My name is Wei Wei and I’m a Chinese photographer from the city of Hangzhou, south of Shanghai. My range of work may seem a little strange (well, it is!) because on the one hand I shoot rock concerts, and on the other Tibetan Buddhism. And somewhere in between, I do commercial product studio shooting. I think I can say without sounding too proud that I’m one of only two successful female rock photographers in China, and my main gigs are the tours of Xu Wei, who is the country’s most famous rock star. The rock scene in China is huge, because of course we have a huge population and the economy is booming, but of course it is still little known in the West. That may change soon, so watch out for the invasion of Chinese rock bands in the future!
When I’m in my home town of Hangzhou I also shoot product photography for China’s largest beverage company and China’s largest skin care company. Meanwhile, at least twice twice a year, and to be honest as often as possible, I go to Tibet and spend a month there at a time. I’m Buddhist, and for the last four years I have been photographing life and worship in Tibetan Buddhist communities, both in Tibet itself, and in ethnically Tibetan western Sichuan. This year in April I fulfilled a longstanding ambition, to vista the sacred mountain of Kailash in the far west of Tibet, and join the Buddhist pilgrimages in its difficult circuit around the mountain. Because of the distance and the poor road conditions, the camera bag I chose was Manfrotto’s Professional Backpack 50, and it proved its worth.
Known in the West as Mount Kailash after the Indian name for it, this diamond-shaped peak is called Gangrenboqi or Gang Ren Bo Qi in Chinese and in Tibetan. Gang means snow-capped mountain in Tibetan, and Ren Bo Qi is the Tibetan term for “precious valuable”. In the eyes of believers, this is the centre of the world, and it is sacred to four religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and the traditional Tibetan religion Bon Po.
My friends from Hangzhou Tutu, Shan and Pangpang had for a long time planned to drive two professional off-road vehicles all the way. The first leg was from Hangzhou to Chengdu, an almost non-stop journey of three days. After a short break for a day in Chengdu, to buy some necessary items, then began the long, tough journey known in China as ‘318-to-Tibet’. Route 318 is one of the world’s most dangerous roads, one of four mainland Chinese State Line Roads. It’s dangerous because of three passes higher than 5000 meters above sea level. But it passes through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, past snow-capped mountains, lakes and glaciers. I was too busy with work to be able to join them on this first leg, so I planned to meet them in Tibet itself, flying in to the eastern Tibetan airport of Qamdo.
State Road 318 Route schematically:
State Road 318 view:
April 12th, and the plane lands at Qamdo airport (pronounced ‘Chamdo’), where Tutu and the others are waiting for me. At more than 4300 meters above sea level, Qamdo is the world’s highest commercial airport, and has some of the worst airport conditions because of the harsh geographical environment. It’s also a number of hours’ drive from Qamdo city itself, being the nearest flat land. Typically most people arriving from the lowlands get altitude sickness, but I’m lucky that after several long-term stays in Tibet, I tend to acclimatise quickly. Pangpang’s wife Maizi has also joined the group. As soon as my bags are off the belt, we set off, without a break, and immediately embark on one of the old pilgrimage roads to Lhasa.
On the way from Qamdo to Rawu ,on 21:00
From Qamdo airport we drive first to Rawu, negotiating landslides along the road, which is in any case dilapidated, so we travel very slowly, and it takes the whole day to reach Rawu. As we approach Rawu, having just negotiated a 4800meter pass, on the downhill side one of our vehicles has a punctured tire, and then we find that one of the shock absorbers has also been severely worn, so we have no choice but to edge our way slowly into Ranwu, where we find a youth hostel, which is a very humble inn, and we have to stay here while we get the repairs done. Fortunately, despite the constant shocks from the terrible road, my camera is unaffected, thanks to its secure packing! Obviously it is well protected, which makes me completely at ease with my camera.
The way with snow mountain:
My camera bad ,beside the Rawu Lake.
