Tibet: Exploring the Ancient Kingdom of Gu-ge

Exploring the Ancient Kingdom of Gu-ge

by Cooper Schraudenbach

The entrance to Tholing Monastery - photos by Cooper Schraudenbach
The entrance to Tholing Monastery – photos by Cooper Schraudenbach

Imagine an immense canyon system carved by the mighty Sutlej River and its tributaries, located 12,000 feet above sea level, at the far western edge of Tibet.

From the Zanda overlook, canyon folds stretch to the horizon, which is capped by snowy white Himalayan peaks.

The colors range from electric blue sky to innumerable shades of sandy browns on the canyon walls. It for sure is breathtaking and awe-inspiring.

You are on your way to visit the ancient Kingdom of Gu-ge (pronounced “goo-gay”), miles from any sort of civilization, a true adventure.

The “Number One” Attraction in China

Prior to entering western China, I had never heard of the Kingdom of Gu-ge. We were recovering from the epic 48-hour bus trip over the mountains from Karghilik to Ali, deep in western Tibet.

We hadn’t really planned more of the trip from here, first because there were many doubts and rumors circulating about if we could actually enter Tibet from the west, and second, due to a dearth of information about what actually exists west of Mt. Kailash.

Tholing Monastery
Tholing Monastery

But there we were, without a guidebook, until a Korean tourist said that her book recommended going to Zanda – the ruins of the ancient Gu-ge kingdom were listed as the number one attraction in all of China!

It turns out that the kingdom was established in the 10th century along the banks of the Sutlej River at the bottom of this tremendous canyon system. It was an important and powerful center of commerce and Buddhism for 700 years, and then it mysteriously disappeared.

There are theories of outside invasion or internal political strife leading to its demise, however, a sense of mystery still surrounds the place and the ruins left behind.

Zanda and Tholing Monastery

The “modern” Chinese town of Zanda is located near the site of the Tholing monastery, and the major ruins are located about 14 miles down river at Tsaparang. Guarding the bridge over the river is a small Chinese army outpost.

Pilgrims at Tholing Monastery
Pilgrims at Tholing Monastery

Tholing, roughly translates to “hovering in the sky forever,” and is an ancient monastery perched alongside the river cliffs. The oldest monastery in Western Tibet, it has been renovated several times, with the main hall being the most well preserved.

Outside, lay rows of brown earthen stupas, worn by wind and water erosion, and of course the ubiquitous prayer flags, adding color to an otherwise barren landscape.

Zanda town consists of a main street lined by shops and restaurants, and a handful of below-average Chinese type hotels that run about 5-15USD per night.

You will see other tourists that come on land cruiser tours, but not many. Zanda is thousands of kilometers from Lhasa, and hundreds from Ali.

There are several Chinese and Tibetan eateries where you can find momo’s, tea, thukpa, and various Chinese style dishes. There are also several small markets with snacks, water, and other essentials. That being said, it would be wise to bring anything you think you can’t live without from a bigger town.

A porch at Tsaparang
A porch at Tsaparang

The Ruins at Tsaparang

The major ruins in Tsaparang are impressive. Hewn out of the sandstone, the buildings climb up a ridge to about 12,800 feet. There is an entrance fee, maybe about 20USD, and much less for Chinese nationals.

I can’t remember the exact amount, because in this case, it really didn’t matter. The ruins and setting are that impressive.

Once you pay your fee, you can climb up stairs carved into the sandstone and explore the meditation caves, rooms that served as dwellings, temples, and even the palace complex at the top.

There are several well-preserved monasteries that the caretaker will unlock for you to explore. These are rather amazing in themselves, as they contain some of the best-preserved examples of Tibetan Buddhist art. It seems that during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, the Chinese left much of Gu-ge undisturbed, as it was a “dead” kingdom and posed no direct ideological threat.

So, luckily, we can see rare examples of a Tibetan monastic art that has not been entirely replaced or renovated.

The ruins contain well preserved examples of Tibetan art.
The ruins contain well preserved examples of Tibetan art.

Getting to Gu-ge

Getting to Gu-ge can be a bit of a challenge, but it is well worth the trip. If you find yourself in Ali, then by all means, hire a land cruiser and make the journey. It is about one day’s drive from Ali, and the average price for a land cruiser was about 100-150USD per day, for 4-6 people.

As there is no reliable transport in and out of Ali bound for Zanda, bargaining is the name of the game. The government mail truck will take hitchhikers, but has limited room, and runs only once a week at most.

There is a bus, but this doesn’t always complete the journey, raising the possibility of being left at the top of the canyon without a ride. The bus was about 250 Yuan one-way.

Door to Tholing Monastery
Door to Tholing Monastery

From Lhasa and Darchen, you pretty much have to come on a tour, and that will be expensive and require a time commitment of 2-3 weeks.

As for permits, we obtained these from PSB [Public Safety Bureau] in Ali. One of our land cruisers was stopped and checked at the bridge, but we were cleared to proceed without a problem. The fee for this permit was 50 Yuan, and is “required.” If you come on tour from Lhasa, the permits will be included in the price.

The recommended season to visit is July-October for warmer temperatures and sunny weather.

Ruins of Gu-ge
Ruins of Gu-ge
Stupas at Tholing
Stupas at Tholing
Ruins at Tsaparang
Ruins at Tsaparang

Cooper SchraudenbachCooper Schraudenbach is a general practice physician, who travels half the year and works the other half. He currently lives in Micronesia, on the island of Saipan. He makes frequent trips to Southeast Asia and India.

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