XXIII

Guge is only a short ride downstream from Tsamda. The morning sun always shines. This desert county occupies a dry hole northwest of the monsoons; of course, the rainy flood sometimes stretches over to this hidden valley, but most of it falls to the south, beyond the Himalayas, as well as further north even as the wet airstream settles over higher ground. The weather pattern of the Tsamda Sutlej is similar to the kingdom of Mustang in northern Nepal: sunny and dry, as it rains in the lands north and south.

On my way along the river it's nothing but towering sandstone mesas and buttes. In the narrow gorges, fresh springs flow forth, making small, but lush green pastures. Several brown and mottled horses graze on the grass beside the water. I drink my fill. I ride on but find that my information conflicts: the guidebook says Guge is 26 kilometres up the road. I forget to look at my photo-copied Chan guide, which says it's only half that. So, I keep going, failing to look for Guge's ramparts at kilometre 13...

I go up and up a most lunar and desolate pass heading towards India's border, less than a hundred kilometres away. I get off and push for five kilometres more. Then, I realize Guge isn't here. I snap my telephoto lens on and settle for a shot facing a phenomenal vista reaching 60 kilometres north.

Then I reread the Chan guide... Hmmm. Back 13 kilometres. Then I spot the lofty ruins of Guge carved into the mountainside. Its red temples stand over a tableland above the Sutlej River. The vestibule of heaven is vast, disused, and forlornly waiting for people to come in: few of us really are good enough.

Closer, I see the caves and red temples are hewn into a knife-edge of sandstone. Guge is a golden mountain of earth, twice taller than wide. Upon its bright face, the dark portals of civilization are legible, written by human hands, long ago. Yes, they are ruins. Nobody has lived in Guge since the 17th century. The citizens of this Tibetan Buddhist kingdom were either killed by marauding fanatics from India, or as some believe, they perished of famine.

The tableland over the river valley splinters to ravines and sandy flats beside the Sutlej. I dip down to paradise. I have nowhere to hide. I don't want to hide. I've only come here to be alone and enjoy life. I'm only doing what countless north americanos wish they could do everyday - if they had time...

I ride for Tsaparang, a small village on the river bank under Guge. The arable soil and meadows near the river isn't much, perhaps only a few kilometres. Yet, this sliver of land sustains a whole community. How, I wonder? A small stream comes from a ravine. Pure water issues from below the Earth, filtered by the finest sand. Some alluvial soil and a fresh spring keeps everyone alive. The Sutlej is a super fast river much too silty for drinking. However, if you had a rubber raft, you'd be in India before you could say, "The light is the way..."

The village of Tsaparang is on a rise between table and river, only a few kilometres south. That small spring has been directed into a very narrow artery leading towards the village. A green grassy meadow make a lovely bed. I camp on some soft silence next to the streamlet. The peace is perfect here. I lie on the grass, smoking a cigarette. A cute brown pony munches the lawn. She's tethered and watches me with one eye. The sky of Ngari (West Tibet) pleases the senses: it's a depthless blue, a pond for lazy dragons to swim. I'm content with a feeling of achievement, having made my destination.

The little girls sneak up on me. They've seen me lying on the grass by my tent. This is their home. I roll over like a dog and see them pause, grinning, silent and watchful. They heft up some bundles of twigs and sticks. Mama and daddy have sent them out to fetch kindling. They found me, too. Just as well. Burn me babies. Come on, I'll burn good. "Hello." The two youngsters smile and come near. They're happy to pose for a picture...

The girls go away, but will return. Children are defined by curiosity about the world, and have no need to hide their natural feelings. Before the sun falls, I walk to Tsaparang. The village is sheltered from above by short cliffs. I see one figure, an elderly woman. I feel she wants to see me. Why should she walk towards me? The lady is smiling to herself.

