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  Field Notes From
On Marco Polo’s Trail

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From Author

Mike Edwards

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From Photographer

Michael Yamashita

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Michael Yamashita (top) and Marisa Montibeller

image: ticket
On Marco Polo’s Trail

Field Notes From Photographer
Michael Yamashita
I spent four days in Labrang, the largest lamasery outside of Tibet. All of the activity and the variety of weather conditions, such as sandstorms and snow, allowed me to get good pictures.
The Tibetan Buddhist arts are taught at Labrang. We had great access and saw just about everything the monks do: playing musical instruments, dancing, chanting, praying, and eating a morning meal of tsampa, a mixture of barley and yak-butter tea. I was even allowed to observe the way they use riddles to teach young lamas. A master will ask a question. If the answer is wrong, the novice gets whacked on the head. It reminded me of a fraternity hazing with the older monks giving the younger ones grief. But it was all done with humor.
The place has a timeless quality, something I wanted to capture for the article.
Marco Polo referred to coal as “the rock that burns” and asbestos as “the cloth that doesn’t burn,” so I arranged to photograph a coal mine and an asbestos processing plant.
Workers shoveled asbestos ore into one end of a separator bin and fluffy, white, asbestos fiber came out of the other. I was busy taking pictures, but suddenly I realized that I was surrounded by a big cloud of dust—without protection. In fact, nobody was wearing any masks. So I tried not to breathe it in and didn’t think about it anymore.
When I showed the picture editor the asbestos photos later, she seemed slightly alarmed that I wasn’t wearing protection. That got me thinking again, so I asked my doctor about it. He put my mind at rest when he told me that it takes repeated exposure to asbestos before it can harm you. And then it takes about 40 years for symptoms to show up.
This assignment was like a detective story. We tried to investigate what Marco Polo talked about in his book as well as some of the more obvious things he left out, such as the now-banned practice of binding women’s feet. But we never knew what we would find.
We heard there were women with bound feet living in a village in Yunnan Province but for some reason the leader of the group that assisted us in the region didn’t want us to go there. My assistant felt differently. So, despite objections from the lead guide, we got in a taxi and went to find the village. When we explained our mission to the driver, he said, “My aunt has bound feet, and she lives in that village.”
It turned out that the elderly women living there are well known throughout China as members of the Little Feet Dancing Troupe. Even though the practice was banned more than 80 years ago, the women were proud of their small feet.

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