A photographic series prompted by the 2008 Tibetan Unrest. In particular, this is a response to fear filled government reaction to the protests and the tightening of travel restrictions on foreigners entering Tibet. I'm also pretty sure this is the photo series that causes this site to be inaccessible in China.
Tibet is a plateau region in Asia, north of the Himalayas, and the home to the indigenous Tibetan people and some other ethnic groups, such as Monpas and Lhobas. With an average elevation of 4,900 metres (16,000 ft), it is the highest region on Earth and has in recent decades increasingly been referred to as the "Roof of the World".
During Tibet's history, it has been an independent country, divided into different countries, and a part of China each for a certain amount of time. Tibet was first unified under King Songtsän Gampo in the seventh century. A government nominally headed by the Dalai Lamas, a line of spiritual leaders, ruled a large portion of the Tibetan region at various times from the 1640s until 1950s. During most of this period, the Tibetan administration was subordinate to the Chinese empire of the Qing Dynasty. The 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet independent in 1913, but this declaration was not accepted by China, nor recognized by any country as a de jure independent nation. As a measure of the power that regents must have wielded, it is important to note that only three of the fourteen Dalai Lamas have actually ruled Tibet; regents ruled during 77 percent of the period from 1751 until 1960. The Communist Party of China gained control of central and western Tibet (Tibet area controlled by the Dalai Lama) after a decisive military victory at Chamdo in 1950. The 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.
A yak, a mountain. This was taken around 18,000 feet which is where our small base camp was located. I believe this was the third day of the expedition. I was wandering off by myself, moving very slowly (from the altitude). There were yaks everywhere, and where there were no yaks there were signs of them: yak dung every 10 meters in all directions. I was able to get quite close to them. They eyed me suspiciously but didn't seem threatened. I don't know how aggressive the average yak is but these seemed completely benign — or maybe they too were suffering from acute altitude sickness.
There were no other travelers, no other dwellers. And also, because of the altitude, no trees. I saw several yak skulls — evidence that the creatures do die, despite their ageless appearance. Or perhaps are only murdered. I had no way to investigate.
Above: The newly snow capped mountains around Namtso Lake.
The last night of our expedition was spent camping alongside Namtso. That night it dropped to -3C and the feral dogs most travelers to Tibet know so well were out in spades. In our under-rated sleeping bags (20C), my traveling companion and I tried to stay warm by clinging both to each other and a giant water bottle we appropriated from the kitchen tent.
That night the winds and rain were wild. The rain turned to sleet and then to snow. Around midnight the dogs emerged from wherever they lie during the day, their insanity punctuated by their utterly psychotic AR AR AR AR AR staccato of a bark. They came down to our camp and were circling all of the tents. Stupidly, we camped away from the others to get a better view of the lake. It doesn't take much to imagine what sorts of fates we were conjuring up for ourselves.
So consider this scene if you will — two people huddled in a sleeping bag with a giant water bottle, one person, me, holding a small pocket knife, ready if need be to decimate any intruding rabid dog with folding scissors or a corkscrew, my companion remaining admirably calm despite her having no weapon. The dogs closing in, AR AR AR AR AR AR, circling and circling around the tent. This continuing indefinitely. Why indefinitely? Because I fell asleep. Like a lullaby, their chanting and the whiplike horrible noises of the outer tent layer in the storm combined with a particularly wonderful (indeed, very soft) sleep aid given to me by a Frenchman in our group, worked a strange voodoo on me. And neither the cold nor the prospect of death by dog could pull me from slumber.
Upon awaking the next morning — both uneaten and unfrozen — this is the scene we were greeted with. The storm, the cold combined to dust the surrounding mountains with a beautiful sheet of white. Undoubtably, just for me to photograph.
Prayer flags blowing in the wind on the outskirts of Namtso Lake. You can just see the lake peeking through at the bottom.
This was the morning after the storm. One of our fellow camp companions from France had brought with him several gourmet approximations of mashed potato mix. He also was carrying, in small Muji vials, various high-quality salts, vinegars and dressings. We feasted on this potato and salt and vinegar mix in a small cafe near the lake. Upon emerging from the hut — smelling of yak butter and with smiling taste buds — we spent time climbing up and around the nearest mountain. Which is where these flags were hung.
Noteworthy Tibet related news:
China’s announcement, made through the country’s official news agency, provided few details about the shape or substance of the talks on the politically explosive issue of Tibet, but said discussions would begin “in the coming days.” The breakthrough comes as Chinese officials have pivoted this week and moved to tamp down the domestic nationalist anger unleashed by the Tibetan crisis and by the protests along the route of the international Olympic torch relay.
A photographer and two monks in the morning Lhasa sunlight. Taken from the window of a fourth floor room in the Yak Hotel.
Three children on the steps outside of a mosque in Lhasa.
It should be noted that the middle child is gawking at my traveling companion who, that particular day (and never again, it turned out) decided to wear her shortest skirt — perfectly acceptable in a metropolis such as Tokyo or Shanghai, but something of a novelty, or perhaps more accurately, sin, in the incredibly explosive (in a good way) and intense muslim community located in the south of the Tibetan portion of Lhasa. Granted, we hadn't decided at the beginning of that day to visit the muslim quarter. Indeed we all but stumbled upon it as we were wandering — the quarter appearing so suddenly.
We entered a small restaurant near the mosque looking for a traditional muslim meal and the boy, late teens maybe, who greeted us at the door (the restaurant being simple and cheap and very much like most all other eateries in Lhasa) all but ejaculated on himself. My companion appearing fully and nakedly legged in this traditional muslim establishment was probably tantamount to a woman entering a diner in Mississippi with nothing but a ziplock bag covering each breast.
After eating, I made my traveling provocateur wait outside the gates of the mosque — her being wonderfully oblivious to the mayhem her outfit was causing — while I went inside and photographed. When I returned, she had befriended these children, but I don't think they ever knew what to make of her.
Artifacts of monkdom 1: red telephone
Contrary to popular misconception, Tibetan Buddhist monks do have red telephones and ash trays on the love seat of their window sill.
Which is to say I was quite surprised when I saw the above red telephone in the room of these guys.
Artifacts of monkdom 2: bookcase
In light of recent riots and protests involving Tibetan monks and the Chinese government, looking back it's far more surprising to note that on a pillar (not pictured) in the center of the room there was a photograph of the current Dalai Lama. Illegal in China, monks of the recent protests were arrested not only for the damage caused during the protests but also for possessing images of their spiritual leader. Secular Tibetan citizens have also been arrested for the same reason.
The image on the bookcase doesn't appear to be of the current Dalai Lama, which is why it may be so prominently featured in the room. This Dalai Lama didn't stage an unsuccessful revolt against Chinese rule.
Of note to bibliophiles: The gold cloth wrapped items in the middle left section of the bookcase are Tibetan prayer books. Prayers are hand printed at nunneries on thin, long strips of paper. The pages are loose leaf stacked and capped with two pieces of thick cardboard, often red, and often with gold leaf embossed script. The printing of the prayers themselves can range from simple (and often messily done) one color (black), to multicolored, ornately illuminated manuscripts.