The Forgotten Tibetans

The Forgotten Tibetans


Publishing day has finally arrived! This book is the outcome of close to a decade of travelling to one of the most beautiful and unspoiled parts of China – the western provinces of China – Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Outer Mongolia. Frequent trips, particularly to Gansu, allowed me to make friends with some of the kindest, most welcoming people on earth. They welcomed me into their homes (or tents, depending on the season), gave me the opportunity to spend festivals, weddings, fun days and work days with them. I was lucky enough to be able to volunteer as an English teacher for nomad students during their winter school vacation, and enjoyed the enthusiasm and dedication they gave to learning during what should have been one of the most relaxing times of year for nomads.

During the years of visiting, I was able to see the changes in lifestyles and place that rapidly accelerated, partly as a result of increased tourism, partly as a result of government policies. Tourists changed the village from a quiet nomad town, focussed around the two monasteries, with a few cafes, two or three hostels and hotels and several shops selling nomad necessities to a small town, with numerous larger hotels, more cafes and souvenir shops. Government policies ensured nomads started to change their traditional way of life to become ‘sedentarised’, and needed to seek work in the restaurants and hotels.

This book is a collection of photographs and stories, giving glimpses into the daily lives, and the changing lives of the Tibetan nomads who live outside the map of Tibet, in lands that the Tibetan Empire once controlled, but now, through internal revolutions and war, have been incorporated into China.  It is intended to highlight the commonalities of our lives, as well as to present a brief history of a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.

I created this book for my nomad mates, hoping that their lives, culture and traditions would find a greater understanding in the wider society.  (And special thanks to Ray and Sabrina for editorial and design work!)




Signed hardback copies are available, please email me for details at:

Posted by DeborahH in Cultural dimensions, Photography book, Tibetan culture, Travel, Village life, 0 comments
Chinese Dream

Chinese Dream

Each Chinese President creates a ‘catch-phrase’ to inspire the Chinese people.  Xi Jinping, elected in late 2012 as President, has created ‘Chinese Dream” as his catch phrase.  There is no official definition of what this phrase means, but to most people is it very similar to the ‘American’ or ‘Australian’ dreams – house, car, education for children, financial security, travel.

China is rapidly changing from an agrarian society to an urban society, and the dream is part of this.  The jobs and good schools are in the big cities, better medical services are there, and access to a broader range of services and consumer products.

These images trace the changes in Chinese society – and is the dream becoming a reality, or creating a nightmare?



Posted by DeborahH in China, Cultural dimensions, Daily Life, Photography in China, Village life, 1 comment
Architecture and Spirit

Architecture and Spirit

When I was around four and five years old, I lived right next to the ocean, literally within 20 metres of where I slept the waves rolled and crashed.  My views went forever – the horizon was the limit.  Today whenever I am near the ocean I feel sane, I feel as if I can breathe properly and I feel as if my soul has enough space to expand and grow.

So from that experience I constructed my own pet theory of ‘soul space’ – the sense of safety, of strength and a place where you can come back to physically, mentally or emotionally when you need that security. For my theory I postulated that where you live when you begin to really notice the world around you, and see yourself as part of it, is when ‘soul space’ occurs.  From the limited number of friends I have discussed this with, there seems to be a general agreement that this could be possible. For me, any ocean and any area where I can see forever creates that feeling.

After 10 years in China, watching the construction of ever more and more high-rise towers I began to wonder what happens to ‘soul space’ when children grow up confined within those tower walls?  Every city and town is rapidly replacing single story homes, small villages and farm houses with high-rises.  People who have lived close to the land all their lives are encouraged to move into huge slabs, with views of the next-door slab of housing, and the one after that.

What impact does this hive construction have on the inhabitants? Where and how do they find the soul space that allows them to grow and have a broader view of the world and their place within it, if their world is limited to a few walls, views of more walls, a minute garden with “No walking on the grass” signs and concrete play areas?

Nan Ellis in Architecture of Fear believes that this urban development has destroyed much of our urban heritage, disrupted established communities, displaced people from their homes and businesses, increased social segregation, diminished the public realm, harmed the environment and created eyesores.

