Exploring Gyantse:

One of Tibet`s most traditional towns. You’ll find fantastic architecture, amazing back streets and lots of cows.

Gyantse

We visited Gyantse on a three-day trip by mini-van that also included Shalu monastery and the town of Shigatse. We reached Gyantse after a long eight-hour ride, made even longer by our detour to see Yamdrok-Tso Lake.

Yamdrok-Tso Lake

From the Kamba-La Pass at 4794 metres, there are spectacular views over the turquoise waters of the lake. However, due to road works (expected to be finished next year), it wasn’t possible to continue along the old road to Gyantse, so we had to turn back and rejoin the new road.

Yamdrok-Tso Lake

The final part of the journey took us through fertile and idyllic fields, full of grazing animals and harvesting farmers.

Rural scenery near Gyantse
Rural scenery near Gyantse

The approach to Gyantse is truly spectacular: the ruins of the fortress, the Dzong, destroyed by Younghusband and his British troops, set on a steep, rocky hill, stand out against the azure sky and the golden roofs of the monastery gleam in the sun.

Gyantse Fort in the late afternoon

Gyantse itself is rather more prosaic; it is basically a scruffy one-street town (2007: has expanded now) with an interesting, traditional Tibetan quarter.

Gyantse Fort in the morning

We had just enough time to visit the Pelkhor Chöde Monastery complex, situated dramatically at the foot of the barren mountains and surrounded by a brown wall.

Traditional buildings in Gyantse

The highlight of this place is the Kumbum, an 8 storey chorten, topped by a golden roof and umbrella, apparently the best- preserved structure of this kind in Tibet.

The Kumbum

The 8 floors contain 108 chapels, all covered in frescoes and many holding statues. The outside is painted a dazzling white and decorated with colourful stucco, as well as four huge pairs of eyes, which survey the surrounding countryside.

The Kumbum

Though most of the frescoes are hidden in darkness and many are damaged, we managed to make out some frightening demons, adorned with necklaces of skulls, fine many-armed Buddhas and delicate maidens.

The Kumbum

The chapels which are set at the corners are the best, as they are two storeys’ high and contain a variety of large statues.

The Kumbum

On the sixth floor we emerged onto an open platform, level with the painted eyes, from which we could observe the other monastic buildings, the walls, the mountains, as well as the Tibetan old town.

Gyantse Old town seen from the Kumbum

The next day we visited the old fortress, or Dzong, and explored the Tibetan quarter.

Gyantse Old town seen from the fort

As we mentioned before, most of the Dzong is in ruins; thanks to Younghusband and his men who came riding in from Sikkim to ‘open’ Tibet to trade… They are, however, quite atmospheric ruins. One of the highlights is a grey memorial stone with the curious inscription ‘Jump off the cliff’

Directions or an order?

However, this isn’t an exhortation to visitors, but rather a commemoration of an act of bravery committed by the outnumbered defenders.

Gyanste Fort seen from the old town

The old Tibetan quarter, lying at the foot of the fortress, is another gem that takes you right back in time.

Gyantse Old Town

Along the main street, there are placid cows chewing the cud in front of every household, while pigs and sheep rummage around in the gutters.

Cows in Gyantse Old Town

People gather at the communal pumps to draw water, wash their clothes, hair or rinse dyed strings of sheep’s wool.

Gyantse Old Town

Inside the traditional stone houses, Tibetan ladies work the heavy wooden looms to weave cloth or colourful Tibetan carpets.

Gyantse Old Town

A peaceful, mellow village ambience reigns and life continues, unhurriedly, as it always has done.

Gyantse Old Town

Gyantse Practicalities:

Accommodation:

We stayed at the Jianzang hotel which lies on the main street of the modern part of town (Yingxiong Nanlu) and is certainly one of the nicest places we stayed at in the whole of Tibet, or even China. The hotel is embellished with bright, colourful murals and lovely potted plants and flowers, while rooms are large, clean and comfy. We paid 180 Yuan for a double with bathroom, though there were cheaper rooms and dorms as well. The hotel also has its own rooftop restaurant and staff are very friendly.

The Kumbum

Food:

You will have no trouble finding several places to eat along the same main street. The Yak bar and restaurant, for which you have to go upstairs, is a pleasant, laid-back place with Tibetan sofas and low tables, specialising in western-style food such as chips, pizzas and burgers. There is a large Chinese restaurant, a few doors away and identified by a green sign, where we had an excellent meal.

Shalu Monastery 夏鲁寺: Tibet: From our Diary

This an updated version of the article and photos of Shalu Monastery that we published on the old holachina.com web-site. Since 2009 Shalu Monastery has undergone massive restoration so it may be quite different from when we were there.

Shalu Monastery: August 2007

Amazing flaying Murals in Shalu Monastery Tibet

We visited the monastery of Shalu 夏鲁寺 on the second day of our excursion, as a  side trip on the way from Gyantse to Shigatse. Shalu was actually off limits to foreigners and we didn’t have it listed on our permit. Our excursion was a spur of the moment decision.

However, our Tibetan driver nonchantly said there would be no problem. And hey this was 2007! Travelling in Tibet hadn’t been so relaxed and open for decades.

Inside Shalu Monastery

The talk among travellers in China in 2007 was that very soon foreigners wouldn’t need permits to travel around Tibet anymore; such was the optimism due to the up and coming Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Flaying murals in Shalu Monastery

Little did people know that within a few months, all the good intentions the Chinese authorities had about opening up Tibet would be shattered by the riots in Lhasa and Tibet would be closed to foreigners for quite a while. Even now (2019), Tibet is still nowhere near as open as it was back then in 2007.

