The road west from Lhasa divides at the Chusul Bridge and most vehicles follow the paved Friendship Highway along the course of the Yarlung Tsangpo to Shigatse. However, there is an alternative route, the longer but extremely picturesque old southern road that heads southwest to the turquoise waters of the sacred Yamdrok Tso (羊卓雍错, yángzhuóyōngcuò), the third largest lake in Tibet, before turning west to Gyantse and then northwest to Shigatse – it is this route that most tour groups follow. Expect around six or seven hours’ driving time from Lhasa to Gyantse in a good jeep, but day-trips to Yamdrok Tso from Lhasa are feasible.
On the eastern banks of the Nyang Chu at the base of a natural amphitheatre of rocky ridges, GYANTSE (江孜, jiāngzī) is an attractive, relaxed town, offering the splendid sights of the Gyantse Kumbum – famous among scholars of Tibetan art throughout the world – and the old Gyantse Dzong. Despite the rapidly expanding Chinese section of town, it has retained a pleasant, laidback air.
Little is known about the history of any settlement at Gyantse before the fourteenth century, when it emerged as the capital of a small kingdom ruled by a lineage of princes claiming descent from the legendary Tibetan folk hero, King Gesar of Ling. Hailing originally from northeast Tibet, they allied themselves to the powerful Sakya order. Also at this time, Gyantse operated as a staging post in the wool trade between Tibet and India, thanks to its position between Lhasa and Shigatse. By the mid-fifteenth century, the Gyantse Dzong, Pelkor Chode Monastery and the Kumbum had been built, although decline followed as other local families increased their influence. Gyantse rose to prominence again in 1904 when Younghusband’s British expedition, equipped with modern firearms, approached the town via the trade route from Sikkim, routed 1500 Tibetans – killing over half of them – and then marched on Gyantse. In July 1904, the British took the Dzong with four casualties while three hundred Tibetans were killed. From here the British marched on to Lhasa. As part of the ensuing agreement between Tibet and Britain, a British Trade Agency was established in Gyantse and as relations between Tibet and the British in India thawed, the trade route from Calcutta up through Sikkim and on to Gyantse became an effective one.