Tibet: A Land of Trials and Tribulations
Tibet is a strange land. It is a mixture of surreal landscape, devoted Tibetans, the iron fist of the Han Chinese and monasteries built on high hills devoted to the teachings and propagation of Buddhism. Tibet, as historians have recorded, is focused on the history of Buddhism. This is partly due to the pivotal role this religion has played in the development of Tibetan, Mongo and Manchu cultures.
Tibet is situated between the ancient civilizations of China, India and Nepal. It is separated from the former by the extensive mountain ranges to the east of the Tibetan Plateau and from the latter two by the Himalayas ranges. Tibet is nicknamed "the roof of the world" or "the land of snows" because of this.
I will not dwell further into history as I believe this is not a history blog. I can say from visiting Tibet, that the Dalai Lama and the monks in Tibet used to be the spiritual advisers to the Han emperors.
I almost did not make it to Tibet on the account that the Chinese closed the border following an incident in Barkhor Square where 2 monks set themselves on fire. This is known as self-immolation. Thankfully, a last minute reprieve from the Chinese authority allowed citizens from certain countries to travel to Tibet. While the visa was issued for Tibet, certain regions were still out of bounds for foreigners like Rongbok Monastery (highest monastery in the world) and the Everest Base Camp trek.
The journey began from Kathmandu, traveling along the Friendship Highway between Nepal and Tibet. We passed the border towns of Nyalam and Tingri. Border towns are an interesting place. Devoid of all the plush facilities offered by hotels and shopping malls, this place transcends you to the bare basics of living. But with that you can see the scenery as shown by the photograph below. This was shot using a Hasselbald Xpan I with a 45mm f/4 lens on film. I took this shot because it showed how wide and beautiful the plains of Tibet are. The horses also made a very good subject against this backdrop. This was the plains of Tingri right behind our resting place for the night. While the hotel was literally a hole-in-the-wall (parts of the wall and ceiling in my cubicle was falling off!), this setback was quickly forgotten when I gazed upon the stunningly picturesque views of the plains! I often wondered how beautiful Tibet would be in person and now I know. The trials and tribulations of the journey was well worth it, even though I suffered from altitude sickness.
The people of Tibet lived mostly in the villages. Lhasa has only 4 million people, with 3 million of them being Tibetans, and the rest of the population being Han Chinese. We left the border towns of Nyalam and Tingri, and headed for the larger towns of Gyantse and Shigate. Along the way we stopped at a typical village scene as shown in the photograph (left). This village, by the way, is the village of our Tibetan guide's grandparents. I believe that in every village, we'll see mountains and fields like this. They live on the upper level of a mud house and below you can see that they rear cows as their source of food. With such scenery, I truly believe that the Tibetans have found a paradise high up in the Himalayas. The photo with the cows in the foreground and the beautiful mountains in the background says it all about the rural life in Tibet. If you want dramatic colors of blue sky and clouds make sure you have a polarizer attached to your lens. Turn the polarizer till you see the blue sky becomes bluer.
I bid farewell to my guide's grandparent's village and headed towards Shigatse, the seat of the Panchen Lama. It is the second largest city in Tibet. The afternoon was spent at the Tashilhunpo Monastery. I found this cat exiting a door at the monastery (right photo) and I thought it would make a good subject for the colorful door. Sometimes opportunities arise out of sheer luck; one must be prepared to shoot quickly without having to fiddle too much with the camera. So setting up the camera for the environment that you need to shoot in is of utmost importance. Walking the small alleys of the monastery I was looking for subjects that ranged from monks to cats. Typically, I would set the f/stop to f/5.6, ISO to AUTO and mount a 70-200mm lens on a crop camera. If you are prepared, you won't miss much.
Again this is true for the photograph on the left. Walking around the Tashilhunpo Monastery was a delight in portrait photography. I observed this monk sitting in the door way snorting a powder like substance through one nostril and exhaling the remaining powder through the next. Since it was evening and the sun was setting, the direction of the lighting was perfect. When he snorted out the powder through the other nostril I took the shot with the setting I mentioned above using my 70-200mm lens.
Leaving Shigatse, we journeyed towards Gyantse and Lhasa. The first stop was the Kunbum Monastery in Gyantse. For some reason, most of the monasteries we visited were built on a hill or on the slopes of mountains. Perhaps it was because it is in a defensive position. Or maybe, it was just nearer to God. In the past, the monks from each of the regions acts as warriors for their own Lamas. This is the Kunbun Monastery, near Gyantse. Taken with a Hasselbald Xpan I, it shows how hard it is to climb it. I stood on a nearby hill which overlooked the city of Gyantse to take this photo. The photo following was taken at the same spot but in the opposite direction. It depicts the town of Gyantse from the hilltop.