The village of Shalu Tibet

Getting to Shalu Monastery

About 20 kilometres before Shigatse, our van turned left off the main road and went onto a bumpy track full of potholes and puddles.

Tibetan Farmer in the fields near Shalu Monastery

We passed sturdy farmhouses, some of them still under construction, and large fields full of grazing yaks. Wheat was being grown everywhere and the whole area looked quite prosperous.

Tibetan Farmer in the fields near Shalu Monastery

The monastery of Shalu was the seat of the Bu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, named after its founder Buton Rinchendrub, a famous 14th century scholar.

Welome to Shalu Monastery

The original Shalu Monastery was destroyed by an earthquake in 1329, but it was rebuilt by Buton in 1333 under the patronage of the Chinese Mongolian emperor of the Yuan dynasty.

Shalu Monastery

Many Han Chinese artisans and Newari artists from Nepal participated in its reconstruction, giving it its distinctive architectural style, exemplified by the green-tiled arched roof and steep eaves of the central hall, the Shalu Lakhang.

Shalu Monastery

Apart from the architecture and the many large statues of important religious figures, what mostly grabbed our attention were the incredible murals.

Murals in Shalu Monastery

Like in Samye, the tall walls that go behind the main altar are covered from top to bottom by amazing paintings, dimly lit by an occasional light bulb.

Murals in Shalu Monastery

Apart from the usual, slightly repetitive, Buddha figures, there are many exquisite and exotic scenes of a non-spiritual nature, such as caravans of distinctly Arabic-looking merchants leading camels, slim Indian-looking courtiers at play, or beautiful young ladies.

Murals in Shalu Monastery

The murals in the side chapels, attributed to Nepali painters, mostly depict large elegant Buddhas in lotus position, demons and many-armed gods, surrounded by floral motifs. Given their shining state, they must have been retouched recently.

Murals in Shalu Monastery

Not all the murals were so beneign. Gruesome scenes of animals and humans being flayed or disembowled also lined the walls.

Flaying murals in Shalu Monastery
Flaying murals in Shalu Monastery

During our exploration, friendly monks unlocked most of the smaller, side and upper storey chapels for us, allowing us to appreciate the treasures inside, such as ancient statues and thankas.

Statue in Shalu Monastery

The sight of all these precious objects and paintings, clearly venerated by the monks, gave us a real sense of ancient history and tradition.

The Library Shalu Monastery

The monks lead us into the library which is normally kept firmly under lock and key. The collection of manuscripts and scrolls at Shalu is huge and very important for Tibetan Buddhism. Then, as we came out of the library we bumped into a young German who was staying at the monastery studying Buddhism and learning Tibetan. How on earth did he manage to get a permit to do that in Shalu?

Curious local kids Shalu village

Shalu Village

Shalu village is completely traditional as well, it’s a warren of towering white-washed houses, protected by walls and intersected by narrow muddy lanes.

Muddy streets in Shalu village

Interestingly, while we were exploring, the Shigatse – Shalu bus, an old battered vehicle, turned up, showing us that this is another excursion you could easily do on your own.

Locals washing clothes in Shalu village

Getting there and Away

Mural Shalu Monastery

We had hired a Car and driver in Lhasa to go to Gyanste and Shigatse. Shalu Village lies somewhere between the two towns. As mentioned above, we saw local buses from Shigastse arrivng in Shalu. The only problem will be permits, and whether under stricter control the authorites will turn a blind eye to foreigners visiting Shalu.

Street in Shalu village

Accommodation:

The monks in Shalu told us that they had some guest rooms. However, we just visited on a day trip and stayed in Gyantse and Shigatse.

Gyantse Practicalities

Over view of Kumbun and Gyantse

In Gyantse we stayed at the Jianzang hotel which lies on the main street of the modern part of town (Yingxiong Nanlu) and is certainly one of the nicest places we stayed at in the whole of Tibet, or even China. The hotel is embellished with bright, colourful murals and lovely potted plants and flowers, while rooms are large, clean and comfy. We paid 180 Yuan for a double with bathroom, though there were cheaper rooms and dorms as well. The hotel also has its own rooftop restaurant and staff are very friendly.

Adam being mobbed by kids in Shalu

Food:

You will have no trouble finding several places to eat along the same main street. The Yak bar and restaurant, for which you have to go upstairs, is a pleasant, laid-back place with Tibetan sofas and low tables, specialising in western-style food such as chips, pizzas and burgers. We decided to give the guidebook-recommended Zhuang Yuan a miss after one look at their menu, outraged at the idea of paying nearly 30 Yuan for a portion of chips.

Gyantse Fort

Instead, we walked into a large Chinese restaurant, a few doors away and identified by a green sign, where we had an excellent meal.

Shigatse Practicalities

Monks At a festival in Shigatse

We stayed at the Shigatse Post Hotel, a new-ish place (2007) right opposite the posh Shigatse Hotel, down Shanghai Lu. Our double room was painted and furnished in Tibetan style, complete with thankas and white ceremonial scarves, all very bright and clean; good value for 180 Yuan.

Monks At a festival in Shigatse

Going down Shanghai Lu towards the centre we found plenty of food, though restaurants were mostly of the simple, snack food variety. A ten-minute walk from the hotel will take you to the night market.