A detour to visit the small town of Sakya (Sàjiā Sì) 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 is Sakya Monastery, which ranks as one of the most atmospheric, impresive and unique monasteries in Tibet. Moreover, Sakya occupies a pivotal 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 impressive so if you only have time to visit one, make it this. The hillside northern monastery, largely reduced to picturesque ruins, is undergoing restoration work and offers a fine kora walk.
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’.
In recent years Sakya village has transformed into a small town but it still feels off the grid. It's well worth spending the night here.