Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy holidays!

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season! 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tibet - Horse Festival, Amdo

Horse festivals throughout the Tibetan plateau take place in early August of each year. Nomads and farmers across the grasslands bring their horses to the track, and the winners leave with some pretty amazing prizes including top-end motorcycles (very useful for herding!). It's a highly organized event, and some groups even set up tents selling various beverages and snacks. 

We woke up in the early morning to grey skies and freezing cold temperatures (the peanut oil that we were using to cook had frozen overnight!) and after a tasty breakfast of peanut butter sandwiches and hot coffee, we walked over to the centre of the track where two alters and a prayer flag structure had been set up for religious offerings. As part of the pre-race rituals, jockeys and their 'crew' offer various food and drinks to the gods in hopes of receiving good luck in return. Firecrackers are also lit, and racers walk their horses clockwise around the alter while throwing small pieces of 'lucky paper' into the air. These square pieces of paper are stamped with an image of the windhorse (a symbol of good fortune) and it is believed that the higher you're able to throw, the more luck you receive. 

By late morning a sizeable crowd of all ages had gathered by the edge of the racetrack. I really enjoyed seeing the traditional dress of the nomads - thick robes adorned with bright beautiful patterns, tied with long sashes - and found it interesting to see how they differed depending on the region the group was from. We stayed at the festival for about three races, cheering with the friendly people around us. Interacting with the people was such a fun experience, and though we were not invested in any particular horse, we were still able to experience spirit of the festival. 

We planned our trip with Snowlion Tours, a Tibetan-owned company based in Xining. Wangden, the owner, is a great guy and  I would highly recommend them :) 

More photos from my trip on flickr

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Photo Inspiration: Fairytale by Aleksei Gavrilov

Fairytale by Aleksei Gavrilov (via Landscape 2.0)

So beautiful. 

I'm in a bit of a mental rut, trying very hard to finish a grad school application that is due in a few days(!!) and not scream at the blinking cursor in Word that is clearly mocking me. This photo is a reminder to take a deep breath and carry on...just carry on. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tibet - Grasslands, Amdo

The grasslands of Amdo are shades of light green, yellow, and purple; it's a sharp contrast to the red clay mountains and dense forest that we had driven through previously. On this particular day the weather is perfect: in the distance we can see mountains rising from the horizon and fluffy white clouds hang from the bright blue sky. Our initial plan was to find a nomad settlement and spend the next two days camping with them, however, we pass a horserace track and discover that we have arrived a day before the annual horse festival. Nomads across the plains gather in this field to race their horses over two days each summer and it's an opportunity we can't miss. We decide to camp on the field overnight to catch the festival in the morning. Surprisingly the field is littered with broken bottles, bone fragments, bits and pieces of garbage, and yak & horse dung. It takes a little while getting used to, but after a few hours we barely notice anything. We set up camp near the back of the field, just infront of a nomad camp. Behind us are a herd of yaks grazing - it's quite the surreal sight.

Many nomads were already at the field preparing for the races - the photos of the racing horses are from the practice runs late in the afternoon. As the sun sets the air becomes cool and in the distance dark foreboding clouds hang low. Not long after, thunderstorms move above us - it's one of the most terrifying nights I've experienced. Our tent shakes violently from the wind and the sound of the heavy rain and thunder makes it impossible to sleep. At times the lightning is so bright it resembles car headlights flashing infront of our tent. I remember thinking over and over how silly (read: stupid and dangerous) it was to be camping in an open field, at an elevation of 3500m, with a thunderstorm literally right above us. I don't know exactly how long the storm lasted, but in the morning the temperature is around 5 degrees (freezing cold!) and we decide that staying another night is probably not the best idea. 

We planned our trip with Snowlion Tours, a Tibetan-owned company based in Xining. Wangden, the owner, is a great guy and  I would highly recommend them :). The provided us with the tents pictured (so much more convenient that bringing our own) and they withstood the crazy storm!! 

