As I did research on Pelkor Chode (Palcho Monastery), I was surprised to find how vibrant the city’s past has been. Often, my impressions of Tibet had been of an area that was remote and isolated from China. Although this is somewhat true, it doesn’t take into account how central Gyantse was to trade among Nepal, Bhutan, India, and China. This central location helped to create a fairly cosmopolitan community that reflected its location as a trade center and influenced its importance in Tibetan Buddhism. Gyantse’s history and resilience was its great appeal before we got to the city.
As we entered the city, I was, frankly, a bit disappointed. Gyantse was Tibet’s third largest city and I expected to see a larger city. The city has been outpaced by larger, more significant cities now and has the appearance of a much smaller regional city. Although it doesn’t have the crowds of Lhasa and Shigatse, it’s actually more appealing because of the slower pace and smaller crowds. This city felt much less of a tourist draw than some of the other cities we visited. As people went about their daily activities, it felt like we had a pretty fair idea of day-to-day life. For example, the local market was close to the hotel and provided an interesting view of the market and diet of the people.
One of the highlights of the first evening in Gyantse was the lighting of the old fort, or Dzong. The history of the fort and its significance in the power struggle between Great Britain and Russia at the beginning of the 20th century was especially appealing after teaching World Cultures for close to 20 years. Researching the city before the trip, I was fascinated by the attack on the fort by the British Colonel Younghusband. Often, my impression of the Tibetan people is that they were fairly peaceful, nomads and not really known for their military exploits. The history of this city, and especially this battle, shows that the Tibetans were fierce fighters willing to battle to the death for their homeland. Seeing the fort at night, especially, gave me a tremendous sense of respect and admiration for the soldiers that had died to protect the fort and the city.
The irony of the battle and seeing the fort is that the Chinese have used this story for their own version of revisionist history. As they use this part of Gyantse’s history to highlight British imperialism, they glorify the success of the Tibetan army in resisting the British. They have nicknamed the city and the area as the Heroic City to highlight the Tibetans’ resistance, yet seem to not appreciate how that same resilience has been used against them. Here in Gyantse, the Chinese army did not seem to have the same pervasive presence that we had seen in larger cities. A welcome relief!
Pelkor Chode and Kumbum are the highlights of tours of the city. The monastery is known for different sects sharing space here. This seems a reflection of its earlier history at the crossroads of trade from the 1500s. The monastery was appealing because it was the first place that it felt as if monks were involved in their daily rituals. As we watched, the yellow hat monks practiced morning prayers. This was an excellent backdrop to the murals that filled the walls and the ever-present statuary.
One of the best features in the assembly hall was the back hallway. These contained massive murals that had survived the Cultural Revolution. During the Chinese attacks on monasteries during the Cultural Revolution, the murals were hidden since the hallways were used as storage areas and the Chinese didn’t realize what was on the walls. Seeing the murals requires a flashlight, but they provide a great sense of satisfaction of the small victories that the Tibetans have experienced over the Chinese.
The Great Kumbum is the striking centerpiece of the town and has multiple levels to circle. Each level has multiple temples that visitors may visit or at least view from the outside. The views of the surrounding countryside are some of the most appealing sights.
Perhaps my favorite part of Gyantse was the old part of town. This section showed some of the challenges of modern infrastructure in the town. Some homes had cow dung drying on the outside wall, some had the cows themselves, and others had the certificate of water on the front door. This was also where we visited one of the local weaver’s home and enjoyed Tibetan hospitality. It was fascinating not only to see her workshop in the first level, but also her living quarters on the second floor. Her practicality in collecting rainwater and using solar energy to heat water caused twinges for me as I silently compared my waste in water and energy usage at home. Her willingness to share her home and buttered tea with us was quite humbling.