Marieke ten Wolde's blog

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

The month of March

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For the foreign traveller March in Tibet simply means: no bus, no access, no explanation, no discussion. This year was no different from last year and the year before.

Many Tibetans outside China observe Tibetan Uprising Day each 10th of March, often with large protests against the Chinese oppression in Tibet. Starting this year the Tibetan National Uprising Day will also be observed as Tibetan Martyr’s Day to commemorate the sacrifices made by Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, this was decided during the Second Special General Meeting of the Tibetan People held in September 2012 (in exile).

In 2008 the 49th anniversary of the Lhasa uprising, triggered protests and riots in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet.

The authorities in China responded in 2009 with commemorating  “the 50th anniversary of the defeat of the pro-independence uprising in Tibet in 1959 and the emancipation of millions of serfs”.  Serfs Emancipation Day  has since been celebrated each year on 28 March. The 28th of March is the day that Chinese Communist Party announced the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region and dissolved the old Tibetan government. Serf emancipation day is celebrated with colourful festivities with song and dance, it looks happy enough, though a little fake, on the news items from the official channels.

But there is a lot of tension around these days, which represent two very different views on Tibet both in the past and now, with increased security measures from the authorities. As a result all Tibetan areas have been closed for foreigners since 2008 during March. Also travel for Tibetans is restricted in that period. Sometimes this period is extended into February and April, to include Losar (Tibetan New Year) and other festive or historical days in the period. I have been caught out in February 2012 when all Tibetan areas already closed for foreigners early February (for a photographer in search of snow it is not easy if February and March are off-limits).

But it is April again, it will start to be a little warmer and with the sun gaining strength the lower grasslands in the valleys will soon start to show a little bit of green. That beautiful first green, so soft and yellowish it is barely there but makes everybody smile.

Because I am not allowed in Tibet during Losar, the Tibetan New Year, for me it always feels the Tibetan New Year starts in the first days of April. I hope this year will be a quiet and happy year.

The photo is a billboard in Lhasa, if there is someone who can translate I would be very gratefull

Let me take your picture!

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Tibetan families albums, you would expect they exist, but I have met many families and stayed in many houses and still I saw very few pictures that were over 5 years old.

Of course there is the occasional picture that the foreign tourist has sent and the many pictures of lama’s, monks, religious objects and monasteries. These are often pinned to a wooden pillar in the house or taped to the wall. I never saw a family album, wedding pictures or anything like that. It seems that photography for the normal Tibetan only started in the digital era, or that they simply do not care much for pictures. Now, very similar to what we see in our part of the world, there are tons of mobile phone pictures and bad snapshots of people in front of something supposedly interesting. And it seems that almost 90% of the time people feel the urge to make the victory sign as soon as the camera is pointed at them.

However I also noticed that the pilgrims visiting Lhasa had their picture taken. In Lhasa there are some photo studios with fancy backdrops of mountains, monasteries, the Potala (the Dalai Lama’s palace), a waterfall or something with a similar attractiveness. Sometimes these studios would even provide a set of traditional clothing. But the most interesting I found the photographers in front of the Yokhang (the main Buddhist temple in the center of Lhasa).

Up till a few years ago many Tibetan pilgrims had their picture taken there, and for a long time this was all analogue. I really liked the creativity of the photographers and I asked them to take a picture of my friend. We first had to choose the frame for the picture, she insisted on the heart shape. It was indeed ‘fast taring a picture – fast developing a piece of film‘ because only 2 hours later we could pickup the result: she received the picture, I the negative neatly folded in a little envelope made of old newspaper.

This experience would suggest there must exist more photos than I have seen. So I remain curious about the family albums Tibetan families might have of their daily life, their celebrations (in Tibet) etc. So if there is anybody that could help me with this, or could point me to some more results (like the one below), please let me know!

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Dangerous roads

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Roads in Tibet can be bad and slippery with mudslides or rocks falling down and the slopes very steep. Most of the time the local people seem to be totally at ease with this and the drivers confident and skillful. But when my Tibetan driver got very tense, and I saw Tibetans leaving the bus in front of us preferring to walk, I got a bit nervous.

Late winter the pass between Manigango and Dege was still covered with meters of snow. In the morning the traffic from Dege to Manigango was let through, from 14.00 onwards the traffic in the opposite direction was allowed to enter the pass. It was clear why: it would be impossible to pass an approaching car. A few unlucky cars broke down and it took hours to overtake those.

As we went up my Tibetan driver was suffering from the altitude, a headache and nausea. Apparently the difference between the 3000 meters he was used to and the 5051 meters (according to the sign) at the pass was too much of a difference. Maybe he spent too much time at the low altitude of Chengdu. He kept popping pills. I have no idea what kind of pills, as they came out of a non-descript white paper bag. He offered me some as well, but I was fine just a bit exhilarated from the lack of oxygen the cold and the clean air, but that was not unpleasant and I did not have to drive.

I never really considered the possibility of a Tibetan suffering from altitude sickness and this was worrying because the slope next to the road was pretty much vertical and going down hundreds of meters, the road was narrow and slippery from the mud and sludge so the wheels lost grip all the time. It was often not possible to look over the snow piles moved to the side of the road, which gave a misplaced sense of safety: where the water was seeping through I could see the slope going straight.

At the pass it was very cold and windy. Still most people got out of their cars to throw the colourful little papers with the wind horses (lungta) , which can bought everywhere in large piles for a few Yuan, in the air. Many of the colourful papers were flying around, each little paper representing a prayer that flies with the wind to the skies.

It is part of Tibetan Buddhism, but here it also felt like everybody was relieved to at least have made it to top and the colourful papers looked like a sort of celebration. It was gorgeous at that highest point, mountains all around, the snow,  the prayer flags and the sky so close it could almost be touched. I threw my wind horses as well and offered my driver a pile, but he was just cold and miserable huddled in his car seat. It seemed wise to get down as quickly as possible.

We again saw cars and busses that had fallen of the road, hundreds of meters down. I asked my driver what happened with the people, if he knew how many people died here. The answer was as simple as it was disturbing: many accident happen on this road and those people either died immediately or if they were unlucky it would take a while, as it would be impossible at this circumstances to reach them and rescue them. Bodies would be collected in springtime.

On the way back I gladly made a 3-day detour to avoid that pass.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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