Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Ancient Kingdom of Guge

Imagine an immense canyon system carved by the mighty Sutlej River and its tributaries, located at 12000feet above sea level, at the far western edge of Tibet. From the Zanda overlook, canyon folds stretch to the horizon, which is capped by snowy white Himalayan peaks. The colors range from electric blue sky to innumerable shades of sandy browns on the canyon walls. It for sure is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. You are on your way to visit the ancient Kingdom of Gu-ge(pronounced goo-gay), miles from any sort of civilization, a true adventure.

Prior to entering western China, I had never heard of the Kingdom of Guge. We were recovering from the epic 48-hour bus trip over the mountains from Karghilik to Ali, deep in western Tibet. We hadn’t really planned more of the trip from here, first because there were many doubts and rumors circulating about if we could actually enter Tibet from the west, and second, due to a dearth of information about what actually exists west of Mt. Kailash. But there we were, without a guidebook, until a Korean tourist said that her book recommended going to Zanda – the ruins of the ancient Gu-ge kingdom were listed as the number one attraction in all of China!

It turns out that the kingdom was established in the 10th century along the banks of the Sutlej River at the bottom of this tremendous canyon system. It was an important and powerful center of commerce and Buddhism for 700 years, and then it mysteriously disappeared. There are theories of outside invasion or internal political strife leading to its demise, however, a sense of mystery still surrounds the place and the ruins left behind.

The “modern” Chinese town of Zanda is located near the site of the Tholing monastery, and the major ruins are located about 14 miles down river at Tsaparang. Guarding the bridge over the river is a small Chinese army outpost. Tholing, roughly translates to “hovering in the sky forever”, and is an ancient monastery perched alongside the river cliffs. The oldest monastery in Western Tibet, it has been renovated several times, with the main hall being the most well preserved. Outside, lay rows of brown earthen stupas, worn by wind and water erosion, and of course the ubiquitous prayer flags, adding color to an otherwise barren landscape.

The major ruins in Tsaparang are impressive. Hewn out of the sandstone, the buildings climb up a ridge to about 12,800feet. There is an entrance fee, maybe about 20USD, and much less for Chinese nationals. I can’t remember the exact amount, because in this case, it really didn’t matter. The ruins and setting are that impressive. Once you pay your fee, you can climb up stairs carved into the sandstone and explore the meditation caves, rooms that served as dwellings, temples, and even the palace complex at the top. There are several well-preserved monasteries that the caretaker will unlock for you to explore. These are rather amazing in themselves, as they contain some of the best-preserved examples of Tibetan Buddhist art. It seems that during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, the Chinese left much of Gu-ge undisturbed, as it was a “dead” kingdom and posed no direct ideological threat. So luckily, we can see rare examples of a Tibetan monastic art that has not been entirely replaced or renovated.