Beyond religion and other stereotypes, everyday life on the Roof of the World tells its own story.
Prior to my visit to Tibet, it was difficult to visualise contemporary Tibetan life, leave alone the activities they engage in on sunny summer afternoons. While we all perceive religion and language as defining Tibetan culture, I was struck more by the impact nature had on the people. Religious Tibet was a stereotype, but everyday Tibet was a novelty. The height of the plateau accentuated the strength of the sun and gave its inhabitants a unique look. And hats were the natural protection that people wore depending on who they were and what they did. Cloth wraps, baseball caps, even cowboy hats, they were all there as statements of identity and, sometimes, fashion.
Braving the possibility of altitude sickness, I flew in to Lhasa. That was a starting point of a journey of more than 4,000 km, much of it in difficult terrain. I first went north to Nyamtso lake and then west to Gyantse and Shigatse. These regions were breathtaking in their beauty, with pristine blue high-altitude lakes set against mountains and clear skies. The brilliance of nature contrasted with the normalcy of human activity. Nothing reflected that more than the Tibetan fondness for outdoor billiards and, apparently, for gambling as well. The absorption in the game was so intense that the players were impervious to being photographed. A few fertile valleys then gave way to a long barren plateau with road-side villages that stretched across the entire length of Tibet. As the terrain got harder approaching Ali prefecture, the toll that it took was writ on the faces I saw. Very few were camera shy and, in fact, many were quite talkative. And while Mount Kailash and the Manasarovar lake are associated with pilgrimages, I was reminded that the inhabitants of that region had their own lives too. This is a mini-pictorial of the “other” Tibet, of a society that sustains a tough people in a vast space. Their faces tell the story.