Marieke ten Wolde's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Yokhang temple

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!


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 9, Lhasa: everything changes

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Lhasa 2012, Incense burning in front of the Yokhang temple


Butter lamps and low-energy light bulbs inside the temple


After posting my last blog with the photo of the military on the Barkhor square (the center of the Tibetan part of Lhasa) I realised how much has changed and, at the same time, how little has changed.

When I visited Tibet for the first time in 1998 I was a tourist that did not know anything about Tibet apart from the sketchy news coverage in the Netherlands and the introduction in the Lonely Planet which I only bothered reading in full when I already had returned home. To me Lhasa was a magical city, full with beautifully dressed friendly Tibetans, mysterious temples with monks in their red robes everywhere. For many first time tourists this would still be the first impression.

But in the mean time I have changed, because I know more I see more. I see the CCTV camera’s, I see the fake monks, I see the old buildings disappearing and the lesser known monasteries collapsing. It is not only I am less naive, it is also because Lhasa’s old center changed. In 1998 Tibet was not a tourist destination for the Chinese middle class, there were a few tour groups and they showed the typical tour group behavior. It was easy to avoid them. It was only after 2000 Tibet started to become fashionable and large numbers of chinese tourists started to arrive.

Now 95% of the tourists in Lhasa are Chinese, and quite a few are independent travelers and interested in Tibetan Buddhism or are even followers. The number of tourists visiting Tibet has grown tremendously from around 100,000 in 1998 to over 7 million now. This has changed the Barkhor area beyond recognition as the shops and restaurant now cater for these masses.

In 1998 the Yokhang (the main temple at the Barkhor) did have an entry ticket but the monks often did not bother to charge. A few years later I could just buy a ticket once and walk in and out every morning waving my ticket. The monks were friendly and laughed. In 2007 the whole ticketing had become very strict, with a ticket box outside the temple and no monks to be seen. It also had become a lot more expensive, so that meant no short Yokhang visits anymore. This year it was even forbidden to enter without a guide and I could only enter after 10.00 when most of the Tibetan pilgrims had gone. There are metal detectors to go through before entering and the Tibetans are led in through narrow fenced lanes, like cattle. The inner kora (pilgrim path) is also fenced, so there are now few Tibetans spinning the prayer wheels. However inside, it is still magical. Like it is outside on the Wednesday mornings when many people come out to burn Juniper in the large incense burners.

It is at these moments I forget about all the changes that happened in the past 10 years. I just enjoy and realise Lhasa is still a magical place.

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

September 7, 2012 at 09:32

Tibet Travel log 8, ´Things that happened´

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April 2012, military with fire extinguisher tied to their back patrolling the Barkhor square in Lhasa


Self-immolations are a subject that can not be discussed in Tibet. The word can’t be mentioned, so conversations go: ´you can not go there, you know, things happened´. Self-immolations can also be referred to as ´bad things´, ´sad things´, ´those things´, ´more things´. And even than, mostly hastily whispered while looking over a shoulder.

It is a little confusing that the same wording is used for protests and demonstrations, so a certain knowledge is required to understand what is meant. I would never start the conversation around ´that´ subject, but if it came up I would ask something like: ´with many people?´, which would be a protest. If the answer would be ´no, the other thing´, this would most likely then be someone who set him- or herself on fire. As a result of all the police presence, the spreading of security camera’s and tense atmosphere, the conversation would then quickly move to something else. It surprised me how quickly the feeling of oppression and control started to impact my attitude and movements as well.

As the self-immolations can’t be talked about, people in stead discuss the consequences of the ´things that happened´. They are quite open in expressing their angriness or even outrage on the ban on bottled fuel sales, the sudden appearance of fire stations and fire trucks in towns, the spreading of fire extinguishers in and near monasteries, police and army carrying around fire extinguishers, blankets and stretchers and everything to do with the increased army presence like the army driving at high-speed through villages, army vehicles honking, army trucks parked close to monasteries and army trucks on pilgrimage routes. This even further increases the tension between Chinese and Tibetans.

There are police and army station on every street corner in the Tibetan area’s, outside or even inside the larger monasteries and in almost every village. Lhasa had 400 police stations in 2008 after the demonstrations and riots, now there are 1600. In Lhasa groups of soldiers patrol the streets around the main temple (the Yokhang) with fire extinguishers on their back. It is a rather silly sight and it did not prevent two young men self-immolating right in front of the temple at the end of May. Since then another 14 Tibetans self immolated within the Tibetan regions, the last 5 in Ngaba, bringing the total to 51 self-immolations since March 2011. Not including the yet unconfirmed 52nd, a woman in Gansu province, just two days ago.

Many people are angry and there is no outlet for the anger, demonstration are forbidden and if they happen they are dispersed quickly with the demonstrators arrested. Several people expressed the feeling powerlessness and suffocation to me by gesturing a tightness around the chest and difficult breathing.

Some, and sadly it is mostly the younger people, see no other way to protest than to kill themselves in this gruesome way.

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

September 3, 2012 at 15:54