Late Autumn in Tibet

The azure sky and white clouds over Gonggar Airport in Lhasa look as if they came straight from a travel ad for Tibet, almost unbelievable in the vibrant intensity of their colors.

The scenery and customs of Tibet vary widely, depending on the season and the locale. But at any time, in any area, visitors are bound to be enchanted by the pure air, astonishing beauty and rich traditional culture.

This album features the people and places of Lhasa, Xigaze and Nyingchi in late autumn. The photographs were selected from more than 1,000 that were taken over a 20-day period in autumn 2004.


Lhasa is a city where modernity mingles with tradition and the material world fuses with the spiritual.

A 70-year-old grandmother in traditional Tibetan garb leads a boy of six to the Jokhang Monastery. Dropping the aromatic leaves they carry into a huge incense burner, they watch the auspicious smoke drift upward. Then the grandmother closes her eyes and puts her palms together in prayer, while the small boy imitates her.

Secular pursuits flourish right alongside those of the spirit. Not far from the monastery is the Barkhor Bazaar, where visitors from around the world bargain with shopkeepers in a variety of languages and gestures, seeking the best price for Tibetan-style arts and crafts.

At an elevation of 3,657 meters, Lhasa is located on the northern bank of the Lhasa River, a tributary of the great Yarlung Zangbo. It is the capital and biggest city of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and also its political, economic, cultural and transportation center. Lhasa has a population of 400,000 made up of more than 30 ethnic groups, including Tibetan, Han and Hui.

The 1,300-year-old city is also the region's religious center. In Tibetan, the word "Lhasa" means "holy land." It is the traditional residence of the Dalai Lama, one of Tibet's two top religious leaders, and thus several architectural treasures are situated there: Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Gandain Monastery and Norbulingka.

Travelers who come to marvel at the ancient monasteries and imposing palaces can also enjoy the comforts of well-appointed hotels, restaurants offering diverse cuisines and stores of all sorts and sizes where an array of goods ranging from the humble to the luxurious is available. Private automobiles, taxis and bicycles run side by side on the roads, offering numerous options for the footsore.

Despite the contrasts, some images of Lhasa are timeless and endless. Butter lamps burn in the temples all year round and an endless stream of faithful pilgrims flows toward the Barkhor. Men and women, young and old, don their traditional Tibetan clothing whether for work, play or to shake their sutra canisters as they circle Jokhang Monastery.

Monk Nyima Cering lives in a tidy, simple cell at Jokhang Monastery. On his desk is a computer, which has become an important tool for his research and data storage. He is also an excellent amateur photographer, often recording scenes at the monastery: people worshipping and special religious rituals. His fluent English and easily understandable explanations of Buddhism make him an excellent tour guide. Busy Nyima Cering is also the deputy director of the Jokhang Monastery Management Committee, a member of the All-China Youth Federation, a deputy to the People's Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region and a permanent member of China Buddhism Association, Tibet Branch.


At the Parlha Manor of Gyangze County, the social and economic gulf that divided the landed gentry from the serfs of old Tibet is immediately apparent.

The Parlha Manor is the best-preserved landholding of the aristocracy in the region. Fifty-seven buildings now stand on the grounds, including the three-story main house. The owners' home comprises a sutra chanting hall, studies and bedrooms as well as a special hall for playing mahjong. The beams and ridgepoles are all delicately carved, the workmanship magnificent.

In contrast, 13 rooms for serfs are narrow, low and dark, reminiscent of prison cells. In fact, the old disciplinary barracks, complete with scourge and shackles, still stand on the grounds.

At the time Tibet began its democratic reform about half a century ago, the Parlha fiefdom included 22 subordinate manors, six pastures, 570 hectares of farmland, 14,250 head of livestock and 2,440 serfs.

A local resident, his face deeply creased with age, still recalls his youth as a serf. But he prefers to talk about today: he got a good price for his vegetables this past summer and is looking forward to the autumn harvest.

Xigaze Prefecture is an important agricultural area. In recent years, each county has specialized in different crops, and the vegetables and grains grown in the area have a good reputation throughout Tibet. In late autumn, the highland barley is ripening and the farmers hard at work in their fields create a colorful portrait set in gold.

Gyangze's Dzong Hill is a monument to the people's resistance against foreign invasion and maintenance of national unity. In 1903 British colonialists dispatched troops to Tibet, and the soldiers occupied Gyangze in April 1904. The army and people of Gyangze, armed with simple broadswords, long spears and stones, defended the ancient castle at Dzong Hill, the seat of the local government. They held out for two months against British soldiers who were equipped with modern guns and cannons. But at the end of the long siege, food and other supplies exhausted, the defenders jumped from the cliff. The walls of the ancient castle still bear the scars of the cannon fire and traces of bullets.

Xigaze City is the administrative hub of Xigaze Prefecture, and it is also Tibet's second largest city. The home of the Panchen Lama, the city is also a religious center. At the famous Tashilhunpo Monastery, the young Panchen Lama himself presides over solemn ceremonies featuring ritual dances.


Bayi Town is the seat of the Nyingchi prefectural government, but when a gentle rain stops and a rainbow spans the fields, it can more closely resemble a fairyland.

Nyingchi, in the eastern part of the region, is often referred to as the Emerald of Tibet. With an average elevation of 3,000 meters, the prefecture has a humid climate and lush vegetation. In the valleys, plant growth appears in layers, divided by altitude. Snow-capped mountains, forests, grasslands, lakes and rivers abound, creating a multitude of scenic spots.

Basum Co Lake, not far from Nyingchi, is a holy lake of the Tibetan people. Seen from above, it is a crescent laid within the high valleys. In late autumn, the sky is blue and the maple leaves flame with color. Sand birds and white cranes soar above the lake, which mirrors the surrounding mountains. In its center is an island on which the Co Zonggongba Monastery was built during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). It is a famous monastery of the Nyingma (Red) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, with disciples constantly coming and going.

Many travelers make Nyingchi their first stop in Tibet, not only because of its beauty but also because of its relatively low altitude: lowland dwellers have an easier time acclimating there and moving gradually to the higher country. Although visitors have to take a bus to get to Nyingchi at present, within three years the new Nyingchi Airport will be opened. It will be Tibet's third civil-use airport, joining Gonggar in Lhasa and Bangda in Qamdo.

People who have been to Tibet say that one visit is not enough – in fact, even a thousand visits may not be enough. At the end of every trip, they begin planning the next, knowing that they will yearn to return to this beauty.

( December 17, 2004)

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