Guge (in present-day Zanda County in far western Tibet, 50 kilometers from Xinjiang-Tibet Highway and 250 kilometers west of Mt Kailash) was an ancient kingdom founded by a branch of descendants of the last king of a unified Tibet in the 10th century. It flourished for more than 700 years before encountering civil strife and foreign attacks and collapsing. Visitors can see ruins of temples and palaces, whose inscriptions, statues and murals remain intact.
The Guge Kingdom was started in the 10th century by the descendants of the Tubo Kingdom. In the 9th century, when Lang Dharma was assassinated, the Tubo Kingdom fell apart as civil wars surged. Jide Nyimagon, the great-grandson of Lang Dharma, led his followers to Ngari and set up the Guge Kingdom. The three sons of Jide Nyimagon and their descendants later set up three regimes: Guge, Ladakh and Burang. The region had a glorious past. At its peak, the regime covered not only the entire Ngari, but also extended into Kashmir and today’s Pakistan.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Guge Kingdom.. witnessed 16 hereditary kings. During the reign of Guge Kingdom, there was little wars or disputes, and people lived and worked in peace. As the result, the society, economy and culture reached great prosperity. The highest Tibetan civilizational achievements during the medieval times represented by Guge Kingdom was named by historians “Guge Civilization”. According to Tibetan history records, Guge Kingdom made great contribution to gold and silver manufacturing, smelting, pottery, spinning, carpentry, sewing, printing, and sculpture,etc. There are 445 housing relics, 879 cave structures, 58 fortifications, 32 pagodas and several tunnels, granaries, arsenal, and countless religious murals and figures of Buddha in Guge Relic. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
“Guge Kingdom, located at the edge of Tibetan Plateau, with India, Nepal in the south and Kashmir, Iran in the west, was a transportation hub across Eurasia. This specific location endowed evident exotic features and general inclusiveness upon its art school, which can be found on the varied Tibetan Buddhist murals. For example, The SixteenKing Kong Dancer Diagram in Tholing Monastery absorbed Indian Gandhara art features; The Four Deities Buddha Mother and Dependents and Baosheng Buddha and his familyin the Guge Castle carry exquisite style of the ancient Persia. Guge Art School, centered around Guge relic as a local art school in Tibet, represents a climax of Tibetan religious Art development and reflects the glorious achievments of the cultural communication between local Tibetan values and foreign values.”
There are many opinions on how the Guge Kingdom disappeared. There generally-accepted view is that in 1635, soldiers from the Ladakh Regime sacked Guge Palace, destroyed the kingdom and hunted down survivors. The last King of Guge and his family members were captured and taken away. Nothing was ever heard of them and ince great Guge Kingdom for all intents and purposes disappeared leaving only the ruins that you can see today.
Guge and Zhangzhung
Guge is associated with the Zhangzhung (Shangshung), an ancient culture and kingdom of western and northwestern Tibet, which pre-dates the culture of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet. Zhangzhung culture is associated with the Bon religion, which in turn, has influenced the philosophies and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Zhangzhung people are mentioned frequently in ancient Tibetan texts as the original rulers of central and western Tibet. Only in the last two decades have archaeologists been given access to do archaeological work in the areas once ruled by the Zhangzhung. Recently, a tentative match has been proposed between the Zhangzhung and an Iron Age culture now being uncovered on the Changtang plateau in northwestern Tibet. [Source: Wikipedia +]
According to Namkhai Norbu some Tibetan historical texts identify the Zhang Zhung culture as a people who migrated from the Amdo region into what is now the region of Guge in western Tibet. Zhang Zhung is considered to be the original home of the Bön religion. By the 1st century BC, a neighboring kingdom arose in the Yarlung Valley, and the Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo, attempted to remove the influence of the Zhang Zhung by expelling the Zhang's Bön priests from Yarlung. He was assassinated and Zhang Zhung continued its dominance of the region until it was annexed by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. +
Tulin-Guge Scenic and Historic Interest Areas
Tulin-Guge Scenic and Historic Interest Areas (100 kilometers west of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, 1,800 kilometers west of Lhasa) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Guge Relic in Tulin-GugeScenic and Historic Interest Areas recorded the disappeared Guge civilization, which is the testimony of Guge kingdom history....From natural perspective, in the nominated property there is a specific geomorphology type named “forest soil”, which presents outstanding universal value aesthetically and geologically. The lacustrine sedimentary around Zhada Basin and Sutlej River Basin of the nominated property belongs to the forest soil type but exhibits distinctive features, making a “Guge type”. The “Guge type”, composed of semi-consolidated lacustrine fluvial clay, sand and gravel, taking “pagoda forest” as the basic structural unit, was formed under dry climate, dominated by construction joints, affected by river erosion, rain shower eclipse and freezing weathering. The forest soil around Zhada County is tall and straight, composed of varied types, which shows distinctive aesthetical characteristics against the specific extreme natural environment of Tibetan Plateau. The nominated property shows different hues, bedding structures and physical composition, among which there are a large quantity of fossils, presenting direct or indirect proofs of ancient environmental evolution of the Tibetan Plateau. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
“From cultural perspective, the area around Tulin-Guge cultivated special Guge civilization, with palaces and cave ruins as strong testimony. Guge Kingdom was the most influential kingdom among all the local government in Tibet after the end of Tubo Dynasty. Similar to Pompeii and Maya civilization, Guge Kingdom suddenly came to an end in its highest prosperity. As the origin place of the second bloom of Tibetan Buddhism after the suppression of Buddhism by Lang Darma, Guge relic truly recorded the history of Tibetan Buddhism in the late 10th century A.D. Moreover, Guge Art School represents the climax of Tibetan religious art development, which reflected cultural communication between local art and foreign art, as well as between religious culture and secular culture.
