WHATEVER IT TAKES
Driven by a purpose larger than life, there’s no mountain too high; no desert too harsh; and no hurdle too great for director and photographer, Pawo Choyning Dorji, who journeyed into the war-torn lands of Afghanistan, on a quest to retrace the steps of famous scholar and pilgrim, Xuan Zang
Globetrotting photographer and filmmaker, Pawo Choyning Dorji, has been busy trekking through continents, scaling snow-capped mountains, and crossing desert-scapes so hot they would melt the shoes right off your feet. Pawo, whose poignant photos have been published in international magazines and newspapers including LIFE, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal, prefers to identify himself as a visual storyteller. He published his first photography book Seeing Sacred: Lights & Shadows along the Journey, in 2013, and recently completed Legacy of Xuan Zang: Light of the Moon, a project which took him more than two years to reach fruition.
“In a way I’m hopelessly romantic. I’m a very sentimental person,” he admits. “Memories invoke so many emotions within us, happiness, joy, sorrow, but then in a strange way, it’s also very sad, because they come and then they go. Just like everything else in the circle of life, they slowly disappear and are replaced by new memories,” he shares wistfully. “I find myself longing to cling on to these disappearing memories. Photography lets me cling on to these memories for just a little while longer.”
Pawo is married to Taiwanese actress, Stephanie Lai, and the couple have two beautiful kids, Oddiyana and Taranatha. “My home is currently in Taiwan where my family is based. But travelling is part of my life as I’ve always been on the move since young. As a young student, I had to change school 11 times from 1st grade to 12th grade. Everyone dreads the ‘new boy’ experience in school, and of course it’s difficult and challenging, but every time I changed school, I learned so much about different cultures and different people. Even now, it’s still like that. I enjoy it.”
At eight years old, Pawo left Bhutan with his parents, and returned when he was 15. “I stayed in Bhutan for two years, then had to leave again to do university. I feel that when you live in Bhutan, and then you experience what the outside world is like, that’s when you appreciate Bhutan even more,” he says. “A lot of Bhutanese who grew up in Bhutan keep wanting to leave, they want to go out and see the world, but for me, having spent a lot of my formative years outside Bhutan, and then coming back from time to time, it’s taught me to appreciate more.
“My life has always been about adapting,” he adds, “Interestingly, I now find myself drawn back to Bhutan more and more because of my projects, my photography and my movies.”
“Growing up, I spent a lot of time in India, and the interesting thing is whenever I visited all these monasteries around India, I would see a plaque on the side providing a historical background of the place. And every place I went to was connected to Xuan Zang – the plaques would say something like ‘Xuan Zang came here and he recorded this”. So I got really interested and started to read up about him. Buddhism existed in India over thousands of years, but if you look back on Indian history, these places were only established as Buddhist places 200 years ago. When Xuan Zang travelled west from China to India in the 7th century, he mapped out the history of India through Buddhism, and recorded his travels through places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Xinjiang, and the Silk Road. Xuan Zang’s work was the most important facet which established the Buddha as an actual historical living being. How could India, or humanity, forget this great man? He’s an amazing part of history that a lot of people have overlooked, even the Chinese!”
Pawo was in Beijing when the idea to embark on the Xuan Zang project dawned upon him. He was in a bookstore looking for English books on Xuan Zang, but only the fictional version, Journey to the West, was available. I was surprised that even the Chinese didn’t have anything on the real Xuan Zang,” he exclaims. “They’ve been so caught up in the whole ‘Monkey King’ version, that the real Xuan Zang has been forgotten.
“That’s when I thought, maybe I can do a little bit to remind people about Xuan Zang. Part of my motivation stems from the essence of Xuan Zang’s history and wanting people to know what he did. But the other part is driven by the sheer journey that took Xuan Zang 18 years to complete,” Pawo explains earnestly. “For a person to travel alone from China to India and back, over the highest mountains and harshest deserts, it takes a lot of courage, dedication, willpower, and the will not to give up. By doing this project and reminding people of Xuan Zang, I hope that they can in a way, be reminded of their inner qualities.”
