Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tibetan pilgrim woman on Kawa Karpo circuit, Oct 2012

Taken with Rolleiflex 3.5F and Kodak Ektachrome E100G. I think this was on Day 3, after we had tackled the Doker La.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dali Cangshan summit ridge

Dali Cangshan summit ridge, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Interlude:this is a pic I shot on the summit ridge of the Cangshan range above Dali. It use to be a right old slog to get up here - we hiked up in 1991 and it was awesome. In Oct 2012 I went back and this time was able to take the new cable car all the way to the top (or at least to that Alpine Resort you can see in the background). Still a brilliant place - around 4000m.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Looking down into Tibet from the Doker La

Just over the steepest bit! Taken with a Bessa R2, Summicron 35mm lens and Ektachrome E100G.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The trek that my kids did ...

Scanning a few pics of the Kawa Karpo kora (well half kora ...) - including some of my teenage sons who did the trek with me back in October ...
Didn't they do well?

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Doker La

Doker La, originally uploaded by jiulong.
This is the first of my (many) pics from the Kawa Karpo outer kora - just a rough scan with a cheap Canon 8000F scanner - hoping to get my Epson working soon. Pic taken with Rolleiflex 3.5F and Ektachrome.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Kawa Karpo kora - want to see some amazing photos?

Unemployed and rather skint at the moment, which is frustrating when I have about 20 rolls of 35mm film and a similar number of 120 format rolls of Ektachrome from the October Kawa Karpo kora that still have to be developed.
While I'm waiting to visit CC Imaging in Leeds, have a look at these great pictures by Peter Jost - who did the full kora at the same time as me, but with a group of fellow Aussies.
There's another album of amazing photos from the same kora taken by our other trek mate Darren Farley (from Calgary). Some great portraits there of the many pilgrims we met along the way:

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Dali Cangshan - wish I was here!

Dali Cangshan, originally uploaded by jiulong.

It's cold and grey in the UK.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

New website!

I've now registered the domain for this site, so people in China (hopefully) will also be able to read the articles (blogspot sites being blocked by the Great Firewall).

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Yes! I 'did' the Doker La!

Just back from China, after completing half of the Kawa Karpo outer kora. Crossed from Yongzhi near Deqin to the Nujiang at Abing. Didn't compete the second half due to blisters and other factors (lack of time and money). However, the five days I did spend on the trek were amazing. Had perfect weather and saw some great scenery. And even more amazing, bumped into last year's Yading trek partner Peter on Day 2, while camping just below the Doker La. Had a surreal meet up with him and his three fellow Aussie trekkers at breakfast after unwittingly camping right next to each other!

Crossing the Doker la was fantastic - not quite as hardcore as I expected to get up there - but super scary steep going down the western side! I nearly bottled it when I first saw how steep it was but my guide shamed me into continuing and literally held my hand over some of the worst and most exposed sections of the track. And ironically, after spending years wondering what it would like to be up there, I spent only a few moments on the actual pass as it is a knife edge and smothered with prayer flags - not a place you can linger and soak in the atmosphere.

Overall, I found the trek to be quite tough in some ways - lots of up and down, and yet I trekked with a Canadian guy Derren who managed to do it in sneakers with just a sleeping bag, a sheet of polythene and an umbrella! I needn't have brought the tent (or even the stove) as there are pilgrim way stations at regular intervals along the kora which all have primitive shelters, shops and hot water.

More updates soon when I get the photos developed.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

My book "In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock" is now online

Book cover

Please see the index on the right - you can click to see the whole book (10 chapters, one for each of Joseph Rock's expeditions), or you can click on individual chapters. Hosted by Scribd. Let me know what you think.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Happy snaps from Labrang (Xiahe) 拉卜楞寺

In the window of the local photo portrait shop.

Random image from Labrang (Xiahe) monastery 拉卜楞寺

In a Lanzhou beef noodle restaurant on the main street of Xiahe.

