School children with Sergej and ET

SYNOPSIS:  About a fortress and a monastery — yeah, another one, but a good one.  About traditional Tibetan houses.

Thousands of temples and cultural institutions fell victim to the fervor of the Red Guard during the infamous Cultural Revolution, not just in Tibet but in all over China.  But some sites, miraculously, and for different reasons, were spared.  The Buddhist Grottos at Binglingsi were one example.  They were too remote.  The Fortress of Gyantse is another — it had been appropriated by the Chinese Government as an example of heroic resistance against the British invasion of Tibet, and so no longer was seen as a symbol of the evil past, but a symbol of Chinese superiority. 

Three Tibetans had flung themselves from the heights of the fortress to their death and were declared martyrs.  Had they done so to protest Chinese occupation, that of course, would be a different story.  Thanks to them, the 13th century castle survived and now is the only castle, surviving intact in all of Tibet.  To date, it seems to serve as a teaching tool of nationalism, heroism, and anti-imperialism — at least five classes of 5th graders accompanied by their teachers, waving Chinese flags, were ascending and descending the steep staircase to the memorial stone commemorating the martyrs.  We were greeted with never ending hellos and had to shake a few dozen hands and of course, pose for one class picture, before we finally had the top to ourselves.

The castle interior is not open for visits, but it is worth the climb for the view of the old part of town and the monastery in one direction, the neatly plowed fields in another direction and the ever expanding Chinese town in the other two directions.  Here, the 19th and the 21st century butt heads; the contrast is stark. 

Earlier, we had visited the Gyantse Monastery which is known for its unique sculptures in the Nepalese/Newari style, and its Kumbum, literally translated 1000 images.  The Kumbum is the largest stupa in Tibet.  It has several tiers that can be circumambulated,  With its zigzag floor plan, it provides enough wall space for a whopping 108 niches filled with images and paintings.  For the sake of visiting the castle, we had to give up a full circumambulation of the stupa, but got a good sense of its layout from the first floor.

Most noticeable and typically Nepalese are the eyes on the pinnacle of the stupa that look in all four directions.  The principle of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni, or in a burial stupa that of a particular person, has been replaced by the principle of the universal Buddha Vairocana, who radiates his powers in all directions. 

Between the monastery and the castle a small portion of the old town have been preserved.  Houses are built very close to each other and often two or three in a row.  Narrow alleys allow access.  Only two wider streets cut through the tight clusters of homes.  Tibetan houses are often two-storied.  The main floor is common space: living room, kitchen, family areas.  The upstairs is reserved for the various bedrooms.  Typical window and door designs emphasize the bottom width through paint or wooden ornamentation.  That way, each wall opening appears to be narrower on the top.  Each house has four small turrets on each corner of the flat roof that serves as a flag pole.  Colorful prayer flags are fastened to each pole and flutter in the wind, emanating good karma.  Each year, during the New Year Festival, these flags will be renewed.  It is also not uncommon to have a small juniper oven either on the roof or next to the home on the street level.   

After we made it back down from the top of the castle, the castle keepers, two local women, invited us for tea.  In the former overlord’s room, where they live, we huddled around the usual fireplace/stove sipping delicious sweet milk tea.  In a different room taxes used to be collected which was vividly recreated by a number of mannequins; serving as an example of the exploitation of the commoners during the feudal era.

Refreshed by the tea and energized by all the new things we had experienced, we were ready for many hours today in the car, on the way to Mount Everest and Mount Kailash.

It’s going to be a long journey.