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Tibet Travel Guide

Shigatse & Tashilunpo

 
Striped cloth woven on loom
Striped cloth
woven on loom

Capital of the Tsang region, Shigatse sits at an elevation of 12,800 ft (3,900 m). To its north, the Drolma Ridge rises steeply, topped by the ruins of the ancient Dzong, once home to the kings of Tsang. Shigatse holds a powerful position in Tibet, and was the capital for a spell during the early 17th century. After Lhasa regained its status, Shigatse continued to hold sway as the home of the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important religious ruler, whose seat is located at Tashilunpo Monastery, the town’s grandest sight. Worth exploring for a day or two, Shigatse is the most comfortable place in Tibet after Lhasa, with decent food and accommodations on offer.

Sigatse City Center

Visitors' checklist

  • 172 miles (278 km) W of Lhasa
  • 75,000
  • Only through travel agency in Lhasa
  • Tashilunpo: 2nd week of 5th lunar month

Shigatse city center

  • Dzong (3)
  • Gang Gyen Carpet Factory (1)
  • Night Market (2)
  • Tashilunpo Monastery (5)
  • Tibetan Market (4)
A group of carpet makers tying richly colored wool into intricate knots
A group of carpet makers tying richly
colored wool into intricate knots

Gang Gyen Carpet Factory

  • Qomolangma Rd.
  • 0891 882 2733
  • 9am–12:30pm & 2:30–7pm Mon–Fri

This factory, where local women produce beautiful carpets, first skeining the wool than weaving it, is the place to come if you are in the market for a Tibetan carpet. The process is sufficiently interesting to warrant a visit even if you have no intention of buying. A project initiated by the 10th Panchen Lama in 1987, the business is part-owned by the monastery. Shipping can be arranged on the premises.

Stall selling religious regalia at the Tibetan Market
Stall selling religious regalia
at the Tibetan Market

Night Market
A small cluster of street food stalls can be found at the corner of Qomolangma Lu and Jiefang Zhong Lu. Chairs and tables, and even the odd sofa, line the sidewalks next to the stalls. Enjoy a large bowl or noodles or a kabob.

Dzong
The leaders of Tsang once ruled from the mighty fortress of Shigatse Dzong, in the north of town, built in the 14th century by Karma Phuntso Namgyel, a powerful Tsang king. It once resembled a small Potala but was destroyed by the Chinese in 1959 during the Tibetan uprising, and little remains today except the stumps of a few burned walls. You can walk around the Dzong but you can’t enter it. A kora or holy route, marked by prayer flags and mani stones, leads here from the west side of Tashilunpo. Keep your distance from the packs of stray dogs.

Tibetan Market
At the Dzong’s southern base on Tomzigang Lu stands a small Tibetan market selling souvenirs, such as prayer wheels and incense, and a few Tibetan necessities – medicine, legs of lamb, and large knives. Just to the west of the market is an old traditionally Tibetan neighborhood of narrow lanes and tall whitewashed walls.

Tashilunpo Monastery

  • 0891 882 2114
  • Summer: 9am–12:30pm & 4–6pm Mon–Sat; Winter: 10am–noon & 3–6pm Mon–Sat
Majestic Tashilunpo Monastery with Drolma Ridge rising behind
Majestic Tashilunpo Monastery
with Drolma Ridge rising behind

A huge monastic compound of golden-roofed venerable buildings and cobbled lanes, Tashilunpo would take several days to explore fully. It was founded in 1447 by Genden Drup, retrospectively titled the 1st Dalai Lama. It grew suddenly important in 1642, when the 5th Dalai Lama declared his teacher, the monastery’s abbot, to be a reincarnation of the Amithaba Buddha and the fourth reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, or great teacher. Ever since it has been the seat of the Panchen Lamas, who are second in authority to the Dalai Lama.

Head up the main path to the back of the compound for the most impressive sights. The gold and silver chorten straight ahead holds the remains of the 4th Panchen Lama. Built in 1662, it was the only funeral chorten in the monastery to escape destruction during the Cultural Revolution. The larger, jewel studded chorten just to the west holds the remains of the 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989; it was constructed in 1994 at a cost of eight million US dollars.

Continue west for the Chapel of Jampa, which holds the monastery’s most impressive artifact, an 85-ft (26-m) golden image of Jampa, the future Buddha, made in 1914. It took almost a thousand artisans four years to complete using more than 600 pounds (275 kg) of gold.

The Wheel of Law, an auspicious symbol
The Wheel of Law, an auspicious symbol

The complex of buildings on the east side is the Kelsang. It centers around a courtyard where monks can be observed praying, debating, and relaxing. The 15th-century Assembly Hall on the west side holds the imposing throne of the Panchen Lamas.

Those with energy left can follow the monastery kora, which takes about an hour. It runs clockwise around the outside of the walls before heading up to the Dzong. You’ll pass colorful rock reliefs, some of Guru Rinpoche, and the huge white wall where a thangka of Buddha is exposed to the sun during the three-day long Tashilunpo Festival.

Young Gyancain Norbu, the China-sanctioned 11th Panchen Lama
Young Gyancain Norbu, the China
-sanctioned 11th Panchen Lama

The 11th Panchen Lama
The death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989 brought Tibet’s leaders and the Chinese government into conflict over succession. Like the seat of the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama’s position is passed on through reincarnation. Traditionally, upon the death of either of these leaders, top monks scour the land hoping to identify the new incarnate. In 1995, after an extensive search, the Dalai Lama named a six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choeki Nyima, as the 11th Panchen Lama. The chosen boy and his family soon disappeared and have not been seen since. Keen to handpick the next Dalai Lama’s teacher, the Chinese authorities sanctioned a clandestine ceremony which ordained Gyancain Norbu as the “official Panchen Lama” and immediately whisked him off to Beijing.

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