Writer Ashley Rawlings has been documenting his impressions of cities in Asia, Europe and the Americas for the past decade.
My goal was always to make it to Tibet before the completion of the Qinghai-Lhasa railroad, because its clear aim was to further cement Beijing’s control over the region by flooding it with a renewed surge of Chinese immigrants. But, as it turned out, when I arrived in Lhasa in the summer of 2006, the railroad had just been opened. In any case, it was already evident how strong the Chinese presence is there; I was told that Tibet as a whole is now only two-thirds Tibetan, and Lhasa is already 50% Chinese. However, there was still hope. The astonishing beauty of the land, the warmth of the Tibetan people and the profound strength of their culture shone right through the political machinations that have dogged their history.
The Tibetan Yoghurt Festival was in full swing, and Chinese soldiers were keeping watch over Tibetans as they performed dances in front of the Potala Palace. With the Dalai Lama in exile, the palace has little spiritual gravity to it; inside, it feels like the empty husk of a museum, with tourists ushered briskly along a designated route. But its structure looms large on the Lhasa skyline, and it remains a potent symbol of Tibetan culture.
Looking up at the stark geometry of the Potala’s facade during the walk up to the entrance.
In the street markets of central Lhasa, all kinds of Tibetan Buddhist iconography was on sale. Portraits of Choekyi Gyaltsen, the tenth Panchen Lama, were widely available. The second-highest religious figure of Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama, the tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989. Though the Chinese authorities permit Tibetans to own images of the Panchen Lama, portraits of the Dalai Lama are forbidden.
The spiritual heart of Tibet is now the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa’s central Barkhor Square. Pilgrims prostrate themselves in front of it, and circumambulate it all year round. As dusk fell, the view from the temple roof was unearthly.
Pilgrims at the Sera Monastery on the northern outskirts of the city. A giant thangka tapestry was being unfurled on the side of a building behind me.
Bowls for sale along the route up into the hills around the Sera Monastery.
The sun is very strong on the Tibetan plateau, and locals harness its rays to boil water.
Wandering up to me in a textile shop, this little boy was eager to perform for the camera.
At the Drepung Monastery, on the western edge of Lhasa, I was struck by this particular setting, where the intense contrast between the colors of the sky, the clouds, and the mountains, together with the angles of the walls below, seemed to compress and foreshorten my sense of perspective. Such an open space suddenly appeared strangely flat.
As I turned a corner, I encountered one of the monastery’s residents as she plastered a wall.
A whitewashed wall cascading into a sheltered walkway.
As I reached the heart of the monastery, I followed the deep bellowing of Tibetan horns into a prayer hall. In the corner at the back, I found a glass display case containing this sand mandala.
Moments later, a monk informed me that now was the time for the senior monk to wipe the mandala away. His movements were methodical, removing elements of the mandala in a deliberate order that began at the outer edges and converged on the center.
When the monks had finished sweeping and scooping up the sand into a jar, which they wrapped in silk, the underlying template of the mandala was all that was left to see.
Ganden Monastery is about twenty-two miles outside of Lhasa, at an altitude of 4,300 meters. Once home to some 6,000 monks, it was ransacked and bombed during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. The current buildings date from the 1980s.
Inside one of the prayer halls.
One of the kitchens, where steam gushed out of a giant vat of yak butter tea.
One of the monks was enveloped in steam as he stirred the yak butter.
Though most Tibetans were friendly toward outsiders, sometimes there were flashes of bitterness, especially among the young. At a roadside stop on the way to Nam Tso Lake, this boy was posing with his goat for photographs. The custom is to pay a few yuan in return. I mistakenly gave him only a few jiao, which is worth less than ten cents. He snarled at me like a dog until I gave him a bit more, and then he stormed off.
Nam Tso Lake is the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Coupled with the wide-open skies above it and the mountain ranges in the distance, the all-encompassing panoramic vastness of this place is impossible to convey in a single image.
These carved stones lay all along the shores of the lake. This one reads Om Mani Padme Hum, a mantra for Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
As I walked along the shore, the weather began to turn.
Soon the wind was billowing through the thick layers of prayer flags that had been strung up all over the nearby hill.
As the sky clouded over and rain began to fall on the horizon, the surface of the lake turned into a dark mirror, eerily flat and calm. That night, a howling storm came crashing down on our encampment.