Marieke ten Wolde's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Lhasa

Tibetan Sushi

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freeing the fish

Last week when I delivered a couple of my books to a store in Amsterdam with all sorts of things Tibetan, there was a Tibetan man, tall impressive, long hair in a fashionable bun. He was chatting with the shopkeeper about preparing food, actually preparing the fish from the tank at the shop keepers home into sushi. First jokingly then more seriously as it turned out he was running a sushi restaurant and he noticed the title of my book ‘Freeing the Fish’.
‘Freeing the Fish’ refers to the first story in my book and the practise in Lhasa for Tibetans to buy live fish in market to set them free in the river to save lives and gain merit.

We had a laugh about this coincidence and joked about his business. But the conversation turned more serious when the man who was even addressed as Rinpoche (a reincarnated Lama), explained that he would donate a lot of the money he earned with the restaurant. He indicated how fat the pile of banknotes would be that he would hand to monasteries and charity for blind people in Nepal. I have no idea why he chose to run this particular restaurant, he might have very good and valid reasons, but still there was an apparent sense of guilt. Luckily it seems possible to counterbalance at least some of the bad karma from running a Sushi restaurant by donating to monasteries. The principle of setting off good deeds against bad apparently is very common, at least it sounded very familiar to me.

I have met  Tibetans that eat fish, not so many years ago some (relatively) well to do Tibetans quite enjoyed the fish restaurants in the Chinese parts of Lhasa. They only stopped going there after the Dalai Lama had made some statements about eating fish. Some even ventilated their displeasure with the fact they could not eat fish anymore.

Maybe this is when the whole ‘Freeing the Fish’ practise really took on the scale it has now. I found this very interesting video on youtube showing how Tibetan businessmen donate a lot of money for buying the fish and make it into a special day to release the fish. Trucks filled with water and fish drive to the river where the fish is released from boats flying the Chinese flag.

I wonder if running up to Saga Dawa (Buddhist celebrations, remembering the birth of the historical Buddha), which is considered an auspicious time for releasing fish, the fisherman work over time to be able to fulfill the demand. Like eggs at Easter or turkey at Christmas. If the Tibetans are really opposed to fishing, and freeing fish is not just a way to gather good karma during festive days, maybe it would be better to not buy fish.

After deliberating on the freeing the fish practice for a couple of days, I still only know one thing for sure; Freak coincidences do occur in real life.
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Tibetans releasing fish in the river, Lhasa

Book editing Tibetan style

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My blog posts have been a bit intermittent in March because I was very busy with getting the book ‘Freeing the Fish’ ready for print. And that has proven a lot more work then I thought it would be. I used to think that the way Tibetan books were traditionally printed was a bit inefficient and time consuming, I am reconsidering my views on this now; I have not been doing much better.

But one thing is very similar to all book making, endlessly going through texts to edit, re-edit and after that still find another typo to correct. The traditional Tibetan woodblock printing requires careful checking of the woodblocks. Not just when the blocks are just carved, they also get damaged by being used, which might change the meaning of the words. So in the winter, when it is too cold to print as the ink will not dry, the wood blocks are checked. Each page printed, carefully read and mistakes marked in red and then the woodblocks can be corrected or repaired to be used again in the warmer season. Even printing used to have a seasonal aspect to it in the old days.


I went into this workshop on a freezing cold day in January, it was very quiet in the room with everybody reading. It was very nice, no-one really took much notice of me and I could work undisturbed and quietly on my pictures. The men were a bit surprised by my fumbling with cameras, film and tripod. The shutter release cord was handed down the room in amazement, but apart from that they were just concentrating on the text. The release cord always attracts a bit attention, I once visited a temple where some monks thought it was a device to clean the ears. I guess they had seen all the weird tools the Chinese use for cleaning ears, so I had to stop them when they started to try out my release cord.

In this room it was freezing cold, it would be warmer to sit outside in the sun. I guess drinking liters of hot tea helps a little, they all have multiple flasks, but I would not like to sit still on the cold damp floor hour after hour. Apart from that it seemed a nice enough job and at least they did not have to read the same self written text over and over again, like I did in the last few weeks



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!


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 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

Big Brother in Lhasa

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Lhasa (Near Chakpori hill with CCTV camera looking down on the Linkhor, the pilgrim’s path around the Potala palace and Yokhang temple)

One of the commenters on my photo series on the New York Times Lens blog said that the obvious was missing:

I’m surprised there is no mention of what is obviously missing from this photographic essay. When my family visited Tibet two years ago we were told NEVER to take pictures of the sizable and ubiquitous Chinese military presence. Everywhere we went the Chinese authorities glared at us from rooftops, checkpoints, installations, and their regular units of street patrols. Aiming the camera at them would result in certain confiscation of your device.

That’s an interesting observation but first of all I think a distinction should be made between Lhasa and surroundings (where indeed most the western tourists are going), and the greater Tibetan area including Kham and Amdo in the Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. Until recently the omnipresence of the police, the army and surveillance camera’s was mostly felt in the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, outside the Tibetan quarter and away from the well-known monasteries, that presence is less obvious and less in your face. This is one of the reasons I prefer visiting these other area’s. But recently the army presence has been stepped up in many places, the amount of army trucks I saw going into the Sichuan area’s of Tibet in February and April of this year was staggering and very worrying.

