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Gyantse, central Tibet. A tale of three years.

As a working photographer and journalist I have sometimes been guilty of running around frantically trying to keep my head in a story, always trying to working out what sorts of images might assist me in telling a tale that engages an audience.  If I remove myself from that mind dimension to take photos randomly and just for fun, I am sometimes filled with guilt if I have a deadline while I am ‘out there’.  Taking photos for fun has sometimes felt like pure luxury.

Three years ago, when I visited Tibet for the first time, I wasn’t actually working in the country.  I was simply taking a break from a busy year to explore a place that I’d long dreamed of seeing.    Tibet is a land of incredibly beautiful, yet stark mountain landscapes.  Snow capped Himalayan peaks adorn the southern horizon of a high plateau that is pock marked with turquoise lakes, sand dunes and tiny villages.

During my travels across the Tibetan plateau, I found that the grottiest looking towns paradoxically produced some of my most favourite images.  The two that spring to mind instantly are Lao Tingri and Gyantse.

Initially Gyantse looks like an Asian spaghetti western town.  The angular lines of new Chinese buildings characterise the new quarter, as do the steps leading down from shops into the street, the owner-less dogs wandering aimlessly down the main road and the patina of plateau dust that covers everything.  My first impression of this side of town was less than inspiring.  I soon realised that the true character of Gyantse lay in the older Tibetan quarter on the other side of the fort.  The new town, however, just seemed windy, cold, desolate and totally devoid of any charisma.

Unperturbed by my initial reaction, I decided to take a walk down the street  that sunny autumn afternoon in 2010.  Breaking the monotone streetscape, I  met this tiny girl playing outside a shop in her brightly coloured traditional smock.  She was so beautiful I was literally stopped in my tracks.

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Photographing traditionally nomadic people like Tibetans always presents me with a dilemma.  In any other country I would have taken the address of her parents, returned home to print images and send them to that person as a huge thank you.  In Tibet this isn’t possible.  People are almost always on the move.  Many of them only have first names and virtually no one has an address.  Combine that with the inherent difficulty of sending mail and whether or not it will be received and Tibet is a uniquely difficult place to be working as an ethical photographer.

Fast forward three years and after a tremendous amount of planning, I returned to Tibet to lead my expedition in the far west.  While I retraced many of my steps in the central part of the country, the trip out to Ngari prefecture was a massive detour into a part of the world seen by very few westerners.  Before we went out there, we spent a night in Gyantse.

Once again my first impressions of Gyantse were the same.  If you only saw the new part of town, you would think Gyantse was very dire.  We checked into a local hotel and I asked my group if they would like to come on a walk with me.  Given the uninspiring facade of Gyantse, to my surprise two of them said yes.

As we wandered around the town, we visited the rubbish-strewn, fenced garden at the base of the old fort and a local food market.  Perturbed by the lack of any kind of real Tibetan photographic opportunities and having whirlwinds of dust blow into both our eyes and our cameras, we started to beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel after an hour.  The sun was also getting low and the temperatures were starting to plummet.

On the main street, I caught a glimpse of a tiny girl out of the corner of my eye.  Instantly I thought “No it couldn’t be the same girl.  It is too improbable” and I remembered that I had the photo that I took three years ago in my phone.  I had saved it there to show my partner Mark my last pictures from Tibet.  I said to my fellow expeditioners Ulrich and Bruni “Just hang on a second, I want to try something” as I dug the photo up from the albums on my phone.  I showed the image to a woman sitting nearby.  The little girl I had espied had buried her face in her mother’s lap.  I showed the lady the photo to see if she recognised this little girl and all of a sudden her face lit up!  Not only did she recognise her, the little girl on her lap was the little girl in the photo!  We were all astonished to re-enact my Gyantse encounter from three years ago.  Here is the same little girl, three years later, full of smiles and attitude, now dressed in slightly more modern clothes.

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It was a surreal experience.  For a brief moment it was magic.  We were all completely and utterly floored by seeing this tiny girl again.  Her face still bears that rather concerned expression, those eyes are still so beautiful, even now she is three years older!

I am currently arranging for prints to be made of these images and for them to be hand delivered by friends who will be in Tibet twice before the end of this year.  Sadly it is the only way to ensure that she and her family will receive them.

Over the course of my life, I hope to maintain a relationship with Tibet and its people.  Perhaps this was just the first tiny stepping stone in building that relationship.  It would certainly be incredible to find her again one day on the dusty streets of new Gyantse.

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