Gyantse and Shigatse are two very interesting cities on Southern Friendship Highway in Tibet. We spent some days in both places wandering around in beautiful monasteries and admiring the breathtaking view from the fortress in Gyantse.
Gyantse turned out to be bigger than we had expected, but still not so big that it had a modern shopping center like the one we encountered in Shigatse. Tourists come primarily to see two attractions in Gyantse, the 13th century town fortress, Gyntse Dzong, and Pelkor Chôde Monastery, which dates from as far back as 1418 when building was begun on it. In addition, the town has a large Tibetan district, which is worth a visit on its own.
The fortress, Gyantse Dzong, has been erected on a small mountain right in the center of town. It costs 30Y to get in. As opposed to Potala, it’s not especially well cared for, but the good thing is that we could go almost anywhere unhindered. There are a lot of rooms, although not many of them are in use.
There’s also a museum at the fortress with displays that tell about an event that took place in 1904, when the British came to Tibet in order to force trade agreements on the people. The British attacked the fortress, and at least 700 Tibetans lost their lives. According to the story, only 4 British soldiers were killed. The museum contains a whole lot of errors, both spelling errors and errors in the historical facts. For example, it’s reported that 10,000 British stormed the fortress, not 1,000, as was actually the case. This museum must be one of the few examples where the Chinese apparently side with the Tibetans. Because of all the errors, the whole thing can be very amusing from a Western point of view, which is really a shame considering the tragic events that occurred here.
Pelkor Chôde Monastery
The monastery is situated within a huge stone wall. In addition to the monastery, there’s also a separate building right next to it called Gyantse Kumbum. This building has 6 stories, the 6th one being a dome. All of the floors have a number of small rooms containing different figures and paintings. The idea is that the Buddhist pilgrims enter a room, say a prayer and then go on to the next room. The pilgrims continue to pray in this manner all the way up to the 6th story, which is probably the holiest floor of all. It’s said that there are 108 rooms in all. Sigbjørn went into every one of them on his way up, so the rest of us are wondering if he’s considering converting to Buddhism.
For a non-Buddhist it’s the view one can get from the top floor that may be the most interesting thing there, even though it in no way can compare with the view one gets from Gyantse Dzong.
The temple itself is in actual use, in contrast to Potala, where the monks are employed by the Chinese State. When we got inside the temple, there were a lot of monks singing and praying. Jardar snuck up on the roof and succeeded in recording the song on video.
We spent about 1 ½ days in Gyantse, before heading on to Shigatse on July 15th.
The road to Shigatse is nicely paved and goes through a more or less flat valley with many large cultivated areas on both sides. Flowing alongside of the road is a river, canalized large parts of the way for the sake of the farmlands. It’s about 95 km between the two towns. Gyantse lies at 4040 m, some 200 meters above Shigatse.
We found a rather rundown hotel in Shigatse, where we were able to get accommodation for 100Y per room without even asking, while the official price was 200Y. The staff seemed to be very happy to have us there. Most tourists in Landcruisers spend the night at a couple of other hotels in town, which have a higher standard.
The person who wasn’t so happy when he went to pay for his breakfast the morning of July 16th was Jardar, who discovered that all the cash in his wallet had vanished, about 1100Y. Back in the room we realized that someone had entered during the night and taken the money from the wallet that was in the handlebar bag. Jardar and Lyngve hadn’t locked the door. Neither had the other two. Sigbjørn had been awakened by someone who had opened the door, come into the room and looked around with a flashlight, and then gone out again, locking the door. Our conclusion was that one of the staff had come in and stolen the money. Nothing else was missing. Even Jardar’s digital camera, which was also in the bag, hadn’t been touched. We would never have been able to prove anything, so Jardar just had to accept that the money was gone for good and take out some more.
A permit and more monasteries
It rained cats and dogs more or less the entire day. We had two goals for the day: to get a permit from the Immigration Police (PSB) to go to Nepal, and to visit Shigatse’s only tourist attraction, the Tashilhunpo Monastery.
We managed to get a permit relatively easily, but not from the police, as Lonely Planet had advised. The police sent us on to a travel agency, which fixed the permit for us at a cost of 150Y per person. They didn’t ask how we planned to go, but on the permit the man in the agency had crossed out “by car”, even though we hadn’t said anything about that. We figure that PSB wants to have as little to do with us foreigners as possible, and therefore refers most of the work with tourists to a travel bureau. That’s fine with us. Now we can go to Everest Base Camp with a good conscience.
Tashilhunpo Monastery is a large complex with a lot of imposing buildings. After we had paid the entrance fee (55Y), we were informed that the monastery closed in one hour. We were irritated that we hadn’t been told this when we bought the ticket. A young man scribbled some curlycues on our tickets and said that with these we would be able to come back again after 2:30 PM, if we wanted to. Sigbjørn discovered that this was just nonsense when he tried to get in again later that day.
For those who aren’t especially interested in Buddhist art and teachings, one hour would be enough time to see most of what’s inside the stone walls of the monastery. Of course, taking pictures isn’t allowed inside of the most interesting rooms. That is, unless you’re willing to pay 75Y extra, which we weren’t.
The next stretch
The next adventure now is Everest Base Camp, which we’ll get to in about 6 days, if all goes as planned, i.e. around July 23rd. At the crossroad towards Everest Base Camp the group will split in two. Eric has decided to head home a little earlier. So he’ll be biking the fastest route to Kathmandu, while Sigbjørn, Lyngve and Jardar will take a detour to Everest Base Camp.
We don’t know if there will be any Internet cafés on the road ahead, maybe not until Kathmandu. We’re hoping to find one in the border town, Zhangmu.