Walking on the Sky: A Young Tibetan Refugee’s Escape Story

When the food ran out, we were scared, but we had to go on whether we died or not.

  Tenzin, Tibetan refugee

Amdo chorten, photo by M. Newman

Chorten in Amdo by Martin Newman

This is the story of a 23-year-old Tibetan refugee named Tenzin who in 1994 survived a harrowing escape from Tibet. Like most of the over 100,000 Tibetans who have fled their country since its invasion by China in 1950, Tenzin walked to freedom through the heart of the Himalayas.

For six months, he struggled to reach the safety of the Nepali capital of Kathmandu — sometimes walking through knee-deep snow, sometimes carried on his friend’s back, when his feet were too frostbitten to walk. On the journey, he was robbed, jailed by the Nepali police, deported back to Tibet, and brutally beaten by the Chinese border guards.

The following account of Tenzin’s journey is based on interviews with YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon conducted in Dharamsala, Northern India, in July and August of 1995. In order to protect his identity, and that of his family still under Chinese rule in Tibet, “Tenzin’s” real name will not be used. The same precaution applies to the much-appreciated translator of over seven hours of interviews, “Thinley.”


Growing Up A Nomad

As a child, Tenzin rode horseback on the plains of Amdo, Tibet’s vast northwestern frontier region. He grew up in a family of nomad yak herders. In the summers, his family lived in a tent in a hill station; in the winter, we drove the yaks on horseback to a warmer place twenty kilometers away.

He is one of the lucky minority of ethnic Tibetans to receive schooling in their own language, for education in Chinese-occupied Tibet focuses on Chinese. After completing high school, Tenzin moved to near Labrang Monastery, one of the six major institutions of the Gelukpa sect, and attended classes on Buddhism for several years.

From Amdo to Lhasa

When he was 22, Tenzin decided to leave Tibet:

I wanted to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and I needed to learn English. Many foreign visitors came to Labrang Monastery, and I needed to be able to talk to them … to explain to them about the history of Tibet … how the Chinese invaded. Also, English speakers are rare in Amdo, so if I knew English, I might be able to get a job as a translator. So I needed to go to India.

Tenzin’s friends and family raised about $600 U.S. dollars worth of Chinese yuan for his journey, and in January of 1994, he left Amdo with a 27-year-old male companion. They spent one month in Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa, preparing for the trip. In Lhasa they found a man who sometimes acted as a professional guide for escapees to draw them a map.

For the journey, I brought a backpack with tsampa [roasted barley flour], butter, meat, a blanket, some Tibetan poetry, and one book on Buddhism: Shantideva’s Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. For clothes, I had what I was wearing, some running shoes, and a long coat. My friend brought a Tibetan sling shot.

Mountains, Caves, and Frostbite

The first few days of the journey were relatively uneventful, as Tenzin and his companion took southwest roads headed for the Nepali border, sometimes walking, sometimes hitching rides on trucks. At Lhaze (13,382 ft.), 300 miles out of Lhasa, they turned west off the road leading to the well-patrolled border bridge at Dram.

They would head instead for Saga, and from there attempt to find a path through the Himalayas to Nepal. They were able to hitch a truck ride for the 120 miles to Saga, telling the driver that they were on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain, Mt. Kailash.

When they arrived at Sagashin two days later, Tenzin confided in the driver then that they were escaping. The driver wanted to help them in some way but he said it was too dangerous. “I should help,” he said, “since we are all Tibetans, but I can’t.”

When they left, he said he’d pray for their success. Tenzin and his companion left on foot at three a.m. the next morning. On that day, they arrived at a large river, partially frozen over.

There was a boat crossing the river, but my friend thought that was too risky, and that we needed to walk across. We tested the thickness of the ice with a heavy stone. It seemed okay, and we were able to walk across. On the other side of the river was a big, empty landscape — no houses, no people — and our minds relaxed for a while.

They stayed in a cave that night, and on the next day’s walk encountered snow as they began to climb into the mountains.

