castle has stood guard over Gyantse (in one form or another) for more than 700 years.
From the Dzong, we made a beeline across the old-city core to the extremely unique Palcho Monastery. The 600-year-old institution is particularly celebrated for the Kumbum, a circular, multi-storied building that houses dozens of chapels dedicated to different Buddhas and Tibetan protector deities.
Unfortunately, the moment we set foot in the monastery, we were tempted to walk out. Shortly after paying yet another high-priced entry fee, we were aggressively chased by a monk who sharply demanded to see our ticket yet again despite the fact that we had clearly just left the ticket window. He sternly announced that we had to buy yet another over-priced camera permit. Ugh!
Fed up with all of Tibet’s pricey camera permits, we said that we didn’t want to photograph the interior, but it was either pay or leave your camera at the entrance, meaning we couldn’t even photograph the views from the Kumbum’s upper platform. This extortionate policy was extreme even by the bizarre standards of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.). I swear, we’ve seen more “monks” counting money and stacking gold than praying.
After Tony argued in Chinese that the obsessive materialism did not at all go with Buddhism and called them bad monks for being so greedy, they offered us a 2-for-1 deal. Amused by a Buddhist 2-for-1 deal, we accepted. I’m glad we got over our initial reaction because the Kumbum is really quite a phenomenal structure and the elaborate interiors are a sight to behold. It’s also a great place to meet Tibetan pilgrims.
Winding your way up the 115-foot stupa on rickety ladders discovering each additional level of the Kumbum is quite a cool experience. In essence, the structure is a giant 3D mandala designed to allow visitors to move through the Tibetan vision of the universe. Each chapel is an explosion of color and gold leaf. The walls are covered with hyper-detailed Tibetan, Newari, and Chinese-influenced murals. Statues include Sakyamuni, Amitabha, and Maitreya Buddhas as well as familiar figures such as Guru Rinpoche. Our personal favorites were the demon-like Tibetan protector deities.
Unfortunately, some of the chapels were severely damaged during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, so certain statues and murals are newer reproductions. It’s not hard to see which ones are newer if you have been to other Tibetan monasteries. Having said that, the overall effect is quite impressive and the views from the top over Gyantse old town, the monastery, and the hilltop Dzong in the distance are quite impressive.
After we left the monastery, we strolled back through the Gyantse old town to explore the dusty, narrow backstreets and take in the amazing adobe architecture. Very cool! The whole area is a virtual labyrinth of traditional Tibetan homes, a glimpse of yesteryear which is hard to come by in the modern incarnation of Tibet. Every corner revealed new discoveries.
The mud walls were dotted with drying yak dung, which is used to fuel local stoves. The smell of dung smoke, salty Tibetan tea, and rancid yak butter wafted through the air. This may sound pretty bad, but the smell definitely grows on you when you learn to associate it with the huge, welcoming Tibetan smiles which greet you along the way.
We wove our way along the eroded dirt paths, sometimes dead-ending, other times discovering walk-throughs in the clustered, stacked mud-brick houses. We worked our way through the maze, slowly moving uphill towards some unknown destination, but all the paths seemed to be heading up. Eventually, we found a crumbling track that led along a craggy hill up to a stupa sprouting a virtual forest of prayer flags. It was an incredible sight and the perfect way to end our single day in Gyantse, the jewel of Tibet.
This post was originally written during a visit to Gyantse in 2007, the last year independent travel was allowed in the region. These days, visitors are required to join organized tours with official guides. Although much has changed in the region, Gyantse remains a remarkable destination. At least with official tours, the entry fee shenanigans have cooled off a bit.