Magic Tirthapuri and

the Lost City of Tsaparang


Map 6, From lunch under Kailas to Camp 5 at Thirtapuri, and next day across the two high passes to Thöling. On the following day to Tsaparang and back to Camp 6 in the Sutlej Canyon. On the next day we crossed the high passes again and stayed in Camp 7 just before the "bulge" to reach Darchen on the following afternoon.

Behind the "bulge" hides Mensi, a miserable "town" where we found Agha, Cornelius, and Jeroen playing pool on main street.... Barbara had felt miserable for two days, and hoping it would revive her I had asked Padru for the promised oxygen bottle. — It had leaked empty.... Bad news, and the crew felt sufficiently embarrassed to drive to the Mensi "hospital" to ask for oxygen. They had none, who among the Tibetans would need oxygen!

Here you see the entire hospital staff at Mensi waiting for patients. They became very agitated when they noticed me taking their picture, and we cleared out quickly.

  Once again as we drove south towards Tirthapuri (its Sanskrit name) the country became very beautiful in the late afternoon light. The river is the young Sutlej flowing towards Tirthapuri.  

 Tirthapuri is the rungjung— "naturally sacred" place per excellence. Sacred to Yeshe Tsögyel, the Sky Dancer, the consort of Padmasambhava and reincarnation of Vajrayogini, the fierce protrectress of Tibet. Its red, volcanic outcroppings have great power, but its greatest secret are the hot-springs.  

Tirthapuri Hot-springs, a seething, sulfuric collection of springs and pools on a salt incrusted hill above the Sutlej.  


 The colors, reflections, and steam clouds shimmer beautifully in the evening sun:






When we returned to the Palisades I learned that Marc had found the pool that had eluded me to take a bath in. 


 On my return from the springs I discovered a family of Chang Tang nomads with three yaks and a horse for the gentleman setting up their tents near the river.  

 Our tents. Barbara and the young had gone on a tour of the little gompa on top of the hill. I fell asleep in our tent...


 ...and was awakened by tinkling bells and giggles. When I opened my eyes I had these apparition of four girls in their sunday best.... They came back again later at night to spy on the foreigners having dinner. Cornelius was able to catch the youngest on the left and interrogate her in Chinese and a sprinkling of Tibetan. They were on a four-weeks pilgrimage before the winter came.

Next morning we were awoken by the girls circulating the gompa by prostrating themselves all the way....


Crossing the High Passes to Thöling

 . In the old times one had to follow the ancient caravan route through the wild Sutlej Canyon to Thöling, a trip that took Sven Hedin and Tucci three weeks — if one did not get lost. In the sixties the Chinese blasted a "New Road" across the mountains, which we now took. Unimproved and often very exposed, it precariously climbs a steep mountainside above Chinese Radar and military communications camp. The top is a desolate jumble of ancient volcanic craters, small lakes and boulders. It began to snow. 

 Jeroen shivering, behind him one of the volcanic plugs surrounded by its crater.


 Another crater. We are nearing the first of two passes....


 A small lhato — cairn marks the first pass: 5900 m! Amazing that our Toyotas are so well tuned that they take this without stuttering. — The drivers tinker with the engines every night. The second pass follows soon it is above 6000 m right below the snowline, but looks entirely uninteresting, a shallow hump. 

A "pee-stop" on the far side of the pass. Our need for privacy has dissolved in thin air. A broad view now opens across the Sutlej canyon. For two hours we travel west crossing one run-off canyon after the other.  

 Suddenly, the truck veers off the road and heads straight for the canyon's edge. We grab our seats. Pardu laughs —now comes the shortcut...  

... and we finally get a view of the lower part of the Sutlej Canyon, a wild jumble of eroded mountains the extend of which is larger than the Grand Canyon — and deeper: 3000 m from the pass.  

We continue on a barely visible spur across a rock-strewn mesa, until we find ourselves stuck on a track cut into the soft Löss. The truck had made a wrong turn and nearly gone over the edge at a place where the road had been washed away.

 It takes a while for the truck to back-out and follow a sharp hair-pin where a prison crew digs with hands and shovels.  


