Tibet

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Tarchin 40--Kailash Kora

The Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bonpo regard the sacred Mount Kailash as the heart of the world.  One full circumambulation around the thirty-two mile trail around the mountain is said to erase the sins of a lifetime.  Pilgrims on this kora will leave cherished personal items behind like a piece of clothing, a braid of hair or even a tooth to symbolize their death and rebirth.  While on the journey they contemplate the nature of impermanence by taking time to imagine their own deaths.   In actuality the Kailash Kora claims a few lives every year.  While it took me three days to complete the full kora many Tibetans are able to do it in a day.

Pilgrims on Dolma La Pass--Kailash Kora

At 18,500 feet the Drolma La Pass is the highest point on the Kailash Kora and is known as the “hill of salvation.”  The pass offers every pilgrim the possibility to be cleansed of all previous sins and a transition from their old life to a new one. 

Pilgrims on Dolma La Pass--Kailash Kora

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Our book TIBET: Culture on the Edge was just released this week!!   I must say I’m thrilled with how it turned out.

The idea for a second book on Tibet came quite by accident.  ( My first book Tibetan Portrait was published 16 years ago.)  In 2009 I had traveled to Lhasa to document the work of the US based organization OneHeart that was working to reduce the high rate of maternal mortality on the Tibetan Plateau.

My equipment in the bag on the left.

Unfortunately, because of the riots that had taken place in Tibet just before the 2008 Olympics China decided to shut down all foreign non-profit organizations in Tibet.   I arrived and soon learned I had nothing to do!   Since I was already there I decided to take a trek I had always wanted to do so I hired a guide and a couple of yaks and headed out.   Almost three years later I have a book in my hands!

It's always tense crossing water. Yaks like to cool off by laying down in the water.

Birthing a photo book is definitely a labor of love.  After spending eighteen months collecting the content I’m usually faced with at least a year of postproduction editing, researching, writing and designing.  In this case the process went ever so smooth thanks to my agent John Campbell who introduced me to a wonderful production team at Rizzoli.  Most heartfelt thanks to Jim Muschett and Melissa Veronesi for editing and hassle free project management.  I want to give special thanks to Susi Oberhelman for her beautiful design.  It was so amazing that we all saw eye to eye 99% of the time.  Truly a wonderful experience for me.

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The typical way I work when producing a book is to choose an issue I feel strongly about then finding an organization (usually an NGO) that is aligned with the same interests and partner with them to collect the content necessary for the book.  The partnership is not only valuable in helping to cover the costs of travel but in providing access to the subjects I’m illustrating.  After we have collected the images and text I usually shop the content and theme of the book as a package around to different publishers.

Jinzhu Road—went from 2 lane road to 6 lane divided highway in 15 years

My book TIBET: Culture on the Edge that is to be released this October 4th, took a different course.  Rizzoli, the publisher of three of my previous books, approached me and asked if I would consider doing another book on Tibet.  My first book with Rizzoli Tibetan Portrait in ’96 had done very well and they wanted a book with a general theme of ‘Tibet 15 years later’ through my eyes.  Tibetan Portrait’s theme concentrated on the Tibetan’s struggle to maintain their Tibetan Buddhist Culture in the face of occupation by a foreign culture.

Desertification on the Plateau

My trip to Tibet after a 15 year absence was absolutely shocking to me!!  The amount of development that had taken place in that short time was unbelievable.  Furthermore, the evidence of climate change became very real for me as I crossed from the most eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau to the most western border.  The Tibetan Plateau is heating up twice as fast as the global average and my interviews with the nomads and farmers confirmed the speed at which the climate is changing there.

Flooding Caused by the Rapidly Melting Glaciers

I found the one constant that had not changed was the devotion of the Tibetan People to their spiritual practice.  So the theme of TIBET:  Culture on the Edge revealed itself during the year and a half I traveled across the plateau.  The book became about a culture struggling to survive in the face of massive technological and developmental changes all the while trying to adapt to the displacement caused by the changing environment.

Potala Palace on Display

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Evidence of the Tibetan daily devotional practice — a practice intended to expand their compassion to include all “sentient beings” and remind them of our “interconnectedness” – is seen everywhere.

Every morning Tibetan Buddhists walk clockwise around various objects of veneration such as monasteries, stupas or sacred mountains.  I’ve watched hundreds of devotee’s make their way around the koras of monasteries and mountains in spite of their arthritic hips, knees or backs.   Many walk for hours keeping track of each circumambulation with prayer beads or small stones placed at the starting point.

Mani wheels of all shapes and sizes are found everywhere in Tibet.  The mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is written on papers inside the wheels as well as the outside.  Spinning the wheels in a clockwise direction helps the devotee focus and calm the mind so they can spread spiritual blessings and well-being.