I point beyond, to my camp. The old lady walks with me. She only wants to check her ponies. I point my tent out. She smiles again. As she goes away, I have a lonely pang then light my candle so I can read myself asleep. About the history of Guge... Buddhism first came to Tibet around the 7th century, on the bidding of Songsten Gampo and his two Buddhist wives. But in the 9th century, two centuries after Tibet's official conversion to the new faith, King Langdarma of the Yarlung dynasty decided to ban Buddhism from Tibet. He was promptly done in for this affront, and his son, Namde Osung, ran away from the collapsing empire to Ngari. Here, he founded the small kingdom of Guge. Unlike his father, Osung was a devout Buddhist. So, perhaps he had some hand in his father's demise. The religious relics at Guge show us the vibrant interchange between Kashmiri and Tibetan culture, especially with respect to the inspiration that Indian iconographers have given Tibetan artists.

Exhaustion pulls down the shades of my eyelids... Sleep, sleep at last! Morning comes in with a grey cloud and at 6:30 A.M. I walk up the ravine to the ruins of Guge. This vale reveals a special habitat: a cozy carpet of wet lawn; puddles of bubbling water seep up among soft blades of grass. Sheep and cows graze here, too. Then Guge looms above the shoulder of an eroding bank. At the foot of the mountain stand three red temples...

Before I go in, I have to find the caretaker: he holds the keys. It's only 7:00 A.M. The caretaker's abode is new and roomy enough to house travellers. He sits at his desk, eating breakfast. He's a nice old gentleman with an educated air. He's quick to offer me some milk tea. His glasses sit on the desk and right away he wants to try on mine. Coincidentally, my lenses suit him almost precisely. Now I'm faced with a collision between a chance to be kind and my own needs. I really want to give him my glasses, since his are old and scratchy. What to do? He playfully asks me how much they cost. I tell him the price. He cannot afford it. That makes me feel bad, yet I don't give them away. Another regret.

As each day passes, I learn more patience for other people. In the past I used to get agitated because others couldn't read my mind, I suppose. Today, alone with this old caretaker, I feel pacific and absolutely free of earthly negation. I've reached my goal, and can enjoy a polite tea with a man who has the key. Nor do I ask him to produce the key. He's old and has my respect, so I know how to wait patiently for the obvious suggestion, "Do you want to go in?" Which is nothing more than a Tibetan twirl of his fingers pointing outside. After stowing away several brass cups from his alter, he picks up a pail of water and we go. He smiles because he knows I am not in a hurry.

The sun outstrips the shrouded horizon, warmly illuminating hundreds of caverns woven among the sandy ramparts and remains of roofless walls. The gate to Guge opens a flight of steps. City and palace were built on a principle of elevation: flights of stairs and winding trails lead all the way to the summit, and the king's palace. The caretaker first wants to show me three temples built at the foot of Guge. He walks up and I follow, because it's his morning ritual, I guess, to change the water on the alters, and check to see everything is okay...

The first temple, the one closest to the main gate, is dedicated to Shakyamuni Buddha. It showcases a wall painting of Shakyamuni (Tibetan: Shakya Tupa) - the original living man whom most of us calls Buddha. Alongside Buddha a cross-legged Atisha is also painted, the renowned Indian master who visited Tibet in 1042 on the deathbed invitation of Guge's King Yeshe-o, a devout ruler who sponsored the temples erected by the sage, Rinchen Zangpo. All the temples at Guge have beautifully preserved artwork on the walls. Nearly 300 years have passed since the paintings were last redone. So, all paintings of Buddha, Atisha, Tsongkhapa, their disciples and Buddha's manifestative deities are weathered and somewhat begrimed. The colors are intact, however darkened with ageless layers of lamp-oil smoke. Worse than the effects of nature and time, all the statuary inside Guge's temples suffered destruction at the hands of the Red Guards. The whole site preserves a painful, half-destroyed aura.

Each temple at Guge is devoted to particular deities and their manifestations. The king and queen constructed the temples to pacify their need for fervent religious devotions; perhaps they wanted to quell all the jitters associated with the adversity of living an isolated, unprotected existence in a remote land. Royalty, common people and religious orders all shared sanctuaries to cultivate their faith in Buddhism.