Wild formations rise in the afternoon light, castles and pagodas, and watchtowers. At the bottom we scramble along in a narrow brook bed carefully avoiding the biggest boulders. Not a good place to be in case of a flash flood. 

Dead tired we arrive in Thöling after nightfall. The tourist guesthouse is full. Pujung finally finds us accommodations in a military barrack were we sit and wait at 10 o'clock while Bakhi scrambles up dinner for us at right. He had not been able to find a restaurant for us.... 




Next morning Jeroen was limping badly. While we slept, the guys had gone out to look for a place to dance. They only found a pool room and staged their own dance in their room, Cornelius drumming Salsa like mad.... And that was when Jeroen had sprained his ankle. The Chinese commander of the house finally presents him with a bamboo stick and Jeroen sheepishly walked away on three legs....

Tsaparang is one of the "Lost Cities" of Central Asia. Although its existence had been well known from the diaries of Andrade a Portuguese missionary who had spent several years there in the 1620s, it was only discovered in 1933/34 By Tucci. Sven Hedin had stayed in the village of the same name on the Sutlej, but the locals had not revealed the old citadel in a side canyon. You find a detailed description of its history and murals under 26/27 September in Dreams. The unique old temples, the only buildings of the city that had survived its destruction in the outgoing 17th century, had been badly ransacked by Tibetan cadres during the Cultural Revolution. Looking for treasures they had destroyed most clay sculptures — but the 15th-century murals had survived....

.. all the greater was the surprise to find this view of the site. The temples had been stabilized and roofed and an entrance gate had been installed — with Chinese moneys, which resulted in a hefty entrance fee of $57 for each of us !! (Pujung had to pay a fine onto the normal ticket of $32.50 to the bönpo— the cadre at the site, for not having the proper permits for our visit. Where that fine went remained a mystery, quite possibly into his own pocket).  

Plan and Elevation of Tsaparang from a Chinese brochure (click to enlarge)

 Barbara, Monique, Jeroen and Pujung on the way up. The higher building is the Red Temple to the right the White Temple. Photographing inside the buildings was strictly forbidden, the guardian with the keys followed our every move. There exist black and white photographs by Tucci (informative but very poor reproductions) and by the German Buddhist Angarika Govinda (mostly sculptures). 

In 1985 Frits Staal from Berkeley and Adelaide de Menil visited Tsaparang and published a few of Adelaide photographs in Natural History Vol 95, No. 7, July 1986. I copied three from the White Temple.

A badly damaged sculpture of the protector Hayagriva.

Mahakala on the wall behind Hayagriva

The temple is dedicated to Vairocana, remnants of one of the Vairocana sculptures and the murals next to him.

Part of a freeze above the entrance to the White Temple exhibiting a different style of painting. Staal thinks it is influenced by Central Asian or Iranian painting.

 The view over the Sutlej from the porch of a smaller temple.


 Bart on the way to the top of the citadel.


 The citadel and the path. Barbara can be seen in the lowest bend to the right. I followed her very slowly, a climb of only 180 m (at an altitide of only 3200 m). It was an excruciating labor that took me almost an hour and convinced me that I was in no condition to walk the Kailas khorlam....  

 The view of the Sutlej valley from the top. In the near distance, framed by the crack is an other temple complex of no particular interest.

The object of my dreams was this small Demchog Temple on top of the citadel. Demchog is the fierce form of Manjushri (see Buddhas for a more detailed discussion of the Tibetan pantheon) popular in Western Tibet during the 14th to 17th century. The temple is completely dark inside with huge murals of Mandalas and Tantric Yab-Yum images on its walls. It was used for initiation rites and for that reason its imagery is highly esoteric. The following color photos were taken by Aschoff, a German physician, and H. Wyer, after the Cultural Revolution and before the present restauration. I copied some of Wyer's photographs from H. Weyer and J. C. Aschoff: "Tsaparang, Tibets Grosses Geheimnis," Eulen Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1987 (out of print).

Demchog Temple, Buddha Vairocana with a Bodhisattva crown

Demchog Temple, Heruka with the Wisdom-Dakini in Yab-Yum

Demchog Temple, Buddha Ratnasambhava with Bodhisattva crown.