Do we need this massive construction?  No, not even in China with its massive population. No matter where I travelled in China, I saw blocks and blocks of new apartment buildings sitting virtually empty.  Some areas have entire ‘ghost towns’ where no-one lives.  Empty buildings everywhere, but the construction continues.

However, even if all of this construction was necessary, what of the effect on the people?  Alain de Botton,  in The Architecture of Happiness says , “We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need — but are at constant risk of forgetting what we need — within.”

What moods and ideas are contained in the hundreds of apartments created exactly the same? Of building after cloned building?  Do we become moulded to be the same, losing creativity, individuality and soul?  Richard Sennett would agree.  He argues that “the homogenization of contemporary culture is aided and abetted by the failure of modern architecture and urban planning to accommodate the physical and sensory needs of the human body.” (Flesh and Stone)

“Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design.” (Alain de Botton)

Without this soul space, what happens to us as humans?



Posted by DeborahH in China, Daily Life, Growth and Development, 0 comments
Global Lives project

Global Lives project

Working on a project with other people is really different.  I am used to – actually, really like – pottering off on my own to make photographs.  Others travelling with me are likely to be ‘photo’d’ out really quickly and not understand that the view is very different just 5 steps on, necessitating another photo stop.  However, working  with a group of people all focused on the same thing, all wanting to take another angle, just one more image , was amazing.  This happened with the NGO project “Global Lives” that I was lucky enough to work on.

Global Lives ( aims to follow 10 people from around the world for a full day of their lives. It is a combination of video and still photography, and the final product is showcased on their website as well as in some museums and galleries in different countries.  Our project was to follow a Chinese train attendant as she left home, arrived at work, prepared, worked her shift and finally left the train. Ms Fan Ruixian stoically allowed video and still cameras to literally be in her face for more than 24 hours, to allow us to edit out mistakes, battery change-overs and camera changes. Her patience was amazing!

Will 24 hours in her life change the world?  Maybe not – but it will certainly add to our understanding of the lives of others.

Posted by DeborahH in China, NGO, 2 comments
All the tea in China

All the tea in China

Tea? Who drinks tea? At home, generally our parents’ generation drank tea. It was Indian style tea, strong and black in colour. Some drank it white and sweet, some black with lemon, some straight out of the billy, boiled over an open fire and tasting of smoke and gum leaves. The younger generation is more likely to drink coffee or fruit and herbal teas. But Chinese tea in all its variety? Not very many people really know this wonderful part of Chinese culture.

Here, I have learned to love tea and one of my favourite activities is to hit the tea markets and spend all day there, chatting to the tea sellers, sipping different teas, drooling over the beautiful teapots and trying to decide what to buy, how much lightening my wallet can stand.

Little tea shops are lovely places to start learning about tea. Tea shop owners are happy to spend time chatting about tea, while we sip different teas. Fancy tea shops also abound, and in these, the art of tea is as important as the taste. Here, the invariably beautiful girl serving you tea will be dressed in traditional costume, she will sit or kneel before you at a low, highly decorated, ornately carved table, and with graceful gestures pour tea into your thimble sized cups. A traditional musician may be playing nearby.

The tea pouring ritual is fun watch. The tea leaves are selected and we smell them, good aromas, strong or fresh grass green. The tiny cups are removed from the sanitiser with special tongs, and hot water is poutred over them, then water at the correct temperature (it varies with the type of tea) is poured over the leaves to wash them and this tea is then poured over the cups. Next round of water is poured onto the tea and then strained and finally tipped into your cup. The lid of the small tea pot or cup is offered for smelling, the colour of the tea examined and then we can sip. Each round of tea changes flavour, some becoming sweeter, others becoming stronger. Then different teas are offered, and we start again. Tea tasting is fun!!

There is a touch of snobbery around tea, just as there is around wine or olives or cheese back home. ‘Real’ tea isn’t fruit- or flower-flavoured. ‘Real’ tea relies on the mountain it is grown on, the water the tree is watered with, the age of the tree, the time of the year the leaves are picked and many more things aficionados talk about for hours.