Random image from Labrang (Xiahe) monastery 拉卜楞寺

Taken during a climb up the hill opposite (south) of the lamasery.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Labrang (Xiahe) monastery 拉卜楞寺

Pics taken with Ektachrome and Leica R3 during a visit in May 2012

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Labrang (Xiahe) monastery 拉卜楞寺

Pics taken with Ektachrome and Rolleiflex 3.5F during a visit in May 2012

Golden stupa, Labrang, 1923 and 2012

Golden stupa, Labrang, 1923, originally uploaded by jiulong.

And in 2012: Labrang (Xiahe) monastery 拉卜楞寺

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Random picture from Ragya

Just felt like posting this nice pic of some local visitors who were there the day I was there in May.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bus travel in western China in 1938

Bus travel in China in 1938, originally uploaded by jiulong.

The beautiful Kodachrome pic above was taken by Carl Mydans in the late 1930s while touring the "Yellow River Front" against the Japanese in Kansu. The drab one below by me taken in 2012 en route from Xining to Ragya, using a Nikon 35Ti and Kodak Ektachrome. Ragya - Lajia monastery (拉加寺), Qinghai And again by Carl Mydans: Bus in Kansu, China, 1938 And 60 years later, a bus breakdown between Dali and Lijiang on our 1998 Muli trip: Travel by bus in China in 1998 - bus breakdown en route to Lijiang from Dali

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Not long now ...

Will soon be posting the final chapter on my visit to Ragya/Lajia monastery (拉加寺) in Qinghai. When I can be arsed to write it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

To Amnyi Machen - via Ragya monastery


Joseph Rock starts off his article about his 1926 expedition to the 'mountains of mystery' - the Amnye Machen peaks - with the now familiar litany of outlandish and colourful claims. It is a remote and unexplored region, he writes, forgotten by time and peopled by warlike and nomadic Tibetan bandit tribes who know nothing of the outside world. An arduous journey across bleak grasslands is needed to reach this unknown mountain, which he says is 28,000 feet high - "almost as high as Everest" (it is actually only about 25,000 feet in height).

His article continues in this vein for several pages, perhaps to make up for the fact that he achieved so little. His generously-funded and extravagantly mounted expedition did not get anywhere near the mountain, despite two years of trying. After floundering about in the gorges and canyons of the upper reaches of the Yellow valley, Rock only managed to get a glimpse of the Amnye Machen range from a distant mountain pass 30 miles away. This seems especially odd to the modern reader as these days the mountain is easily accessible and can be circumambulated in a few days by backpackers. The terrain in the immediate vicinity of the mountain is bleak but poses no particular deterrent to the competent and prepared traveller. So why did Rock spend so long faffing around in the labyrinths of the Yellow river gorges - especially (as he admits himself) the area is so disappointing from a plant collector's point of view?


Perhaps it is easy with the benefit of hindsight and the images of Google Earth at one's fingertips, to forget how difficult it must have been to approach Amnye Machen in the 1920s. The area had been visited earlier by several western and Russian explorers, but it was still very much an unknown region. The main barrier to any curious outsider must have been the hostile Ngolok tribes who lived in the area and who violently repelled any intrusions by outsiders. And yet Rock had already dealt with a similar situation when trying to visit his so-called "Holy Mountains of the Outlaws", the Konkaling mountains near Muli. This time however, the scale of the country was much greater, and his friendship with the wily Prince of Choni was of little use because the prince held no influence over the distant Ngoloks in another province.

Nevertheless, Rock took the advice of the Choni prince, who told him that the best way to approach the Amnye Machen mountain would be via the small monastery of Ragya (or 'Radja' as Rock calls it) on the upper reaches of the Yellow river.

Rock expedition

With a commission and a large cheque from the Arnold Aboretum to conduct a comprehensive plant hunting expedition in the botanical 'virgin territory' of Amnye Machen, Rock set off in the spring of 1926. He didn't travel lightly. In addition to his 12 Naxi helpers, he had 34 mules and 60 yaks carrying five months of supplies. As if this wasn't enough, he also hired a mob of surly and cantankerous local Tibetan horsemen, known as 'Sokwo Arik' to act as a bodyguard on his journey across the grasslands from Labrang to Ragya.