Demchog Temple, according to Aschhoff a Canda-maha-rosana(?), the Supreme Addhi-Buddha in a terrifying manifestation. I very much doubt that (note the magic wand) and would argue it is a Mahakala-Bhairava (because of the crown).

For a while I tried to sit among these overpowering images and adapt my eyes to the darkness, but was stirred out of my meditation by a horde of Chinese soldiers who tramped through the tiny place and one after the other stumbled over my crossed legs....

Meanwhile in the vestibule Cornelius recorded the guardian singing a sutra to impress the Chinese. The character in the corner was their officer. Furious I made an ass of myself by berating him when he kicked an empty soda-pop can into the ruins.... Glowering at my long nose he said nothing and walked off with his troops.  

 We picked up Katrina at the hotel — despite a dear attempt by Padru to entice her to come along, her fear of Tibetan places had kept her in bed... And set out for a suitable campsite. Behind us Thöling (on the green ledge) was swept by a dust storm.  

 A dust devil following us on our way to the Sutlej bridge.


 Rain over the canyon we had come down in and would have to climb next..


The lower end of the Shortcut.... Not wanting to drive up the shortcut Agha had raced ahead and forced everyone to follow him to a meadow hidden in a side canyon.

Camp 6. A wonderful, quiet place sheltered from the wind. Next morning we drove the long route back across the two high passes..

We camped in a place west of Mensi, which nobody seems to be able to recall (Camp 7), except that there Katrina, Cornelius and Peter had a night party with the crew and some clear spirits Agha had produced....

 Early on the next morning we passed a camp of black tents by the road. The three husbands of the woman who ran the compound were working in various places. She owns the tents and the sheep and yaks somewhere on pasture. Bakhi negotiated a dried leg of lamb for our dinners and Pujung inspected the interiors of the tents for treasures..  

 Katrina has developed an interest in Agha. Bakhi on the right, the others talking to the women.


 Cornelius and Jeroen clowning through the smoke hole of on of the tents.


Pujung, the professional librarian, discovered a Buddhist manuscript in the woman's treasure chest which was crowned by Dalai Lama pictures. He bartered his golden watch and for an additional 70 Yüan obtained a manuscript, which he claimed (to me) to be well over 100 years old. The red cylinder was the churn in which butter tea is promulgated.  

We reached Darchen in the afternoon and were forced to stay at the most abysmal guesthouse of the entire trip for some incredible amount per person plus another fine of 1500 Yüan ($188) to the bönpo, this time a half-Tibetan-half-Chinese woman, for incorrect papers....


Darchen is the most dreary place we have seen. Bakhi light his "roarers" in their room, the crew doesn't even take off their boots an night, and the beds look like everyone before them had done the same.... I ask for a yak to ride and Jeroen needs one too. Pujung is distressed by this request.

The yaks appear early next morning led by two barely 16-year-old girls and a man on a horse. The girls pack our backpacks, sleeping bags, and a reduced kitchen. 

 Someone took a group photo of the khorlam party, Pujung in the center. But where are the riding yaks? The man takes one look at me and shakes his head... I am too heavy for a yak. I decided that I will stay and Barbara, in tears, decides to stay with me....  Within a few minutes our luggage was taken off and the remaining party left. — Suddenly we were alone...

Barbara retreated into our doghouse and plays patience with a deck of her grandmother.

.and I get our camping stove out and a bag of emergency ration of soup and cook us a supper.


 We are being watched by the bönpo woman and cannot leave. In the afternoon of the second day we elope on a hike along the inner khorlam route. This "historical" photo shows the bleak reality of Darchen, the tent camp of the Tibetan pilgrims, and behind it the square courtyard of our "caravansary", a few vegetable plots and the two-story building of Darchen gompa. The remainder are government buildings and the truck stop.  

 Barbara, who climbed higher took this picture of the Kailas beyul. Gurla Mandhata on the horizon. Manasarovar is hidden behind the low hills, Raksastal a thin blue line.  

Barbara still has the strength to go out and photograph Gurla Mandhata at sunset....

Our trekkers returned exhausted around noon on the third day. Bakhi cooked up a fabulous dinner and in the afternoon we finally drove down to the lake.