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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 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, the former capital of ancient Guge Kingdom ruins, are two of western Tibet’s highlights, though a few Western tourists visit this far.

Tsaparang, a 9th-century fortress etched into the very stone of a towering ridge, is 18 km 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.

Overview 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.  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.

History of Guge Kingdom

The Guge Kingdom was established around the 10th century AD, by Kyide Nyimagon, the great-grandson of the last monarch of the Tibetan Empire, Langdarma. After the collapse of the empire, Kyide Nyimagon led his followers to escape to Ngari and founded the Guge Kingdom. From the mid-10th century to the early 17th century, the Guge Kingdom dominated the western part of Tibet, with a total of 16 hereditary kings.

By the 10th century, the Great Guge King Yeshe-Ö (947-1024) had begun to promote Buddhist exchanges between India and Tibet. At that time, the Guge Kingdom, located on the Silk Road, was already a prosperous trade center with thousands of people. Yeshe-Ö built a large number of Buddhist temples, such as the renowned Tholing Monastery, Tabo Monastery, etc. He also funded the dispatch of young monks to India for education. After 17 years, Rinchen Zangpo returned to his homeland and translated Sanskrit classics to promote Buddhism.

In 1042, the renowned Indian Buddhist monk Atiśa was invited to propagate Buddhism in the Ngari, turning Ngari into a center for the revival of Buddhism.

In the middle of the 17th century, the Guge Kingdom was overthrown due to internal turmoil and Ladakhi invasions. The king's brother, a staunch Buddhist, invited Ladakhi forces to attack the palace of Tsaparang because of anti-Buddhist movement. After the fall of Guge, it became part of Ladakh (today’s Kashmir) for a period before being reclaimed by the Tibetan local government headed by the Dalai Lama.

The massacres and plunder caused by the war were not sufficient to destroy the Guge civilization of about 100,000 people. The sudden disappearance of the Guge Kingdom overnight has become a mystery in the world.

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 frescos. 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, not far from Mount Kailash for 142 miles(230km). Ngari is a very far away place, no matter whether you are getting there from Lhasa, Kathmandu, or anywhere else. Currently, there are 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. There is a distance of 1,200 miles (1,900 km) westwards from Lhasa. 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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