I want to thank Scott and Brad for sharing the space with so many great photographers. You guys are good people, and it’s an honor to be here among such amazing photographers, creatives, and story tellers. Again, much thanks!
I spent the better part of the last 8 years living and working in far western China, running a photography tourism agency. Just last year I returned to the States to continue a career in the commercial photography market.
I mention western China only because where I predominantly photographed was far enough from the hyper-developed east coast that my life resembled nothing of the China you’ve seen in the news. I was just far enough out ‘in the boonies’ that stories, legends, and mysteries were still afforded the chance to exist.
Over the years of photographing the wild places of China, I experienced many truly strange things, eaten some things I’m not too proud of, and collected my fair share of stories. Some experiences stand above others. Some stories remind us to put down the camera and enjoy the ride, enjoy the people.
This is one such story, and it is hands down one of my most favorite experiences from my life in China. I’m delighted to share it with you:
With high hopes, we pulled onto a dusty road, past a police outpost where three Chinese policemen sat bundled in Soviet-Era winter clothing. They huddled close around a small coal stove after enduring what must have been a miserable night in -40 Celsius temperatures. We jokingly waved as we passed them, curious if we’d be called over for inspection. Nothing. They stared at us and didn’t budge. They were too cold to stop us – way too cold to care that two foreigners had just driven past their remote outpost – a common occurrence when photographing the Tibetan plateau in winter.
Losang and I had been scouting a photo workshop through the Sichuan mountains when we happened to glance at an old map. Serthar, it read in Tibetan, a generalized name marking a generalized location. Without much debate we both started plotting a route to what we assumed was Seda monastery, hoping to photograph a mystery.
Seda is one of the few places in Tibet that still retains its original mystery. A photographer’s dream. Before our visit, I had heard about its size from a friend who had, years before, only seen the monastery from a hill overlooking the valley but was unable to get inside. Most people either knew little of Seda or nothing at all. The monastery, though 40,000 residents strong, remained a quiet mystery… barely more than a rumor and rarely photographed.
We took the last turn up the winding valley road, and there it was, almost too much to take in. The monastery literally covered three mountainsides – a hidden city, seldom spoken of, in the middle of the Tibetan Plateau.
We arrived at the top of the dusty road completely encompassed in a cloud of smoke, remnants of the coal Seda’s residents burned in a futile attempt to keep warm through the brutal Tibetan nights. The cloud, thick and yellow, allowed only fleeting bursts of early morning light to reach the valley floor, intensifying the surreal mood of our surroundings. We watched as dark figures in maroon robes darted in and out of the smoke – monks rushing off to morning prayers.
Soon a vast mountain city materialized before us, as morning sun burned away its smoky veil. Losang and I had photographed hundreds of monasteries and developed a natural rhythm to exploring such places, but the enormous city that stood before us demanded pause. We stood silently, not knowing where to start.
Suddenly, a voice came out of nowhere and said in near-perfect English, “Hello! Can I help you two?” The voice, out of place in both time and location, seemed to complete our shock – as if the monastery itself had spoken out loud.
My brain went into overdrive. I was sure I was hearing things.
I looked at Losang as he looked at me – both searching the other’s face for signs that either of us was the owner of the voice we’d just heard. We both knew that in western China, a local speaking perfect English was unheard of.
We slowly turned around to find a monk in his early 20’s standing before us, smiling from ear to ear in his red robes, deriving great pleasure from our stunned expressions. He knew he was out of place – an apparition in the holy city.
“My name is Dondrup. I’m guessing by your blank stares that this is your first time to Seda? How about you two come to my house for lunch and tea?”
We spent a long while chatting with Dondrup, testing the limits of his English – testing his sheer existence. Eventually he led us up the long, nearly vertical path to his home. There we sat in his dark, cold house, drinking yak butter tea and sharing lunch like we were long lost friends – completely forgetting that we were there to scout future photo workshops. I specifically remember thinking, “Don’t miss this experience. Don’t miss this story!” That meant putting the camera away for a while. It’s always about the people.
He told us the story of his childhood, how his family had left Tibet when he was very young, how he’d spent the better part of two decades hopping from country to country. He’d only recently returned to Tibet, coming to Seda to attend school and experience his home culture and language for the very first time. He was as much of a foreigner at Seda as we were, as surreal as Seda itself.
We left the city later that day to make the three-day Land Rover drive back to relative civilization. From time to time since that visit, I pick up the phone to hear Dondrup’s voice, “Hey Brian! How are you doing man? I hope your family is having a great Christmas!” or “Hey, it’s New Years in America right now, isn’t it?” After each encounter, I call my friend Losang. and he always reports a recent call from Dondrup as well. More than once Losang and I have asked each other if what we experienced at Seda was real.
The pictures I brought home serve as visual proof, but they can’t tell the whole story. To know Seda is to stand in the valley as the clouds part and the morning sun reveals the hillside city. To look into the eyes of its people. To hear their stories and find a friend. The people and places I see through the lens have incredible stories to share. But what I often fail to admit is that the stories need to extend beyond the image, that they’ll tell themselves if I listen.
Sometimes we have to put down the camera, connect with people, and enjoy the the story as it unfolds.
In the short time we had at Seda, I was able climb to the top walls of Seda and capture this panorama. It’s a huge place and the image doesn’t do it justice considering the distance between the mountainsides and the compressed nature of a panoramic shot. Nonetheless, it’s a good representation of the enormity of the monastery.
Click here to view the full-size image
You can see more of Brian’s work at BrianHirschy.com, check out his photo tours at PlateauPhotoTours.com, and follow him on Twitter.