The Day the Mountain Light Faded

This past weekend marked the tenth anniversary of the tragic death of Galen and Barbara Rowell.  I can still remember the shock I felt when I heard the news on August 11, 2002 that the Rowells, both friends and colleagues at the National Geographic and beyond, had died in a plane crash near their home in Bishop, California.  The irony that these two intrepid photographers, travelers, and adventurers, who had survived more close calls than most in the profession are ever allowed, would die in a plane crash just miles from their own home was almost too much to accept.

They were a team – Galen, one of the most accomplished landscape photographers of our time, and Barbara, his wife and business partner, as well as a talented photographer and pilot in her own right, and so it seems somehow fitting that they would leave the earth together.  It was just far too soon.

Galen, always a generous sharer of information and advice, had a powerful effect on me as a photographer and as a friend.  It was an iconic photograph by Galen that inspired me when I was trying to figure out a new way to shoot the famed Portala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.  I wrote about this ah-ha moment in the final chapter of my latest book, Shangri-la [along the Tea-Horse Road], due out this fall:

“I wanted to capture a vision of the old Lhasa as it might have seemed to a trader arriving along the ancient Chamagudao, despite the tour groups and traffic and nondescript buildings of a 21st-century city. A photograph taken in 1981 by my friend and fellow National Geographic photographer, the late, great Galen Rowell became my inspiration. In this shot, one of the most iconic photographs ever taken in Tibet and Galen’s most memorable image, the Potala is literally the pot of gold sitting at the end of a perfect rainbow.

To get this shot, Galen, well known for his athletic prowess, literally ran a mile chasing a rainbow, no small feat at Lhasa’s altitude of 11,450 feet (3700 meters). He had spotted the rainbow in the early evening sky behind the Potala Palace.  Panting in the thin mountain air, he was aiming for just the right angle that would place the rainbow’s end precisely above the top of the Palace. He nailed it, capturing an extraordinary moment at the most sacred symbol of Tibet….

I stood in front of the looming Potala, which dominates the city and appears to be part of the 700-foot (213 meters) hill on which it sits.  With the vision of Galen’s rainbow picture in my head, but without a copy of the photograph, I tried to figure out the vantage from which he had shot it.  I soon realized that it could not have been from where I was standing, on the front side, as there would have been no way to isolate the temple from the modern buildings of the surrounding city.

Following this hunch, we drove north along the backside of the Palace, in the direction of a rim of mountains that were opposite an extensive marsh at least a mile away. There was not a building in sight. In the middle of the marsh there was a lake, and in the middle of the lake I saw my picture – isolated in the water was a perfect reflection of the Palace surrounded by mountains, as if floating on air.  This was a view any traveler coming from the north, even three hundred years ago, might have seen as he entered Lhasa. And there it was, hiding in plain sight — my vision of paradise, Shangri-La. “

I like to think that Galen and Barbara are enjoying their own vision of Shangri-la, together, forever.

©Michael Yamashita

Lhasa's Potala Palace, the monastery that was home to the Dali Lama, is among the most iconic images of Tibet. The Palace seems to float among the mountains, hovering above the marsh in the foregrounds.

©Michael Yamashita

Viewed from the city of Lhasa, with its telephone lines, electric lights and traffic, the Potala Palace is brought into the focus of modern Chinese life.

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3 Responses to The Day the Mountain Light Faded

  1. After ten years I probably prefer your picture than the one of Rowell. For somebody who has never seen the spot, yours is more efficient in explaining how and where this palace lays.

  2. Joyce Mariko Akiyoshi says:

    Greetings, Mike, I was browsing YouTube looking at things about Central Asia & discovered your explorations of Marco Polo’s journeys. That brought me here, where as life would have it, I find your tribute to Galen Rowell. As a fellow Berkeleyite, Galen & Barbara were luminaries in my world. My partner worked on their car and I had my nails done at the same shop as Barbara. Truly, the man who put the Potala at the end-of-the-rainbow. However, the reason I leave this message is my personal research into one of the last vestiges of the Mongol banners, the Torguts in the beginning of the twentieth century. I am curious what you may have run across back on the Silk Road around Karashahr in Xinjiang connected to the Mongols. Can you refer me to someone that I can contact to further my research? If not, thank you for your time and for the opportunity to express my admiration for your talent both as a photographer and a chronicler of life. Cordially yours, Joyce Mariko Akiyoshi, Publishers Group West, joyce.akiyoshi@pgw.com

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