I want people to discover their own inner Xuan Zang, to be dedicated, to be fearless, to be courageous, and to not give up, no matter what happens.
“If you look into university archives today, there are a lot of books on Xuan Zang by scholars and historians, but none of them give a visual reference of his journey. It’s one thing to read about it, but something else altogether to see it visually – and that’s what I thought I would do with my book.
“When I proposed the project, a lot of people said, ‘Oh that’s a little bit challenging, how are you going to retrace a journey that was done in the 7th century? Most of these places are in locations that people don’t usually go to.’ And they were right – often times during my journey, I found myself to be the only foreigner around.”
Pawo pauses, as if to consider the magnitude of his next words. “Xuan Zang’s journey to India took him seven years, during which he crossed two of the harshest deserts known to man, the Gobi and the Taklamakan. He climbed the Tian Shan, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and the Himalayan mountains, where he survived an avalanche that killed most of his travel companions. Along the way, he was also arrested, robbed, kidnapped, lost in the desert, and almost offered as a sacrifice to a local goddess, but he survived.”
Pawo’s personal experiences while retracing Xuan Zang’s footsteps, have given him first-hand insight to some of the arduous struggles that the late monk probably encountered on his journey, so many moons ago. “In Xinjiang, Xuan Zang crossed the famous Flaming Mountains in China,” he continues. “While I was there, the temperatures went up to 50 deg Celsius, with ground temperatures heating up to the mid-80s. You couldn’t even walk along the paths because your shoes would start melting. But somehow, Xuan Zang managed to cross those mountains. The records show that he was very stubborn about getting to India!
“Bearing this in mind, I started the Sacred Path project to celebrate Xuan Zang’s legacy. For the last two and a half years, I’ve been retracing his journey. I started in China, crossed the Gobi Desert in Gansu, and then the Taklamakan Desert, in Xinjiang. I went into Taxila, in Northern Pakistan, and visited the Hunza Valley, in Baltistan. I made my way down to India, passed through Nepal, and then to South India, and to Western India. I set foot on the island of Sri Lanka.
“Many people ask me why I’m doing this – what is the purpose of going through all these hardships? What’s the point of travelling to these hostile places?”
Without hesitation, Pawo continues, “I always tell them it’s to give Buddhists a renewed sense of appreciation for the Dharma, because we always appreciate things more when we lose, or come close to losing them – and we came so close to losing Buddhism in the 9th century.”
DEFYING THE ODDS
In addition to Legacy of Xuan Zang: Light of the Moon, Pawo also has a completed film in the pipeline titled Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, which was shot in the most remote school on earth. For a start, getting to Lunana required no less than nine days of trekking. And to make matters worse, there was no electricity in Lunana. But against all odds, the master storyteller pushed forth with his “impossible” project, doing the kind of stuff that no one thought could be done.
“I’m a story teller,” he says, “Ever since I was a kid, I loved hearing inspiring stories, and connecting people with stories. For me, film-making is another platform for telling stories.”
Chuckling, he adds, “These projects did take a lot of time to complete. And I felt quite embarrassed at times because, for instance, people knew that I had been working on the Xuan Zang project for a number of years now and they would keep saying, ‘Publish the book already, have your photo exhibitions!’
“But there was one place I hadn’t gone to then, and I had to finish that place – Afghanistan. My multiple attempts to go there initially proved unsuccessful. I once tried to go in as an invited guest with a German NGO that was providing clean water for Afghanistan. I was already in Delhi, just a day away from flying into those war-torn lands. But then the Taliban kidnapped one of the Germans in Afghanistan, and the whole thing fell apart. The German NGO said they could no longer bring anyone in because all their project works had put on hold. Suddenly, everyone was leaving the country! I ended up waiting two years for another opportunity. Nothing materialised, so I eventually decided to go in without having to rely on others. I went with a friend to the Afghan embassy to apply for a permit. It was quite surreal because we had to go through individual interviews, and get a written letter from the Bhutanese government stating that they were aware that their citizens were going into Afghanistan and if anything untoward happened, Bhutan would not hold the Afghan government responsible.
