Marieke ten Wolde's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘tibetan nomads

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!


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

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).
tibet_inside_a black_tent
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 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

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)



Tibet travel log 5, Respect the books

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Do not put books on the floor, do not sit on books, do not step over books, do not place anything on top of books, keep food and drinks away from books. Respect the books.

I once took my travel guide book from the dashboard in the car where it was cooking in the sun into the shade on the floor, actually to protect it. My driver was very upset: do not put books on the floor. ‘OK, but it is just a guide book and the sun …’, ‘do not put books on the floor’. Later that night, I realised my guide book even had a preface with drawing from the Dalai Lama, luckily my driver did not know. Otherwise, I fear, the book would not even have been allowed to be stuffed in my camera bag. I have no idea where I then should have kept it, in that hot and dusty car.

There are many reasons why I like Tibetans and their great respect for books is definitely one of them. Monks and nuns stuff their often tiny quarters with all sorts of books including Buddhist teachings, explanations and philosophy.
I found that also lay people often own and read books, even when they have their mobiles with the messaging systems, their TV’s and Internet. I have been in the winter homes of Tibetan nomads in Kham where a complete wall was covered with religious books.
The great complaint I always heard is that there are not enough books published in Tibetan, so they are precious possessions and are passed along and read over and over again.

Praying sitting under the book shelfs, making sure to always stay lower then the books.

Tibet Travel log 4, The entrance gate

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April 2012, Tagong

These ladies ask the (mainly Chinese) tourists quite aggressively 10Y for passing the gate onto their land that has a nice view on the golden temple. This is a commercial attitude I have not often seen in Tibetans, certainly not Tibetan woman. And although I do not like to pay for standing in a field, I think it is rather funny and it fuels the hope that the Tibetans are catching up with the Chinese in commercial business sense. The few Chinese tourists that come to Tagong in April at least seem to have no issue with this approach whilst the one other ‘foreigner’ that is there at the same time with me prefers to walk to the next hill to avoid paying. The westerner is annoyed as this spoils his preconception of the peaceful laid back Tibetan.

It is early in the tourist season, at this time of the year it is mostly young Chinese that are walking, cycling, hitch hiking to Lhasa some 2000 km and a few days (by car) away coming to Tagong. They are travelling by themselves or in small groups as they say ‘to get to know their country’. They all see Tibet is an integral part of China. Some have met foreigners that told them differently and they clearly think that is a laughable misconception of some misinformed foreigners that do not know about China.

Most of these Chinese backpackers show a true interest in and respect for Tibetans, the culture and the religion. It is good to see that they are genuinely interested and try to understand the place, not just treating Tibet as a giant open air museum like most of the tour groups do. Some are even mildly critical about the enormous amounts of army trucks passing through Tagong on a daily basis heading further into Tibet.
These kids are well educated, relatively wealthy and I hope that once this generation comes to power there will be more understanding that will result in changes in the attitude and policies with regards to Tibet.

First attempt to some content…

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A first picture from the last trip to Tibet in May/June 2011.

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

August 19, 2011 at 17:18