Every Friday I will be posting a backstory on one of my images in my library, sometimes the stories will be technical descriptions of how I captured the image and other times the story will be a funny antidote about what was going on when the image was taken.
For my first installment I want to talk about this image above that when I look back on the thousands of photographs I have taken, this one still stands out as probably the most important image of my career and it was very close to never getting taken.
I traveled to Nepal in 2004 to live in a village in the Solukhumbu district as a volunteer English teacher and documented my time in the village and the school system as part of my Master’s thesis and when I was done with the volunteer project, I decided to travel to Tibet from Nepal. It was fairly easy to organize a trip from Kathmandu to Lhasa, but it did require me to send my passport away to get the required visa, which was a bit nerve racking. The trip to Lhasa followed was along what is called, “the Friendship Highway” but it is certainly not a highway and in some places it was barely a passable road and took four days to get there with all the side stops to various towns along the way.
So once in Lhasa, I did what I always do when traveling in a foreign city. I started wondering with my camera and was shooting the locals and going further and further off the beaten path and after a few days I had pretty much seen most of Lhasa that I could get access to and even picked up two government officials who followed me for almost a whole day after I spent too long talking with a Tibetan pilgrim outside the Golden Temple, it is one of the things you get used to as a photographer in closed societies. It was not the first time I have experienced that and hopefully it won’t be the last either.
I decided to try and get out of Lhasa to truly experience Tibet since Lhasa was very tourist oriented and also very closely controlled by the government officials. As soon as I started asking around about trips outside of Lhasa, I was informed that officially I could not leave the Lhasa area without a government official and a guide which would certainly limit my ability to interact with the locals and explore the country like I wanted to. So I set out to organize my own adventures and one of the places I wanted to visit was Nam-Tso Lake.
It was not too far away from Lhasa and is the largest salt water lake in Tibet and the 3rd holiest pilgrimage destination for Buddhists in Tibet. It was also one of the places Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter traveled to when fleeing the Germans during WWII on their way to Lhasa which they wrote about in the book Seven Years in Tibet.
So I teamed up with a guy I met on my trip from Kathmandu and we jumped on a local bus that took us past the lake and got off at the intersection between the main road that the bus continued on and the turn off to the lake, which turned out to be a rough metal road. We figured we would be able to hitch a ride from one of the buses that served the Chinese tourists who flock to the lake, but would not (could not) book us from Lhasa and if all else failed it was about 20km and we could just hike there along the road. At first it looked like we were going to have to hike all the way, since all the buses that passed us would not even slow down. But after about 3km and 30 buses blowing past us, we were picked up by a Chinese tour bus and though they didn’t speak any English and we didn’t know Chinese we still had a blast and every time the bus stopped to let the tourists get out and take photos, they all wanted us to be in the photos with them. Who knows what stories they told their friends about that trip.
It turned out that it was a very good thing that we were picked up by that tour bus. What we didn’t know and could not tell by the maps we could find in Lhasa, was that the road to Nam-Tso lake passed over three mountain passes with the highest one being at almost 5500m above sea level.
If we had not been picked up by the tour bus, it would have taken us at least two or three days just to get to the lake, that was if we didn’t run out of food. We had planned on camping at the lake for a few days and had gone food shopping in Lhasa which was an adventure, but we had only planned on camping for two or three days.
In the end with all the stops that the bus made, it still took us the whole day to get from the main road to the lake shore. Between the stress of trying to get a ride, the amount of altitude we gained in one day and not drinking enough water, I was not feeling very good at all. I had a splitting headache and my stomach was doing somersaults. But when we got to the lake I saw that the sun was setting and lighting up the famous Namaste Rocks and there was a storm over the lake as well. I quickly got out both my 35mm cameras (I was in the process of switching to digital at the time and was traveling with a 35mm and 6×7 film camera as well as a Canon 10D) and took about three or four frames on each camera just to be sure that I captured the image since I knew in my heart that this might be my only chance to capture that scene with that kind of light. I then literally stumbled back to the tea house where Jeff was waiting for me and told him that I needed to lay down and so he organized a room for me for the night and the next thing I remember is waking up the next day at almost noon. But sure enough for the rest of the five days we were there at the lake, we didn’t see another sunset like that one.
Hope you liked this insight behind my image. If you did be sure to subscribe to my Newsletter here: