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Guge was an ancient kingdom in Western Tibet. The kingdom was centered in present-day Zanda County, Ngari Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region. The barren and eroded landscape here seems an improbable location for a major civilization to have developed. Yet the ancient Guge kingdom thrived here as an important stop on the trade route between India and Tibet.

The Guge Kingdom, which could be dated back to the kingdom of Zhang Zhung(Shangshung), was founded in around the 10th century, after the collapse of the Tubo Kingdom around the 9th century and ended in the 17th century. Today, the remains of Tholing Monastery, once a significant center of Tibetan Buddhism, and neighboring Tsaparang, a 9th-century fortress etched into the very stone of a towering ridge, are two of western Tibet’s highlights, though few Western tourists manage to make it this far.

Overview of Guge Kingdom

At different time points in history after the 10th century AD, Guge kingdom conquered a vast area including the south-eastern Zanskar, Upper Kinnaur district, and Spiti Valley. The former capital of the Guge kingdom ruins is located at Tsaparang in the Sutlej Valley, not far from Mount Kailash and 1,200 miles (1,900 km) westwards from Lhasa.

Tsaparang is 18km west of Zanda, while Tholing Monastery is now merely an adjunct to the town. To visit both, you need to budget for at least three days (two solely for getting there and back from Darchen). Both sites are in the valley of the Langchen Tsangpo (Sutlej River), the ‘elephant river,’ which rises west of Mansarovar and continues over the border with India into Ladakh and finally Pakistan.

History of Guge Kingdom

Guge Kingdom was established by the descendants of the Tubo royal family in the present Nagri region. It was not only the continuation of Tubo's ancestry, but also enabled Buddhism to regain its foothold after the collapse of the Tubo, and gradually reached its full height. Therefore, Guge Kingdom is of great significance in Tibetan history. 

By the 10th century, the Guge Kingdom was already a wealthy trade center supporting several thousand people when the great Guge King Yeshe O began to nurture an exchange of ideas between India and Tibet. The young monk Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055) was sent to study in India and returned 17 years later to become one of Tibet’s most excellent translators of Sanskrit texts and a key figure in the revival of Buddhism across the Tibetan plateau. Rinchen Zangpo built 108 monasteries throughout western Tibet, Ladakh, and Spiti, including the great monasteries of Tabo and Alchi. Two of the most important were those at Tsaparang and Tholing. He also invited Kashmiri artists to paint the unique murals still visible today. It was partly at Rinchen Zangpp’s behest that Atisha, a renowned Bengali scholar and another pivotal character in the revival of Tibetan Buddhism, was invited to Tibet. Atisha spent three years in Tholing before traveling on to central Tibet.

The Guge Kingdom fell into ruin just 50 years after the first Europeans arrived in Tibet in 1624, after a siege by the Ladakhi army. The center of Tibet soon became the middle of nowhere.

The Unique Structure of Guge Kingdom

According to the structure of Guge Kingdom ruins, there are more than 300 houses, 400 temples, 28 stupas, 58 watchtowers, 4 tunnels, 11 granaries, and nearly 1000 caves. The superstructure is the royal palace, followed by the military office and guarded barracks. Next, some temples and finally there is the civilian residence. It also reflects the rigid hierarchy. Even in outlying areas, there are besieged city walls, towers at the four corners, and some temples and palaces with exquisite fresco. The most surprising part is that one has to get through a palace gate in a tunnel to go to the top, which makes the palace easy to defend and difficult to attack.

How to Get to the Guge Kingdom?

Guge Kingdom is located in Zanda County, Ngari Prefecture, surrounded by a large-scale soil forest. Ngari is a very far away place, no matter whether you are getting there from Lhasa, Kathmandu, or anywhere else. Currently, there're two ways, by road or by plane.

Driving to Ngari: Driving to Ngari from Lhasa is a popular way for most tourists as it's a great sightseeing journey. You will pass through many major tourist attractions in Tibet, like Yamdrok Lake, Karola Glacier, Gyantse, Shigatse, Mt.Everest, etc. By the way, it’s the most comfortable and cost-effective way as you can adopt the ascending altitude gradually.

Flying to Ngari: Nowadays, it’s possible to take flights to Nagri for travelers with tight schedules. There are flights between Lhasa and Ngari with a duration of 2 hours. You can also travel from Urumqi to Ngari by flight with a stopover at Kashgar. The whole journey takes about 4 hours. After you arrive at Ngari Gunsa Airport, it takes about 5 hours of driving to get to the Guge Kingdom relics. If you are departing from Kathmandu, you can fly to Lhasa first, then take another plane to Ngari.

Travel Tips:

1. Take precautions of bringing enough thick clothes. The temperature varies greatly between day and night. During the daytime, the temperature may reach up to 10 or even 20 degrees but at night the temperature drops to several degrees below zero or even lower.

2. Nagri is a high-altitude region, with an average altitude of 4500m. The climate here is dry and the ultraviolet radiation is very strong. Please beware of altitude sickness and skincare.

3. On the way to the ruins of Guge Kingdom, the diet along the way is simple but expensive. You may prepare some snacks in advance.

4. The best time to visit Ngari is May, June, September and early October. At Guge Kingdom, you can witness different views at different times of a single day.

5. There is no guesthouse in Guge Kingdom. If you want to watch the nightscape here, you need to prepare a tent on your own.

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