This was also one of the few trips on which Rock took along another westerner. Although he doesn't mention him by name, Rock brought along the American missionary William Simpson "dressed in Tibetan garb", to act as a Tibetan translator. As already mentioned, Simpson had been working as a missionary in the Labrang area, but Rock soon found he disliked the missionary's "do gooder" ways and lack of firmness with the natives.

Their journey from Labrang to Ragya took them westwards over bleak and boggy grasslands, peopled only by a few itinerant nomads living in black yak hair tents. Rock's photographs portray the Tibetan nomads as wild and magnificent people, but in his writings he dismisses them as ignorant, superstitious and filthy.

On one occasion he looked on with disgust as an old woman pulled out a dirty bowl for him from on top of a heap of dung, wiped it with her filthy fingers and greasy clothes and then filled it with a hunk of yak butter that had the imprints of many other soiled fingernails scraped into it. Rock made his excuses to leave by saying that he had to take photographs outside.


According to Rock, this was a land that time had passed by - the local people had never seen a car or could conceive of a train. They had no concept of electricity or modern appliances and believed the world was flat. Things had not changed since the time of Marco Polo, he wrote. He played them records by Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba and they marvelled at the music produced by the "Urussu" (Russian) - their local word for all foreigners.


The landscape they travelled across was 'dreary' and disappointing, not just to the eye but also from a botanical perspective. So instead of plants, Rock noted the many types of wildlife in the region - marmots and pheasants, blue sheep and rabbits. There were tame birds that had never learned to be afraid of man. But there were also wolves, following the expedition caravan at a safe distance and watching them from the ridgelines.


From Labrang they passed through the Sang Chu valley, still littered with the bones of Tibetans slaughtered in a recent battle with the Muslims. Traversing grasslands dotted with the black tents of nomads, they crossed a 13,000 foot high pass - in a blizzard in June - to descend towards the Yellow River. The 'unruly' Sokwo bodyguard were then paid off to return to Labrang, "without a word of farewell or the slightest sign of interest in me".


It is here that Rock makes another "first white man" claim - this time, to be the first to explore the steep canyons of gorges of the Yellow River, which he says are at least 3000 feet deep.

"It gave me a peculiar feeling in this lonely wilderness to be the first to look upon this mighty river flowing through hitherto unknown gorges," he writes.

Yellow river

After exploring several sheer-sided tributary valleys of the Yellow river and killing a pair of eagles ("now in the museum at Harvard"), Rock made a brief stop at a monastery called Dzangar, before continuing upriver to Ragya monastery.

Once again he was both enthralled and disgusted by the extremes of a remote and secluded community. "Few in the outside world know that Radja Gompa exists ...Life here is unbelievably crude ..."

One of the strange things he encountered at Ragya was a room room full of clocks and timepieces collected by the Abbott of the monastery. It reads like a scene from a movie.

"From floor to ceiling, clocks and watches of every description and size were ticking away, each keeping its own time regardless of the actual hour. Clocks struck at various intervals, some in unison, others in quick succession."

Rock added to the collection with the gift of a watch.


After the long journey, Joseph Rock settled in to quarters at the Ragya monastery, and prepared for the next phase of the expedition - the approach to Amnye Machen though Ngolok territory. However, the officials of the monastery warned him against taking his expedition into Ngolok territory, saying the tribes would probably murder them. If he was to go, he must make a quick dash on horseback, before the Ngoloks knew of his presence, they advised.

Rock demurred and asked the lamas to send an envoy with requests to visit - and accompanied with generous gifts for the Ngolok chiefs. He had not come all this way for a brief visit, and he wanted to spend an extended period collecting plants and viewing the mountain. While waiting for a reply from the Ngolok, he explored the area around the monastery - photographing the stupendous cliffs under which it sat, and the tiny hermit residences on the hillside, where lamas lived on nothing but nettle soup.

He observed the daily lives of the lamas and again was scornful of their superstitious and feudal ways. One lama was observed 'printing' Buddha images on the surface of the Yellow river by slapping a board onto the water carved with a sacred image. "He occupied himself in this way for hours," Rock observes drily. Rock also recounts cynically how the Living Buddhas always seemed to be found among the offspring of families of high lamas and officials - how convenient!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A new exhibition of colour photographs by Joseph Rock ...

