In pictures: Tibet with a new road

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PHOTO ESSAY: Tibet now they have a new road

Augusta Thomson shows a different side to life on the Tibetan Plateau.

In May 2012 some monks set fire to themselves (self immolation) outside the Jokhang Temple. This was shocking for Lhasa and brought a lot of international attention to the protests against Chinese control and religious repression in Tibet. Some weeks later I arrived in the city with two other Western researchers. There were a lot of police around. We were starting our journey across the Tibetan Plateau. We wanted to show pilgrimage practices at Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain in the far western Ngari Prefecture. Along our journey, we found the country was changing.


Augusta Thomson

After the self-immolations, there was a lot of tension and fear in the city. But there was also a lot of determination: pilgrims continued to wake up at five in the morning to walk the outer pilgrimage route around the city. These four women sat outside the temple with courage in their eyes.


Augusta Thomson

We travelled overland across the Tibetan Plateau from Lhasa, via Mount Kailash, to Toling and the Guge Kingdom. The landscape changed from fields of mustard seed to steep hillsides and rocky passes.


Augusta Thomson

‘When I was here in 2010,’ our photographer Don said, ‘this road wasn’t made. It was difficult to drive along the dirt track.’ Now, there is a road. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but large trucks, tourist buses and motorcycles sometime passed. We crossed a checkpoint about every 50 kilometres. Chinese guards looked at our travel documents. There was a lot of construction – large industrial buildings with scaffolding and cranes.


Augusta Thomson

Our guide showed us a jeep driving up into the hills: ‘They’re going to find minerals. I know by the car and the people inside. See – there are Chinese in the front and Tibetans in the back, taking the businessmen to the minerals.’


Augusta Thomson

In Shigatse, the second-largest town in Tibet, there are stalls outside Tashilunpo Monastery.

Tourism is one of the most important ways of earning money for Tibetans. People sell jewellery, incense, prayer flags and clothing. Some of these things were for pilgrims; some were souvenirs. Shigatse is an urban centre and an important place for pilgrims.


Augusta Thomson

In Kailash, more than 1,000 kilometres from Lhasa, we met a young nomad woman and shepherd. She was texting on her cellphone. A day later, on the other side of Mount Kailash, we met another nomad woman texting. She drank red bull and ordered supplies for her teahouse on her cellphone.


Augusta Thomson

The final part of the journey was west to Tsaparang and the 10th-century ruins of the ancient Guge Kingdom’s capital. The landscape is changing – there were cellphone towers were with prayer flags hanging along them – to bless the technology.


Augusta Thomson

The Chinese government is modernising the very old Guge Kingdom. Chinese tourists were taking photos in front of a large monument near the entrance to the site. There was not much cultural preservation. They were doing new paintings on the walls, and some of the statues destroyed during the Cultural Revolution had been replaced.


Augusta Thomson

But many of the very old wall paintings were ignored or repainted. On the surface it looked like the site was being preserved, but the renovations showed the basic plan – reconstructing sites to change them into tourist attractions.

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