Devotees throw small “mani papers” into the air on mountain passes and various ritual locations to help spread prayers for well being.  Juniper branches are burned for incense and to sanctify the air and help spread the blessings.

Butter lamps are a conspicuous feature of monasteries and homes throughout Tibet.  Typically Tibetans light a butter lamp every morning and place seven bowls of pure water as an offering before the images on their household shrine.  Pilgrims visiting monasteries supply butter to the burning lamps in order to gain merit.  They use the butter lamps to help focus the mind and aid their meditation.

These devotional practices are part of the Tibetan recipe for well-being and happiness.  While in Tibet I stopped and asked myself “What makes me happy”?  How does my culture guide me in this pursuit?  A diet of new cars; big houses; millionaires and billionaires; young beautiful faces; celebrity and tons of stuff bombard me daily.  This is what I’m encouraged to aspire to in order to set myself apart from the crowd!  What a contrast to the Tibetan pathway that strives to dissolve the “illusion of separateness” by conquering the “self cherishing” attitude.  I think about my own personal ambition and desires and my culture’s dependence on ever expanding economic growth and consumption—a dependence that is being exported to the rest of the world.

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As a follow up to my November post.

Nine year old Yeshi studying math at boarding school for nomadic children near Dawu in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau.

In 2007 China made an unprecedented commitment to education by mandating that all children attend school through grade 9. Rural children can now have their compulsory school fees subsidized by the government. A Tibetan family can actually be fined if their children don’t attend school. The Tibetan community has met this historic investment in education with trepidation. In October 2010 thousands of Tibetan students took to the streets in non-violent protest over the recent decision of the Chinese government to have all textbooks written in Mandarin. For the Tibetan people it was seen as just another step, along with massive Chinese immigration, in the steady marginalization of their people and culture.

TsoTso, 25 yrs, gets up at 5 am to milk the yaks then does it again at 9 pm. Her full time job is taking care of the families 50 Yaks. She, like most nomads her age, has never gone to school.

For most Tibetans it is important that their children receive education in their Tibetan language and culture. They fear, and rightly so, when their language dies, their culture will die. In this case it is a culture with a spiritual tradition and practice that has developed over centuries and has potential value for us all.

Math class at nomad boarding school. The students typically go home once or twice a month depending on the distance they have to travel.

Bilingual education could be the answer for Tibet, but there are important issues that need to be taken into consideration. For instance, if Tibetan students want to be able to compete academically with Chinese students for post-graduate education slots, they have to be fluent in Mandarin in their selected majors. After the recent student demonstrations there was some indication that the Chinese government would be willing to sit down and discuss the concerns voiced by the student protesters. Recently, the government responded to the student protests by announcing a new policy that will provide 2 years of free bilingual education for rural Tibetan children in preschool. It is a least a start in dealing with this important but complex issue.

Nima Pinto (16yrs.) is a barley farmer living near Shigatse, Tibet. Like so many rural girls her age she has never been to school.

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Chinese tourist and the dancing waters at the Potola Palace.

Five and a half million tourists visited Tibet in 2009! This was a 150% increase from the year before. Tibet is currently the number one tourist destination for the Chinese. Certainly the clear mountain air and spectacular scenery offer relief from the air pollution that haunts many of China’s cities. However, it is the Tibetan culture with its rich spiritual heritage that is apparently the major draw.

Chinese tour group at Tashilhupo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet.

While traveling through Eastern and Western Tibet last spring and summer I found many of the most accessible monasteries packed with a constant flow of Chinese tour groups. On the 32 mile kora (clockwise trail) around the sacred Mt Kailash I met a 30 member Chinese group that was being led by a Tibetan Rinpoche . I heard many in the group refer to him as master!

American tourist at Potola Palace.

The strength of Tibet’s tour industry is all the more reason for China to keep the Tibetan culture healthy.

Tibetan nomads dressed up for photos at popular tour bus stop, Nojin, Kangtsang Glacier, Tibet.

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Last month thousands of Tibetan students took to the streets to protest the Chinese Government’s decision to make all elementary and high school education in the official Chinese language, Mandarin.  China has recently mandated that all children go through grade 9 and has plans to increase it to grade 12 soon.  If Tibetan Nomads fail to send their children to school they get fined.

Tsering, age 10, studying math at boarding school for nomadic children

To be fair the Chinese government is not alone in wanting to standardize the language of its citizens.  We have our own debates about bilingual education and we have a history of brutally forcing Native Americans not to speak their native languages.   Then there is the issue of postgraduate education. If Tibetan students do not speak fluent Mandarin it will be virtually impossible for them to pursue an advanced degree.