Tulin-Guge can be called a natural wonder, containing outstanding aesthetic values. The soil forest geomorphology around Guge Relic is rare natural landscape. Affected by the location, occurrence, degree of consolidation and so on, the soil forest exhibits complicated and varied forms, among which some are like persons, some are like other stuffs. Against the specific natural environment of Tibetan Plateau, with cultural relics such as Guge Palace and Tholing Monastery, Tulin-Guge is a worldwide unique wonder.
“The geological and geomorphological characteristics of Tulin-Guge reflect the uplifting process of the Himalayas, which is an outstanding testimony of the earth’s evolution history. The morphological development of Tulin-Gugeis closely related to the uplifting process of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau. The special geomorphological features and geological remains recorded this process, providing materials to the study of the uplifting process of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau. Furthermore, there is rich variety of mammal fossils in the sediments, which is of great scientific value for the research of the origin and evolution of certain species.
“Tulin-Guge Scenic and Historic Interest Areas is an outstanding example of Tibetan traditional human settlement and land utilization, which represents the interaction between human and environment under transnational cultural communication. The extreme severe natural environment led to the beliefs such as “animism” and “unity of heaven and man” among Tibetan ancestors. These beliefs were reflected on the buildings in a way that the buildings could adapt itself to the natural environment harmoniously. The relationship between Guge Relics and the soil forest geomorphology is a strong testimony. Guge Relics was a typical mountainous building group located on a low mountain with a relative height of 170 meters, which fits into the mountain body harmoniously and magnificently, emphasizing the supreme reign status of the kingdom. Meanwhile, Tibetan ancestors made best use of the weak consolidation and loose structure of soil forest and constructed large numbers of cave structures, which represents the adaptation of human to the extreme severe natural environment. Location: Zhada County, Ngari Prefecture of Tibet Coordinates:N31 27 53 E79 40 10
Ruins of the Guge Kingdom
Ruins of Guge Kingdom (in the Zaborang District 18 kilometers from Zada County) cover an area of 200,000 square meters and embrace the ruins of five palaces as well as color paintings, clay sculptures and stone sculptures. The buildings follow the hill to its top in a rigid layout and an imposing manner. The 11-storeyed castle is more than 300 meters high. It is home to houses, caves, pagodas, blockhouses, defense works and tunnels. The previously stylish caves are now seriously damaged. Few works of architecture remain intact, but Guge's appearance is still imposing. The Chinese government has invested more than 57 million yuan (about $8.8 million) to maintain the Guge ruins. The five palaces of the ruins had problems with cracked walls and loose ceilings and these were fixed. [Source: Xinhua, May 15, 2011] Admission: 105 yuan
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The existing building ruins in Guge Relic are the physical form of social class in Guge Kingdom, as well as view of the universe of Tibetan Buddhism. The relics of Guge were divided into 3 parts from base to the top: cave structures down in the base were for civilians and slaves, temples in the middle were for monks, houses on the top were for the kings and nobles, which is the physical form of social class stratification of Guge civilization. Tholing Monastery in the nominated property and Samye monastery in Shannan prefecture were the earliest two monasteries of Datura type in China, among which the Sakya Hall in Tholing Monastery represented the view of the universe of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
Grand Palace Ruins are situated on a 300-meter tall yellow earth hill on the banks of the Xiangquang River. The Xiangquang River runs northwest from the Lake Manasarovar. The ruins rise abruptly from the river bank. The fortress-like palace was built at a strategic point on a hill. There are underground tunnels leading various places. Thick walls surround much of the site, which occupies 720,000 square meters, and comprises 445 dwellings and rooms, 879 caves, 58 pillboxes, four secret tunnels and 28 Buddhist temples. The dwellings and rooms are piled on top of one another on the side of the hill. Many of the cave palaces have domes. There are summer ones and winter ones.
