MOST OF US dream of a better world, even a perfect one. However, few of us, when challenged to locate our own utopia, would think of a crumbling citadel in a half-forgotten corner of western Tibet. Yet this is where the Shangri-La myth begins, at least in part, among the ruins of Tsaparang. Part monastery, part fortress, this eroded jumble of buildings and caves sits atop a promontory overlooking the silted gray waters of Langchen Tsangpo, the Elephant River, known in India as the Sutlej.
It climbs east, near the holy lake of Manasarovar, where a few years ago my wife and I climbed stiffly out of a Land Cruiser to stretch our legs. It would be difficult to overestimate the spiritual significance of this landscape. If there is, according to TS Eliots’ expression, a still point of the world which turns, then it is this one, a deeply sacred place for Hindus as well as for Buddhists. By the side of the road was a large billboard with an image of Xi Jinping and a slogan on the fight against poverty.
We were three days on a high altitude road trip, driving west of Lhasa with the Himalayan mountains unfolding to our left and past the desert hills of the hilly Tibetan plateau. At the wheel was Migmar, with his puffy quiff and navy blue pea coat. He smiled for a selfie in front of the sacred summit of Kailas and we continued on.
On the next pass, the River of the Elephants carved deep into an area of softer rock, creating a gorge half a mile deep. Migmar parked in a parking lot to take in the view. Overlooking the valley, the local tourist office had set up an information board with inscriptions in Chinese, Tibetan and English. Travelers were instructed to admire the strata of the terrestrial forest with their surrounding sonwy [sic] mountains that embody the giant verve of the earth. There is no shortage of verve land in the Himalayas.
Soon after, Migmar made a left turn onto the main road onto a newly mapped road so perfect I wish I had brought my bike. It looped through the stony wastes, dropping nearly a mile above sea level to the banks of the Sutlej and the towering remains of Tsaparang. It was once the thriving center of the Guge Kingdom, which a thousand years ago saved Tibetan Buddhism from extinction. Centuries later, Tsaparang has fallen prey to invasion and climate change. Now, it slumbers in austere isolation, a brown tumble of ruins under an azure sky, as some art directors dream of an alien dystopia, an impression reinforced during our visit by the presence of a whining camera drone that floated like a mosquito. among the ruined towers, operated by an exciting Chinese television crew. (Rather nicely, they apologized and turned it off when we complained.)
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