According to Ken Hale, a professor of linguistics at MIT, there are 6,000 languages spoken on earth today and 3,000 are not spoken by the children.  Every two weeks another elder goes to the grave carrying the last spoken word of an entire culture.  When the language dies the culture dies.  This is a silent extinction in that we scarcely hear about it in the media.  It is our cultural diversity that gives our species its resiliency, creativity and strength.

Nomad children at boarding school

If you spend anytime with the Tibetans you will most likely realize, like I have,
what a special culture they have.  I have never been with a people that return a smile and laugh as readily as they do–having a cultural tradition and devotion grounded in compassion shows.   If there was ever a good argument for a solid bilingual educational curriculum this is it.

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Lumbum meditating in the cave where Guru Rimpoche once meditated.

I am frequently asked how I go about finding a guide on the trips I take. A good guide is critical to the work I do. Of course I need someone who speaks fairly good English, but the most important quality I’m looking for is an outgoing personality and good people skills. I have found on a few occasions someone from an indigenous group who has managed to learn English will carry a superior attitude and be a bit arrogant with their own people. It is something I have come to watch out for. I guard against it by arriving on location a few days early so I can meet and go out with him/her on a test run before committing to a 4 to 6 week trip. I have had to change guides on a few occasions because of arrogance or shyness issues. It shows up especially during the interview.
On my last trip to Tibet I was blessed with an excellent guide by the name of Lumbum. A good guide is especially critical in Tibet where everything is so sensitive because of the current political situation. Lumbum is hardworking, very outgoing and cares deeply for his fellow Tibetans and their culture. He knew how to engage with our subjects in a way that allowed them to open up about their personal lives without getting into politically sensitive topics. We happened to end up with a driver with a hot temper. For several weeks I watched with admiration as Lumbum skillfully navigated this difficult personality. If you have any plans to go to Tibet I would highly recommend getting in touch with Lumbum. He will help make your trip fun and meaningful!!

Lumbum (English Tour Guide)
Cell phone No.:+86 (0) 13893956746(Amdo)
Cell phone No :+86 (0) 15089036734(Lhasa)
happyfreeboy2003@gmail.com

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There has been a lot of controversy about the rate of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau—especially concerning the predictions about the disappearance of glaciers.


Because of unseasonable rain and fast melting glaciers the rivers overflow onto the fields requiring the farmers to harvest their crops underwater.

I have spent the last 2 years interviewing farmers and nomads living on the Tibetan Plateau—individuals who survive by being acutely aware of climate and its changes over time.  In general the nomads say the weather has been getting hotter and dryer.  Consequently the grass that their animals depend on has become sparser in the last 20 years.  The farmer’s claim that they can’t depend on typical seasonal weather patterns to plant their crops like they used to—unusual rains and dry spells raise havoc with their crops.  The higher temperatures has also allowed them to grow corn—a crop that had never been possible to grow at that elevation 5 to 10 years ago.

Here are some of their observations:


Puchun, 37, has lived at this summer camp at the Nojin-Kangtsang Glacier with his yaks since he was 7. The glacier behind him used to be at the grass level, but has disappeared 50% in the last 30 years.


Tsering, a 70 year old nomad, has herded his yaks since he was a young boy. He says the grass, since the change in weather, is extremely sparse. As a result it is difficult to find enough to maintain his animals.


Tsering Dorjee, 62, has spent his life as a nomad herding his yaks around the Demchok Glacier and watching it slowly disappear. He says it is only ¼ the size it was when he was a boy.

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Mt. Kailash, Tibet

I just finished my first Kora (walk around) Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet.  The 52 km trek that crosses one pass at 18,600 ft has served as a spiritual quest for thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and the pre-Buddhist Bon Po of Tibet.

Serter, 39—Has been a porter on the Kailash since he was 9. He remembers when the glacier to his right reached the valley floor.

The Tibetan Plateau contains in its glaciers the largest amount of frozen water on earth outside of the North and South Poles and as such is known as the ‘Water Tower of Asia’ supplying nearly 1.5 billion people with their water.  Mt. Kailash lies at the center of an area that is key to the drainage systems of the Tibetan Plateau.


Pilgrim on the Kora around Mt. Kailash

I have wanted to get here for years.  It has always been a long difficult several day journey over bone rattling roads to reach Kailash.  The road from Lhasa is now partially paved and will be fully paved within a year.  There is also an Airport that just opened this year about 100 miles from the mountain.  The runway at 14,600 feet makes it the highest commercial airport in the world.  Certainly this new access will increase the number of people coming to Mt. Kailash in the future.

Tsering Omo, 45—Pilgrim at the pass