More photos from my trip on flickr

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tibet - Longwu Monastery, Repkong

Longwu Monastery is one of the oldest and largest Gelupa monasteries in the Qinghai province of China (Amdo region of Tibet). Founded in 1301, it is a large complex made up of many smaller temples, a large assembly hall, numerous dormitories for young monks, housing for older lamas, as well as facilities to make incense and for artists to create thangkas, tormas (figurines and mandalas carved out of a mixture of yak butter & flour), and other religious art.

We spent about 3 hours walking around the monastery, along dusty cobblestone paths. Once in a while we come across a group of monks or some cattle, but for the most part it is not very busy. I am enamoured by the bright and saturated colours that decorate each building, and rich tones of the monks' robes.  As we step inside the smaller temples, the smell of incense and yak butter candles permeate the air, and large bodhisattva figures (often 1-2 stories tall) look daunting at first.   

As dusk approaches we make our way to the large coutyard outside of the assembly hall and watch as young monks gather for their evening prayers. The 4 of us sit quietly on the steps and observe the process; there are no other tourists around. It's interesting to watch the young monks as they try to sit quietly and listen. Much like students back home, some monks can't seem to pay attention, some nod off half-asleep, some whisper and grin at each other, and some arrive late (they don't get a comfy seat cushion). In the first part of the prayer, the monk seated at the front of the square recites the chants himself - his voice is deep and reverberates throughout the square. When the students join in later on, the mix of low and high tones is quite hypnotizing.

The is our first visit to a large monastery and already I feel like I've learned so much about the rich spiritual tradition.

We planned our trip with Snowlion Tours, a Tibetan-owned company based in Xining. Wangden, the owner, is a great guy and  I would highly recommend them :) 

More photos from my trip on flickr

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tibet - Wutun Monastery, Repkong

Repkong is a small town in the Amdo region of Tibet, known as the cradle of Tibetan arts. Above are photos from our visit to Wutun monastery, and the studio of the head lama who is also a master thangka painter. It’s difficult to see the details of the paintings in progress, but they are truly amazing in person. His tools consist of an array of brushes from thick to thin, and his paint is natural pigment made from crushed minerals. In his studio are numerous finished pieces that hang from the walls and lie scattered on a long rectangular table. Each one is unique and range from large pieces of deities and wheels of life, to smaller mandalas. 

I didn’t take very many food photos on this trip, but the one above is of the traditional noodle dish thenthuk. The soup is thick and spicy and helps to keep nomads warm in the harsh winters. Normally it is served with yak or mutton meat but as a vegetarian they gave me some tasty black fungus instead :). 

We planned our trip with Snowlion Tours, a Tibetan-owned company based in Xining. Wangden, the owner, is a great guy and  I would highly recommend them :) 

More photos from my trip on flickr

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tibet - Xining to Repkong

My trip to the Tibetan plateau this summer is an experience that I will never forget. The landscape is so incredibly beautiful, yet harsh and challenging; the people have the warmest, most open hearts, despite the history they’ve endured; I feel like I came home with a changed perspective on what was important and developed a renewed optimism about…everything.

Tibet is a place that I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time. I wanted to experience being at the roof of the world, amongst the world’s tallest mountains, and immerse myself in the deeply spiritual culture. Over 16 days I was able to accomplish those things, but also learned a lot about the history, and the enduring political struggle. I am not Tibetan, but I felt the painful void that all Tibetans feel, though probably at only a fraction of the intensity.

The photos above are from the early part of Day 2, on the road from the city of Xining to the small town of Repkong. We had stopped on the side of the road, to stretch our legs and were visited by a flock of sheep, a single goat, and a lone cow. Overlooking the Huang He (Yellow River), the views were beautiful, even on this cloudy day. The water was calm, perfectly reflecting the mountains in the distance. I remember telling our guide, Kalsang, how exciting it was to see these animals so close, and how beautiful the landscape was. He assured me that this was just the very beginning of the trip and that there were many more incredible sights to come. I didn’t quite believe him, but he was definitely right. 

We planned our trip with Snowlion Tours, a Tibetan-owned company based in Xining. Wangden, the owner, is a great guy and  I would highly recommend them :) 

More photos from my trip on flickr