The China-Nepal Friendship Highway (Hwy. 318) runs from Lhasa southwest through the Himalaya, to the Chinese border at Zhamgmu. After three days in Lhasa, our itinerary took us to Yamdrok Lake and then to Gyantse, where we spent one night, and then on to Shigatse, for another night’s stay.
Ready for its close-up: rent-a-yak, Yamdrok Lake
From my notes: Tuesday, July 13
Day 4: Hard to believe that the Tibet trip is already half over. We left Lhasa today at 8 AM – after I’d had a satisfying triple cappuccino and a slice of lucious Cheesecake at The Summit coffee house of Beijing East Rd.
We stopped for a photo op at an 11-th century Buddha rock carving outside Lhasa. Our 4-WD Land Cruiser [me eternally in the front seat, a concession to advanced age and/or status] droved through some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen: rock, sand, rivers, lakes, scrubby vegetation, grazing yaks, the Gamta Pass, then to Yamdrok Lake, one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet.
Lunch buffet in a nondescript nowhere town, then drove through a delicious and refreshing rain. Oh yes, we saw a glacier – I ran through the cold and wet to the restroom, then jumped back in the vehicle.
Before we knew it, we had arrived in Gyantse and the gate of the Palkor Choede Monastery. We would visit one of the highlights of the tour for me, the famous Gyantse Kumbum.
Gyantse Kumbum, Palkor Choede Monastery, originally built in 1497 by a prince of Gyantse
Kumbum in Tibetan means “One hundred thousand holy images.” From Wikipedia:
The Kumbum or great gomang(many-doored) chorten at Gyantse is a three dimensional mandala, meant to portray the Buddhist cosmos. The Kumbum, like other mandalas, which are portrayed by a circle within a square, enables the devotee to take part in the Buddhist perception of the universe and can depict one’s potential as they move through it. Mandalas are meant to aid an individual on the path to enlightenment. The Kumbum holds a vast number of images of deities throughout its structure with Vajradhara (Sanskrit:Vajradhāra, Tibetan: rdo rje ‘chang (Dorje Chang), English: Vajraholder), the cosmic Buddha, at the top.
Detail of sculpture in one of the 108 chapels, Gyantse Kumbum
Pigeons on a ledge, Gyantse Kumbum
Page from sacred texts, main assembly hall, Palkor Choede Monastery
Yak butter lamp, Palkor Choede Monastery
Notes (continued): The real reason I was here was for Kumbum Stupa (or chorten). I did all five levels – I think there are 7, but the top ones are closed off. Got some great interior shots of some of the small chapels. There are superb views of the Gyantse Fort from the top level.
Sharing a room at a local hotel for 50 RMB. Dinner at a local foreign restaurant – OK curried potatoes. Walked to Gyantse Fort and part of the way up – no ticket booth or entrance fee, a rarity on this trip – followed by a big mangy black dog, who may have been the fort’s “Guardian.” Didn’t make it to the top, but watched the setting sun hit the mountains sideways, throwing them into relief and seeming to make them move.
Gyantse Fort stands guard over the town. This became my favorite building, outside the Potala, in Tibet. You don’t get more dramatic than this.
Gyantse Fort, view from the hallway window of my hotel. When the British invaded Tibet in 1904, the local Tibetans defended their town from this fort.
Gyantse Fort: evening ascent, with dog.
Day 5: Shigatse
Shigatse is Tibet’s second-largest city, and is home to Tashilhunpo Monastery, founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama. Tashilhunpo is important as the seat of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama. Our guide emphasized that the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, while the Panchen Lama is an incarnation of Amitabha, “The Buddha of Infinite Light.”
Notable sights at Tashilhunpo included the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, and the funeral stupa of the 10th Panchen Lama, who led an interesting but rather tragic life, becoming a member of China’s National Assembly, then dying rather suddenly in 1989 after affirming his loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
Tashilhumpo Monastery, golden roof
Tashilhumpo Monastery, windows
Tashilhumpo Monastery, passing of the prayer beads
My hotel room in Shigatse was the most comfortable so far on this trip, although I hardly slept because of the altitude. I took a long walk in the sweltering sun to look at Shigatse Fort, a reconstruction of the original destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and to explore a local street market. In the evening I went to a park outside the Panchen Lama’s summer palace, and watched the mountains disappear into dusk as the sun set.
Stay tuned: next stop, Mount Everest