Officially known as Gyangzê Town, Gyantse in Shigatse Prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region was once considered to be the third largest city in Tibet, although there are now several much larger towns in the region. Located in the Nyang Chu Valley, the town lies on what was once one of the ancient trade routes between Tibet and the Sikkim Province of India. Old trade routes led from Gyantse to Shigatse to the west and up over the Karo La Pass into central Tibet.
Part of the normal route for tours to western Tibet, Gyantse is one of the major stopping points along the road to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. It was long a crucial link for traders and pilgrims traveling across the plateau to Lhasa, and it has managed to hang on to its traditional laid-back, small-town atmosphere, and is one of Shigatse Prefecture’s most charming towns.
The most popular sight in the town is the famous Gyantse Kumbum, the largest Chorten in Tibet, and one of the most amazing pieces of Tibetan architecture in the region. Commissioned by one of the former princes of Gyantse in 1427, the Kumbum sits inside the Pelkor Chode Monastery complex and is the most popular attraction in the town. At 35 meters high, the Chorten has nine levels, known as Lhakhangs, and is topped by a golden dome. Containing 77 chapels that line the interior walls of the Chorten, it houses over 10,000 paintings that adorn the walls of the chapels.
The word “Kumbum” translates to mean “100,000 images”, and while there may not be that many inside, the name is very apt. The Gyantse Kumbum is considered to be the most important of its kind in the region, as the only two similar Kumbums in Tibet now lie in ruins in remote and off-limits areas of the region.
Pelkor Chode Monastery is the other main attraction in Gyantse, and it is well worth stopping for a look around. The main monastery in Gyantse County, it lies in the Nyangchu River Valley in Gyantse and is a huge complex of multiple structures, including the famous Kumbum. The monastery is unique in Tibetan Buddhism and holds a high status in the region as it houses three separate schools of Buddhism under one roof. Built with separate characteristics of Tibetan, Han Chinese, and Nepali architecture, the Sakyapa, Gelugpa, and Kadampa schools of Tibetan Buddhism reside within its walls, co-existing peacefully for centuries. Started in 1418, the monastery was consecrated in 1425 on its completion and was designed as a model of the Mandala, the spiritual circle in Hinduism and Buddhism that represents the entire universe.
An ancient town of Tibet, it was once the political and economic center of the former Tibetan area of Tsang and is an important historical and cultural place in Shigatse Prefecture. The location in the Nyangchu Valley is a strategic position on the ancient trade routes, and it played an important role for pilgrims from the outer reaches of Tibet heading for Lhasa.
The Tibetan name, Gyantse, means “the summit of the victory and the residence of the King”, and when British soldiers invaded Tsang in 1904, the local Tibetan people defended the city against the invaders for several weeks. Even after their ammunition and supplies ran out, the heroic townspeople held on for another three days before they were overrun.
After taking the town, a British garrison remained in Gyantse until 1941, when the British moved out of the fort during World War II. The last records of the former British Indian Army Garrison were found in the report of an American army radio operator named Hank Baker, who inspected the garrison in 1938.
Getting to Gyantse is easy enough, and the road to the town from Lhasa is well paved and wide. The route follows the G318 as it heads out of Lhasa, before turning off to head southwest along the S307 at Dagaxiang. Gyantse is around 263 kilometers from Lhasa, and around 93 kilometers from Shigatse, along the S204.
Travel to the town is prohibited for foreign tourists by public transport, and all travelers to Tibet must have a pre-booked tour, with guide and driver, as well as a private vehicle. For Chinese tourists, travel to Gyantse can be done by train to Shigatse, and then by local bus to the town of Gyantse.
Gyantse has a typical plateau monsoon climate similar to that of Lhasa, and at 3,977 meters above sea level is on the same level as the Tibetan capital. The annual temperature difference is relatively small between winter and summer, although it can get very cold at night. Spring can be a little chilly but has plenty of sunshine, and the clear skies make for great views and amazing photos. Autumn is also a good time of year for clear skies, and with the dry weather and pleasant temperatures, both spring and autumn make for great times to trek in the area.
Summer can be a little wetter than the rest of the year, due to the southeast monsoon bringing rains from lower down in Asia, but with the natural barrier of the Himalayas, there is actually very little rain in Gyantse in the monsoon season. Days can be as hot as 22 degrees in summer, though it can drop to almost freezing at night, and what little rain there is normally falls in the afternoons and evenings.
Winter, one would think, would not be a good time to visit, and many people believe that all of Tibet is covered in deep snow from December to March. In reality, the area actually sees very little snow except on the mountains that surround Gyantse, and the sun is strong and bright, keeping the days warmer than you might expect. It does get cold, especially at night, but the fewer tourists and stunning views make it a good time to escape the crowds and rush of summer. It is still a good idea to bring warm clothes, and you will still need your sunglasses for the strong UV rays, as well as lip balm and moisturizers as the winds are strong and cold.