A detour to visit the small town of Sakya (Sajia) is pretty much de rigueur for any trip down the Friendship Hwy. The town is southeast of Shigatse, about 25km off the Southern Friendship Hwy, accessed via a good dirt road through a pretty farming valley. The draw here is the Sakya Monastery, which, like Shalu, has great appeal to the eye (the high-walled monastery compound is dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Tibet’ by some) and the spirit (the dim, smoky assembly hall exudes sanctity like few others). Also like Shalu, Sakya occupies an important place in Tibetan history
Sakya actually has two monasteries, on either side of the Trum-chu. The heavy, brooding, fortress-like monastery south of the river is the more famous and if you only have time to visit one, make it this. The hillside northern monastery, mostly reduced to picturesque ruins, is undergoing restoration work.
One characteristic feature of the Sakya region is the colouring of its buildings. Unlike the standard whitewashing that you see elsewhere in Tibet, Sakya’s buildings are ash grey with white and red vertical stripes. The colouring symbolises the Rigsum Gonpo (the trinity of bodhisattvas) and stands as a mark of Sakya authority. Sakya literally means ‘pale earth’.
Unfortunately, a great deal of ugly development has occurred in the southern half of Sakya in recent years, robbing the town of much of its charm. At the same time, however, a new Tibetan village (with a lovely debating hall and monks’ quarters) is being constructed down by the river. Pretty much any photograph you take pointed towards the hills to the north is going to look good.