The Canyons of Guge
We all enjoyed the beauty and drama of our Kailash kora…There is little that can beat the beauty of a trek through thin, crisp, clear air with a spectacular peak watching above. And, it is safe to say that none of us was looking forward to the 11 hours of bumpy, dusty driving we had in front of us, heading into the hinterlands of West Tibet. But, we had heard great things about the lost kingdom of Guge, and hoped the drive would be worth it.
It was…and then some…
Roughly 5 hours west of Thirtapuri, after bouncing over two 16,000 foot passes, changing one flat tire, and spending some time with a drokpa (nomad) mother and daughter in the middle of nowhere, we crested a minor rise and entered southern Utah…Well, not really, but it sure looked like it. For a hundred miles in all directions, canyons spread like tendrils through the dusty Tibetan landscape. The mightly Satlej River, coursing its way down to the Indian Subcontinent for centuries had dutifully carved channels through the semi-solid sandy soil of the region.
From our perch at 14,000 feet, we descended into the chasm, dropping to 12,000 in a few miles. Hoodoos and towering walls of mud soared above our truck, twisted and rutted from millenia of wind and rain and runoff. It is, without a doubt, the most captivating, magical landscape I have ever seen.
After visiting the 10th Century monastery of Tholing – which was mostly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution by the voracious Red Guards – we made camp under a towering canyon wall next to a trickling tributary of the Satlej. As always, our Sherpa team regaled us with their food and care – we feasted on Pemba's pizza, mountains of dal bhat, fresh salad, green beans, and Bal Bahadur plopped a cut watermelon on the table for dessert…Amazing.
Today we drove a bit further west – much further and we'd be in Himachal Pradesh, India! – to the ancient kingdom of Guge (pronounced "goo-gey") and the lost city of Tsaparang. Like the churches of Cappadocia, Turkey, the Anasazi ruins of the desert southwest, and the great Jaisalmer Fort in India, the hilltop castle and cave dwellings of Guge defy reality. Built into a ridgecrest rising some 700 feet, the Guge city once housed over 10,000 people. A sprawling network of caves, pathways, and staircases leads you past ancient gompas and small shrines upward to the mighty castle and fort atop the hill.
In its heyday, the Guge was a powerful kingdom, with influence stretching from Kashmir and Ladakh in the West to Assam in the East. Evidence of this strength can be seen in the gilded gompas and sprawling infrastructure of the ruined kingdom. Fortunately, Guge was overthrown by the Ladakhis in the mid- 1600's and was subsequently forgotten to a large extent. Thus, many of its ancient frescoes and Buddhist artworks survived the carnage of the Cultural Revolution, as did the remarkable architecture of its buildings featuring intricate woodworking by both Nepali and Kashmiri artisans.
We spent about 4 hours scrambling around the ancient kingdom, exploring dark passageways, dusty tunnels, and grand palaces before returning to our creekside camp near Tholing to celebrate Kirk's birthday. As I write in my tent, a gentle rain is falling outside, carving more intricacies into the canyon country…and hopefully keeping down some of the dust for our drive east tomorrow, back toward Gurla Mandhata.
The third phase of our adventure – the climb – will soon begin. We are all excited, feeling good, and ready to move forward!