Tibet - Getting to know Shigatse
The traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, and base of the Gelugpa Buddhist order, Shigatse is Tibet’s second-largest city, and a dynamic modern metropolis on the Sino-Nepal Friendship Highway. Though profoundly reshaped by commercial development and industry in recent years, Shigatse is also an important centre of Tibetan history and culture, still threaded with a few seams of authenticity that combine with an appealing frontier spirit. Most visitors will not stay for long however, in the knowledge that Mount Everest is just another day’s drive away.
In the Tibetan language, Shigatse means ‘the fertile land.’ Resting on a plain 3800 metres above sea level, at the confluence of the Yarlung Tsangpo and Nyangchu rivers, the city is surrounded by gold-flecked plateau pastures, subtropical forest and snowy Himalayan peaks. This is the capital of the Tsang province, Tibet’s cultural heartland, and a major travel hub between Western Tibet, Nepal and Lhasa, which lies 160 miles to the east over steep roads pricked with nerve-jangling hairpin bends.
The history of Shigatse goes back some six centuries, and you can still see charming whitewashed homes in the old town, prayer flags on the roofs flapping in the breeze, and murals on the walls depicting scenes from scriptures to ward off evil spirits. Since the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution, the city has been significantly modernised, with new shopping centres, factories and wide highways that reverberate to the sound of heavy traffic. You can probably guess where we would suggest you spend most of your time.
Shigatse is, of course, a very convenient base for mountain trekking, with its proximity to Mount Everest National Park, and there are daily flights from Lhasa to the Shigatse Peace Airport that provide a suitably dramatic approach. There are also dozens of monasteries from different Buddhist sects scattered around the city and wider region, but the jewel in the crown is the Tashilhunpo Monastery on the west of Shigatse, a sprawling complex and one of Tibet’s most celebrated religious sites.
What to do in Shigatse
- The Tashilhunpo Monastery is one of very few Tibetan monasteries that had the good fortune to survive the Cultural Revolution largely unscathed. In years gone by some 5000 monks were resident here, and although their numbers have dwindled, this is still a very busy religious institute, where you can often see debates taking place, monks at prayer, and pilgrims going about their fervent rituals. Highlights include the majestic statue of the Future Buddha, the largest gilded statue in the world, and photographs of the various Panchen Lamas over the years, up to the present-day 11th lama, whose spiritual authority is heavily disputed. The morning kora is marvellous to behold, as thousands of people in traditional dress makes their way around the monastery and through the hills at the rear of the compound.
- It’s a poor cousin to the Tashilhunpo Monastery, but the Summer Palace of the Panchen Lamas, around half-a-mile to the south, may still generate some interest. The palace was built in the mid-19th century by the seventh Panchen Lama and access is only granted when the current lama is not in residence. The palace is a curious architectural mix of Buddhist temple and Victorian mansion, and the peaceful gardens outside are especially attractive. Tours take you past a series of gruesome murals showing the 18 levels of Buddhist hell, and upstairs to the lama’s private chambers, where the monk guides have been known to rather uniquely bless visitors by gently rubbing them with one of the lama’s slippers!
- The Shigatse Dzong looks very impressive, squatting on a hilltop above the city. However, this is just a (very good) reconstruction of the 17th century fortress, which was a prototype for the Potala Palace, and was destroyed by the Chinese following the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. Today the dzong is virtually empty, with little to recommend a visit beyond the admittedly splendid views.
- Some 400 years older than the Tashilhunpo Monastery, and located 10 miles out of town, the Narthang Monastery holds an illustrious place in Tibetan literature and religion. The first Dalai Lama took his Buddhist instruction and vows here, and a printing works was established in the 18th century to preserve many important ancient books and scriptures.
- With its distinctive green-tiled roof visible from some distance off, the Shalu Monastery holds a number of extravagantly beautiful murals, considered some of the finest in Tibet. As well as several revered holy relics (don’t miss the sacred mushroom growing from the wall), the monastery is known as a centre for developing special monastic abilities, such as trance-walking, and regulating the body temperature in very cold temperatures - useful if you’re headed to Everest.
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If you happen to be visiting the Tashilhunpo Monastery during a major Buddhist festival, you’ll no doubt be drawn to the crowds around the Festival Thangka Wall. From the top, monks unveil huge and vibrantly coloured paintings of three Buddhas - each around half the size of a basketball court. It’s an awesome sight.
Shigatse is the birthplace of Lhamo, Tibetan Opera, which dates back around 14 centuries to the Tang Dynasty. Many works are derived from Buddhist teachings, but there is also a rich tradition of historical folk opera, with performances throughout the year.