Given the current serious state of affairs in Tibet, and the somber Losar celebrations this year throughout the Tibetan refugee community world-wide, brings back memories of my own trip to Tibet some 21 years ago. At that time, the country was also under lock down mode by the Chinese government with no passage in or out, yet I and a half tibetan reincarnate tulku snuck in from the mainland so that he could be enthroned at his previous incarnation’s monastery. A long story not touched upon here 🙂
1991 China was still in the era of Deng Xiaoping, struggling with conflicting political and social forces, both liberalizing and conservative, yet still very much closed to western influence. Using the earliest form of stealth technology ( ie being inconspicuous) we had managed to sneak in to Tibet thanks to the help of a wily old tibetan monk and the financial proclivity of a police inspector and his vehicle that made regular trips in and out of the region.
Our trip in from Chengdu was appropriately dark, rainy and cloudy, bumping down logging roads carved into the steep banks of the Yellow river. Just like in a Sung dynasty painting, we rolled in and out of thick fog covered valleys, heavily forested mountain sides and blissfully beautiful vistas that opened up along the way. Hiding each night and catching only a few hours of sleep, constantly praying for both protection and success to our journey, we endured weeks of privation so that we could eventually reach this isolated Khampa community living at some 4000 metres height. Passing over a 4000 meter pass and starting the journey into Tibet proper, we were suddenly struck with a thunderously blue sky and sweeping green steppe countryside.
On our journey into that wondrous land, we were confronted with a very stark but beautiful environment, one that would not forgive any fool for too long. Weather could change drastically in an instant from sunny to freezing and back again in rapid succession. Incredible valleys covered in high grasses, a blue sky that was a deep azure and seemed to continue on until infinity, freezing Himalayan streams of clear pale blue waters, and scenes of massive cultural destruction everywhere. Thousands of Tibetan monastic cities had been obliterated and their once thriving communities scattered to the four winds. The remnants of many a temple or monastic center were everywhere to be seen.
Yet, despite the obvious signs of attempted cultural obliteration that greeted near every vista, we met with a tough, resilient and happy people, that remained as unconquered by the harsh environment as with their new red overlords from the east. The landscape seemed to have a proclivity to carve out strong personalities, and made our pampered western lifestyles and personalities pale in comparison. Jagged rocks, jagged faces, rough-hewn houses and facial characteristics, each contrasting and yet complimenting the other.
To label these people that we met as simple would be a great misnomer and injustice. They seemed accustomed to the vast space that surrounded them, almost resting in it, as me and my companion sucked in each breath at the 4000 meter altitude. At times greeted with suspicion, (as one would be with invaders that always took and never gave) on seeing our malas and other religious items faces quickly broke into wide smiles and we were quickly plied with salt tea, momos and air-dried meat.
Watching the tv reports of late, imagining the continuing harshness of the land and their new overlords, you cannot help but remark on the Tibetan people’s indomitable spirit. I pray sincerely that their struggles for the freedom to live their lives as they choose are close.