It was in the middle of a photo expedition in Qinghai in the Tibetan Plateau, in May last year that we discovered we would soon be returning to live in the UK after over 12 years overseas. The contrast of cultures could hardly have been greater! I wanted make the most of the opportunity to photograph this extraordinary place with photo buddy, Claire. Our trip was enriched by the help and advice of Julia, a Tibetan friend who I’d known for many years in Bangkok. (Some of these pictures were entered in the 2011 Travel Photographer of the Year competition, in which I was shortlisted as a finalist.)
Gazing at the distant horizon across the beautiful but barren landscape, I contemplated the closing of our life in Asia, and imminent return to London.
Arriving at Sun Moon Mountain, with the relative comforts of Xining City many hours behind us, we clambered down from our 4×4 and were instantly reminded that we were on the world’s highest plateau, over 4,000m above sea level. Wrapped up in layers, we braced the biting cold and wind, leaning at 45 degrees as we ascended to the summit. What a strange and lovely sight awaited us!
Prayer flags at Sun Moon Mountain, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau.
Sun Moon Mountain from the summit. Ice crystals on the mast where the prayer flags were tied.
Then on to Maduo, a little village on the vast plateau, where life has changed little over time and nomads can be found in the neighbouring prairies. It had been a long and dramatic journey and we were happy to arrive at this charming spot. Despite the even higher altitudes at 4,400m and our driver’s refusal to linger (departing instead in search of lower altitudes for the duration of our stay), I was eager to step out into the colourful high street of Maduo to capture scenes of everyday life there.
Both costumes and buildings were a rich array of vibrant colours.
Traditional costume was worn by older and younger generations alike.
Maduo mechanics in their workshop – highly amused at my arrival. Don’t think they get many tourists in these parts!
General store, home and workshop were all in one. Their kids watched as I entered, fascinated by the strange and unfamiliar visitor.
A small temple structure and wreaths of prayer flags were located at the end of the high street. Here I met a young family who lived in a stone dwelling nearby.
The kids were curious as to who I was and what I was doing. They looked with great interest at my camera display as each image was taken.
Their mother came out to investigate, soon inviting me into their home for tea and traditional bread.
A family friend dropped in with her baby strapped snugly to her back.
An excellent first day, altitude fatigue notwithstanding!
The following morning, we ventured out with a local guide to find the nomads that traverse the vast prairies surrounding Maduo.
We covered many miles that day, scanning the horizon for the small speck of white canvas denoting a solitary nomad tent. We discovered one family in the morning, and another on our way home at the end of the day. In each case, we were welcomed in for tea and bread. What a pleasure to step from the bracing cold to the warmth of the stove inside. The couple below explained that they stayed here on the grasslands through the warmer months, looking after their 140 yaks and 200 sheep, and moving in search of new grasslands for the herd as required.
They live by exchanging yak butter for other goods, such as flour to make bread. In each destination they erect prayer flags in the belief that the winds read the scriptures and keep them safe. In the winter months they return to the lower altitudes where they live in mud dwellings with their children and extended family. The children remain there through the year, staying with grandparents when their mother and father return to the prairie at the beginning of spring. Who knows what will happen to this way of life when the children grow and make choices of their own?
During our visit a baby yak who had lost its mother popped in for its morning bottle.
Freshly baked bread for us with and a bowl of hot yak butter tea – more butter than tea if you ask me!
Jewellery, given as part of the dowry, and gold teeth were proudly displayed by the nomadic women we met, as a sign of wealth and well-being.
As we left the nomads behind and began the long return trip to Xining, and then Bangkok, my thoughts turned to my family and the imminent end to our own wandering existence… for the time being at least.
March 8, 2012 – 6:49 am JJ Beattie – Fabulous pictures, as always. Lovely to see them.
March 8, 2012 – 6:50 am Simon – Lovely photos Jackie – I’m sure you have lots of amazing anecdotes from that trip! Can’t believe you’re heading back to UK – how long before you’re back I wonder? Good luck with the move and I hope we can catch up again somewhere someday! Simon.
March 8, 2012 – 7:51 am Claire – Great blog Jackie! Brings back all those memories ;-)) I was just recalling the cafe in Maduo and those delicious (!!) breakfasts – ha ha! When’s our next trip???!
March 8, 2012 – 9:47 pm Karen – Jackie, So great to have the chance to see the gorgeous photos. These are wonderful. Sara, Geo and I really miss seeing you and the kids. Would love to hear all about your latest UK adventures and the move and am eager to see your next installment of photos. xxkaren
March 9, 2012 – 1:29 am Penny Fournel – Hey Jackie, looks just amazing especially from a keen photographers eye! Off to the U.K. …when? Take care dear friend!
March 9, 2012 – 5:30 am Mike English – Another great insight into the locals and their lives. Look forward to seeing you again and to your next adventure. I am sure with work like this you will not just be short listed as travel photographer of the year.
March 9, 2012 – 6:06 am James – Fantastic pictures, as ever! Would the Tibetans be very offended if you dipped the bread into the butter and then drank the tea afterwards? Look forward to seeing you when you’re back in Blighty! xx
March 9, 2012 – 9:03 pm jackierado – Thank you for the lovely comments, great to hear from you. I think this was the most challenging trip so far, not least due to the altitude and distances, but it was also hugely rewarding. I’m grateful we fitted it in before moving back to the UK (only 1 month later). On the subject of bread dunking, it was indeed acceptable, however I confess to struggling a little with the yak butter tea… An acquired taste, I’d say..! Great to hear from you all, will be in touch again very soon.
March 12, 2012 – 8:06 pm Saranyab – great great photos!! love them all 🙂
March 21, 2012 – 12:50 am Anne-Marie Taylor – Hi Jackie, I’m a friend of Helen Bunch and we went to see The Lion in Winter together. Your photos are absolutely incredible! So moving, vibrant and they each tell an amazing story. I hadn’t realised I was sitting next to such a fabulous artist!! Let me know if you do any exhibition.
March 21, 2012 – 2:03 am jackierado – Thanks for your message, it was a pleasure to meet you and hope our paths cross again soon!
January 23, 2013 – 11:32 am chirapan – Hi Jackie, It may a bit late but I would to say that they are fantastic pictures and stories.
August 28, 2014 – 10:47 pm elizabeth kress – Hi Jackie, I am very impressed with photography work….amazing, fantastic, beautiful ,moving !!!Photography is about communicating emotions, a moment in time, the essence of , the soul of people! I am glad i am going to have photography class whit you in September at Landmark Art Centre.I love photography, i just let my heart beat on my eyes and shoot…!! Since I am retired I have found this exciting photography hobby! I look forward to meeting you soon!!..God bless!xx