After two days, we leave Rawu. Pangpang told us he was here five years ago, and maybe we can take the opportunity to visit his old Tibetan friends, if they haven’t moved. Unfortunately, after all these years, it seems that Pangpang can’t quite remember the road, and we can’t find his friend’s house. We knock on doors to ask, strangers among these friendly Tibetan people, and typically, they greet us with enthusiasm and give us tsampa and butter – one kind of characteristic Tibetan food, so we have the strength after lunch to continue our journey to reach the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. We finally reach there at three in the afternoon, nine days after leaving Chengdu.
Lhasa is the political center of ancient Tibet, and its Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace form its heart for Tibetans. The Jokhang Temple is the oldest building in Lhasa, with fourteen hundred years of history, a very sacred place in Tibetan Buddhism. In front of the temple, believers from all over Tibet bow and pray. The Potala Palace, which for several generations housed the then king of Tibet and the Tibetan Dalai Lama, is especially magnificent, its exterior coated annually yellow and white. Elsewhere, Lhasa is as modern a city as you could imagine. However, we do not need to stay in Lhasa for too long. This modern city is not our destination, and after a short rest and provisioning with some light and easy-to-eat energy food, we continue our drive west to Gangrenboqi.
My bag with Jokhang Temple:
My bag with Podala Palace:
Gangrenboqi, with an altitude 6721 meters, is the second highest peak in Tibet, and also the only one in China which it is expressly forbidden to climb, for its sacred position. It remains one of the world’s most mysterious peaks. Ancient Buddhist scriptures claim that Sumeru is Gangrenboqi, making it the first mountain in Buddhism. Tibetans believe that the four rivers on the Tibetan Plateau: Maquanhe, Sutlej, Shiquanhe and Kongquehe flow from Kailash, in different directions and through different regions, back to the same fate – the Indian Ocean. To reach Kailash without wasting time, we take turns sleeping in the cars as we drive. Fortunately, the road has been improved in the past few years, and a journey that used until recently to take six days we manage in three. So, three days later we finally arrive at the small town of Taqin, in the foothills and the traditional starting point for the long walk around the mountain. But even now, in mid-April, the weather is extremely cold, yet the town is full of people, all of the hotels are full, and we’re happy that we already booked one. Time to lay down the luggage and began to discuss our itinerary from here.
From Lhasa to Gangrenboqi, we are very closed to the mountain. It’s on my right side and I can see it very clear.
Stars full in sky.
In the West you use the Indian word ‘kora’ for the sacred circumnambulation, and this is a prevalent custom of the Tibetan population. It is said that if pilgrims come to circle the mountain clockwise, they can be washed free of the sins of a lifetime; if 100 journeys it is possible to become a Buddha. And as the Buddha was born in the Year of the Horse (which is this year), you acquire twelve times the merit. For thousands of years pilgrims flocked here. As Buddhists ourselves, we are no exception. But the altitude is taking its toll. We start the long walk – the entire journey is 53 kilometres – and decide to do it in three days, three stages.
The Tibetan plateau is usually adapt to people who turn around Gangrenboqi just one day, of course, walked away while people in addition to kowtow. And our ranks ,Pangpang and Maizihave been obvious very tired, and because it is not used to the high altitude environment, they have not been well for three consecutive days of sleep. So we decided to split into three days to finish the pilgrimage. Undoubtedly, this three days journey is the most difficult part of the trip. There is no good food, no good accommodation, and we also consume a lot of physical strength. And I, in particular, am burdened with a large bag of photographic equipment. It’s not at all easy, but the backpack, thank goodness, is both sturdy and well-padded, so at least it is comfortable on my back. Several of the inns are full, forcing us to find open space and pitch a tent,. Even so, the five of us, on our way around the mountain, are very silent. We don’t speak to each other, but we silently recite verses to ourselves. Perhaps faith gives us strength, When we I stand with the mountain in front of me, I’m moved to tears. At that moment, short of breath and exhausted, I cannot speak. I’m just moved at the gift of nature.
As we Buddhists say, give thanks for this trip, and pray for peace.