Marieke ten Wolde's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Tibet Travel logs

Freeing the Fish, the book

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The last months I have been very busy with finalising the book about the changing and modernising life in Tibet. Last week I received the result of all the hard work on design, lithography, paper choice etc. It looks really great. And it is so nice to finally be able to hold the book, smell it, go through the pages. I guess I am still in love the tangible paper-based book, although all the online and e-stuff are great as well.

‘Freeing the Fish, Progress and Impermanence in modern-day Tibet’ is a photo book which also contains 20 of my stories that provide you with background information about the life in Tibet. The stories sometimes have a personal touch, are a little more serious than my blogs and are all new!

You can have a preview at my website. The book turned out really well, so I am very pleased to now be able to sell this through my web-shop.

For everyone in the Netherlands: At FotoFestival Naarden I have a large photo series exhibited (the festival runs until 23 June). The photos in the book, especially the spreads are quite big (almost 60 cm wide) but at the festival the panoramic images are almost one and half meter and that is yet something different. It feels like you are submerged in the Tibetan world, for a moment at least…

So if you have the chance, come and see. I will be there on 1 June and 9 June and you can also buy the book at the festival.

For all of you who will not be able to come, below an impression of what it looks like.


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

Red noodle cups

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The road connecting Yushu to Xining (Qinghai) 

All over Tibet stuff gets thrown out of cars, busses, restaurants, garbage is often even emptied in the rivers.

I hate it, and as littering is so rare in Europe, it always takes me by surprise when someone just throws garbage out of a window. I will make however an exception for the red cups in which the instant noodles are sold. They look so happy in the landscape (if you do not look to closely).

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West Tibet (TAR)

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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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

Protests and self-immolations

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Chabcha 2011

Chabcha 2011

5 self-immolations in one day, 10 self-immolations in a week, 82 Tibetans self-immolated since February 2009, …

The headlines in the papers are getting more gruesome by the week. They are also getting smaller and smaller. It makes me wonder what ‘impressive’ statistics are needed to get us interested again.
In November, so far we are almost at one self-immolation a day, if it goes on like this, there will be 100 self-immolations before the end of the year. That will be news-worthy, I am sure. But after that?

That is why I was glad to see some other news coming out of Tibet this week. There have been demonstrations by students in Chabcha (Qinghai) asking for equal rights for ethnic minorities and the freedom to study and use the Tibetan language. It seems the protest was sparkled by a publication belittling the Tibetan language and condemning self-immolators. Around 1000 (mainly) students marched through the streets. Security forces, injuring about 20 students, forcefully dispersed them.  The area has been closed down for the press and all foreigners and communication has been cut. This always happens when there is unrest, so it will be very hard to find out about the situation in Chabcha now and to verify any news.

There have been many protests around the language issue, the first one I clearly remember is from around 2009. In 2010 there were protests in several towns in Qinghai (Tongren/Rebkong, Xiahe/Labrang, Machu, Aba/Ngaba) when it was announced that the bilingual education system would be changed to Mandarin only (except for the Tibetan language classes). When students were only allowed to own books with an official stamp on the front page that raised another wave of protests. All these protests were suppressed quickly and forcefully.

Also other demonstrations, sometimes successful, have taken place: against mines, hydro-electric dams, the building of a new airport (Xiahe) and the resulting loss of land and re-location of people. The official education programs at the monasteries are a permanent source of tension between the monasteries and the authorities. Corruption is also in Tibet a hot topic that people get angry about and sometimes raise their voices over.

It seems to me that the wave of self-immolations really started after the heavy crack down on the protests in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and now the suppressed anger is finding an outlet in the self-immolations. Many of the places where demonstrations took place in the last couple of years now see most of the self-immolations.

Tibet is a complex society that has gone and is going through a lot of changes and is rapidly developing into a modern society. These changes create tensions and sometimes resistance in the Tibetan society. So far the heavy response of the various authorities against any openly shown discontent, has not been calming down the situation.

Instead of sending the riot police to these students, what about sending a representative of the government to listen to them and talk with them? It has happened before, even in Tibet, and it might prevent further escalation of protests and violence into eventually self-immolations. Also the Chinese authorities should be happy with the demonstration, with demonstrators they can still communicate, once someone has taken the decision to self-immolate nothing can be done anymore.

(all photos: Chabcha, Qinghai 2011)


Written by Marieke ten Wolde

November 30, 2012 at 17:44


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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.


As long as there is Internet I can meditate anywhere

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In Ganze province (Tibet) I met a local young Tibetan monk who had traveled all around Asia; Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Malaysia and even Australia, to teach to Chinese followers. When I met him he was sitting in the porch of a derelict old monastery in the middle of nowhere. Beautiful but cold, dirty and very rough: a nice place to visit, not a place to stay.

When I said to the monk the surroundings were beautiful with the green fields below and the rugged snowy peaks behind, he shrugged his shoulders. When I said it was nice and quiet, there was not even a road to this place, he looked at me like I was crazy. So it seemed I could ask him what he was doing out there.

Well, he was going to show me. Behind the old temple just below the ridge in new concrete buildings, bare but functional, were his pupils studying. In another building the monks dwellings were located, nicely furnished, cosy, warm, lots of books, sweets and in his personal room quite some electronic gadgets.
Then he pulled out his laptop. He showed me pictures of all his teachers, interesting websites, e-books, recorded chanting etc. And he said with a smile: ‘As long as there is Internet I can meditate anywhere’.

(note: the monk in the pictures is a different monk)


Tibet Travel log 11: What to bring to Tibet

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Warm clothing, sunscreen, a hat, sleeping bag ….., there are a lot essential items to pack for a trip to Tibet, and many long list on what-to-bring can be found on the Internet. But on top of the pack list, travelers often have the urge to bring something for the ’locals’.

The funniest example I encountered was an elderly lady who brought bright white tissues with her. Wherever we stopped she started wiping runny noses and with Tibetan nomad kids seemingly appearing out of nowhere there were a lot of very dirty snotty noses to wipe. Luckily she had an almost limitless amount of tissues and she was so motherly and nice that everybody was smiling when she tried to teach them how to blow their noses. She was not very successful though.

I have seen people hand out money or sweets, which only made kids greedy and turned them into persistent little beggars. That is definitely not the right thing to do.

So what should you bring? For a while I brought sweets with vitamin C. When the diet in Tibet improved and the urgent need for vitamin C disappeared, I brought balloons. They require only little space and provide lots of fun.

But during my last trip, by coincidence, I really had the right thing in my bag. When I took pictures of this old nomad couple and wanted to show them the result, the man did not even bother looking at the camera, his eyes were too bad. But with my spare reading glasses, he could and his eyes lighted up. So I made him very happy. He did not mind or even notice, but next time I will also take some pairs without pink flowers!

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

October 19, 2012 at 09:50