I attended fourth grade in Claremont, with a guy named Steven Brown. It was a pretty dope class. Our teacher, Mr. Noffsinger, taught us how to type on old school, manual typewriters. His mentor was in the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest typist in the world. Steven’s been working in China, helping manage cell phones made by Best Buy for their Chinese locations. I’ll shut up and let Steve tell his story. I’m honored to present one of Steven’s features here at Fresh Talent. -John Park
I’ve always been attracted to forbidden places … out of the way places, places that few Americans, or few people, get to go. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Antarctica, they’re all on my list. Tibet doesn’t rank up there with those other places. Because of what we tend to hear about Tibet in the West– Tibetan independence, the oppression of the Tibetan people, and the Dalai Lama–it still seems like a pretty forbidding place.
I saw constant reminders that the situation is a little different than it is in the rest of China: a high number of police on city streets; numerous police and military checkpoints on highways, often manned by soldiers with machine guns; seemingly endless military convoys. I’m not going to get into all that political stuff. I’m not a politician, and if you go to Tibet with a political focus in mind, you may miss the point.
Tibet is a beautiful place with friendly people, excellent food, and a culture that goes back more than 1,500 years. For me, that’s what Tibet is all about, not some ideal of what Tibet could be. Let politicians figure out the political stuff … but if you visit Tibet, don’t forget to play by the rules, as I was quickly reminded when I arrived in Lhasa. This includes not taking photos of any police or military personnel, equipment or buildings.
Buddhist prayer beads, usually in chains of 108 beads, are another item commonly found in the hands of Tibetans, from regular people on the streets to monks in monasteries.
You never know when you’re going to find something interesting to shoot, so I often take my camera to meals. I shot this little girl and her father outside the hole in the wall where I had awesome yak dumplings.
Speeds in Tibet are regulated not by radar guns, but rather by written permits you pick up at each police or military checkpoint. Get to the next checkpoint too early, and you can be fined up to 100 RMB (about US$16) for every minute you arrive before the appointed time. So, we frequently had to stop on the side of the road to kill time. The following three images are shots I got at my favorite of these stops. It was around lunch time, and farmers were taking breaks in the fields. A yak chased a dog across the highway and through the fields.
Buddhism is rarely far from the mind of the average Tibetan, and signs of its influence are everywhere. It isn’t any wonder then that Buddhist leaders (the Dalai Lama) eventually became a powerful combination of religious and political leaders. The center of that combination is Potala Palace, which sits high on a hill in the middle of downtown Lhasa.
Potala Palace is impressive for its size and location, but I found other monasteries far more interesting because of the people in them. To me, the crown jewel of them all was Sera Monastery, located just outside of Lhasa. Sera is famous for its argumentative monks, who gather in a courtyard every afternoon to debate the finer points of Buddhism. Typically, one monk will stand while one or two monks sit. The standing monk claps his hand and challenges the sitting monks with a question.
Poor answers may result in the sitting monks being chided or slapped upside the head. It’s fun to watch, and I’ve never wished more that I could understand Tibetan.
1,500 year old Samye Monastery, the oldest in Tibet.
Tashilumpo Monastery was also high on my list, but for reasons I can’t show you. Yes, you can take pictures inside many of its shrines, but I wasn’t in the mood to pay US$20-30 per shrine. So, you’ll just have to settle for the exterior—still beautiful—and imagine the thousands of pounds of gold and gems that were used to construct tombs for a few of the Panchen Lamas (#2 in Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama).
Rongbuk Monastery wasn’t particularly beautiful or interesting except for the fact that it’s the highest monastery in the world, at over 5000 meters. Personally, I think I could get used to having Mt. Everest in my backyard.
A common sight in pretty much every Tibetan temple is the thousand armed, thousand eyed version of a figure named Guan Yin (in Chinese), who watches over and helps all beings.
Offerings to these icons and idols is a huge part of visits to temples and monasteries. Offerings include everything from money to butter to barley flour. I quickly became a fan of butter lamps, which are found everywhere. You can buy melted yak butter in thermoses outsider of every temple or monastery. The faithful walk around shrines and empty their thermoses into these lamps, a little bit at a time.
Crowds quickly thinned out, however, and this is how I like to remember my last night as a tourist in Tibet. Quiet, mostly empty streets, and Potala Palace looming overhead.
All photos and story by Steven Brown.