Western Tibet offers some of the most awe-inspiring and unusual vistas I have ever seen – parched, treeless plains, deep maze-like gorges and canyons, and all along the southern horizon the glorious Himalayas. Our purpose of driving nearly 1000 kilometers from Lhasa to western Tibet was to see Tholing and Tsaparng. This second place was a once fair sized city that commanded the main trade route from Kashmir/Ladakh to central Tibet. Even in its ruined state it is still quite a sight. The Red Guards did great damage to Tsaparang’s three main shrines but there is still enough left to make the arduous journey needed to get there worthwhile. Sad to say, young Chinese tourists who are now coming to Tsaparang seem to be perpetuating the worst behavior of their parents by scratching their names on everything.
This part of Tibet is even more arid than the rest of the country. From the top of the Tsaparang palace I could see only one tree which I later went over to have a look at. He’s a gnarled old codger, maybe several hundred years old. The only other vegetation is the grasses and thorny, stunted bushes that grow on the banks of the Sutlij. One particular type of bush was in fruit and our driver assured me that the beautiful golden buries were edible. I tried them and they were as bitter as gall. When our driver say me screw up my face at the taste he said, ‘Only very hungry people eat them’. Grrrr! Despite the extreme aridness of the landscape, Tsaparang nurtured what must have been several large monastic communities. Around Tsaparang itself and above Tholing are massive ancient ruins and man-made caves that once served as monk’s cells. Across the Sutlij are the remains of three or four large monasteries, there huge walls still standing after 500 years of neglect. The numerous caves monks cut into the cliffs are clearly visible there too.