I flew from Beijing to Lhasa and immediately visited the beating heart of the city; the Jokhang Monastery. Despite the changes I’ve seen in this country during my two decades of visiting Tibet I still thrill at the sight of the long haired Khampa pilgrims that circumambulate beside me as we circled this ancient temple.
Eventually leaving Lhasa, I was the only foreigner traveling on the impressive but controversial new Tibet train for a 26 hour journey from Lhasa to Xining, China. I shared my compartment with three hacking Chinese men who were hooked up to oxygen for the duration of the trip.While smoking. Surely that can’t be safe? Central Tibet has already become so heavily influenced by the Chinese that this new train is met with much wariness with its promises to bring even more Han Chinese to the Tibetan Plateau.
From Xining I drove through the eastern areas of Tibet, once known as Kham and Amdo, exploring the nomadic areas. This annual pilgrimage has become a passion of mine over the years as my concern for this endangered culture grows. After the 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese, more than 130,000 Tibetans followed their spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile and built fifty-seven refugee settlements spread throughout the neighboring countries of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Even the more remote eastern areas have become deeply affected, and the Tibetan nomadic life has started to wane with the government forced migration of the nomads to the cities. Peering through my lens at the smoke spiraling from the few yak hair tents dotting the landscape, I felt like Edward Curtis must have, while taking photos of the last American Indians across the plains.
Men on horses round up their herds of yak, goats and sheep. Women heavily layered in coral and turquoise milk their yak in the dusky purple twilight. Tibetans still strike me as one of the most exotic cultures on the planet and I am mesmerized by the array of unique costumes and impressive head adornments worn while performing even the most mundane off tasks. The only barrier between the inevitable offer of a welcoming cup of yak butter tea is the usual pack of snarling Tibetan mastiffs outside their tents. The memory of the one who clamped on my leg like a pork chop years ago, followed by a painful slew of rabies shots, reminds me approach the tents cautiously.
We visited a small local Buddhist monastery in Thrindu valley where the friendly monks were engaged in making an intricate sand mandala, and they welcomed our decision to stay for the two day Buddhist ceremony. Afterwards we drove out to the Barong hot springs, where we set up camp in the dark, not far from a neighboring nomadic settlement. There is only a thin veneer of nylon between me and the surrounding pack of unrelenting barking mastiffs. I was freezing during the night, my thin summer tent barely holding up in the winter winds that have now crossed the snowy mountains and entered the valleys. At the first light of dawn it was with welcome relief that I lowered myself into the steaming hot waters of the spring.
As we left the valley a local nomad showed us a short cut crossing the river but our load was so heavy the truck got stuck in the raging river. He generously helped to push us out and was rewarded with a few yuan and a granola bar. Balancing all my camera equipment, I waded across the icy river in bare feet as quickly as possible before I turned hypothermic. Hours later we were rewarded on the other side by an impressive mile long wall of carved mani, or prayer stones. Hopefully a sign of better luck about to come our way.