By Michael Buckley
GYANTSE, TIBET – ‘The supreme moments of travel are born of beauty and strangeness in equal parts,” Robert Byron wrote. In Gyantse, Tibet, he found beauty, strangeness — and pleasure. In the early 1930s, the British journalist smooth-talked his way onto a series of turboprop planes from London to India by promising to write pieces for various newspapers.
Byron wondered how long it would take Western materialism to penetrate the isolation of Tibet, and how long Tibet could remain free from the military menace of China and Nepal without raising a properly trained army. In a nation where “justice is cruel and secret, disease rife, and independent thought impossible,” he wrote, “Western ideas might bring some benefits.” However, he hoped that the life he saw in Gyantse would endure, because Western civilization suffered from a quite different malaise — spiritual emptiness — which Gyantse did not.
Today, strolling Gyantse’s old quarter, it’s easy to step back into a medieval Tibetan lifestyle. Gyantse is small, with a population of around 15,000. On the approach road to the town, horse carts and donkeys loaded with pots jingle by, while a herder marshals a flock of goats, valued for their cashmere wool. Dust and earthy smells assault the nostrils; stray yaks patrol the alleys. There’s no plumbing in the old quarter — water comes from street taps that draw from wells. However, solar cookers have been introduced by the Chinese. These concave-shaped reflectors are found on numerous flat rooftops, and can bring a kettle of water to the boil in a few minutes because of the intensity of high-altitude sun.
Roving around the back alleys in this vicinity, I chance across a small carpet factory. All the work — carding the wool, spinning, dyeing and weaving — is done by hand by women, who sing raucous ballads as they work, keeping up a steady rhythm to the clacking of the loom. They weave complex designs from memory.
The operation, however, is a shadow of what Gyantse once was. At the time of Byron’s visit, Gyantse hosted a busy market: It was the funnel of the wool trade in Tibet, and a bustling caravan stop on the trade-route from Lhasa to India. That route was closed by the Chinese after they invaded in 1950. Gyantse has since fallen into obscurity, its role usurped by Lhasa under the Chinese.
The upside of Gyantse’s abandonment is that it has remained intact as a Tibetan architectural entity, which is quite rare amid the Chinese destruction and reconstruction in Lhasa itself. Lhasa has been targeted by the Chinese for “modernization,” which means it is now buried under a layer of concrete, blockhouse apartments and bland office high-rise buildings.
In Gyantse’s old quarter, you can still see medieval Tibetan town-planning at work, with a huge dzong (fort) at one end, a large gompa (monastery complex) at the other, and a market lying between the two. A newer, Chinese part of town has sprouted up to the south.
Early in the morning, I set off to tackle the fort. Reaching it is not an easy hike: At an elevation of about 4,000 metres, it’s like using a Stairmaster at altitude. I have to pace myself, hiking slowly toward the summit turrets, stopping to catch my breath and drink water.
Gyantse Dzong is a stunning example of the basic Tibetan architectural approach, which is to find an impossible crag and build right on top of it. Crowning a majestic mountain of rock, the fort is about 500 years old. The foundations are vintage 14th-century, while the thick walls were probably constructed later. The dzong once functioned as the city’s administrative nerve centre, housing the governor of Gyantse.
In mid-1997, a big-budget movie, Red River Valley,was released in China about the brave resistance of the Tibetans to the imperialist British in 1904. The movie, with some scenes shot near Gyantse, was timed to coincide with the handover of British Hong Kong to China, and was part of a round of Brit-bashing. The movie, it seems, was just the beginning of Chinese plans for glorifying the fighters of Gyantse. The main drag of the town has been renamed Hero Boulevard, and the central roundabout in Gyantse sports a new concrete obelisk: a monument to the Tibetans who defended “the Motherland from the British imperialist aggressors.” It apparently has never occurred to the Chinese that they themselves might be guilty of imperialist invasion — on a much grander scale.
