The innocence and ignorance of infancy had shielded me from the political and cultural turmoil that await the destiny of every Tibetan.
The ongoing struggles in and outside my country had engulfed every life around me to which, I as a child, remained completely ignorant. I have only hazy memories of my birthplace — Denma, which is a county in the Kham region of Tibet and is popularly known to others as the birthplace of King Gesar's General Denma.
The year I turned six, my family shifted to Lhasa — the capital of Tibet — in search of better livelihood. At the young age of six and seven, even in my wildest dreams, I had never thought of crossing the gigantic Himalayas — sacred mountains in the minds of Tibetans.
The following is the story of my journey in exile starting from my childhood memories in Lhasa and the treacherous journey I had to undertake at the young age of eight to escape to India.
My Destiny with the Himalayas
In the year 1999, one frosty midnight, my mother woke me up and quietly whispered that I must get ready for a journey. With great excitement and joy, I got ready for this life-changing journey — a journey that took me away from my home raised by a single mother but sowed in me the seeds of a never-ending desire to return and reclaim what is rightfully mine.
Since it was dark, I could barely see her teary eyes. That night became the tipping point of my life. I was to be accompanied by three people (one of them was my uncle) who steered the uncertain journey and brought me to India. I saw my mother exchanging some words with them. Had she seemed so sad that night, I would have surely asked her about the journey.
But as is said about the Kham people, my mom wore the mask of a warrior and loaded me in a truck to be sent away from her forever. My mother’s stoic face is the last thing I remember of home.
After travelling in a vehicle for several days, we were unloaded at a place (couldn’t recall the name) a bit far away from Lhasa.
Thereafter, we started our entire journey on foot alone which took almost two months' time. I was eight years old by the time we finished this journey.
I remember I was packed with four pairs of shoes for this entire journey and none of them held out. I had no consciousness of what I was leaving behind. In the initial few days, there wasn't much exhaustion or reluctance in my mind because I was not aware of the destination nor the finality of this journey.
Only after a week-long journey on foot, I asked my uncle about the destination we were heading to. To keep my hopes up, my uncle would say that the next mountain I see is the destination. We also faced a shortage of food on the way. We had two bags full of Tsampa — roasted barley — for this entire journey which, unfortunately, was not sufficient beyond the first few weeks.
We also had some Chinese biscuits which we called, quite tellingly, as the army biscuit. The only memorable meal from my journey is when we stopped at a plain far away from Lhasa and ate delicious noodles at a Chinese Muslim restaurant.
Sometimes the taste and smell of the noodles still return to me. That meal was, perhaps, the height of luxury for us in those days.
Every day I could see the majestic Himalayas welcoming us. The freezing cold temperature tested our endurance as we walked on with torn shoes sans protective sunglasses. We were surrounded by snow with a shivering temperature burning my eyes.
I still remember how we used to boil snow in our kettle and use the boiled water to knead Tsampa. We even ate the carcass of a Yak which we found completely frozen and stuck in the snow.
Beyond a point we were asked to sleep in the daytime and walk at night to escape from the eagle-eyes of the Chinese soldiers at the borders.
We only had a tarpaulin which we used as a shelter wherever we rested and camped. I remember crying loudly when we used to be drenched with heavy rainfall while we were sleeping.
While walking at night, the most difficult part was when I had to cross rivers. Sometimes, they carried me on their backs. Sometimes, I walked and got completely drenched, almost drowning at times.
But my uncle never let my spirit down. When I look back, I feel quite fortunate I made that arduous journey. There are many Tibetans like me who were discovered on the way, some were sent back and many were killed.
Stories of Tibetans getting shot by the Chinese army while crossing the Himalayas is a common affair. What if I were in one such herd? What would have been my destiny?
These questions never stop reminding me how fortunate I have been to be alive. Our hide and seek journey ended when we crossed Mount Kailash — after a month’s journey. That was the first time I saw Mount Kailash which is deeply revered by Tibetans as ‘Kang Rinpoche’ meaning ‘Precious Snow Mountain’.
I saw some Tibetans prostrating there and then even my companions prostrated. Now that I remember the awe I felt, I feel the mountain is a marker of the central place nature holds in the interlinked cultures of India and Tibet.
After several days from there, we finally entered Nepal. For the first time, I saw lizards on giant boulders. If I am not mistaken, I drank Coca-Cola for the first time in a small shop on our way. My companions heaved a sigh of relief as if in an unsaid understanding, it was seen as a sign that we were now out of danger.
I was still unaware of my destination. One night, we stayed in a Nepalese rented room. To my complete surprise, we were given rice and lentils for dinner. I was taken aback when I saw the owner of the room eating with hands.
Who would have thought that in my life in India rice and lentils would eventually become my go to meal. Since we didn't have enough money, we couldn't board a plane to the nearest location of the Tibetan Reception Centre in Nepal from a bank of river that stretches long.
So, we had to walk yet another eight days to reach the reception centre. When we reached the reception centre, we were given rooms and clothes. We were then sent to New Delhi by bus. In Delhi, we were received by Tibetan Reception Centre. It was very hot and mosquitoes didn't let us sleep peacefully, both of these were novel experiences for me. After a week, we were finally sent to Dharamshala — the abode of His Holiness the Dalai lama.
We were told that we will have an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama soon. My affair with mango started from there as well. It was and still is one of my favourite fruits.
A day came when we were called for an audience with His Holiness. It was in his residence. I was in the middle of the audience. As soon as His Holiness arrived, my surrounding people started crying. I didn't know the reason behind their cry. Such was the level of my ignorance. How many Tibetans are still there in Tibet who don't even know His Holiness and truth about our country?
After the audience, we were personally allowed to meet His Holiness; he offered me a portrait of Avalokiteshvara and told me to study hard. In response, I just nodded my head. That blessing continues to help me. When I look back, I feel so fortunate to have been able to come into India and educate myself.
A land full of ancient wisdom — once transmitted into Tibet in older centuries — with a smell of democracy that nurtures bonsai democracy like ours in Exile. Above all, I had the privilege of experiencing the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi — an epitome of peace for today’s time.
Today, there are many Tibetans who wish to come into exile but with China's tightening clutches at the border, they continue to live a life in an open prison.
As the CPC celebrates its 100th year, it continues to erase our collective history and our shared past, and most importantly the lived experiences and memories of journeys like mine. We Tibetans will never yield, we will return to our homeland, and restore our way of life.
This account of my journey into exile is dedicated to all the Tibetans who were sent back to Tibet while attempting to escape.
May we all see each other soon.
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