En Route: High on a Hill

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On a hilltop high above the Tibetan town of Gyangste, a tiny red and white castle sits above a scraggly and dusty hillside made golden by the setting sun. Seeming to float above the crumbling cement rooftops of the town, it’s the sort of place that would house a beautiful princess, or stand strong in the face of dragons, emerging from the mountain almost as if by nature.

The castle is an old Tibetan administrative building, and the town in which it sits, Gyangste, used to house one of the largest monasteries in the region. Now, more than half a century after the Cultural Revolution, both sit crumbling and abandoned, left to the cows and dirty children who wander the streets. From the ninth century until the first half of the last, its streets teemed with crimson-robed monks, devoted to the study and practice of Buddhism. A center of learning and culture, it was destroyed in 1959 in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Spearheaded by Mao, the Chinese sought to “unify” society and suppress regions that posed a threat to the Party. Soon they forced Tibetans into submission, with heavy regulations and systematic cultural and physical destruction, as well as the importation of thousands of Han Chinese people. The monastery at Gyangste, however, refused to cooperate. No matter the threats from the government, they refused to relinquish their centuries-old traditions and give up their cultural autonomy. So now, trash gathers in the streets and footsteps echo off the city’s empty walls. The occasional ancient monk shuffles by, graying and gaunt. As a result of their refusal to submit, they haven’t been allowed to recruit new monks for years.

The story is a common one: Tibetans boast that every town in Tibet has a monastery yet for the most part, they stand empty, gutted by authorities or converted into government outposts. Crimson robes still dot the streets, but they’re either hunched over with age and defeat, or jaunty with the assurance of youth protected by higher authorities.

Back in Gyangste, everything glows in the golden hour. As the last licks of sunlight make their way behind the gravelly, bald mountains, they cast light into the shadows. Clinging the side of the mountain is a phrase spelled out in stones: om ma ni be me hum.

The mantra of Tibet, meant to purify the people of pride, jealousy, passion, ignorance, greed, and aggression. The very things that they are facing.

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