At the four corners of the city walls are pillboxes. Among the best-preserved buildings and sites are Mandala Hall, Gongkang, Scripture Hall, Red Monastery, White Monastery, Samsara Monastery, Zhoimalhakang and Mani Stone Carving Wall. Inside and outside the ruins are numerous relics such as grain, production tools, clothing, decorations, helmets, shields and arrows. They have been preserved in the cold, dry air of the plateau. Inside many caves at the ruins people have found headless bodies which have turned into mummies. A four-year-old girl’s body was found buried in a wall. It was the first time Chinese archaeologists encountered such a burial custom. The girl’s body is now in the Tibet Museum.
Zanda and Guge Kingdom Tourism
Zanda (262 kilometers from Darchen in the Mount Kailash area) is the main town in the Guge Kingdom ruins area. An isolated military town with few Tibetans, it consists of a dusty main street and concrete block buildings. There are some hotels there and more tourists, especially those seeking off-beaten-track places, are coming. Zanda County is situated at an elevation of 3,800 meters in Ngari Prefecture.
Generally you need at least five days to reach Zanda from Lhasa by car. Zanda, means “the place where there are grass in the lower reaches of river” in Tibetan language. Spring and autumn is the best time to visit. Try to avoid the rainy season in August as the roads can be quite bad then and vehicles often stuck in the mud. There is a Sichuan-Guangdong restaurant in Toding town in Zanda County. The is the most popular restaurant among travelers and mainly serves up Sichuan dishes and hot pot. Travelers usually stay overnight in Zanda County. The Guge Hotel and Zanda Hotel are not that great but they are clean. The Hongda guesthouse opposite of Zanda government building has common rooms with CNY 35 per bed.
There are no guesthouses in Guge Kingdom ruins area but there are some in nearby Zhaburang village. If you want to watch stay there you need bring a tent but it doesn’t rain so much so you can sleep under the stars. If you want to see the frescoes in Guge Kingdom, you may as well take a flashlight with you. Taking pictures of the frescoes are forbidden.
The Guge Kingdom ruins are 20 kilometers away from Zanda County and it takes about 40 minutes to drive there. You can stay overnight in Zhaburang village, within walking distance of the ruins, which rise abruptly from the river bank. It is nice to walk to Guge Kingdom before sunrise or near sunset to catch the morning and evening light.
Tholing (500 meters north of Zanda) is an 11th century monastery that was the most important lamasery in western Tibet for centuries. Located on an escarpment above the Sutlej River, it was almost totally destroyed by the Red Guards. Wind and sand has eroded what is left. In some places it is difficult to distinguish the monastery buildings from the arid hills. Some of the buildings contain 15th through 17th century murals that are fairly good condition. The paintings depict deities and high lamas and scenes from court life, showing foreign emissaries in Islamic, Chinese and central Asia clothing paying respects to Tibetan royalty. They have been restored. Admission is around US$12.
Tholing Monastery is the oldest monastery in the Nagri Prefecture. It was built in 997 by Yeshe-O, the second King of the Guge Kingdom. In Tibetan language, Tholing means “hovering in the sky forever”. The complex includes three temples, the Yeshe-O Temple, the Lhakhang Karpo and the Dukhang. There are many ancient precious and well preserved frescoes.
Yeshe-O was a devout Buddhist, who sent 21 youths to learn Tantric Buddhism in Kashmir. Only Rinchen Zangpo and another survived and returned. Rinchen Zangpo, a greatest Buddhist scholar and translator, translated sutras and helped develop Tibetan Buddhism at Tholing, which was set up by Yeshe-O for that purpose. At the Xiangquan River near Tholing Monastery, there are 108 Buddhist stupas. They are ruined and weathered but are still worth visiting.
Tsaparang (25 kilometers from Tholing) was the old capital of the Guge kingdom. The monastery here was built in the 11th century and was badly damaged in the Cultural Revolution. The buildings that remain — the Red Temple, White Temple and the Dorje Jige Temple---contain wall paintings that are in better shape than those at Tholing. The images are similar. The paintings in Mandala Temple, at the top of Tsaparang, are particularly in good condition. Relatively few people visit the site. Foreigners are supposed to pay US$40 each to visit the monastery. Make sure to bring a flashlight. The lighting in many of the buildings is very poor. Around the monastery are caves used by Tibetan Buddhist hermits.
Tsaparang is located in the Garuda Valley, through which the upper Sutlej River flows, in Ngari Prefecture, near the border of Ladakh. It is 278 kilometers south-southwest of SenggeTsangpo Town and not far west of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. The Tsaparang Dzong was located here. Nearby is the Bon monastery of Gurugem.
