People of Tibet – Faces of a strong spirit

Paula Martinelli Blog, Ethical Traveling, Gallery, Image, Travel 7 Comments

An amazing photojournalism opportunity

Have you ever wondered what a proud and a strong spirit looks like in the face of adversity? Travel to Tibet through my pictures and stories of these religious, devoted, compassionate and giving people, and discover more about Tibet.

We can all learn how to be happy and grateful in life when we connect with others and learn from them.

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I have met many amazing people and cultures throughout my travels. I’ve never before seen people that are so quick to smile and laugh like Tibetan people. They’re the kindest and most genuine people I’ve met. 

The best definition I found to describe Tibetans is "people with a strong spirit".

Despite a difficulties of living in one of the most repressed and closed societies in the world, I was met with smiles and a sense of welcome. If you have the chance to visit Tibet, you will clearly see signs of occupation on every corner. Yet Tibetans still maintain an easy smile and a peaceful spirit.

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Pilgrims crowded the square in front of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. They came from all over Tibet to celebrate the New Year at the sacred sights. There was a line of people waiting to enter the temple, money and yak butter in hand.

Pilgrims praying in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa
Pilgrims praying in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa
Man praying in front of the Jokhang Temple
Man praying in front of the Jokhang Temple

People were milling around the square, taking cell phone pictures of their pilgrimage. Others were in a procession navigating around the temple grounds while praying.

Family of pilgrims in front of Potala Palace in Lhasa
Family of pilgrims in front of Potala Palace in Lhasa
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It was obvious from the clothes that there were groups from very different regions. The colors, the hairstyles, the skin tones, the clothes…it was so amazing!

You can also notice that each community has it own traditional clothing for both, men and women and it is easy to distinguish the people from their clothing.

The people were the primary reason I was interested in visiting Tibet.

Visiting the landmarks in Lhasa was fascinating, but my favorite part was wandering the streets of Lhasa watching, connecting with and photographing people. As fascinated as I was about their culture and beauty, they were equally curious about me.

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A genuine smile for my camera
A genuine smile for my camera

Kids and adults, would stop and look at me and smile. I would often hear a “Hello” from someone walking. When I responded, “Hello”, it was often greeted with giggles. Most could not speak English, but even the kids knew “Hello”. Many times they would ask to take a photograph with me, or ask me to take a photo of them. I don’t know if it was my long blonde hair, the way I dressed (bundled against the cold), or my fair skin that made me an attraction.

It was absolutely amazing to be on the other side - as a tourist, we were being explored and appreciated while visiting their country.

H! It is me, Paula - asked to be in the picture in my "street style"
H! It is me, Paula - asked to be in the picture in my "street style"
My husband was quite popular, this tall guy stole some cool flashes
...and more pictures with the western tall guy

Winter is the best time to meet people

Yes, I visited Tibet in January and it was cold. Really cold. Painfully cold! It was cold to the point that I wanted to buy all the traditional clothes I saw, because they looked so much warmer and cozier than my North Face triclimate jacket for snow weather, plus 5 additional layers of clothes I was wearing.

I was amazed by the Tibetan beuty

During wintertime Lhasa becomes filled with beautiful and colorful people wearing traditional handmade clothing and shoes.

Despite the cold, it was amazing. Since the land in Tibet is frozen and the farmers and nomads can’t do much farming they go on a pilgrimage to holy places like the temples and monasteries in Lhasa. They come from everywhere, including very distant areas such as Kham and Amdo.

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The best part of visiting Lhasa during the winter is that there are almost no tourists. I enjoyed this so much and every day I wanted to join the pilgrims on their koras (spiritual walk) around the Jokhang Temple and just observe their beauty and devotion to Buddhism.

Another secret why visiting Tibet during winter time is awesome!

Mostly in winter the days are very sunny, with an unbelievable blue sky and few clouds. Have I mentioned it is quite cold in the morning and evening already? But during the daytime the temperature is nice.

But if you want to visit Lhasa at another time of the year, that’s also fine. Lhasa is a great destination to visit all year round! I definitely want to go back to explore more of the mountains and the villages outside Lhasa. The pictures my guide showed were stunning. But maybe it would be a good idea to go in another time of the year when it is slightly warmer. It is not even recommended to visit these remote areas during winter time.

Who are the Tibetan people

The population of Tibet is estimated to be 6 million. They primarily speak Tibetan languages and Chinese. The population is composed of several different ethnic groups and features distinctive regional traditions and dress.

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You can't talk about the people of Tibet without mentioning religion

Many Tibetan's lives are dedicated to religion and it is part of everyday life, from chanting mantras and prostrating in a local square to walking the ‘kora’ around a temple or sacred site. Most Tibetans follow Tibetan Buddhism while a small percentage believe in Bon (the oldest spiritual tradition of Tibet).

A devotee prostrates themselves by laying face down and arms stretched forward. They then stand up and walk forward to where their hands touched and prostrate themselves again. I saw all ages of people doing this (~8 years to 60+ years).

A mother and 2 daughters practicing kora prostration around Jokhang Temple

Observing someone performing Kora while prostrating themselves inspires awe.

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It is very common to see people turning prayer wheels, which hold scriptures or prayers inside. Turning the prayer wheel is equivalent to reciting scriptures and it has become routine for Buddhists in Tibet.

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Tibetans are very giving people and live out of compassion and detachment

The people that we saw visiting the sacred  sights brought donations and offerings. I saw people from all corners of Tibet. Most appeared to lead very simple lives in remote villages. They brought donations and offerings of what they had. Many donated money by placing it at statues in the temples and monasteries and it was also very common for pilgrims to offer yak butter. Among yak butter’s many uses is for lamps in a temple or monastery. In fact, the scent of yak butter was pervasive in the sights that we visited.

The perception that I had was that these people were giving, not what they could afford to give, but what they wanted to give. They were giving unconditionally for their faith and their desire for merit and progress on their path to enlightenment.

4 ways to be respectful with Tibetans

  1. First of all, go to Tibet with an open mind. Remember that you are a guest in an occupied country. Be respectful of the laws and rules that the government has imposed. Observe!
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2.  Almost all Tibetans are deeply devoted to the Dalai Lama. The 14th Dalai Lama’s exile and treatment by the Chinese government are sources of grief and anger among many Tibetans. Images, literature and talk of the 14th Dalai Lama are prohibited. Respect this very sensitive topic and do not put Tibetans in danger by openly discussing it.

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3.   Walk in the right direction while you are visiting, the palace, monasteries, temples or walking Barkhor Street – clockwise.

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4.   Take great pictures of people. I found Tibet to be the best place for people pictures. Make an eye contact, smile and ask for permission. The majority will smile back and allow a photograph, and showing them the photo you just took will make them happy. Some may decline to have their photo taken, but 9 out of 10 times I was allowed to take the picture.

I hope you enjoy as much as I do, some of the beautiful faces of Tibet.

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As a big supporter of ethical traveling, my goal is to respect the local people, to bring support to the local communities and be a voice for the voiceless.

Paula Tips:

Please join me to Free Tibet and support human rights for these amazing, beautiful and peaceful people. 

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People of Tibet

Comments 7

  1. Paula parabéns, fotos que nos fazem viajar por culturas tão distantes e tão peculiares…resumindo fantástico este trabalho.

  2. Your pictures are absolutely stunning! Such level of detail! It was really interesting to see the beads and traditional clothing, I sometimes feel that there are so few places left in the world where people honor traditional dress enough to wear it for celebrations!

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