Marieke ten Wolde's blog

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

Tibet Travel log 19: Looking for scrap metal along a dirt road

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The worst roads are not the ones with potholes; you can drive around them at speed or simply try to fly over the holes. Flying is faster, but when the driver owns the car he normally chooses the first approach. The worst is a road with constant little bumps. The first half hour is OK, then is really start to become irritating and even a short distance takes a very long time at 15 km an hour.

While I worried about my camera’s I found out it is really bad for cars as well. After a soft rattling noise followed by a loud rattling noise and then a bang, we stopped. Of course this happened far from any town, village or anything really but a house and a local stupa. Something around the axle of the front wheels had come lose. Apparently that wasn’t good, because the driver vehemently gestured we could not drive on.  First we had to find the screws that had come loose.

Really? yes

So I found myself walking up and down the road with my nose close to the dirt, while I couldn’t help thinking that it must be somewhat like this for Tibetan pilgrims doing prostrations. The family and the kids in the house helped searching as well. And man, we found a lot of screws and pieces of metal, all very valuable and received with gratitude. Everything we found was put in a bag with many other screws and pieces of scrap.

But we didn’t find the missing one.

I must have walked that stretch of the road at least 10 times, until pretty much all the metal was collected. Then I was allowed to give up.

I walked the road once more now looking at the environment, not very exiting, waved at the family in the lonely house, tried to have a conversation and drank tea, photographed all the prayer flags and the stupa, tested the macro-function on my tiny snapshot camera, collected nice round green stones in the river bed, stared at the stream, read my guidebook and wrote my diary. And the car still wasn’t fixed.

While there was no change in the car situation, my cheerful big Khampa nomad driver had turned into a really grumpy frustrated car mechanic, especially when I took a photo of him. Stupid tourist, can’t you see I have a problem, was written all over his face. But of course in the end he succeeded after literally hammering the right pieces of scrap into shape, using one of the screws I found (I had been somewhat useful after all) to connect some scrap with other scrap that went onto the car. He performed a true miracle; the car sounded right again.

He washed his hands, face and hair and produced a massive smile, his thick long hair sticking out in all directions. I grabbed another picture and this time he laughed when I showed him. Car repaired, good humor restored!

It took a few long hours that I would rather have spent somewhere else but I still have my green round stones sitting on my desk and below you can see a couple of the many pics I took.

Creative wiring

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I should have posted this photo of the perfect yellow room as an example of creative wiring in my last blog.

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

February 22, 2013 at 20:45

Tibet Travel log 18: Bring a wire stripper

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Why do nomads need electricity? When a Chinese tourist asked me, I was dumbfounded for a moment. First I wanted to say: ‘What do you need electricity for’, but then I realised many Han Chinese only ever see the ‘traditional Tibet’ in the magazines and on TV (very much like most people in the ‘West’). Tibet pictured as a the giant open air museum with high snowy mountains, clean air and nomads in traditional dress living a romantic life on green grasslands enjoying the sun and wild flowers with a black tents in perfect harmony with the surroundings. Taking that into account the question seemed a little less odd.

All that traditional stuff is still there, but in the eastern parts of the Tibet it is increasingly hard to find a black tent, people quite often prefer the factory made tents that are more waterproof, and they often have solar panels outside their tents for electricity. I have seen TV sets powered up with these, but mostly it is used for a few light bulbs and to charge the mobile phones.

In Eastern Tibet there are only few families left that lead a nomadic life the whole year round. Most families have their winter homes in the lower valleys where the yaks graze in the cold months and many valleys now have electricity. Some families still prefer the solar panels as it is a lot cheaper than the metered power but power from the grid also allows for a fridge, and sometimes even and electrical stove and some electrical appliances like a mixer for making butter-tea.

Thus the concrete electricity poles are everywhere. Some tourists (Chinese and westerners alike) complain they are ugly and destroy the beauty of the landscape, the Tibetans say there are so many and that they are spaced so closely together because the pole manufacturer is a family member of the party official deciding over the project funds. Sichuan is known for corruption on infrastructure projects so that could be true.

