Searching for Shangri-La, Finding Tibet's Earthly Paradise

Michael Yamashita documents life on Tibetan plateau

NEW YORK, February 21, 2013 — A National Geographic photographer for 33 years, Michael Yamashita spoke here about his most recent project, photographing Tibet, to which he has been committed for the past five years. Yamashita introduced the project as his own search for paradise or, as the Tibetans call it, "Shangri-La."

There are two different Tibets today, Yamashita explained: the Tibet Autonomous Region (also known as the T.A.R.) and Greater Tibet, a much larger region that hasn't been forced to conform to a Chinese way of life. Exploring the entirety of the Tibetan plateau, Yamashita has delved deeply into both. Using a slideshow of his own images, he effectively painted a detailed picture of the Tibetan culture of each for his Asia Society audience.

Despite the differences between the T.A.R. and Greater Tibet, Tibetans in both regions have maintained several of the same core elements of traditional culture. They both adhere to rigorous prayer methods and both utilize and honor the same symbols of worship, namely stupas, chorta, prayer wheels, and prayer flags. As Yamashita put it, Tibetans "live their religion."

Tibetans in both regions also participate in a great deal of tea drinking. This is, however, more a consequence of Tibetan climate and geography than of its people's religion. Referring to his countless photographs of Tibetans drinking tea, Yamashita exclaimed, "the one thing you won't get away from in Tibet is tea," since Tibetans are among "the biggest tea consumers" in the world, drinking 30-40 cups of tea each day!

Yamashita explained that the Tibetan landscape, as grand as it is, doesn't encompass a lot of harvestable soil. Consequently, Tibetans get much of the nutrition in their diets from tea. It snows year-round in Tibet, creating dry, harsh air. Tibetans, specifically nomadic Tibetans, have proved themselves highly innovative with the materials at their disposal, not only drinking tea for nutrition and warmth, but also using yak dung as fuel for their fires, yak butter as face moisturizer, and yak hair to build tents.

Tibetans have even discovered a fungus called yatsa gumbu, which translates to "summer grass, winter worm." These blades of grass or "worms" are considered a medicinal wonder in Tibet, where they are believed to cure cancer, erectile dysfunction, and almost any other type of physical issue. Found only in the most remote areas of the Tibetan Plateau, at the tops of passes, they are what drives Tibet's huge economic boom and growing environmental problem — Tibetans hack up the ground to find the worms. (Fortunately, however, government workers are starting to teach them to put the soil back.) On a good day, an individual will find 60-80 worms, and, with each worm worth approximately $10, the bustling market has produced a growing middle class with access to modern-day conveniences.

Despite this market growth, most Tibetans remain focused on prayer and pilgrimage, seeking Shangri-La in popular pilgrimage sites like the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Yamashita photographed a group of five men who traveled for five months to get to Lhasa, all the while praying and prostrating themselves in the mud. They developed calluses on their foreheads from hitting the ground so hard, and so often, in prayer.

According to Yamashita, the administrative capital of the T.A.R., Lhasa, is much more Chinese-looking than Tibetan-looking. Yet it is home to the Potala Palace, a "vision of paradise" for most Tibetans and for Yamashita himself.

Reported by Renny Grishpan

Video: (5 min., 20 sec.)

Related links:
Watch the complete program
Slideshow of Michael Yamashita's photographs
Shop AsiaStore for Michael Yamashita's book