The word “Shangri-la” conjures up much mystique; perhaps it was romanticized in James Hilton’s novel, ‘Lost Horizon’. Some might think of it as a mythical place that doesn’t exist in real life or thought of as some sort of idyllic Xanadu or sorts. Whatever the origin or meaning to you, I’ve come to find
that Shangri-la belongs in the mind, body and spirit of those who have the slightest bit of intrepid curiosity to find what moves them to a place of peace.
For now, I have found that place.
I’ve found my Shangri-la in one of the more remote places you’ll ever visit in western Mainland China. I first set out on a photographic mission to capture Chinese minorities where the age old ways of life still exist but are threatened with each passing generation as the young flock away from these special places to the big cities in search of a more modern life and the potential for riches
beyond what their parents and parents before them could ever achieve. This to me, is THE lost horizon …
… several centuries of local tradition
that is slowly giving way to the lure of smart phones, non-traditional clothing and lifestyles far from what was once considered sacred and mystical. From the moment I arrived in my Shangri-la, I just knew this was going to be a special place to do my photographic work. What I didn’t anticipate was about to unfold before my eyes and heart in the ensuing 4 days.
Up and out before the sun creeps
closer and closer to the surrounding mountain top horizon, you are immediately hit with the realization that you are in a spiritual presence of a calm, quiet and introspective peacefulness deeply beckoning to surface at the first break of daylight. Was it because of the high altitude? Could be. Perhaps it was an attempt to walking along the Kora – a circumambulation around a sacred site – in this case the local Monastery, was (albeit) only performed one time around myself, contrary to the 108 times around to complete the traditional pilgrimage for the day.
Capturing images of daily sacred rituals of Tibetan life of the past, present and (hopefully) future was done under a self-imposed guideline of having a presence without being present .. meaning, being respectfully at a distance far enough away as to not disturb them during their prayer while having the presence of mind in being somewhat invisible – not an easy task in the slightest. I recently moved from a DSLR to a mirrorless kit for a number of reasons, but a by-product is the electronic shutter. I can turn it off/on at will. The Fujifilm X-T1 is my go to kit for things like this. Turning on the electronic shutter, I am now able to shoot stealthy up close and personal and having the luxury of absolutely no shutter sound to bother those around me is an huge bonus. This along with my now favorite single focal length 27mm lens affords close ups and wide area shots just by using my feet to zoom back and forth. Shooting wide open at F2 also allows me to go lower in ISO to help keep my images clean and virtually noise free.
Enough of the gear-head speak … with the proper tools, I was able to be nimble, stealth-like and efficient enabling me to capture memorable moments. Venues with such character and spiritual meaning were extremely difficult to photograph; mainly because of the low light. Creatively, this challenged your knowledge of both camera, surroundings and general anticipation of the people’s movement in order to nail the shot with some sort of sharpness and evocative mood capture.
The Tibetan way of life is hard. It’s seemingly hard way of life as Nomadic migrants that follow the direction of the changing seasons and it’s deep roots into the various selective Tibetan sect followings makes one hope for a convergence and balance in allowing them to choose their own destiny and future as opposed to it being dictated upon by the mightier powers that be who want to control this ancient way of life. Don’t get me wrong – contrary to what we all think (of Tibetans), Tibetans are NOT defined by outside world views as a bunch of passive robe wearing
Buddha-hugging pacifists. They were once considered fearless warriors of the region. They had to be. Attacks from the east and west of their land, even today, have threatened the unique Tibetan way of life.
Though my time was short here, it felt like an eternity as I was initially dropped off in somewhat of a present day Tibetan way of life working my way backward to what ancient Tibetan ways of life were like and is still being practiced today. Tomorrow may be a different story as more and more of the youth strive to reach the modern conveniences so dearly sought after. What I came away with was a renewed sense of understanding and respect for Tibetan ways of life. I hope tradition overcomes the quest for modern pressures for a people who are endearingly hospitable and curious about what the other side of the world is doing. Nearing the end of our Shangri-la journey, one of the more heartfelt moments was our numerous attempts to give a small token offering in appreciation for allowing our brief intrusion into their home while sipping Yak butter tea. The refusal of our offering was reasoned by telling us “… you’ve come a long way to get here, you need this offering (small monetary offering) to get back home …” If this doesn’t leave a lump in your throat, nothing will … I hope to return one of these days, but am afraid I will find a different Shangri-la.