That electricity is wide-spread does not mean everybody has gotten used to it, I will never forget the old lady that tried to burn some waste on an electrical stove: I now know incense still works and smells nice, but plastic just stinks. And there are all the warning and instruction posters attached to the walls picturing how to avoid dangerous situations, situations quite clearly present in the next room which made me chuckle but also left me slightly worried when I had to sleep in such a room. Especially as it seemed that the wiring in the houses is under perpetual repair and there is always the strange burning plastic smell if another piece of wire has to be burned clean to be reconnected to another piece of wire.

I have already been told by some friends to bring a wire stripper next time, apparently these are hard to find.

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

February 21, 2013 at 13:22

Tibet Travel log 17: The cheap-meat-season

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After Losar, the Tibetan New Year which is celebrated this week, the cheap-meat-season will start.

At the end of the winter season when the grasslands are still frozen and covered with snow it is hard for the yaks to find sufficient forage, even the hay stored at the winter homes of the nomads will be in short supply.

The winter in 2010 was especially long and when I visited a nomad family in April of that year, a yak was dying every second day. It were mostly the young ones born during the previous season and the pregnant females. This family had about 75 yaks, so they were eagerly awaiting the start of the spring and the appearance of green grass. If the spring were to arrive much later it could make a big dent in the size of their herd.

Although sometimes spring arrives early, each year during March and April the meat is cheap. The meat from the yaks that starve is in abundance and not of good quality, it is very tough and only eatable when chopped up in tiny pieces. One is lucky to find a wolf-killed animal as the meat might still be decent. In the small towns where the nomads go for their shopping they try to sell the meat and yak-skin in the street. Cheaply.  Yak meat that would normally cost around 25 yuan per kilo, would now be sold for 5 yuan (about 0,50 Euro). The exception would be the time around Losar when meat is in high demand for the Losar celebrations and prices would go up.

The nomads do not only come to town to sell the meat, they also buy their groceries especially milk for the tea. At this time of year the yaks do not have milk, it is at least another month before the first yaks start to calve and that there would be a tiny bit of yak milk available for human consumption. I saw a small 250 ml bottle being filled drop by drop by milking several yaks in April. A small bottle of yak-milk at that time of year is a priced possession and precious gift, and being able to obtain the first lovely thick fat yak-yoghurt of the year is a happy event!

I am of course used to supermarkets where milk and meat products are provided all year around. So it was quite a surprise to be confronted with the seasonality around milk and meat supply for the first time. But it made some good conversations and the Tibetans were amazed by the productivity of the Dutch cows that give 15 to 20 liters of milk a day all year around. They asked me what the Dutch cows looked like. That was an easy question, I only had to point at the milk carton that featured a graphic drawing of a black and white cow in a very green meadow. They were very surprised, I think they never considered that cows could really look like that and they had to laugh when I said these cows would not survive a single week on the high grasslands in wintertime!
Skinning a yak that died of exhaustion and starvation at the end of the winter season. The intestines and the little meat still on the bone was fed to the dogs (Kham 2010).

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

February 15, 2013 at 15:26

Valentine’s Day

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While writing my weekly blog I came across these 2 photo’s which I thought would be nice to post on Valentine’s Day. The Tibetan drivers and the waitresses in Chengdu were keen to pose affectionately with their friend, luckily without the victory sign which is almost unavoidable when Tibetans and Chinese pose for pictures.

There is a large Tibetan population in Chengdu (Sichuan) who mainly live in the Tibetan quarter. Although it does not really have the Tibetan feel mainly because of the humid climate and the chinese environment it has been my first stop on many trips into Tibet, and my last stop before flying home from the Chengdu International airport. It is a good place for shopping, Tibetan food and also to find some modern Tibetan youngsters enjoying city live.

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

February 14, 2013 at 16:26

Tibet Travel log 16: Maybe raw meat is your cup of tea?

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In the responses to last week’s post about yak butter tea, where I mildly tried to promote the drink, most people seemed to agree it is horrible. So I thought I would try something this week that might result in the opposite reaction. Although the dried raw yak meat is not really distasteful, I really dislike it, I guess some (medium) rare steak eaters will probably think that yak meat is actually more their cup of tea.

I have made a few long road trips where at some point it seemed that everybody had a carcass hanging in the back of the truck or one thrown in the trunk of the car to take out a piece of bone and a knife to quietly take time to scrape off the last slivers of raw meat at every break. For a while I thought this was part of the driver’s culture as tea often seemed to be replaced by beer and ‘wine’ as well. But also in homes and tents as a special treat for the guests the bowls of dried meat have come out. Luckily I could mostly escape by drinking tea, but I guess meat-lovers might find this an opportunity to play with their pen-knife and chew.
There seems to be more understanding for not liking meat then not drinking tea, tea is such an integral part of life that not drinking would be rude. For meat there are always alternatives available and the Tibetan hosts will rumble through their supplies, run down to a shop or borrow from their neighbours to find something the guest would potentially like. And there are many things to like, a few Tibetan dishes I would even count as my favorites: droma, momo (big dumplings), bread filled with meat, tukpa (thick noodle soup), the pickled radish etc (have a look here for some good recipes).
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This tray of treats was put in front of me in a black tent in Kham, sitting at the best spot on some old leather couch that was moved to the fire as a simple stool was not considered suitable for me. On the one hand it was very sweet and I felt very welcome, on the other hand it made me very uncomfortable. But the old people living there were so kind that I soon felt like a princess, still looking rough from the road with dusty hair in my old, dirty tracking clothes and big clunky shoes and when I think about the ‘hand-kiss’ the old man gave me before going to bed, I still smile!

Butter tea, an acquired taste

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Making the butter tea in a monastery kitchen in Kham
The British can word things very nicely. My (British) friend gagging, feeling sick and angry with me for a whole day because I made her drink butter tea (which strictly speaking was not even true but let’s not go into that), said butter tea was definitely an acquired taste. She made me laugh which I tried not to show, the timing would have been very bad, as she meant is was horribly foul-tasting with a disgusting substance and it obviously made her stomach turn.

But she was right in calling it an acquired taste, it took me a few years to find out.

According to Wikipedia an acquired taste often refers to an appreciation for a food or beverage that is unlikely to be enjoyed by a person who has not had substantial exposure to it, usually because of some unfamiliar aspect of the food or beverage, including a strong or strange odor (e.g. stinky tofu, durian, kimchi, haggis, hákarl, black salt, stinking toe, asafoetida, surströmming, or certain types of cheese), taste (such as root beer, alcoholic beverages, vegemite, bitter tea, salty liquorice, malt bread, garnatálg or natto), or appearance.

It is not just bitter tea that should be in this list, butter tea also deserves a place.

Butter tea is made of butter and black tea with some salt added, sometimes the butter is rancid and I have found straw, flies and most worrying rather undefined things in my tea.

The first trick is to not think of it as tea, but rather some buttery soup.  Indeed when butter with blue veins inside is used it remotely tastes like Stilton soup, but that is probably also not everybody’s taste. The second trick is to softly blow the fatty parts to the other side of the cup and drink in small sips. Put the cup down after every sip and do not empty the bowl too much as that will trigger an immediate refill.

In some parts of Tibet the nomads drink up to 40 cups of butter tea a day. It is warm and hearty with a lot of calories so it keeps one going. When you are invited into a home, monastery kitchen, tent, or where-ever the hosts tend to take good care of you and you have to drink. Lots. And more. Another one. And the ‘last’ one… Maybe the Tibetans also know it is an acquired taste and they therefore try to give all foreigners a crash course, a sort of high-altitude training in butter tea drinking.

It took me over 5 years but I can now proudly say that I can drink and truly enjoy butter tea as much as the Tibetans do. I am still a bit a wimp though; I like to avoid rancid butter and flies. But in those many years in training I also found out that most Tibetans do not appreciate that either and in large parts of Tibet milk tea is actually preferred. But in the remoter nomad area’s you should really try.

Just ask around to find the best flask of butter tea in town (tent/hut), sit down, relax and enjoy!

Lhasa tea house

Tibet Travel log 14: Traditional Tibetan medicine

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The farmacy at Kirti monastery clinic in Ngaba (Aba)

In large parts of Tibet it is still the monks and the monasteries that practise the traditional Tibetan medicine, that oversee the collection of the raw ingredients and take care of the preparation of the pills and powders.

Not as large-scale and modern as the pharmaceutical factory in Lhasa but also in these smaller factories modern machines are used to increase production.

The factory in the photos below is located in Peyul (Sichuan). It took me quite some effort to find it, communicating with hand and feet and my three words of Chinese and Tibetan as my translator decided to sleep in that morning. People in the streets were quite happy to help but had no idea what I wanted. I was the only foreigner in town and I would probably be the only big-nose foreigner for months to come as well. Even if there were others they would probably not try to visit the factory and not be out and about at 5 in the morning.
So they kept offering me tea, food, a place at the fire and tried to send me in the direction of the huge monastery overlooking the town.

But once I had found the factory, it did not help it didn’t look like a factory at all, I was made very welcome. The monk in charge was still performing his early morning prayers and the factory closed. While waiting the old lady taking care of the place saw it as her duty to feed me as much butter tea as humanly possible. I tried to limit the intake, an hours walk from my hotel through the city I feared that need for (and lack of) privacy that man and Tibetan woman in long dresses can more easily solve…

Once the factory opened I got the full tour. From the storage room, to the office, to the production rooms onto the roof where the brown medicine balls were laid out in the sun to dry. With a staff of only 5 they produce quite a large amount of pills which once packaged in the shiny metallic sachets are distributed and sold in little ‘medical’ shops around town.

I really liked this insight into the practise of Tibetan medicine production and was especially happy to get to meet the monk in charge who radiated calmness and wisdom and put me totally at ease after the mad search for the factory!

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First 4 photos above: the medicine factory in Peyul, last photo a traditional doctors office in Gandze

Tibet Travel log 13: Modern traditional Tibetan medicine

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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

Freeing the Fish

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FtF blog

The Tibetans in Lhasa do not eat or catch fish, but the Han Chinese population does. The Tibetans instead go to the market to buy the fish to set them free. The whole fishing economy however has gotten a bit out of hand with the Tibetans now by far being the best customers at the fish market and the Han Chinese vendors catering for them by keeping the fish alive in large basins and selling big bags with water and added oxygen so the fish can be kept alive during the transport back to the river. Where some kilometers down river… well, you get the picture.

I have visited Tibet many times, and the more often I went the more interested I became in the country, the people, the Buddhism and above all, all the changes taking place in Tibet. Tibet has in the last 10 years changed from a rather traditional nomadic, agricultural and monastic society into a modern society. How the new and the old interact, collide or in some instances just live in parallel worlds doesn’t cease to fascinate me.

In the book ‘Freeing the Fish, progress and impermanence in modern day Tibet’, I bring together my photography work in Tibet from the last 10 years and I show the changes I saw happening in that period: The rapidly expanding cities and the city life, the new growing monasteries, the life of the nomads and the farmers in a changing environment (climate, mines, dams and resettlements).

The book will have a hard cover, around 220 pages with 140 photo’s of which 50 spreads and some background stories.

‘Freeing the Fish’ is one of the stories included in the book and a nice metaphor of many of the other developments in Tibet as well.

From now on I will keep you updated on the book publishing process. You can already have a peek of the book on my website. If you would like to be added to my mailing list or if you like to pre-order the book please email me or leave a comment on this post.

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

January 11, 2013 at 09:00