In late May 2012 a series of self-immolations outside the Jokhang Temple shook Lhasa and focused international attention on the ongoing protests against Chinese control and religious repression in Tibet. Several weeks later I arrived in the heavily policed urban centre, with two other Western researchers, to start a journey across the Tibetan Plateau. Our aim was to document pilgrimage practices at Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain in the far western Ngari Prefecture. Along the way, we found a landscape in flux.
Shortly after the self-immolations, tension and fear pervaded the city. But there was also an underlying sense of determination: pilgrims continued their rituals and practices, often waking at five in the morning to walk the outer pilgrimage route around the city. These four women sat outside the temple with courage in their eyes, as they reclaimed the space.
Travelling overland across the Tibetan Plateau from Lhasa, via Mount Kailash, to Toling and the Guge Kingdom, the landscape changes from fields of mustard seed to steep hillsides and rocky passes.
‘When I was here in 2010,’ our photographer Don told us, ‘this road wasn’t paved. We had to bump our way along a dirt track.’ Two years later, the road wound its way into the distance. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but large trucks, tourist buses and motorcycles passed occasionally. Every 50 kilometres or so we crossed another checkpoint, where Chinese guards inspected our travel documents. There were frequent construction projects – large industrial buildings decorated with scaffolding and cranes.
Our guide pointed at a jeep climbing into the hills: ‘They’re going to find minerals. I can tell by the car and the people inside. See – there are Chinese in the front and Tibetans in the back, guiding the businessmen to the minerals.’
In Shigatse, the second-largest town in Tibet, stalls had been set up outside Tashilunpo Monastery. Tourism is one of the primary sources of income for Tibetans, with vendors selling jewellery, incense, prayer flags and clothing. Some of these goods were offerings for pilgrims; others were souvenirs. The variety of wares mirrored the competing cultures of the city. Shigatse is both an urban centre and a primary pilgrimage site.
In the Kailash region, over 1,000 kilometres from Lhasa, we met a young nomad woman and shepherd. She took out her cellphone and started texting. A day later, on the eastern side of the pilgrimage route around Mount Kailash, we met another nomad woman similarly engrossed. She drank from a can of red bull as she ordered supplies for her teahouse on her cellphone. Juxtaposition is as much a part of the landscape in Tibet as nostalgic images of open vistas and mountain peaks.
The final stretch of the journey took us farther west to Tsaparang, the site of the 10th-century ruins of the ancient Guge Kingdom’s capital. Mirroring the transitional nature of the landscape, cellphone towers were strung with prayer flags – strands to bless technology’s footprint. They cut the horizon like scarecrows.
The ancient Guge Kingdom is currently being renovated by the Chinese government. Chinese tourists were posing in front of a large monument near the entrance to the site. Little was occurring in the way of cultural preservation. While new murals were being painted, and various statues destroyed during the Cultural Revolution had been replaced, many of the ancient frescoes were being ignored or repainted. On the surface it looked like the site was being preserved, but the renovations masked an underlying strategy – reconstructing sites to transform them into tourist attractions.