Portraits of Tibet | Faces of China | Rice Fields of Northern Vietnam

I’d like to show some photographs from my trip to Asia last year which in majority took place in Tibet then China and Vietnam.  Most of the description  about this trip will be along each photograph to provide a bit more details about how and when the image was taken and stories around it. I am hoping the information provided here is truthful as it is what I received and understood.

After hiking the Great Wall( the crepes a lady sells there are amazing) I flew to Xining.  Here for the first time I learned what Chinese Breakfast really means and it is what a lot of hotels are serving. Most places I stayed at provided breakfast that was weird by our standards( eg. milk mixed with water, water with rice, steamed buns and maybe eggs).  Only spent a night there, to help a bit with acclimatization to the higher altitude (elevation ~ 2200 meters above sea level). Next morning  I took a public bus(locals figured out where I was going and were kind enough to show me which bus to take) to the train station and boarded the train to Lhasa, Tibet which took 24 hours @ 1960km over the highest plateau in the World. The view from the train is stunning and change every few hours, based on elevation and weather. I could have flew to Lhasa for the same price($130US), but I highly recommend taking the train instead and experiencing the gorgeous landscapes. Plus, train ride does help a bit with the acclimatization to the higher altitude of Lhasa and it’s always good to be safe.  tens of 1,000s of people every year fly in, get altitude sickness and require medical attention and can’t proceed with their itinerary.

 

Xining to Lhasa Tibet train pictures

Riding World’s highest railway reaching 5072 meters and World’s highest tunnels through the mountains.

tibet train ride cabin view pictures

There’s an oxygen supply to the cabins and you can control the output. A lot of people still get sick with mild altitude sickness: headaches, nosebleeds, lack of appetite and fatigue.

travel blog to Tibet train experince

During the night train passes a few places over 5000meters(16,500ft) and when I woke up early in the morning to an elevation around 4500meters I had tingling sensations in my hands and feet.  Brushed my teeth and had to stop after a minute as I got tired and was gasping for air 🙂

Potala Palace sunrise in Lhasa

Next morning while it was still dark I went to a viewpoint for a photo of sunrise. There were about 40 steps and it took me about 2-3 minutes to conquer them with a stop in the middle to rest. There’s only 68%-50% oxygen of sea level(depends on the season).  Water in Lhasa boils at ~88C(187F).   In front of the palace on the sidewalk you can see a lot of pilgrims. 1000s of them wake up early and start walking the designated route around sacred places while chanting and praying.

Potala Palace holy sites in Lhasa

The Palace is made of stone and wood and has over 1000 rooms. Some of the walls are made of wood as well and then painted white to resemble stone. It’s built at an altitude of 3700 meters and painted with white paint mixed with milk.

pilgrims in Lhasa Tibet go around Jokhang Temple in circles

In this photographs you see Tibetans walking around the holy Jokhang Temple clockwise. They must complete 3 circles. Tibetans at least once in a lifetime visit the sacred places. Most of these people traveled 100s of miles from their home. No matter how sick, they still do the pilgrimage. Some even do a walking prayer(they take a step,lay down on the ground then get up walk another few steps and repeat that) from their villages/towns so their journeys can take many many months. Regions they come from can be identified by the hair and clothing. I personally thought how they all looked like Native Indians!  China tightly controls where pilgrims can and cannot go. Most Tibetans do not have passports as China is refusing to issue them.

