Architectural Detail

SYNOPSIS:   Transit Shigatse.  Shigatse Monastery and Fort — a new ball game invented by the Chinese government. 

Shigatse is a big town.  80,000 in this nick of the woods seems huge, compared to the small villages we passed along the way from Gyantse.

Some settlements can’t even be called towns.  They are no more than a cluster of homes, or even single small estates by themselves.  One of those was a water mill, in operation for generations.  Millet and barley are ground to flour, and bags of flour are sold right here, along the road side.  The mill owner figured that tourists might like to have a look a this low-tech 19th century-type operation and he charges $1 now for that look.  Entrepreneurship has to be rewarded.  I loved that water-powered wheel, which operated a grindstone positioned below a big sack full of kernels.  Hours later, the sack was empty, the kernels had been turned into powder and could be bagged into sacks ready for sale.  Not very hard work for the miller in charge.  His wife was selling a few knickknacks for tourists and as everywhere was quick to point out the “real Tibetan” stuff versus the “cheap Chinese fakes”.  I am not convinced of this distinction but I bought a couple of things nonetheless.  Fake or not, these things are fun. 

Shigatse is home to one of the big Gelugpa monasteries.  This one is home to the Panchen Lama, second in rank only to the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai Lama is not recognized by the Chinese government and currently lives in exile.  He has made it very clear that he will not be reincarnated in Chinese occupied Tibet and may well be the final Dalai Lama.  The Chinese resorted to the next best in line.  They installed and groomed the current 11th Panchen Lama, who for the most part, resides in Beijing.  This monastery in Shigatse has become their “project”.  Millions of RMB flow into this monastery.  Instead of the “stick” of destruction, a different kind of cultural revolution, is in full swing: a corruption of the system through the “carrot”.  Monks at this monastery get a salary from the government!  Their living conditions are comfortable.  Several lavishly-decorated temples have been built for this monastery in the 1980’s and 1990’s by the government.  What is wrong with this picture?!

The monastery is beautiful, and houses in addition to the usual assembly hall, the multiple shrines filled with images, several burial stupas of Panchen Lamas of the past.  Only the 10th one’s tomb is real, as he only died recently.  Remains of the 5th to the 9the ones remain at large, so the government built a huge stupa honoring them all symbolically. 

The coolest thing for me was a huge plain concrete wall which is there for the once per year public display of the largest canvas the monastery owns.  During an annual festival, every monastery in Tibet puts up their largest tangkha.  Some of them measure 30 meters wide and 50 meters tall and have to be carried by a whole row of monks!  Boy, would I love to see one of those on display, once.  Now the large tangkhas I saw at the art gallery in Lhasa seem like miniatures.  They were barely 6 by 10. 

There is another castle in Shigatse that only can be seen from afar.  In many ways, it resembles the Potala palace, and from afar it looks good.  Reportedly, it was trashed during the cultural revolution.  The restored façades belie its fate.  What is up there now?  Nobody knows.  The military, perhaps?  It would give them a good viewpoint.

Our hotel is upscale and caters to tourists.  That is fine with me.  This is the last day for laundry and I am grateful that there is warm water not only in the evenings (as in my guest houses in Lhasa as they are using solar power without backup; the tanks cool down overnight), but also in the morning.

Tenzin, our guide, took us to a supply store where we rented sleeping bags for the next week and a small oxygen tank.  We stocked up with water, a few snacks, and packed the essentials into our day packs.  It’s getting real now. 

I sent one last text message to my loved ones — here is to my mother and my brothers too, whom I cannot reach via text!  I love you dearly.  I am an urban traveler and what is ahead of me is completely out of my comfort zone!  I am getting more and more anxious…

But it has been done before!  And there must have been people in much less good health conditions who survived this trip.  I just have to put my mind in the right place.

I CAN DO IT!  Good night. 

3 comments so far

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  1. I meant to put this very interesting link to Mt. Kailash in. Here it is:

  2. thanks for sharing Elisabeth! I’m going to use your water powered mill photos in my renewable energy class next fall. Best wishes on your mountain hike. I’m envious.

  3. I googled Mt. Kailash and found this: “Mt. Kailash considered as one of the ten most beautiful mountains in China and a divine mountain universally by people from all over the world. Its shape is like the pyramids in Egypt with four nearly symmetrical sides.”

    Wow…how exciting that you are on your way. I imagine it will not be an “ordinary” journey…since it is a special mountain and it is YOU making it. Nothing like Mt. Fuji, or is it?
    Waiting with interest for your comments…