Tibet 2014 - Sakya, Shigatse

Shegar 22 September.

Today’s drive is familiar, we passed this way in reverse in 2002 but there are huge changes, last time the road was broken and crumbling, bridges had collapsed and spades and bulldozers were needed. Although there weren’t any spades. It made for slow progress but great adventure and plenty of contact with the local Tibetans.

Now we travel on smooth roads through deeply fisured hills and soon reach Gyatso La at 5248metres where a huge gateway is covered  with prayer flags. Chinese engineers build these oversized structures which offend the landscape and make pretend this is China. The Tibetans reclaim the structures and the landscape with their prayer flags - on an equally massive scale. A group of young men are on hand to sell more prayer flags and eke out a living. Bev buys a small bronze amulet with crossed vajras on a strip of faded fabric. A tall drop toilet has been built and there’s a futile attempt to use a litter bin. We descend pass farmland and clusters of houses of varying properity to the valley that leads to Shigatse but first we detour to the huge monastery of Sakya. Grey painted houses indicate they belong to the Sakya estate. We arrive at a huge parking lot outside the massive walls of Sakya monastery, ruins of another part of the monastery lie on the opposite hill but these main buildings escaped the destruction.

Sakya is immense, the statues, frescoes and farics are exquisite and I’m astonished that I was so unaware of it. It contains immense wealth and has clearly been a seat of government, I keep thinking that it’s like the Palace of Westminster, an immense artistic treasury but the scale is so beyond human as to be very hard to connect with. On the other hand I can imagine it may be possible to be overwhelmed by the grandeur and scale and feel it transcends human experience. But not for me, I remain unmoved by it.

Leaving the side valley and back on the road to Shigatse we pass people bringing in the harvest and hear the occasional harvesting songs drifting from the fields. There are speed restrictions: we have to drive slowly, 30Km/hour and wait before the check points so we don’t arrive too soon. Cars with China plates don’t seem to have to be concerned with this restriction. We pass an area of deeply fissured fields, a dark red cereal crop used for pancakes, a bright golden valley, dark hills and a dust storm.


Shigatse. 12 years ago the minimal street lights went out at 10 and I lost my way back to the Shigatse Hotel because no-one called it by that name. Now we enter a huge bright 24 hour neon Chinese city with a rail link from Lhasa and Bejing. We check into the Manosarovar Hotel, luxury of a sort but it smells like an old London dive with stale carpets. But it’s comfy and has a shower. Everyone smokes. We eat pizza.

Shigatse 22 September.

In the morning we go the Tashilunpo monastery. Massive, a monastery city with an unfriendly reputation. Tashilunpo is the seat of the Panchen Lama, number 2 to the Dalai Lama in terms of Tibetan politics and favoured by the Chinese in their attempts to discredit the Dalai Lama. Many of the monks here are police dressed as monks, even more are hardly monks. There is air of suspicion and compromise here that is a long way from my hopes for Tibet. Like Sakya it has some immense and beautiful sites and could be seen as magnificent. A film crew is using a drone to video the monastery while watching the live feed on a laptop. In terms of surveillance potential it gives me a chill.

I’m more than happy to move on and in the afternoon we drive to the much smaller town of Gyantse.


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