Tsang is Tibet’s most well-travelled region. Traditionally known as Ü-Tsang, this southwestern part of Tibet juts up against the highest Himalayan peaks and Nepal. The road from Lhasa to Everest, the Friendship Highway (the G318), passes straight through Tsang, zipping up over soaring mountain passes and by pristine lakes on its way.
Most tourist itineraries include stops at one or two famous monasteries, such as Tashilhunpo (spiritual home of the Panchen Lama lineage), and Gyantse Kumbum with its unusual white chörtens and exquisitely painted chapels. But beyond the big-hitters, there are some really interesting monasteries and temples in Tsang that very few visitors ever get to. With a handful of extra days, you can add stops at some or all of these monasteries – most are along the main highway or require a short detour. Be sure to give your travel agency a full list of the monasteries you want to see, as they will need to list them all when applying for your travel permits.
Phuntsoling is one of Tibet’s hidden treasures. Located off the main Friendship Highway, its soaring location beside a sand dune overlooking the Yarlung Tsangpo River is one of the most sweeping vistas in Tibet. Phuntsoling is a Kagyu sect monastery founded in 1615. Its ruined pre-Cultural Revolution fort overlooks the monastery from a high cliff. Don’t miss the exquisite 17th-century paintings in the main hall and unusual tiles depicting bodhisattvas around the courtyard.
About 8km off the Friendship Highway in a very isolated location, 12th-century Ralung was the place from which Nawang Namgyel (the so-called ‘Bearded Lama’) fled Tibet to found Bhutan in the 1600s. The monastery sits on a broad, high plain between Gyantse and Nangartse, a few kilometres down a dusty track off the main highway. Surrounding the main halls are the ruins of the original great temple and stupas, backed by 12 peaks beyond.
The 12th-century Nartang Monastery, about 15km from Shigatse, is famed for its woodblock printing. It’s relatively small by Tibetan standards, but carries on the Nartang (sometimes spelled Narthang) tradition of woodblock printing from the 18th century. On any visit you are likely to find local craftsmen printing scriptures by pushing smooth stones onto paper laid over ink-covered printing blocks.
Beautiful Shalu goes back to the 11th century and attracts a lot of Tibetan pilgrims, so despite being off-track it has a busy atmosphere. Shalu is associated with Tibetan magic, and was a training centre for trance walking and tummo (tantric bodily heating meditation) practices. Inside are some well-preserved murals painted in the Newari style.
Quiet Samding Monastery is unique for two reasons: first, it is one of the few monasteries in Tibet traditionally overseen by a female lama (Dorje Phagmo). Second, it has incredible views of turquoise Yamdrok-tso, one of Tibet’s sacred lakes. Samding also has a small and very basic guesthouse if you wanted to wake up to these vistas.
Tiny Lhori Nunnery is built around two Guru Rinpoche meditation caves and is home to just nine nuns. Its diminutive size gives it a really cosy, tucked-away feeling, and the back rooms and caves lit by yak-butter candles house some interesting antiques, as well as a stone footprint from a young Guru Rinpoche. Lhori Nunnery is located on the road between Gyantse and Shigatse in the picturesque Nyang-chu Valley, where you’re likely to spot yaks and dzo plowing fields with red tassels on their horns.
Shegar Chöde Monastery
Most people use Shegar (also known as New Tingri) as the last, short overnight stop before or after Everest Base Camp, but if you venture to the town’s monastery you’re in for a treat. It’s a 12th-century Yellow Hat temple virtually hanging from a cliffside above town. Plus, there are amazing views out to Everest from the prayer wheels on the walkway up.
Article and photos by Megan Eaves