100 Days in Tibet: A Photographer's Promise to the Dalai Lama - OZY | A Modern Media Company

100 Days in Tibet: A Photographer's Promise to the Dalai Lama

By Jörg Eigendorf


These photographs capture images of a Tibet that has largely become a forbidden land for foreigners.

Three years ago, German photographer York Hovest made a promise to the Dalai Lama: that he would travel to Tibet, to places perhaps never seen before by tourists, and take photographs. Last month, Hovest delivered on his promise. In the northern Indian highlands, in the Tibet exile community of Dharamsala, he handed the Dalai Lama his book of photographs: Hundert Tage Tibet: Das Versprechen (One Hundred Days in Tibet: The Promise). Photos of Tibet’s people, its mountains, its temples, animals, of the Chinese army. Here are some of those photos and the story of just one, a short excerpt from a longer article that appeared in the German newspaper Die Welt:

The moon shines brightly through the tent at the foot of Mount Everest. It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, but for York Hovest it’s the big moment he’s been waiting for. On the way to the world’s highest mountain, a Chinese soldier had torn up the written permit to continue his journey during his first expedition in 2012, forcing him to leave the country. Now, however, nothing stands in the way of the unique shot: the long exposure of the north face of Everest from the Tibetan side. In moonlight. A picture the likes of which has probably never been taken before.

Nothing stands in the way of the unique shot: the long exposure of the north face of Everest from the Tibetan side. In moonlight.

It takes unbelievable willpower for Hovest to get up. The thermometer on Hovest’s watch shows 10 degrees below zero. The tent at 16,700 feet above sea level at least keeps the wind out. The photographer opens the zip of his sleeping bag. Sweater, down jacket, gloves — he had squeezed everything he needed into the sleeping bag the night before to make the materials a bit warmer.

photo of Dali Lama talking with a photographer as they look at a book together

Photographer York Hovest presents his book of photos to the Dalai Lama.

Source York Hovest/DIE WELT

It’s so cold that he only has a few minutes to get dressed. First the soft-shell jacket, then the sweater, then a down jacket, with a hard-shell jacket over that. The longest time is spent on the heavy high-Alpine boots, which Hovest can only put on and lace up without gloves. It takes 10 minutes. His ice-cold fingers hurt. Again and again he warms them in his pockets. And then checks the equipment: two headlamps, hat, camera, tripod, batteries.

He has to be quiet, for fear of waking the others. Hovest knows that his Tibetan mountain guide, his travel companion, Andi, and the five other men sleeping in the tent would stop him. Leaving the tent alone in the night in order to climb on the nearby mountainside for an hour or more — it’s madness. And Hovest also knows that no one would go with him. This secret idea of his just seems too crazy.

Mount Everest, a little more than two and a half miles away, is no longer visible. Hovest can only see vague outlines; the clouds have pushed in front of the mountain. But he knows that this can change quickly. The wind is strong and the clouds are moving quickly across the sky.

Hovest has only his tripod in his hand. His camera, a Leica S2, is under his jacket. He climbs over the scree field of the Rombuk glacier, then his route takes him 100 yards up to 17,000 feet. There’s only a little snow at this height in April 2013. But every step is torture. After a good hour, Hovest has reached his destination. He has reached the spot he determined via Google Earth using satellite images. That was almost two years ago in Munich. And now he knows: He’s standing right there.

He only has a few seconds to work with his free hand. Otherwise he risks no longer being able to move it.

He sets up his tripod. The wind tugs loudly on his clothes. Hovest collects stones, places them in a cloth bag and hangs this on the tripod from below. Even if it moves just one single time during the exposure, it will all have been in vain and the picture will be out of focus. And he would only have time to take a few pictures in the cold.

western man wearing a winter jacket outside the mountains of tibet

After the first section of the Kora-circumnavigation Hovest has arrived at Drirapuk monastery.

Source York Hovest/DIE WELT

He places the Leica S2, a device weighing around 3 kilograms, on the tripod. This, too, is a race against time: Glove off, select the menu options and turn the control dial, glove back on and then warm the gloved hand in his trousers again. He only has a few seconds to work with his free hand. Otherwise he risks no longer being able to move it.

Then, time to wait for the clouds to disperse. It takes 20 minutes. Twenty minutes feels like an eternity to him. Then the north face of Mount Everest is bathed in moonlight. Hovest feels his heart beating. He presses the release mechanism for the first time. Ten seconds. But the picture is black. Nothing. The exposure was too short.

He doubles it to 20 seconds. Too dark again. He’s been standing in front of the world’s highest mountain in the early hours of the morning for over half an hour when he suddenly sees on the camera display: The 10th photo has worked. With an exposure of 30 seconds. “I did it,” he writes later in his diary. “The best photo of my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you! How long I’ve had to wait for this moment. Finally the pressure is gone. All the effort, all the pain.”

a man stands next to a boy on a motorcycle

Source York Hovest/DIE WELT

mountain covered with snow in an open field in Tibet

Source York Hovest/DIE WELT

the face of Tibetan man

Source York Hovest/DIE WELT

a woman and child on top of a mountain in Tibet

Source York Hovest/DIE WELT

photo of soldiers walking thru a crowded streets

Source York Hovest/DIE WELT

a man wearing a red robe looks towards a mountain scene in Tibet

Source York Hovest/DIE WELT

Jörg Eigendorf writes for the German newspaper Die Welt.


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