‘One of the Windows’

Photographer Nicolas Marino tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite photographs from Tibet

By / March 2012

It’s always cold in Tibet. I don’t mind the cold. After a strenuous day on my bicycle, traveling the steep, shattered paths along the Dri Chu River in the rain, my body needs rest more than warmth. I am physically exhausted. I need a place to sleep.

When I come upon a settlement with maybe 10 houses on the side of a mountain, I realize it has taken me at least 10 hours to do about 35 miles or less. That is nothing. In good conditions, I can do about 70 miles in five hours.

I can’t ride any longer. I get off my bike and push it through the alley between the houses. The road is a combination of mud and yak shit, and I sink in to my knees. I’m looking for anyone who might be able to house me for a few hours. I can’t find anyone. Everything is completely silent, which is not surprising. People live inward in Tibet.

Eventually, I spot a Lama walking down the hill toward me. He smiles at me with an incredibly natural smile, full of compassion. I can tell he’s trying to figure out what to make out of me being there, covered in mud with a bicycle. I speak some Tibetan, but not enough for us to communicate. So we end up using sign language, and I tell him I’m looking for place to sleep. From what I can gather, he tells me I can stay at his home. He turns and walks very slowly up the hill. I follow him.

It turns out he lives in a home that is typical of the region: a small fortress with very thick walls and few openings. It isn’t until after I get some sleep that I take out my camera, and I find the Lama reciting his prayers by one of the windows. It’s beautiful how light pours though and creates a warm and cozy atmosphere.

He isn’t bothered when I sit nearby and snap a couple pictures. He looks at me with curiosity and then returns to his contemplative posture, his fingers moving deliberately from one bead to the next on his Tibetan rosary. He is fully engaged in his thoughts. My contemplating takes place behind my viewfinder. I’m fully aware of the place I’m in.

Argentinean photographer Nicolas Marino, 33, has traveled the world by bike the past six years.

I stay the night. The mother cooks for me like my mom does back in Argentina. “Are you cold?” She asks. “Do you want a blanket? Do you want to eat more?” Before my cup is empty, she fills it with more yak milk tea.

They are not used to seeing foreigners at all, and here I am, a complete stranger who came out of nowhere. But they welcome me. This woman, like most women in Tibet, even wraps me up to my neck in blankets at night. They take care of me like a son. When I leave the next morning I am sad.

Good portraits that move our souls are not a result of passing by and sticking a camera in front of people. They come from relating to them and establishing a link with them. The main reason why I travel is people to connect with people.

Traveling has always been my passion and I have the added benefit of using my camera to tell the world about it. I’ve cycled more than 14,000 miles across 45 countries. My favorite place to ride is Tibet. I’ve taken six major trips and several short ones across the region.

This trip last September was one of my most extreme journeys. For 24 days I traveled on remote roads, made of dirt, stones, or gravel and covered with holes, mud, and snow. No main roads. I wanted to document the lives of people in the Kham province, which has the highest concentration of Tibetan culture, more than in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

There’s something about me that likes adventure and pushing the limits. It’s an extension of my parents. I grew up in family where it was common for my parents to pack my sister and me in a car and start traveling to remote places in Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay.

My first trip by bike came in 2006. It took 10 months. I went from Tehran, Iran to Shanghai, China. I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know how to fix a bike or keep a cadence while riding. I didn’t know how to climb up a mountain. I didn’t know how to pitch a tent. It was all new. I was learning on the run. I was less adventurous. I wouldn’t take as many risks. I wouldn’t dare go more remote.

Now I’ve grown into it. I’ve equipped myself with the best gear available. I’m less afraid of spending days in middle of nowhere. I’ve endured blizzards. I’ve biked through deserts and jungles and at high altitude. It’s hard to stop. It becomes an addiction.

To many people I’m out of my mind. But for me it’s not crazy. It’s a natural progression.


— as told to Brandon Hoops