© Kino International
© Kino International

Kino International, 2001
Directed by Eric Valli
109 minutes, in Tibetan with English subtitles

When Eric Valli, a photographer for National Geographic, author, and documentarian, got the urge to film a salt caravan in the Dolpo region of Nepal, he wanted, he says, to pay homage to an extraordinary culture on the verge of transformation by the encroaching tides of tourism and modernity. But the prospect of shooting for months at fifteen thousand feet made the project seem like

a pipe dream. It was Thinlen Lhondup, an old Dolpopa chief and Valli’s friend of twenty years, who convinced the photographer to make the movie. He told Valli, “You need to do this for the Dolpo. People should know what we have been.” In Himalaya, Lhondup’s culture gets its homage, and filmgoers get a lush, engaging film (in which Lhondup stars) that was a 1999 Oscar nominee for best foreign film, and is happily getting national distribution in the U.S. this year.

Secluded by a horseshoe-shaped fortress of mountains in northwestern Nepal, Dolpo is said to be the world’s last bastion of unadulterated Tibetan Buddhist culture. Tourists are still barred from the region, and for a foreigner, Valli has unprecedented intimacy with the area and its inhabitants; he actually accompanied some dozen times the salt caravan he films.

Valli captures the stark and gorgeous scenery of the area as he would for National Geographic, along with cameos of traditional culture: women washing clothes in dancelike unison; lamas making astrological predictions; a sky burial; the remarkable “sunglasses,” made from strands of yak hair stretched across the caravaneers’ faces, which they don in the aftermath of a blizzard to prevent sun blindness.

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