The journey to Lhasa was long. The roads were deserted, unlike most cities. The views of the mountain ranges were a stark reminder that we were in the land of very thin air. Altitude sickness was still a major hurdle to get over. However, with breath-taking views like these, the discomfort of the altitude sickness was momentarily forgotten. A lone car in the distance gives you a very clear perspective on how vast this land called Tibet is. I have never seen skies more blue than those in Tibet. Just standing here on the highway, I felt a sense of spirituality. If God made the earth, I think he made Tibet first!
After a long ride, we arrived at Yamdrok Lake. It is one of the highest lakes in Tibet. As we were getting ready to take photographs of the lake, the weather was getting inclement. The photo below was a long exposure shot of the lake with a Lee Big Stopper filter. It took about 20 seconds for the exposure. Long exposure shots are not that difficult to execute. Just expose for the scene, set everything to manual mode on your DSLR, set it to 10 stops (or less if you don't have a 10 stop filter) lower than usual, and push the shutter. Wait for the required time and look at the scene. Adjust exposure manually if you feel the scene is over or under exposed. Less than 10 minutes after this photograph was taken, it began to pour. (And it really poured!) On the way down from the lake, parts of the road were flooded quite badly. Fortunately we had a very experienced bus driver who was able to navigate the roads well.
And as the bus made its way down on a long and winding stretch of the road, a double rainbow appeared over a Tibetan village that the bus just passed. Stepping out of the bus in the rain, viola!, this gorgeous scene was captured! Our Tibetan guide Toplar says that it is good luck to see this and I believe that there is some truth to it, as the days ahead did bring much opportunity for great photographs. To shoot a rainbow, put your camera into spot metering mode and meter the rainbow. That's all. Depth of field is important, so set your f/stop to anywhere between f/8 and f/16. Don't worry; you are shooting into the light so there is plenty of light. Take the shot!
Arriving in Lhasa helped with the altitude sickness. Also it was the 6th day of the trip and more or less we had become acclimatised to the altitude. However rapid movement is not encouraged as there is still a lack of oxygen at 3600m. The first sight that greeted us was Barkhor Square. Just a few weeks earlier two monks self immolated between the two poles that decorated the square. Security was extremely tight; we had to go through airport style metal detectors to reach Jokhang Temple. Below is a shot taken from the roof of Jokhang Temple on a Hasselbald Xpan I using Fuji Velvia 50 film. Film is just as easy to use as digital. Just expose for the mid-tones and you are done. If scanned on a dedicated film scanner you can get the resolution of a 40M pixel camera on an Xpan. You can see the details in the photograph below.
Despite all of life's trials and tribulations that the Tibetans have endured, they remain fervently religious and pious. Scenes as depicted by the 2 pictures are enacted everywhere in Tibet and more so at the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace ground. The day begins with prayers and some of them carrying prayer wheels will walk 3 rounds of the Jokhang Temple or the Potala Palace early in the morning before their daily chores. Looking through my lens I can't help but feel the earnestness of their prayers, can't help but wonder if they're praying for their sick children or parents? or for missing loved ones? or for a good harvest? Whatever their reasons are, I admire their commitment to their faith. I recommend a 70-200mm lens set to f/5.6 for such candid shots. Waiting for that decisive moment is what makes a good street shot; so plenty of patience as well as an eye for opportunity is required to do street photography.
There are just too many beautiful things to show on Tibet , it would be a great injustice if I claim that these photographs tell it all. This is at best the prologue to a great story.
I will end this travelogue with an opportunistic shot of a monk in Drepung Monastery. We had just descend the flight of stairs from the roof when one of the photographers noticed a wonderful beam of early morning rays coming into the stair well and lighting the area up. Photographing just the rays would be wonderful but with a monk as a subject would be fab. So we invited one of the monks to sit on the stairs as the light hit his face. The shot on the right was it. The best way to take a shot like this is to meter the monk's face where the light hits using spot metering. This will ensure you do not lose the details due to over exposure. Since the area where the monk was sitting was quite dark, set the camera at aperture priority, open up the maximum aperture of your lens and look at the shutter speed. Make sure the shutter speed is at least equal to 1/(focal length of lens) to prevent camera shake. If not boost your ISO. Take the shot!
Finally, let there always be light shining on the people of Tibet. May they live free and may they be allowed to practise their beliefs. This final image best describe what I feel for Tibet. Early morning light on the Potala Palace where for centuries the Dalai Lamas of Tibet guided their people. May the light continue to shine brightly on their spirit of resilience and faith. May their trials and tribulations be a beacon of light to all of us.
Cheers and see you all again on another photography journey.