I am not sure if cameras from tourists are being confiscated, I have only once been asked to wipe some images but that was in the train, no idea why I could not take some silly pictures there, and no one ever threatened to take my gear.

The ways to control the tourists are more subtle than that. Westerners are not allowed to enter the TAR without a special permit and in Lhasa one is not allowed to walk around without a guide. That guide is held responsible for everything the (group of) tourists do. So if a tourist were to take pictures of the army, which nowadays would certainly not be appreciated, that would have an immediate repercussion on the guide, the guide’s organization and the travel agency that brought the tourist to Lhasa. So to protect the travel organization and (Tibetan) guide most people would behave as expected of them.

That combined with the Chinese authorities restricting access and controlling communications in the areas where there is unrest explains the general lack of army pictures.

And with regards to my photos, that is easy: I hold the very simple rule not to shoot people holding a gun. I am simply not that type of photographer. But especially for people interested in security cameras and army trucks I dug up some shots.

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Army convoy passing through a village in Kham (Sichuan) early in the morning

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

December 14, 2012 at 11:00

Tibet Travel log 12: The great train ride (Lhasa-Golmud)

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train 2
In 2001 I took the bus from Lhasa to Golmud (Geermu) and then the train to Xining. At that time on some parts of the route there was some early activity plotting the train track from Golmud to Lhasa.

The train went in service in 2006 and finally last April I managed to get on and see for myself. It is not always easy to get train tickets, there are now so many Chinese tourists visiting Lhasa that tickets are sold out long in advance and the fees from the ticket touts and travel agencies went up accordingly. Luckily I was there in April, not really the tourist season yet, so I managed to obtain my ticket.

The train was good, clean, comfortable, on time and the people in my part of the train (hard sleeper) were well-behaved. This might seem a silly remark, but during that bus ride 10 years ago I did not even dare to put my bag on the floor of the bus as it was completely covered with greenish spit, the smell of vomit and the noises that were made were horrible and the sleeper bus was in such a bad condition that the hot water in my flask froze overnight. This train ride was a breeze in comparison.

In the first years the train was operational I saw many nomad families using the train to come to Lhasa. Which was a nice surprise after all the international criticism that the train would only bring more Han Chinese to Lhasa changing Lhasa in just another big Chinese metropolis. Which, to some extend, has also happened.
So when I took the train I had hoped to see some of the Tibetans from Kham and Amdo (the Tibetan area’s in Sichuan and Qinghai) who use the train to visit Lhasa during the winter to fulfill their religious duties by visiting the monasteries and temples in and around Lhasa.

But this time there were hardly any Tibetans on the train, it were mainly Han-Chinese, some tourists from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a handful of other people including one other western foreigner who used the train.
I knew that Tibetans from Kham and Amdo were restricted in their travel to Lhasa. With those areas facing ongoing protests, the authorities were keeping them away to stop the unrest and self-immolations from spreading to Lhasa. I had noticed the lack of pilgrims in front of the main temple in the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, but I had put that down to the heavy police presence in that area. I just had not realised the extend of the travel restrictions until I saw who went on that train.

The train ride through the snow-covered landscape with the mountains and lakes, the yak herds and groups of the little antelopes was wonderful. The Han Chinese family and Hong Kong Chinese girl in my compartment were lovely and very interested in Tibet it the Tibetan culture. Still I hope that next time I can enjoy it with some Tibetan fellow travelers as well.

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(All photos in and from the train between Lhasa and Golmud)

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

December 11, 2012 at 15:38


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Oppa is Nangma style, Nangma style, Oppa is Nangma style, Nangma style, Oppa is Nangma style
Eh- Sexy Lady, Oppa is Nangma style, Eh- Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh

Nangma is a traditional way of singing and dancing performance in Tibet. Nangma Lhasa style however is a lot less traditional than the official channels make it out to be and as a result it is very popular. Some of the Nangma bars in the Tibetan part of Lhasa are huge with hundreds of people hanging out on a busy night.

Girls in very tight trousers, or traditional dress, the boys in jeans who clearly spent a lot of time their hair, the older man in chubas, all busy with their smart phones.

And Nangma is dangerous, so I am told: ‘Be careful of men drinking too much, be careful of knife fights, be careful of thieves’. Well, all man are body searched before entering, the majority of the people drink fruit juice, and when the dancing finally starts around mid night it is in neat lines everybody doing the same steps. I see nothing that would worry me, it is just fun.


In memoriam …

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In memoriam… luckily this has nothing to do with anything serious.

It’s my personal computer, yesterday it has officially been declared dead by the repair shop. No computer also means no access to my photos, Photoshop or my texts for this week’s blog… All is backed-up, but to use a back-up one needs a computer, and the new one will only be ready this afternoon, hopefully.

But there are good things about not having a computer, yesterday I spent the afternoon cleaning out my book shelves and I found my photo album from my very first trip to Tibet in 1998, an album I had completely forgotten about. When flipping through it I realised once more how much has changed.

The wooden rooftops are now hard to find, they are largely replaced by corrugated iron. Those nomad women in front of the Yokhang? This year, due to the ongoing unrest, they probably will not even be allowed into Lhasa and if they are, they will not be allowed to sit down or gather in groups of more then 3 people. A man with a horse carriage? Now mostly replaced by tractors and that road has been paved many years ago.

(All pictures are made by me and reproduced with the camera on my mobile phone from the yellowish photo album)