To appreciate ‘real’ tea head for the tea markets. Tea markets are wonderful and sell everything to do with tea – the leaves themselves, the special pots, cups, tools and implements that accompany tea. Nimble fingered girls sort tea leaves and stalks. I stop to chat with them and they show me the stalks which can be used to replace your earrings at night. These stalks have an antiseptic quality and prevent infection. Like everything else edible or drinkable in China, tea in all of its forms is good for you!! Pu’er is good in winter, green tea in summer, this tea helps you lose weight, that tea helps you regain your appetite.

I have three “cha hais” – the table-top trays to hold the tea cups and pots while serving. But these are small – not like the huge, elaboratly carved and decorated marble and wooden tables. I also have a collection (growing…) of ‘cha chong’ (tea pets), small scultpures to bring luck. and to keep them beautiful, the waste tea and hot water are oured over them.

Tea is fascinating.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Homepage, 0 comments
Waiting for work

Waiting for work

Teddy Roosevelt had it right when he said “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”. But, China, like every other country has a high rate of unemployment, and here it is obvious. There are long lines in front of the city “talents’ offices, and the job notice board is surrounded by crowds hoping to spot that great job. Away from the offices, along the roads there are unoffical employment offices. Large numbers of people gather, waiting for an employer to offer day employment. One corner has painters, with their bikes and long rollers; another is filled with blue trucks, waiting for hauling work. Graders and large machinery operators play cards while waiting for the call.

To serve these patient people, others create their own jobs cooking food from their mobile stoves. Waiting gets boring… so cardboard boxes make good boards for Chinese chess, wild card games privide entertainment, and newpapers keep people informed. And when a foereigner comes along with a camera there is a bit of time for horseplay. “Don’t take my photo – I’m not handsome – take his”, and the fellas gather round to see the photo.


Posted by DeborahH in China, 0 comments


One theme that seems to run through much of my photography, albeit unconsciously, is that of reflections.  Reflections in windows, water, puddles by the road, in glasses of wine.  Anything that reflects something else catches my eye, and my camera.  And I began to wonder why…


One obvious answer is the distortion of the normal.  Seeing things upside-down or fractured gives a quick surprise to our senses, and then perhaps we look to see the ‘reality’.  So maybe reflections are a start point for a new look at what is.  But then my question becomes, which is real?  The reflections have a reality, have a life of their own, even if it is ephemeral.

Sometimes though, it seems to me that the reflection is more real, that the reflection says more about life or whatever it is than the reality.  When we look into a mirror we see more than just our face.  The reflection we see is our vision of our selves.  When I take photos of reflections, I think sometimes I am seeing more than the reality, I am seeing perhaps the vision of what ‘should be’ and also at times reflections of the true reality, without the ‘makeup’ that the reality sometimes has.  The blur, the ripple, the change in colour and distortions can sometimes create a more in-depth image of what is.

When we see the reflections of buildings or people walking past a lake then that building or person becomes part of the lake, and become more than the reality, part of ‘the other’.  And then I can imagine different realities for each image and each object.




Posted by DeborahH, 0 comments


There are days that no matter how strong and independent we are, we need a little protection, a little TLC to help us get through.  We can pride ourselves on our capability, on being ‘the strong one’, but just some days it is so nice to have someone to stand in front of the bitter cold or the rough winds and protect us.

Winter wrapping

When we look at protection, for ourselves or others, what is it we really need?  Trees, in their natural habitat need nothing more than their DNA and situation to survive the driest, coldest, wettest or worst conditions.  Out of the natural habitat, it is a different matter.


Protection from the elements can allow us to survive and perhaps to grow.

White warmth.

But when we look at the protection offered, does it really protect?  Or does it just look as if it protecting? Is it really necessary? Or effective?

 “I’ll be the one to protect you from your enemies and all your demons

I’ll be the one to protect you from a will to survive and a voice of reason

I’ll be the one to protect you from your enemies and your choices, son

They’re one in the same, I must isolate you

Isolate and save you from yourself”  ― A Perfect Circle


How much does this protection eventually warp us into something we are not, or were never meant to be?

“Nothing is true in self-discovery unless it is true in your own experience.

This is the only protection against the robot levels of the mind.”

Barry Long

Posted by DeborahH in Growth and Development, Musings, Photography in China, 0 comments