Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Tibet Travel log 13: Modern traditional Tibetan medicine

with 5 comments

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Traditional Tibetan Medicine Thangka’s at the Tibetan reception room in the Lhasa pharmaceutical factory

If you still expect all traditional Tibetan medicine to be made by hand and sold wrapped in greyish paper by monks in red robes, you are very wrong. Most Tibetans prefer the colorful shiny metallic bags, coming from rather modern factories.

In Lhasa I visited a very large pharmaceutical facility. Walking the grounds and it was interesting to see the employees in ‘space suites’ handling the big bags with the raw ingredients, most of them collected in the mountains.

I was not allowed to enter the factory but at the entrance of the facility there are 2 reception rooms: one for Tibetans and one for tourists with a ‘museum’ on the first floor. There is a marked difference: lots of space, tea, staff and attention for the tourists and a far more modest and efficient lay out for the Tibetans. All tourist here were Han-Chinese arriving in big luxury tour busses.

I was hoisted into the tourist section, despite my protests of just being curious and not sick, and an english speaking doctor was found. I was urged to sit down with a very kind persuasiveness that I can not resist, and my pulse was taken. This is a standard procedure by Tibetan doctors: they put their fingertips tightly against the ‘patients’ inner wrist to feel the pulse, look at their tongue and at the general appearance and then they miraculously know what is wrong. There is no need for the patient to tell, although normally (if there is no language barrier) after the initial diagnosis the doctor would speak with the patient to find out some background about their life and circumstances.

Tibetan medicine is focused on curing the patient and not just the illness. So not feeling sick was not a good enough excuse for not having the consult. Despite feeling healthy there might still be something wrong that could start causing problems in the future. It is this part I really love about the Tibetan approach and where I think western medicine is badly lacking.
Not some generic TV commercial warning against smoking or sugar intake or whatever, but real tailored advice to prevent future illness.

I had gone through this pulse feeling procedure before and luckily I was again pronounced healthy. But after some hesitation, I must have had the attitude of a person not wanting to know (true), I was warned for some weaknesses in my system that I should take care of or I would most likely get some issues in the future at sixty years of age or thereabout.

How a doctor still using techniques originating in the 12th century, can read from my pulse and looking at my tongue that I have weak knees, a tendency for a stiff neck, minor stomach acid problems and potential future cholesterol issues is beyond me. Especially since at that moment I did not have any complaints whatsoever. But it was spot on. I had heard and read about similar experiences from other people and it is not that I did not believe that, I just never considered it could actually work for me as well.

He had to laugh about my amazement, then gently explained that maybe, just maybe I should consider to take some proactive measures to counter the danger. Meaning pills!
Hmmm pills, I do not like pills at all. And those Tibetan brown balls, even when made in a very modern factory by staff in brown spacesuits, I am not sure.

But I bought them, three airtight plastic boxes, and I received an endless explanation on how and when and for how long to take them, all written up in (a sort of) English.

Back home I am still not sure. With that nice persuasive doctor far away in Lhasa, I have not even opened the bottles and I am still doubting what to do.
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All photos: the Lhasa pharmaceutical factory

5 Responses

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  1. […] as large-scale and modern as the pharmaceutical factory in Lhasa but also in these smaller factories modern machines to increase production are being […]

  2. Marieke, Enjoy this blog by a young Tibetan-American….. recounts her encounter with a Tibetan Amchi-la …


    January 22, 2013 at 02:15

    • I read your blog and enjoyed it very much. Surprising though that I seemed to get more explanation and instructions in Tibet then you did in ?? (was it the US?).

      Marieke ten Wolde

      January 22, 2013 at 20:37

  3. Intriguing indeed, but in ‘Right over the Mountain’, Gill Marais, a woman who travelled with a Tibetan medicine man, explains that when they take your pulse they actually ‘listen to’ several kinds of pulses corresponding to the major organs in the body not just the heart. Quite an art…


    January 19, 2013 at 19:54

    • Thank you, that sounds interesting I will check it out.
      Maybe that will also answer the question if I could trust it enough to take 2 brown balls of (for me) unknown substance a day? They say there are no side effects, but that is a statement that has been untrue far too often…

      Marieke ten Wolde

      January 20, 2013 at 10:06

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