Everest to Shenzhen
An overland journey from one side of China to the other
Part III: Majestic Gyantse
When the little van carrying me and five of my friends pulled up to the wall of the Pelkhor Chode Monestary in Gyantse, I thought we we’d arrived in Shigatse. We’d been on the road from Lhasa for more than eight hours even though the itinerary provided by our tour company estimated a seven hour drive. Indeed, that is the travel time google maps gives for the S307 highway from Lhasa to Shigatse. When we learned that we were in Gyantse, still two hours from Shigatse, my heart sank.
But when we walked through the gate into the Pancho Monestary everything changed. The magnificence of the protective wall perched high on the hills that surround the monastery stopped me in my tracks. Those castle walls you see in story books? This one put them all to shame. A rust-red streak across a perfect blue sky – the elegant and powerful structure encompassed the monastic compound with a reassuring air of protective nobility.
We passed through two long rows of gold colored prayer wheels that lined the pathway to the central building of the monastery: the Tsuklakhang. Just as we reached the door, I caught a glimpse of the Kumbum stuba – off to the left, nestled among the other monastic building. That nine-tiered, three-dimensional mandala-style stuba is utterly unique among architecture.
It took some effort for the guide to coax us indoors. We stood mesmerized and intrigued by the Kumbum. He promised we would return to take photos later.
Inside the Tsuklakhang
Palkhor Monastery is the only monastery in Tibet that serves three different sects of Tibetan Buddhism (the Sakyapa, Kadampa and Gelugpa). The sects have not always cooperated with each other, but in this place they do. Everywhere we looked, there was evidence of a the traditions of thought and learning that have governed this place since the 15th century.
Around us, the walls in the monastery’s chapels were stacked high with scripture books from each sect. The ancient books were wrapped carefully in yellow and red cloth and carefully stored behind glass cupboard doors to protect the old scriptures from the effect of time and use.
Above us, 600 year old Thangkas (sacred silk paintings) hung from the dark recesses of the red rafters of the main assembly hall. Exquisite butter sculptures commissioned by worshipers sit before Buddhas that emerge from dark corners like an idea from the recesses of the mind.
Pelkhor Choede – The Kumbum
The Kumbum is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Tibet. The stuba is 32 meters high and has nine floors – the bottom five are square and the top four round.
Construction of this structure was completed in 1437. The monastery was a project of Rabten Kunzang Phak, the second Prince of Gyantse. He was a follower of Kedrub Je – the 1st Panchen Lama.
Pelkhor Chode complex sustained significant damage during a British campaign in 1904 and again during the cultural revolution in 1959. In both cases, the main monastic buildings, and most of the relics they housed were spared.
We turned to leave the monastery and caught sight of the Gyantse Dong fortress – perched high on a rocky knoll. This was once the seat of Government here in Gyantse. On our way out of town we made a quick stop to see the front of the fortress, but I really wished I’d had more time in this fascinating little town.
Everest to Shenzhen – An overland journey from one side of China to the other