Something interesting: Tibetans practice polyandry – basically all the brothers(or on occasion it can be father and son(s) ) would share a wife. They believe it makes a family strong and united. There’s no division of land or any rivalry. Everyone is equal and has equal rights on everything they own. Children treat all men as their fathers. Though in some parts of Western Region of Tibet it’s polygamy and wife with all her sisters share one husband. Rich Tibetan males in any part of the country sometimes opt in to separate from their brothers and have 1 or more wives.

pilgrims journey in Tibet to holy sacred monasteries and temples

As most Tibetans are poor, journeys from their towns sometime could take many weeks as they walk to the city,unable to pay for transportation.  Everyone in Tibet was pretty friendly. Most people did not want to take their photograph taken due to their beliefs,but they would smile and make a pleading gesture not to take their photo.

daily lives in tibet - gold teeth and poison beliefs

In the East of Tibet most people have gold teeth. From what I understood in some areas there’s a belief of poisoning a person who you envy… They believe gold absorbs poison so most people get themselves gold teeth to protect themselves from any possible envy and harm. Gold teeth are also a fashionable accessory.

sky burial in Tibet

Sky burial is the most common funeral method in Tibet. In short, they break the bones of a dead person and leave them at designated spots on mountains for the vultures to eat it all up…

nunnery up in the mountains

These are living quarters of a nunnery up in the mountains ~ 3900meters. On the top photographs you can see a nun trying to boil a kettle by using a solar cooker. There’s no electricity. TV’s are not allowed.

holy monasteries in Tibet

Monasteries are tightly controlled by the Chinese government which have their officials there and oversee what monks are allowed to learn, tell them how to practice their religion and there’s little to no freedom of speech. While monks may not have a lot in their possession, they do have cell phones and I observed latest models iPhones in the hands of some of them.

wrinkly old people in Tibet

I always enjoy eating at local restaurants as they serve more authentic food and give me a better glimpse into the culture. Most of these restaurants don’t have a menu in English,but some attempt to translate and have at least 1 copy, to try to get tourists in. Translations of some menu items are very funny. If you are ever in Tibet, try “Grandma” or “Milk from Grandma”… I think my favorite dishes there were Yak meat(though I am 100% sure it was just beef) with fried potatoes and lemon honey ginger tea. Tibetans LOVE their Butter Tea! Many think it’s the tastiest drink one can have. Basically they put yak butter,salt and milk in their tea. I am always open to trying new dishes and I’ve eaten bugs in some other countries, but I found this tea absolutely disgusting lol. Yak butter has texture, smell and taste that is different than cow’s butter. A lot of people use yak butter as moisturizer so they have that specific smell when you are near them.

portrait of a Tibetan woman with red cheeks

Tibetans are famous for their red cheeks. It is due to skin hypoxia, intense ultraviolet radiation, harsh weather and high altitude. Government doesn’t allow photographs inside houses of local people…

gorgeous landscapes of Tibet

Most of Tibet is located above 4,000 meters. Absolutely gorgeous landscapes, clouds and crystal blue skies due to low pollution. Last time I saw skies this blue when I was in Antarctica.  It’s a dream location for any photographers who shoot landscapes and nature.

high altitude lakes in Tibet with amazing landscapes

Tibet has a lot of lakes at an altitude ~ 3900-6300 meters! Stunning views all around.

portrait of a man in Tibet with Tibetan Mastiff

This image was taken in Tibet close to 5,000 meters(16,000 feet) above sea level with a temperature around -10C

tibet yartsa caterpillars fungus prices in 2015

The top photograph shows men bargaining for the whole lot of these fungus caterpillars(yartsa gunbu). They were arguing and shouting at each other, inspecting quality and trying to bring the price down. Eventually one of the men won and and paid. I don’t know how much he paid,but he had a huge bag of cash. 1 of these can be sold up to $10 per piece. You can get a permit for a specific location and look/dig for them in hopes of finding a lot of them. Permits can be as much as $10,000 per area. A kilogram of these in retail can cost up to $100,000. It is used locally in traditional medicine and heavily exported to China, Korea, Japan and used for: immune system, energy, anti-flu, as an aphrodisiac, as anti-aging, cancer treatment, etc. The fungus was never studied enough and there’s no evidence of it actually doing anything.