Tsaparang is a huge fortress perched on a pyramid-shaped rock rising about 152 to 183 meters (500 to 600 feet) at the end of a long narrow spur. It contains numerous tunnels and caves that have been carved out of the rock. At its base was a village where the common people lived. Above them were two public temples - the Lhakhang Marpo (Red Chapel) and the Lhakhang Karpo (White Chapel), and quarters for the monks. Further up, ascending a twisting stone staircase in a tunnel, were the royal quarters, and at the very top, the summer palace.
Donkar and Piyang: Ancient Murals
Donkar (40 kilometers northeast of Zanda County) has a 1100-years and caves with ancient murals. The oldest temple at Donkar is attributed to Princess Lhei Metok, daughter of King Yeshe-O in the 10th century. The most prominent building is Tashi Choling, built for Tsongkapa’s student Ngawang Drakpa in the 15th century.
Donkar’s caves were discovered during the early 1990s. The cave paintings have much in common stylistically with the Silk Road cave murals of Dunhuang. There are three main caves in a side valley before the main village, of which the best preserved is the Mandala cave.
Piyang is around three kilometers from Donkar at the far end of the valley. The oldest building in Piyang was the Karsak Lhakhang, attributed to King Yeshe-O. Both Donkar and Piyang have extremely gorgeous paintings. Piyang lies at the foot of a large ridge honeycombed with thousands of caves and topped with a ruined monastery and two caves with fine murals.
Before visiting the caves of Donkar and Piyang, you must get the letter of introduction to the caretaker from the Cultural Affairs Bureau in Zanda first. You can spend a night in a hotel called Ali Ying Hotel, which provides warm water and public bathhouse.
Zanda Earth Forest
Zanda Earth Forest (30 kilometers from Zanda County) has been described as largest tertiary strata earth forest in the world. Situated on the Langqen Tsangpo river, it covers 2,464 square kilometers. Throughout Zanda County, there are various Utah-like and Arizona-like earth forests. The attract a lot of photographers. At dawn and dusk, with clouds on the horizon, the light is perfect for taking pictures of of the fantastic rock formations. There are some ancient temples on the banks of the Shiquan River
The earth forest in geology is known as "the Level Terrane Physiognomy," formed by erosion, where the sediment of lakes and rivers, mainly composed by sandstone and clay, have formed into various shapes. The Level Terrane has developed upright qualities, and the valley is deep. The orogenic movement of the Himalayas has made the bottom of the lake ascend. And the undulating earthen forest for dozens of kilometers formed by the subsiding water and long years of weathering has taking a toll, forming narrow earthen forests.
Erosion and weathering from water and wind have worn down the mountains and created different shapes, some of which look like castles, watchtowers and pagodas. Some are said to resemeble warriors defending a mountain top position or hundreds of galloping horses. From different angles the formations can call to mind different things. When entering into Zhada county, a clay forest stands on both sides of Elephant Spring River and winds over more than five kilometers. The clay formations is look like warriors defending the mountaintop.
Stripes in the sandstone rock are created by sediments and clays from of lakes and rivers that existed millions of the years ago. . In some places there are canyons with cliffs that reach 100 to 200 meters. Be careful when you visit the area. There are often fierce winds and bright sun. The roads can be atrocious and more like ditches than roads. Temperature drops quickly at night. Zanda Earth Forest observatory, which is 30 kilometers away from Toding town, is a popular photograph-taking place. The road from observatory to town is extremely steep.
Rutog Rock Paintings
Rutog Rock Paintings (on the Xinjiang-Tibet road near Rutog County, far western Tibet, 1,150 kilometers west of Lhasa) refers to a large number of rock paintings have been discovered in Gerze, Ge'gyai and Rutog counties in recent years. Most are not paintings but are images carved on stones with hard rocks or other hard objects, in both deep and shallow lines. There are a few colorfully painted pictures. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]
During the early development of human society, people described and recorded their way of production and life through stone carvings and inscription. The rock paintings cover a wide range of contents, including hunting, sacrificial rites, riding, domestic animal herding, and farming, as well as the sun and moon, mountains, cattle, horses, sheep, donkeys, antelopes, houses, and people. Of these rock paintings, those discovered in Rutog County are the most outstanding. The rock paintings at a dozen places within Rutog, including Risum Rimodong and Lorinaka, are not only large in size and great in number, but are also of high artistic value.
Ngari was once the capital of the ancient Zhangzhung Kingdom. Zhangzhung writing was created by the ancestors of the Tibetan ethnic group and appeared before Tibetan writing. The rock paintings, which appeared in the same period as Zhangzhung scripts, are of great significance to studies on the history and culture as well as on early human life in Ngari and Tibet at large.
In 1985, rock paintings were found at several sites in Rutog County. This was the first time such finds had been made in Tibet. The majority of the rock paintings lie at the southern and eastern of Pangong Lake. The most impressive one features four extravagantly antlered deer racing across the rock and looking back at three leopards in hot pursuit. Also depicted are eagles, yaks, camels, goats, tigers wild boars and human figures.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site
Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2020