Slowly toiling upward, I reach the “Memorial Hall of the Anti-British.” This two-room on-site museum claims that the British suffered terrible losses in the battle, although it was actually the Tibetans who sustained heavy casualties. The museum’s propaganda spiel is rounded out with a display of Tibetan muskets, lances and swords, and a heroic statue of Tibetans fighting the imperialist British.
From this point, a near-vertical set of steps leads to the top of the fort, at about 4,200 metres. The top turret is a few square metres in size and offers breathtaking views of the monastery to the north, the old quarter fringed in brilliant yellow mustard fields, and the Chinese sector sprawling to the south, with shops, hotels, television tower and military barracks.
The sound of deep chanting reverberates through the main chapel at Palkor Choide Lamasery. In the early morning, scores of monks seated on low cushions recite mantras in a ritual that has changed little over the past millennium.
The pungent smell of yak butter charges the air: The monks are served steaming bowls of yak-butter tea, while pilgrims make offerings of yak butter within the temple. While these rituals appear to be traditional, the country’s monks are actually at the centre of an ideological battle for the hearts and minds of Tibetans. Since 1996, the Chinese have banned the Dalai Lama’s image and his books in Tibet. The major leaders of Tibetan Buddhism have fled into exile, and what remains is a kind of showcase Buddhism, largely for the benefit of tourists.
Gyantse’s monastic complex was dynamited to rubble during the Cultural Revolution. Only a few of the larger buildings remain: Among them is the unique Kumbum, or pagoda of 100,000 images. Built in the 14th century, the Kumbum is a rare piece of architecture. It has 70 small interlocking chapels that can be visited as you spiral your way to the golden plume at the top. Each chapel contains fine statuary and murals painted in the 15th century by Newari artists. From an aerial perspective, the chorten is shaped like a mandala, the embodiment of the Lamaist universe.
Pilgrims circumambulate this giant wedding-cake-like structure: The inner spiralling circuit of the chorten is a meditational aid, with the top canopied section representing the highest plane of wisdom. Entrances to the upper regions are hidden behind statues and in dark alcoves. Right near the top you come out below the large all-seeing eyes of Buddha, painted on the upper walls. The upper-most wooden turret, above the eyes, offers another splendid viewpoint over Gyantse.
A three-kilometre hike west of Gyantse is Pala Manor, an old noble’s house in the middle of a small village belonging to the feudal days when an aristocrat ruled the surrounding lands. The walled three-storey manor, mostly constructed of wood, features the former tearoom and stables.
Pala fled Tibet in 1959 and lived out his days in exile. A tableau upstairs shows Pala and cronies indulging in mahjong (a gambling game using tiles),drinking tea and taking shots of whisky. This is meant to show decadence, but in today’s China half the population seems to be addicted to mahjong.
A few rooms on the uppermost floor are open for viewing. One is a living room of sorts, with an ancient gramophone and snow-leopard and monkey-fur covers on the cushions. A meditation room features stained glass imported from India.
The manor, extensively restored under the current regime, is meant by the Chinese to be a showpiece of how the people of Gyantse were exploited by Tibetan nobles. To drive this point home, across the street from Pala Manor are some dark hovels where the servants used to live. The captions (installed by the Chinese) all tell the same story: Life is far better under Chinese rule. One caption describes a carpet maker who used to live in a 10-square-metre hovel with dirt floors at Pala Manor, but after Chinese liberation, was able to shift to a 400-square-metre, two-storey home with three cows, a horse, 23 sheep and a colour TV.
With your entry ticket at Pala Manor, you might get some extra handouts. I was given a brochure about “Tibet since Liberation,” and a small badge. The badge was in the shape of Gyantse Fort, and it bore this logo: Heroic City.
Michael Buckley is the author of Heartlands: Travels in the Tibetan World (Summersdale Publishers, UK, 2002) and Tibet: The Bradt Travel Guide (Bradt Publications, UK, 2002).