Tibetan nomads and the television

At 66, as I think about the intense desire to go out and explore the world, I immediately find a whole bunch of reasons to do so. There are so many interesting places I want to feel, explore, and see on my own. In person, not merely through the increasingly modern and fashionable means related to virtual reality. Especially if we’re talking about the most magnificent countries, mountains, deserts, seas, and polar regions of our planet that quickly make you aware of your own helplessness, insignificance, and irrelevance compared to the forces that created them.


Due to their archaic way of life and their primal contact with nature, the Tibetan nomads living on the northern side of the Himalayas are among the most original and primal images of life on our planet. These eternal travellers without a permanent residence spend their lives moving around the desolate plateau of Tibet, looking for a place to host themselves and their herd. They live according to their own rules, away from civilisation that they only rarely come into contact with. According to an unwritten ancient code, they must also travel to the capital of the province, Lhasa, at least once in their lives. In the ancient shrines of the city, they must pay tribute to their gods and visit Potala, the magnificent palace on a hill in the centre of the city where Dalai Lama, their religious and secular leader, used to live until the Chinese occupied the country.


Tibetan nomads in their vast expanses.


The Potala Palace.


In spite of the terror the Chinese were wreaking, even long after the occupation that started in 1949, they never actually managed to enslave the Tibetans. An increased level of terror provoked even worse acts of resistance, which is why the Chinese changed their tactics in the 1980s. Instead of enslaving the Tibetans with acts of terror, they started (much more successfully, I might add) prevailing over them with cheap junk, thus making them addicted to consumerism. They started selling technical goods, especially TV sets and VCRs, in stores all over Lhasa and other cities. On numerous occasions, I've had the opportunity to watch the Khampas, proud representatives of the most combative Tibetan people, as they were staring, mouth agape, at the windows of technical stores where Chinese propaganda programmes were being broadcast on a loop, nearly forgetting what they were supposed to rebel against. The natives became increasingly interested in technical novelties, and the Chinese imports seemed to have been endless. Bit by bit, they put out additional stands in front of their stores in order to promote their products. At these stands, new and used TV sets, inevitably turned on, irresistibly drew indigenous inhabitants like a moth to a flame; in an instant, they were transferred from the traditional way of life of the Middle Ages, governed according to the Buddhist principles, to the modern era.


The inhabitants of cities and settlements got used to “talking boxes with pictures in them” relatively quickly; for the Tibetan nomads, however, the TV set is still an irresistibly attractive and incomprehensible act of magic. During one of my last visits to Lhasa, I had the opportunity to watch an elderly nomad couple, lost in the hustle and bustle of the city, as they were moving towards the city centre with a feeling of deep reverence reflected in their demeanour. The man was surveying the street full of new, unknown stimuli, with an excited look, until his eyes stopped on a “talking box” broadcasting content at a stand in front of one of the shops. Completely flabbergasted, he approached it, hardly able to contain his excitement at the fact that small people seemed to be moving within the box. Excited, he called his wife to step closer and look at the miracle. For quite some time, she remained in the background, holding back, until the primal human curiosity finally got the better of her. She approached, slowly, and kept spinning the prayer wheel with holy mantras designed to protect them, just in case. Maybe this talking box doesn’t only contain moving people, but also some sort of bad magic that could harm them? They were so engrossed in the magnificence of this magic box that it wasn't hard for me to take some photos of the captivated looks on their astonished faces.


She approached, slowly, and kept spinning the prayer wheel with holy mantras designed to protect them, just in case.


The magical talking box.


Up until then, I had never seen a more touching display of the contact between the urban and the rural, the archaic with the modern, the old with the new. It seemed as if two completely different worlds had accidentally collided. Almost as if unintentionally, the elderly Tibetan nomad gave me her very balanced opinion on watching television: yes, it’s interesting, but watching too much of it cannot be good, which is why we need to protect ourselves from it. Even a prayer wheel will do, if nothing else is available.


I often look back at this event, and every time, I’m completely taken aback by their honest awe at these foreign and incomprehensible worlds opening before their eyes that are, of course, nothing new for me. Of course, it would be difficult for me to swap places with them. However, I somewhat envy the primal perception of the world they got to experience.          


Viki Grošelj
Viki Grošelj

Born 3.6.1952. Sports educator by trade, with 40 years of working in primary schools, but also a top mountain climber, Himalayan, mountain rescuer and mountain guide.
Besides countless expeditions to Slovenian and foreign mountains, I also took part on more than 30 expeditions to non-European mountain passes. In the Himalayas, I conquered 11 ascends to 10 out of the 14. mountain tops, ranging over 8000m.

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