The Tibetan Pilgrimage


There comes a great mystique when not researching the place you’re going before you go. I like going without expectations, which partially happened on this trip. One of the big reason’s I wanted to go to Tibet was the amazing travel portrait work of Phil Borges. I met him a while back and saw his book on the Tibetan Portrait, including the Dalai Lama. Since then, the Tibetan nomads were what appealed to me, and what I inspired me to want to shoot there.

That said, my expectations upon traveling there were very different than what we found. I think a lot was due to the areas we were in. None the less, we shifted directions into something that I found even more interesting, The Tibetan Buddhist Pilgrimage. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before first hand. The animation above is the 57 year old Buddhist monk, Lubsang Shlrep doing his prostration pilgrimage from his hometown, Yunan. The prostration as you can see is three steps, hands up in pray form over your head, down to the chest, to the stomach, then the whole body on the ground forehead touching, back up to your feet, and over again. Lubsang had been doing this every day for 1 year, 3 months, and one day when we met him. He sleeps on the side of the road in a plastic bag, and carries his belongings in a hand pull cart on wheels. He pulls the cart 150 meters or so, then goes back to where he left off and does his prostration, over and over again. The end destination is Lhasa, the Buddhist holy city. It’s about 2000K from his home town, and he covers about 5K per day. Witnessing this event for the first time completely blew my mind, as I’m sure it does if you’re reading this information for the first time.

The journey continues with Jeff Holt, our guide Lumbum, and “driver”. Mind you, you can’t go anywhere in Tibet as a tourist without a tour guide. You have to have one to even get permits to get into the country. One of the other highlights of the trip was camping with a group of people on their pilgrimage at 1 year, 5 months, and 1 day. They were a friendly bunch, and very welcoming to us. They had some kids in the group that just walked along with them. The youngest pilgrim doing the prostration was 20 years old, all the way up to 36. Camping with them was an amazing way to experience, even for an evening, what they’ve experienced for roughly 516 days. They’ve even gone that long without a shower! Living like this puts things into perspective. This crew of people were mostly comprised of Monks and Nuns on their journey from Amdo. Dena, is a young nun that’s in charge of taking care of the kids in the group. She also stays ahead to look for the camp sites to cook the meals for the rest of the group. Even though she doesn’t do the prostration, she is still considered on her pilgrimage but serving in a different way. The ones doing the prostration have calluses on their hands and their foreheads from the repetitious motions. They are geared up with aprons, hand paddles, gloves, and sometimes tire rubber attached to the toes of their shoes. We hung out with them by the campfire that evening. Being a white American, my homie Jeff Holt turned out to be a big deal and a few of the younger generation kids wanted photos with him.

The second highlight of the trip was the next night staying at a famous monastery that was at about 15,000ft in elevation. You really feel it up there, especially if you’re walking up stairs for about 3-5 steps. The temperature was about 15ºF outside, and probably 16º inside our room. The view was pretty incredible. The next morning at sunrise, we hiked up to see the Sky Burial, yet another crazy thing to see. People from all over bring their loved ones’ bodies to the monastery to be buried in the sky there. Essentially, the monk brings the body out of a box, starts cutting off the skin, and when they’re ready, the hundreds of vultures hovering around get welcomed to devour the body in a matter of 10-15 minutes leaving only the bones left. They then cut up the bones and either feed them to the birds or burn them. Being sky buried here at this monastery means you’re guaranteed to be re-incarnated to a human body in exactly 49 days. I wish I could have taken photos, but they were strictly not allowed. In fact, we got kicked out and ended up having to watch from way up on the hill.

Upon our return to Lhasa, we stopped to say hi to our friend Lubsang as he was probably about 25k further down the road from where we saw him before. The rest of the time in Lhasa, we shot some portraits of the different people that have made their pilgrimage to the holy city. The people watching around the Barkhor is fascinating. Buddhism manifested at it’s fullest.

All in all, it was a great trip. Tibet is one of the most interesting countries I’ve been to, mainly because of the religion that dominates it. The prostration as interesting as it is, is very difficult to capture it’s entirety in one single image because it looks so bizarre. You can learn more about how I shoot travel work in my book, Photo Trekking.

Many thanks to our guide, Lumbum. Check out his site if you ever venture to Tibet:

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