by Robert Demko
My journey to eastern Tibet, the Cham area, and Lhasa was not a tour, but rather an adventure into the hearts of people and my own heart as we shared not only material assistance, but our deep personal experiences. I traveled with 5 others, one American, a doctor, and four Australians, all of us representing the Tibetan Village Project or TVP, a group dedicated to providing educational and community services to over 50 villages in the outlying areas of Tibet.
When I met Tamdin Wangdu, the TVP director, for the first time five years ago I was extremely moved by his story. While attempting to escape from Tibet in order to see the Dalai Lama he was wounded by Chinese soldiers. Despite this he made his way across Nepal to Dharamsala in India. He was hospitalized, and then studied with the Dalai Lama for two years. With the teacher’s encouragement he received his green card, studied, became a US citizen then went on to obtain an MBA from CSU and is now a successful businessman. When his father, who remained in Tibet, died without medical care in extreme pain, Tamdin founded the Tibetan Village Project to help his fellow Tibetans.
But Tamdin is not alone. Hundreds of thousands, young and old from every part of Tibet have made this journey across the Himalayas since the Dalai Lama left. Many died in the mountains and others were turned back by Nepalese police who have an agreement with China to do so. Their stories have rarely been told and neither China nor Dharamsala will speak about this migration openly. This year Tamdin was denied a visa due to Tibetan unrest and general Chinese fear of foreign influence by NGO’s, evidence of which I would see throughout the journey.
Don Collier, a member of the TVP board and our point man, picked me up at the Cheng Du airport and drove me to the Traffic Hotel, unpretentious and convenient, situated on a sluggish polluted river. The Chinese fishermen on its banks were said to eat their catch, but the thought horrified me. Next day we visited the Panda preserve (cute, cute), a temple, and planned our trip together.
We loaded two vans and set out north along a deep green valley arriving in Conding, a day’s drive from Cheng Du and just below the Tibetan plateau. We stayed there for a while to buy clothes and medical, educational and building supplies for the schools and communities we will visit. Conding is a small jewel of a city set in a deep ravine, the walls of which are carved with wonderful ancient images of the Buddha. Its Buddhist temple has a huge prayer wheel turned constantly by local Tibetans. The roar of rushing water echoes in the narrow valley.
Soon we were on the road again traveling along a deep green valley which gradually became more stark and barren as we headed farther north. The bone rattling road was barely passable in some places. We began to see yak herds everywhere accompanied by yurts of nomads dark on the side of hills. We climbed over a high mountain pass marked by prayer flags and saw below us the bleak and grey Tibetan plateau marked by a long runway used by the Chinese air force. And beyond this in the far distance our first destination, Logon or Taigon in Chinese, where we stayed for a week. Here we helped monastery school children with school supplies and medical care and assisted the town in building two large greenhouses.
Our maroon-robed host, Abu, welcomed me to his flat by holding me around the chest and gently placing his ear to my heart as if taking in the quality of my life. I know he did this with others, but it was so tender and personal that he made me feel as if I were the only one alive. Their apartment is a major center for the Logon community as everyone—children, mothers, merchants and those just hanging out on the streets—stopped in for a cup of buttered tea and loving conversation. So many impressions linger with me.
The soft, sweet, doughy dumplings that Hammi, Abu’s sister, made for us each morning with so much loving care.
The strong women who appeared each morning ready to break and carry stone with their picks and baskets. Their colorful skirts and wide brimmed hats.
The high grey brown hills that surround the town with their monolithic Om Mani Padme Hum constructed with large white granite stones and prayer flags that loomed over the ancient monastery.
The town’s children singing as they raced around the temple’s towering walls at dawn. The monk’s deep chanted prayers, especially those they sent to Errol Drake for her successful back surgery.
The dark, mysterious monastery recesses where perfectly preserved, 1500 year old frescos seemed to glow with their own internal fire.
A golden kwan yin looking down with her sweet wisdom.
The roar of quarry trucks and motorcycles on Taigon’s main street, their choking white dust billowing behind.
As well as the thunder of short, sturdy horses, Chain Mongolian men dashing and wheeling across the Tibetan plateau.
But most of all I remember the children’s bright, open, curious faces as they received their gifts of toys, school supplies and clothes, their looks of pure joy as they learned to skip rope 5 at a time. The shyness they showed as they tried to pronounce the English words we taught them. Most were learning a trade, but several had decided to become monks. The polite pained looks as they tried the stir fry we cooked for them.
A communal school festival, the children’s quick joyful steps, the scene filled with rainbow bright flags and robes that helped me forget the day’s heat. The new stone garden walls built in a few days I feel will last a thousand years. The quiet, firm voice of Abu as he told us of his mother and father who had been deported to a labor camp during the cultural revolution in the 70s and who had died soon after their return, all of this a childhood memory.
And the bon shaman, Willy, respected for his healing ability and seeming to be present everywhere, his broad rimmed hat, thigh high boots and long sleeved sheep skin coat, his face smooth and still, with eyes that were at once light brown, hazel and green, shoulder length hair nearly white. He loved to listen to the children read, spoke little and played with them for hours. In his stillness he seemed to hold a deep secret.