“But it was all worth it because it was so amazing to finally be there. It was a beautiful experience. Travelling into these places, you learn so much.
A FATHER’S TALE
“I was in Bamiyan, which is a small village in Central Afghanistan. It’s very sad that the whole country is war torn. Bomb blasts go off every few days. The locals shared that if they didn’t hear a bomb blast go off in a week, they’d go, ‘Oh it’s been so silent!’ The bomb blasts have become so routine for them. I was with the Hazaras, who are very liberal in their way of thinking. The Hazaras have always been targeted by the Pashtuns and the Taliban. You see, Bamiyan is a Hazara village, with all these beautiful people there, but they’re surrounded 360 degrees by the Pashtuns and the Taliban.
“I was hosted in a Hazara home where the family had little kids aged between eight and ten years old. They were so beautiful and happy. I was talking to them and each child was telling me about what they wanted to be when they grew up. But their father told me that it’s not a question of if, but when, this life as they know it, will come crumbling down. Because every day, the Taliban were coming closer and closer to the village. They feared that once the Taliban regain power, things would go back to the way they were before. They would be beaten up and randomly killed. The girls would have to stop going to school and wear the burqa, and the boys would have to grow their beard.”
At this, the compassionate father-of-two casts his gaze downward and solemnly adds, “When you see and hear such things, you feel for them. As a parent, you feel so appreciative of your life, and for the positive cause and conditions that your children have.
“It reminds you that life is so fragile, and makes you appreciate the time that you have with your kids. It reminds you to value your time as a parent.”
Everything we give back, we get.
“The Buddha said, everything in life is like a rainbow. When you see a rainbow, it’s the product of cause and conditions coming together – rain, sun, and light. Something so vivid, so beautiful, and so “real”, is created. Yet, when you try to grasp the rainbow, it is inherently non-existent. In life, everything, be it joy or suffering, all phenomenon, is simply a product of cause and condition coming together. All of life is just like a rainbow. So enjoy the rainbow and appreciate its beauty, but do not get attached to it.
“People often say that Bhutan is the happiest place on earth. But my take on happiness is very different. To me, happiness is something that you long for, but you cannot reach it. You desire to have it, but you cannot own it. Happiness is not the destination, it is the journey.
“The stories of Bhutan, which we may consider as backward, are also the ones which send the most profound messages back to us. That sense of contentment and acceptance – I think that’s very key to seeing happiness as the journey, and not the destination.
“It’s easier said than done, but I remind myself all the time and try to practice it. Even in the film, Lunana, a lot of its themes are rooted in that sense of contentment and acceptance.
“The logistics of filming in Lunana proved almost impossible due to its remote location. There’s no electricity up in the snow-capped mountains, and the nine days of trekking just to get there can feel overwhelming.
“Midway through our shoot, we faced the prospect of not being able to go up the mountains, due to months of torrential rain. At that point, we had a crew of 35 people, plus another 65 horses helping us to carry the filming equipment. The mountain passes were closed up and the only other option was to fly up by helicopter – but even those were booked up. Because of the bad weather, the helicopters had been grounded for over two months.
“I was thinking, how are we going to get this done? But we were fortunate to find a small flying window of just two days. It was make or break because if we couldn’t get up within those two days, we would fail to complete the movie. It was incredibly challenging, but we managed.”
Pawo says he’s learnt that the best way to face a mountain of challenges, is to take one day at a time. “If you keep looking at all the problems as a whole, the overall picture may scare you and cause you to lose the confidence to take them on. So take it one step at a time and when you look back, you’ll realise that you’ve come so far from where you first started.
“For Lunana, we prepped ourselves with a lot of planning, so pre-production took almost a year. Because of the challenges presented by the location, we expected to have all these hurdles, and that actually helped to keep us grounded.