It became very difficult to walk, because we were so high, and even two or three steps made me feel exhausted … After some time of walking in the snow, my feet began to swell from frostbite. We stopped, gathered some wood and made a fire, to try to heat my feet. At that point, my feet were swollen but not too bad. We spent a night there, pushing aside the snow to sleep on the ground. We had one blanket for both of us … We weren’t worried about the Chinese then because we knew they wouldn’t bother to come to such a place, but were wondering if we might die in the snow. We continued for two more days in that area … Our tsampa was nearly finished, and we couldn’t find wood to make a fire to melt snow, so we were very thirsty all the time. One night we spent in a cave.

They had no compass, so were navigating at that point by using the descriptions on their hand-drawn map from the guide in Lhasa.

When the food ran out, we were scared, but we decided that we needed to go on whether we died or not. We prayed, and kept moving.

That day, we climbed a mountain, and it got dark before we could reach the pass, so we had to turn around. The descent was very steep, and at one point, I fell and slid a long way down. I could hear my friend calling “Tenzin! Tenzin!” and “Dalai Lama” — maybe he thought I was going to die — but luckily I was all right.

When we got to the bottom of the mountain, I couldn’t walk by myself anymore — my feet were too swollen — so my friend supported me. That night our food was completely finished, so we had only tea. We were in a valley surrounded by mountains, and I thought we might die there.

The next day, we saw a village in the distance and we walked there, my friend still helping me walk.

Recovery in Nepali Villages

A kind old man took them into his room when they reached the village, which, they discovered, was Nepali. They had crossed the Tibeto-Nepali border at some unmarked point in the mountains.

Within three days, the effects of the frostbite were so severe that Tenzin couldn’t walk at all, not even to the toilet. The old man found them another room in which they could stay for free, only needing to pay for food, while Tenzin’s feet recovered.

There was frostbite on three toes on his left foot, and one toe on the right foot. Two months later, Tenzin was still unable to walk. Their money ran out, and Tenzin’s friend begged for food in the village. When Tibetan New Year — Losar — arrived, some people from a neighboring village came and offered to take them in.

My friend carried me on his back to that other village. There we stayed with a very kind family who gave us food and medicine for my feet.

They stayed for two more months in that second village, though it became increasingly dangerous because the Nepali police had become aware of their presence and were looking for them.

One day, someone brought a secret message that the police were coming looking for us. The family we were staying with found a place for us to hide, and told the police that we had come, stayed a few days and returned already to Tibet. The police went away, but the family was worried that they might still find us. We moved to a small monastery in the village and hid in an old lama’s room.

The police kept checking the village every few days. Tenzin’s feet were almost healed enough to begin walking again.

Most of my toes were better, but the big toe was still bad. Sometimes I could see the bone. I pulled off the dead skin myself, with my hand. My friend tried to help me, but he couldn’t stand to do it.

Finally, it was getting too dangerous, with the police looking for them almost every day, and the lama found a guide to take them, for free, to a place where they could catch a bus for Kathmandu. The people of the village collected 3000 Nepalese rupees (about $60 U.S.) for their journey.

When it came time to leave, everyone came to say good-bye. Some of the children were crying. We had been there for two months, and the people told us we could return if we needed to.

Coming Down from the Sky

The first mountain they had to cross was one of the highest on the journey.

We spent 11 hours climbing up to the pass of that big mountain. My feet were okay — not too bad. It was very cold. We walked sometimes on ice and the crust of the snow, and sometimes we sank up to our knees in snow. I was very worried — I knew that sometimes people just freeze to death in places like that. After the pass, the descent was very steep, very cold. My friend said he felt like he was walking on a sky ladder, it was so steep.

The guide lead them down off the snow, through big forests and rivers, to a village where the met the area’s chief of police, who was a friend of the guide.

The policeman walked one day with them. By that point, they were in more populated areas, and had to avoid villages and checkpoints for several days.

They lost the guide when they were discovered and chased by some villagers while walking along the road at night. Tenzin and his companion hid on the slope of a mountain until after two a.m., until the villagers gave up looking for them. They then descended and ran through the rain until they found a cave to stay in for a few hours.

In the morning, we climbed part way up a nearby mountain and waited for the guide. We took off our wet clothes and dried them in the sun. The guide never came, so we decided to head for a road we could see in the distance.

Capture by the Nepali Police

After avoiding several checkpoints on that road, they were finally caught by the Nepali police at a checkpoint on a bridge.

