A Documentary: Tibetan Medicine!

View from the peak of Haizi Mountain

My friend and I teamed up with a cameraman and an audio engineer and drove for twelve hours from Chengdu up to the Tibetan highlands of Zamtang. The four of us spent two weeks in Zamtang, filming the process of Tibetan medicine-making. I was excited to learn from the crew, but frankly, I was rather nervous about directing a crew with two professionals. As soon as we arrived in Zamtang, we were joined by a Tibetan interpreter, and we arranged a meeting with the professors of the Tibetan medicine institution to discuss the filming process. It was quite a challenge—the making of medicine from herb picking to the finished product takes months, but we had to find a way to film all of the steps in two weeks.

To determine the filming times for the upcoming days, we first had to film the process of a Tibetan medicine professor calculating the optimal times to harvest – the time during the day when herbs are harvested is crucial to their effectiveness. He sat on a cushion and scribbled on a wooden board smothered in incense ash, as we silently watched him from behind the cameras. Each stroke drawn on the board created small puffs of ash, slowly evanescing into the air.

For the next few days, we followed a group of medical students and their teacher to a number of locations to pick herbs. The sun shimmered in the sky as we followed the students in a single-file line; our eyes were solely focused on the stones in the narrow path, while we constantly tried to decide where to take the next step and avoid dropping the cameras and audio equipment at the same time. The medical students, on the other hand, sprung effortlessly up the path, swiftly dodging the overgrown branches in their way—my friend described their movements as those of goats (to be clear, that was a compliment). When herbs were spotted, we paused to film. While we zoomed our camera lenses capturing the veins of leaves and the fuzz on stems, the teacher would lecture his students about the herbs.

On some days, we fought our way through thick shrubs and stumbled on narrow paths. On other days, we climbed mountains with rocks piling upon each other straight into the sky, as if the mountains had no slope. Neither SUVs, motorcycles, nor horses could help us reach the herbs; all we could rely on were our own feet. The students scaled mountains and reached under enormous rocks, just to pick a handful of the fluorescent flowers hidden under. Trying to keep my balance, I held my breath along with my video camera and tripod, recording the effort it took to harvest the best herbs. The high altitude of 4300m and low oxygen levels made it more difficult for us to hike. However, when we finally made it to the top of the mountain, I was no longer out of breath but struck by the surrounding serenity. The vast mountain range and lakes in the distance once again reminded me why I cherished Zamtang so much, and why I looked forward to visiting every summer since I was 9 years old.

The weather was not always pleasant, and there were days when we had to stop between filming because of rain and hail. We often had to alter our plans to fit the weather and so as not to disrupt the process of medicine-making. The teachers and the students, however, were never deterred by the unpredictable weather. To them, harvesting herbs and making medicine is part of their spiritual life and practice. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to join them on their journey in nature.

 

Documentary crew!

Herb picking near a sacred lake

Filming with camera and drone

Curing herbs in a kiln

Medical students and film crew