“Every day, we shot from sunrise to sunset, but because of our isolated location and the absence of electricity, we did not have the luxury of previewing the material we shot. So for two months, the cameras would shoot, and then dump the footage into the hard drive.”
Recalling the experience, Pawo shares, “We had to shoot blind and keep our fingers crossed that we had all the material we needed, it felt like being in the old days when people shot with film! I was only able to see a flow of the movie when I returned to Taiwan with the hard drives. Up till then, I had no idea what we had shot.”
Taking it one day at a time, I think that’s the key.
Most people would give up at the prospect of such daunting circumstances. But Pawo is not like most people. When faced with moments of self-doubt, he credits his spirituality as an anchor.
“Spirituality is very important for me. A lot of the time that I spend away from my family is because of spiritual reasons. I work for a teacher, but also for myself to do practice. That spiritual path does help me to finding stability in my journey.
“Whatever work I do, I always try to leave some sort of a positive impact. With Lunana, we brought up all these solar generators, solar batteries, and fuel. We could have brought them back after filming and sold them, but like I always told my producers, yes, we are making a movie, but we are also trying to tell a story about this community here. I wanted this project to be something that leaves a positive imprint.
“One of the biggest chunks of our film budget was used to renovate the school we shot at in Lunana. My promise to the school was that if they let us tell their story, film on their premises, and feature their students, I would go back and make sure that they had a proper roof – because when we first arrived there, the roof was constantly being blown all over because of the gusty winds! Our film company is now very much involved with the renovation of the school. We’re putting in proper pillars etc and it’s very difficult to even bring up a hammer. Right now, we still need mules and horses to carry everything up the mountain.
All of the solar batteries that were brought up to Lunana were also donated. “We gave them to the BHU, a Basic Health Unit which really, was just a small wooden shed with some medicine for the locals. The BHU wasn’t much but for them, it’s the closest ‘health facility’ they had access to.”
Always remind yourself of the bigger purpose.
“Whenever obstacles were thrown our way and things didn’t go the way we wanted, I reminded myself that it was ok, because the film was just a bonus that was coming out of this. There were much bigger things at stake here – we were helping to rebuild the school. Our intention was to give our equipment to the hospitals and enable more people to get healthcare. Above all, the school would impact the lives of all the children studying there.”
Thinking back to the beginnings of the Lunana project, Pawo reveals, “When I first wrote the script and showed it to people, they said, ‘This is a very interesting and nice story, but I don’t think you should make it in Lunana because you can easily shoot this in a very isolated place in Bhutan, and still make it look like Lunana. Even in Hollywood, many movies that look like they are filmed in New York are not filmed in New York – they’re shot in Vancouver where overheads are much cheaper.
“So people were telling me to shoot elsewhere and pretend that it’s Lunana, because that’s the magic of cinema, you can fool your audience,” he explains. “But for me, there’re many reasons why I wanted to shoot in Lunana. I wanted to show the audience a part of the world that many people don’t get to see. I also wanted our entire crew to go through that experience. We were there to make a movie, but above and beyond that, I knew the whole experience would change the way each of us saw the world.
Editor’s note: A humble and masterful storyteller, Pawo’s introspective works capture and communicate his deeper observations about life, humanity, and the connections between humans. He has held exhibitions based on his photography collection at the renowned 798 Arts district in Beijing, and the True Arts museum in Suzhou, China. Magazines, such as LIFE, Esquire and the Wall Street Journal, have published his works. In 2014, Pawo’s photo of the Ganges River in Varanasi was selected as one of the top ten photos of Asia by the Asian Geographic magazine. VICE selected his photo of his spiritual teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, as one of the best photos of 2014. Pawo was also the producer of the internationally acclaimed Bhutanese feature film Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait. The film was featured in some of the most prestigious international film festivals and awarded a “special mention” at the Toronto International Film Festival (2016), while winning the audience award at the Golden Global Film Awards (2017) in Malaysia. Follow Pawo on Instagram @Pawo for updates about Legacy of Xuan Zang: Light of the Moon and Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.
*All photos belong to Pawo Choyning Dorji (@Pawo).