The second temple on the way up is the White Temple, or the Lhakhang Karpo. Inside, the stumps of massive plaster deities stand guard by the door. From a skylight above, a glimmer seeps into the dim space, lending some small sense of proportion to the murk. The repainted skylight frames reveal miniatures of Buddha. The wall murals show intense, intimate detail. On the right wall you can observe a clever and original depiction of Buddha's route to enlightenment. If only the huge central statue of Buddha had not been destroyed! All that lingers is a messy heap of rubble. The Buddhas of the Five Families, representing some important meditational aspects of Buddha, have been reduced to dust. One or two statues still retain their form, but their heads are lacking. These statues, along with the images painted on the walls, reveal the essence of the Tibetan "Guge" style, strongly inspired by conventional Kashmiri art fused with many traditional motifs of Tibetan Buddhist iconography. The Kashmiri style is easily recognized in the contoured proportions of the body: the waist is tiny and the torso flows into a much broader oval chest. After leaving the temple, I managed to climb on the roof from the path and get a great photo through a broken pane on the roof of a large support pillar and its colorful carving...

The third temple is the Red Temple, or Lhakhang Marpo. This amazing structure preserves the original wooden entrance door built upon on the occasion of its last restoration. It is heavy, weathered, yet handsomely huge and intact. This 400 year-old door is framed with three tiers of recessed and elaborately carved designs. It's well-preserved to this day, probably because the air is so dry and cool...

Like the White Temple just below, the Red Temple is very large and houses the remnants of some fantastic imagery and exceptional paintings.

The fourth of the temples was built by the queen for Guge's regent. I manage to snap one good photo of a multi-armed meditational deity who strongly resembles Cakrasamvara - and a prime example of the Kashmiri influence...

The friendly caretaker becomes a little less smiley at this point and expects me to make a big donation, explaining that many tourists give a hundred yuan for the privilege of taking a picture inside the temple. I put two yuan in the pot, plus a smile and a shrug.

My old guide has no intention of walking all the way to the top. Yet he remembers his smile and waves me up. I'm alone with the ancient city. The day couldn't be finer. With each step, the vista becomes ever more wonderful. Canyons and mountains lay far to the north. Below the citadel, the green marsh and grass stretches out like a ribbon. The city walls are precipitous. The old monastery along the eastern rampart preserves some traces of original scarlet paint. But most everything built long ago on the sandstone spur has eroded away...

Scrambling off the path to the left, I find what my guidebook describes as the Guge prison. It's a horrifying hole in the Earth. It's like a mouth swallowing down into a gullet. I shudder to imagine that the condemned were thrown down, to die a slowly painful death of broken bones amid a continual rot of fresh corpses. Maybe prisoners were actually lowered with ropes into this pit. Then maybe the guards threw them a few scraps of food.

Hundreds of caves pocket the soft sandstone. But the caves seem small: it isn't always easy to stand up straight. The people of Guge lived in tiny alcoves, some of them linked to larger buildings. The city was densely packed with folk. My guidebook supposes only 500 people inhabited the city of Guge. I would guess, if one includes the caverns below on the west flank, as well as the people living across the river and the farmlands there, the community probably supported 2000 individuals, and maybe more. It seems likely that the land was more fertile 250 years ago, and the weather, less arid.

Beyond the green marshes at the foot of Guge, evidence of intensive cultivation is well preserved: old furrows are etched in chalky soil, attesting to the presence of sown fields. Few people live in this area today, the village of Tsaparang is home to less than one hundred people. So, only some of the available land is cultivated: basic reliance upon animal husbandry and imported staples has made cultivation a past science... But during Guge's heyday, with no trucks to bring rice, the "desert" surrounding Guge would have been irrigated, and the tracts of alluvial land, for miles up and down the Sutlej, were intensively cultivated for several generations.

Guge was a bustling city, and now, very few people live here. But look at other countries in which ruined cities are found, like Mexico: the contemporary populace of Mexico greatly outnumbers the ancient population of Aztecs and Mayans. Likewise, almost everywhere, in fact! But at Guge, the present day reveals an eerily opposite study: the populace has all but disappeared.

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