Shigatse: Home of the Panchen Lama, and more

Culture, Travel | by James Weir
Posted: September 30th, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
China travel_Chinese cities_China travel destinations Photo by Konstantin Binder China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>> The Tibetan plateau is many things: geographically vast, chock full of terrifying and beautiful landscape, shrouded in mystique, impenetrable in many ways and fraught with centuries of upheaval and conflict. The geographic and bureaucratic difficulties current travelers face, while not insurmountable, deter all but the most dedicated. But in the last thirty years or so, Tibet has seen expanding infrastructure, mass Han Chinese immigration and the partial restoration of the traditional Tibetan cultural freedoms and customs, all of which have made traveling to Tibet more appealing than ever, both to mainland Chinese and Western tourists. As Chinese immigration and international tourism have steadily grown over the last few decades, so too have many of the villages and towns that were once isolated, off the beaten path and largely ignored by the rest of the world. Shigatse (formerly Samdruptse), located approximately 260 km (165 mi) southwest of Lhasa, is now the second largest town in Tibet and sees a steady stream of tourists throughout the year, many of whom just pass through on their way to the Mt. Everest's northern base camp. But simply passing through would be a mistake. Shigatse has long played second fiddle to Lhasa, lagging behind in political and spiritual influence, and today in tourist infrastructure and attractions. But Shigatse has been a place of spiritual importance ever since the posthumously named first Dalai Lama, Genden Drup, founded the Tashilhunpo Monastery in 1447. Though the monastery benefited from it's historic link to the first Dalai Lama, the town of Shigatse and the Tashilhunpo Monastery remained relatively under the radar, owing mostly to the fact that most of the Gelugpa activity (the sect of Buddhism that has been the predominant school of thought in Tibetan Buddhism since it took hold in the 15th century) was centered in and around Lhasa. However, Shigatse and the Tashilhunpo Monastery rose in prominence  when it became the home to the line of Panchen Lamas. Traveling in Tibet The title of Panchen was historically given to the abbot at Tashilhunpo, a title that means 'great scholar.' But it wasn't until the fifth Dalai Lama established the Panchen Lama as a tulku (a line of Lamas who are in control of the manner of their reincarnation; the Panchen tulka are said to be the reincarnate of Amitabha Buddha), a position of spiritual importance second only to the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, that Tashilhunpo really began to flourish and grow in size and influence. The Tashilhunpo Monastery today is the main attraction in the town of Shigatse. It remains in much the same condition as it has for the last few hundred years, being one of the few monasteries in Tibet that was left relatively unscathed during the Chinese establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the following Cultural Revolution of the 1960's. The monastery was forcefully disbanded by the Chinese Army in the late 1950's. At it's height, it was home to 4,000 monks and 4 colleges. Though the majority of the housing at the monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, most of the major buildings, including the palace where the Panchen Lamas lived, remain. Today, the monastery operates with a significantly decreased number of monks and houses no Panchen Lama, but is still the major tourist destination in the Shigatse region. While the many chapels, tombs, temples and the two remaining colleges of the monastery could take days to visit, a walk along the Tashilhunpo kora takes less than an hour and provides wonderful views of the monastery and the town of Shigatse. You can follow the path around the circumference of the monastery or split off to walk to the ruins of Shigatse Dzong. Located a mere 20 minute walk from the city center, the ruins and the new reconstruction only hint at the former glory of the Shigatse Dzong that once housed the kings of Tsang. The dzong was destroyed in 1959, though there now stands a reproduction of the original building. Although the original structure no longer remains, the location of the ruins provide one of the best views of the region, and the valleys surrounding Shigatse spread for miles, the mountains folding like thick velvet. It is the sort of view travelers hope to find. Tibet It's worth taking a few days in Shigatse. For one thing, a view never looks as good when you're supposed to be moving along. Furthermore, there are plenty of things to see surrounding Shigatse, many of which are just short distances away. The Shalu Monastery is only 20 km (12 mi)  from Shigatse, and has been around since the 11th century. It's one of the more difficult sites in the area to reach, requiring a bit of a hike, but the work-out is well worth it. Or you could take an overnight trip to Sakya, a monastic town that has suffered less than most in the last half-century. There are multiple monasteries (including the Sakya Monastery), chapels and a good number of guesthouses and hotels to lay your head.

Getting there

Getting to Shigatse has never been easier; the Lhasa-Shigatse railway was completed in 2010, and there are trains to Lhasa originating all over China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Lanzhou. But don't wait to book your tickets, because they are often in short supply, particularly during the summer months when mainland Chinese tourists flock to Tibet. Foreign travelers in Tibet are very strictly regulated. All foreigners must be part of an organized tour that includes permits, a guide and a private vehicle and driver. Travel restrictions, regulations and closures are in constant flux, and every traveler must be aware that the Chinese government often stops releasing travel permits without warning for undisclosed periods of time, and can shut down the entire Tibetan Autonomous Region to travelers without warning. In the event of a tour cancellation, any reputable Tibetan travel agencies should refund most of the cost, but it is important to make sure that the agency has a good reputation before booking anything. When making your travel plans, keep in mind that most of the closures are related to sensitive anniversaries and traditional Tibetan celebrations; if you do your research, you can lower the risk that you will be taken by surprise. If you're interested in more information about Shigatse and the rest of Tibet, check out this extremely helpful list of frequently asked questions about traveling in Tibet.
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