Exhibition is at the Bulger Gallery, Toronto. Wish I could attend! Thanks to Keith Lyons in Lijiang for the tip.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Kumbum monastery, 1925

Kumbum monastery, 1925, originally uploaded by jiulong.

As witnessed by this photo, Joseph Rock made a visit to Kumbum monastery in September 1925 but it doesn't rate much of a mention in any of his articles in the National Geographic. It's surprising because Kumbum was then one of the most important Gelugpa monasteries in the Tibetan-speaking world. Perhaps it didn't rate a mention because it is so close to 'civilisation' in the form of Xining (then known as Sining) the provincial capital of Qinghai. Kumbum was often the home of the Panchen Lama - then as now the great political (and more pro-Chinese) rival to the Dalai Lama.

Kumbum These days, as the guidebooks note, Kumbum seems to be as much if not more of a museum piece than a real spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery is also virtually a suburb of Xining - you can catch a local bus from just near the youth hostel and it takes only about half an hour to get there.
I spent a pleasant morning visiting Kumbum, and even in May it was quite busy with tourists. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant place, and had a fair number of genuine Tibetan pilgrims doing a circuit of the monastery, prostrating themselves all the way.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,

One of the odd things about Kumbum monastery is that it is situated in the middle of what seems to be a predominantly Muslim town. When you get off the bus and walk the half a mile up to the monastery, most of the people you see are Hui Muslims. Anyway, here are a few pictures that I took of Kumbum and the people I saw there.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, This is the main entrance - obviously a work in progress.

Tibetan woman, Kumbum - by Rolleiflex
This woman was one of two Tibetan old women begging outside the main temple. I gave them both five kuai each on the understanding that I could take their portraits, but she was very miserable about the whole thing and the other woman reneged on the deal and buggered off with the money. Bad karma on you, missus.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,
This is a picture of the main temple complex. As you can see, much of it is being re-built or refurbished. Note also the many new saplings planted on the hillside above the town.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, This is the view looking down back towards the town, which encroaches right up to the door of the monastery.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,
The golden roofs of the monastery are quite striking and stand out from the surrounding gloomy grey landscape.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,
You have to pay something like 50 kuai to enter the monastery these days, and for that you get a colourful ticket and a mini-CD (or was it a mini-disc?) to take home and play. Or throw away.

Kumbum There aren't many monks at Kumbum, or at least there don't seem to be many. They are outnumbered by the many visitors. None of whom can be seen in this picture.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།,
Here's a pilgrim doing her prostrations on the 3km circular track around Kumbum. She was getting a bit cheesed off with me snapping away with the Rolleiflex.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Most of the time I found it quite easy to get people pictures with the Rolleiflex because you don't have to poke a big long SLR telephoto lens into someone's face. The Rolleiflex has a silent shutter and you look down into the camera at the screen so that people often don't realise you are about to take a photo. specially when you're behind them.

Kumbum monastery, near Xining The monks at Taer Si (Kumbum) belong to the 'yellow hat' Gelugpa sect.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, These guys were just sitting down outside one of the Kumbum temples shooting the breeze.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Inside, where it was supposed to be strictly "No Photography", I managed to take this pic with the Rolleiflex - because I had the place to myself.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Time for a Rock-related picture. Offerings on a rock at Kumbum.

Kumbum monastery, near Xining It's odd to see the image of the atheist Marxist 'People's Dictator' Mao used as holy offerings to the sacred Buddhist deity. Nice karma for a guy who ruthlessly suppressed 'superstitions' like this.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Inside the main building the monks chanted and recited their sacred texts.

Kumbum monastery, near Xining Some are chanting, some are plumbing.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, Meanwhile, back down in the town, life went on as usual for the Hui Muslim majority. The old guys sat outside the supermarket, passing the time of day.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, The Hui Muslims have a long history of living in Tibetan communities, where they have traditionally taken up the tasks such as butchery that are anathema to sentient-life-sensitive Buddhists.

Kumbum monastery (Taersi, 塔尔寺) སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, I took a hike up the small hill at the head of the monastery valley, but the view wasn't that great from the prayer flags.