One day we took five boys to get new shoes to replace their tattered ones. Immediately an instant community party gathered as everyone discussed their choices, mostly tennis shoes, eager to share in these boy’s fortune.
Across the street next to the motorcycle repair shop was a pool hall filled with locals wiling away the afternoon. Someone handed me a cue stick and I thought, what am I to do with this, I can barely see the table. But OK. Someone broke and the balls scattered. I touched the pocket, the ball I must aim at, and the cue ball. I took the stick seeing only to its tip, relaxing I felt and saw in my mind the exact alignment and with this took my shot. The crowd went crazy or at least my three partners did. In the ball went and then another and a third though in each case I needed someone to tell me this. A ringer they called me, but in this was a lesson, relax and trust the wisdom within. Perhaps this is the way Beethoven heard his music and I could take a photograph.
With many goodbys to Abu and many new friends our small caravan continued our journey. We bucked and skidded our way along a rock studded path following a deep ravine. A multitude of thin waterfalls fed the rushing water at our side. After a half day’s shaking, the path became a road that entered a lush green valley, its sides marked with prayers built of stone and prayer flags.
Along the way we visited villages, schools and farms that TVP had visited previously. At many places we gave donations of school materials and set up triage clinics for Tibetans who rarely had seen a doctor. At several houses the portrait of the Dalai Lama held a place of honor. Here seven villages had banded together to battle a dam project enlisting the help of influential friends. This project if completed would have meant their eviction.
And here I spoke with a young man who at the age of 10 decided to see the Dalai Lama. He saved 40 dollars over 5 years then set out walking across the 800 miles of the Tibetan plateau, arrived in Lhasa after 3 months, worked there and soon gathered a group of 25 fellow travelers. Eventually most of them arrived in Dharamsala, many with frostbite and suffering starvation. After several years my new friend decided to return to Tibet to care for his ailing parents.
Most nights I slept in a tent near small farm houses, the rain beating down steadily in torrents. In the morning I arose to low lying clouds sitting on the mountains and a 1000 year old stone watch tower in perfect condition, the scene reminding me of mornings in Scotland.
One night we attended a party where potent rice whisky with a caterpillar on the bottom of each glass flowed endlessly. A group of young girls performed a traditional Tibetan dance and, later, teenagers moved to American rock and roll. I remember through my whisky haze one nunnery school girl with dark robes and short black hair dancing gracefully to the foreign beat. We visited perhaps a dozen schools, some private, others Chinese run. Blue paint chipped from walls and few having any books or supplies. The Chinese-controlled schools often had a blackboard depiction of a Chinese pagoda with the red hammer and sickle flag of Communist China and a sun above it. Below read ‘teshey delay’ or thank you in Tibetan, a reminder of how much Tibet owed their Chinese masters.
On our last day before returning to Conding and Cheng Du we visited a cool mineral spring filled with pinks, blues and greens. A small girl followed me everywhere handing me the cane I carried when I put it down. And then a final festival of dancing and spicy delicacies in a remote village.
In Conding we were questioned informally by a plain clothes policeman. And from his questions we knew we were followed the whole course of our journey.
But what about my three day side trip to Lhasa? As I ambled down the street near Lokang Temple for the first time I wanted to talk about everything I had seen. My guide kept shushing me as he scanned the tops of buildings across the street. Later he told me that well armed troops with sensitive listening devices watched the crowds for signs of trouble from the tops of buildings. One night I visited a Tibetan neighborhood where kids played easily and laughing parents sat on stoops. Soon a line of troops marched quickly by. Children and bystanders scattered. The Tibetan Village Project store managed by Tibetans for the sale of village handicrafts is under constant guard by these troops and names of customers recorded.
Tibetans still circle the Potala and Lokang Temple the centers of Tibetan culture, as they have done for so many centuries, but now they are under the eyes of Chinese troops. Their route carries them through large areas turned into shopping malls, rimmed with apartment buildings tenanted by the new Han Chinese minority.
The mountains above the city, the Potala and Lokang Temple moved me with their beauty and history. And monks still chant their Buddhist debates. And yet much of the city has lost the signs of its ancient Tibetan culture, although that which remains resembles shrines kept for tourists rather than sacred sites. The Potala stands like a beached whale in the newly modernized city. The sacred lakes in the mountains above the city are now mostly despoiled reservoirs. The cult of modernization so prevalent across China now envelops most of Lhasa. Tibetans lacking the health care and educational opportunities of the newly introduced Hans are treated as second class citizens struggling bravely for their survival.
Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries European settlers in America eager for land and resources and secure in their cultural superiority conquered the lands of native Americans much as eastern Chinese have done to Tibet. And yet if you ask the Chinese government or its people as I did while there about the Tibetans, they shrug or point to their “gifts” of modernization as justification. Tibetans in Chinese eyes have become the Other, a process used by all at war and conquest to justify their actions.
Tibetans stand bravely in the defense of their heritage and yet the Chinese, while not controlling the people’s hearts, claim the right to use Tibet as they wish. And the surging Chinese economic power makes it difficult to contest this control. So for now it seems speaking out in the face of injustice and standing in the certainty that circumstances will change must be the current practice. The Dalai Lama told a reporter once that if Buddhism is needed in the world it will survive. So we must look to our own hearts to know Buddhism’s relevance to each of us.