The new year brings resolutions, pacts with oneself to accomplish goals, quit bad habits, begin new ones, eat less, exercise more. As I was taking stock on this New Year’s, I couldn’t help remembering a man I met in Tibet, who was making good on a resolution of his own.
One of the constants of travel on the road to Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region is the procession of pilgrims along the route. It was on this road, on the way to Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province, that I first encountered a pilgrim performing the Tibetan Buddhist act of prostration known as chak tsal. When I spotted him, I jumped out of the car with camera in hand and got down on my stomach to shoot just as he had laid out flat in front of me, face to the ground. I followed his every movement, each performed precisely – a couple of steps, palms together, click; another step, hands to the heart, click; hands to the face, click and hands overhead, click. Then he was back down to his knees and flat out on his stomach again, click. Forehead to the ground, click.
After five or six repetitions of this exercise, I was exhausted in the thin air and sat by the side of the road for a rest, but the pilgrim kept right on going up the hill. During the entire time I was shooting he never acknowledged my presence, praying and prostrating as if I were not even there. I got up and followed to ask him a few questions. He answered without stopping. His name was Champa and he was en route to Labrang. He had been on the road for two months, and hoped to make it to the great monastery in time for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. From there he planned to continue his prostrations to Lhasa, a 1242 mi (2000 km) journey that he hoped to complete in another 200 days. Any time I waver in my resolve to get to the gym, I think of Champa.
On their way to Lhasa, pilgrims prostrate themselves every three steps. Having spent weeks on foot, the family still has nearly 300 miles to go on this thousand-year-old road.
Faithful perform Kora and turn prayer wheels at the Segyagu Meditation Center, near Lhagong Monastery.
Pilgrims prayer at Chotonda on Chamagudao.
Cedar branches are burned for good health and fortune at Qambaling Monastery.
Prostration pads at Labrang Monastery.
Passing through Chamdo at rush hour.
Arriving at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa marks the end of their journey and the fulfillment of a life-long dream for Tibetan pilgrims.