Mountain top monastery in Tibet

Mountain Top Monastery

monks praying in a monastery in Tibet

I was lucky to be able to observe monks praying, singing, chanting and doing mudras(hand gestures)

monks reading ancient scrolls and books in library

Photo of a library and monks reading and studying old books. Some are chanting and quietly singing.

monks debating on what they've learned

The top image shows monks debating at a monastery. Every week they are given books to ready on certain topics and then they all gather together and try to prove their point. All of that is being observed by senior monks who grade them and if necessary punish them(later)

portrait of shepherdess in Tibet

shepherdess portrait in the mountains. It is morning and probably -5C and she isn’t wearing much. She is probably in her late 70s.

 

Tibet shepherd

Shepherd and his flock. He is 76 years old.

pictures of yaks in tibet

Locals use yak’s dung to heat their homes. There are pretty much no trees anywhere so it’s an important source of fuel.

mount everest at night in Tibet

What a view! It was about -25C and I was only able to spend about half an hour outside before couldn’t handle the cold any longer. The stars were bright and the Milky Way was brighter than I’ve ever seen before. It was pitch black and quiet otherwise. There’s only about 45-50% of oxygen than at sea level so walking fast is very hard.

EBC base camp sunset at mount Everest in Tibet

EBC base camp sunset at Mount Everest. It’s around -20C and there’s no heat. I didn’t get any symptoms of altitude sickness. Not sure if it is because I trained for 2 months before this trip or because everyone has different level of tolerance. A Chinese tour group arrived earlier today and late at night 1 of them got very sick(black nails, lips and all that) and was taken away. I can only imagine how hard it is to actually get to the very top and what those few people have to endure in the 1-3 months of their attempt.

mountains of Tibet

Back in China. This lady was lovely

Name of this park was changed to Avatar Mountains after the movie Avatar, as James Cameron used this place as his vision for the movie.

most beautiful lakes in China

This lake is beautiful,but it was hard to photograph it in a way not to make it look touristy. It is one of the most overcrowded place I’ve seen in my life. Same goes for a lot of other places in China. There just so many people(locals) everywhere. I think we have it pretty good here in Canada where you can drive 100 miles away from a city and be pretty much alone.

Chinese fisherman portrait.

Portrait of a fisherman. Speaking of portraits, it seemed a number of areas and places I visited didn’t get a lot of tourists. There were many people taking pictures of me or with me. It was a bit weird.

Ancient city of Fenghuang (Phoenix). Spent 2 days here wondering around. Apparently the entrance is not free if you use official gates,but it’s free if you used other roads. I haven’t figured out the system and was happy I did not have to pay. I would just go past the guards and they would not stop me for some reason. Restaurant prices here just like many other places on the menus in China are not set! Everything is negotiable.

Few more photographs of the old city. It is a beautiful place, but there’s not a lot to do or see, as it is a very small place. There’s a New Fenghuang city and it is large, but looks just like any other cities.

Rice fields in Vietnam

Gorgeous rice fields in Northern Vietnam. Out of all the days I’ve been here, 90% of the images were taken on the last day. Otherwise, heavy fog was everywhere 24/7. Spent days walking in the mud without being able to see much.

colorful terraced rice fields in Sapa Vietnam

Another beautiful terraced rice field. Blue skies are visible in the refection of the water

amazing rice fields in vietnam sapa

More photos of valley and rice fields. It’s muddy and rainy. Most of the area is located at an altitude of 1500-2500 meters above sea level. Sometimes the area is covered in fog for weeks at a time.

 

Life in different villages.

 

marijuana fields in Vietnam

MJ is freely grown here.  Local Hmong tribes use it to make clothing.

 

portrait of hill tribe lady in vietnam

Portrait of one of many minorities in Northern Vietnam

northern vietnam food

This was by far my favorite dish in Northern Vietnam. I had it while I stayed with a family on the first night and then I just started to ask other families if they can make it for me. Pan fried potatoes in oil with a ton of fresh garlic.  All local vampires were running away. 🙂

phu quoc diving  vietnam

A few underwater photographs from Phu Quoc Island. It was a $45 2-hour flight from Hanoi to Phu Quoc. Flight tickets are insanely cheap in Vietnam.