We knew about the checkpoint, and we didn’t have to go through it; we could have circled around it, but we were exhausted and very hungry, so we just took the chance of going through it.

The police locked them up for the night and the next morning took them to Pokhara by bus, where they were locked up with some Nepali prisoners in a jail. Three days later, twelve more Tibetans were brought in and on the fourth day they got on a police bus, which they were told would take them to the Tibetan Reception Center in Kathmandu. Instead, the bus arrived at the Tibet-Nepal border near Dram.

Deportation and Chinese Brutality

They were told to walk across the Friendship Bridge back into Tibet. But when they began to cross the bridge the Chinese border guards on the other side shouted at them to “Stop! Go Back!” After standing in the middle of the bridge for a while, ordered by Nepali police to go, and by Chinese police to stop, they finally did cross to Tibet. Two Chinese border guards on the bridge kicked all fourteen of them as they passed. They were registered and interrogated.

Then they took us to a pile of wood, gave us axes, and told us to chop wood. They said if we stopped working for even a few minutes that they’d tie us up. We worked for four hours. The police gave us their leftover food, some rice and vegetables, and ordered us to clean the kitchen. When we finished in the kitchen, the police stood in rows outside the door and told us to come out. There were about 20 of them and they beat us and kicked us as we came out the door, one by one. After that, they locked all 14 of us in a room too small for us to lie down, and we spent the night there.

The next day, they were taken to a military installation beyond the border town of Dram, where they were interrogated again, and taken to court with some other Tibetans.

In the evening a high official came to question each of us. He asked me, “Do you know Chinese law?” I said, “I know it … I know the punishment for what I did.” [escaping Tibet] He said, “I know you very well … I’ve seen your picture many times … I know you’ve been in India.” I told him that I’d never been to India and that if he had pictures he should show me, because I knew he didn’t have any.

The next morning, ten policemen singled out Tenzin for interrogation. They questioned and beat him for half an hour, then ordered him to sweep the interrogation room.

I thought, “Why are they doing this only to me?,” as they were punching my face and stomach. Half of my answers were lies, to protect myself, and my family.

 

Release, and a Second Attempt

After those interrogations, the entire group was driven to Lhasa by truck and released on the roadside near the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace. They were told to go home to their families, and not to try to escape again.

Tenzin borrowed money from an Amdo friend in Lhasa, and returned to his parents in Amdo. His parents told him that he must try again to go to India, because it would be too dangerous for him and the family if it became known to the local police that he had tried to escape. Incredibly, eight days later, he started out again.

This time, he joined a group of four Chinese people who were also fleeing China, and who wanted to find work abroad. They all paid 500 Chinese yuan (about $60 U.S.) to take a jeep to Dram, walking around checkpoints sometimes while the jeep waited for them on the other side. In Dram, the driver found them a Nepali guide, who they each paid 1000 Chinese yuan (about $120 U.S.).

They started walking from Dram one night at two a.m.. “It was too dark to see; we were like blind people.” By now it was June, and the mountains they were walking through were not full of snow. They walked for several days, crossing large rivers on logs, “walking, walking, walking.”

After they had crossed the border in the mountains, they were robbed by two Nepali men (of watches, and food money), but the guide’s friends met them soon after that and gave them more food.

Within a few days’ walk, they came to a more populated and less mountainous area near Kathmandu, where their guide was known, and where they were safer. They finally caught a bus to Kathmandu and arrived unharmed at the Tibetan Reception Center.

There, they were registered and given food and shelter. Tenzin was sent to a Tibetan Transit School in Dharamsala, Northern India. He left the school to participate in the Tibetan Peace March to Delhi of March 1995, and when he returned, began to work in a tea shop, 16 hours a day, 7 days a week.

He was able to leave that job when he was given a little money in the summer of 1995 by a foreign tourist, and begin finally his study of English. He still thinks about home.

I need to go home to Tibet after I learn English. If I go somewhere else, maybe I’ll feel strange. Tibet is my home.

 
We welcome your thoughts and opinions about Tenzin’s story, or your own personal experience, in the comments section below.
 
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By Lobsang Wangdu

 

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing and posting this amazing story of determination and courage. Over the years I have heard so many stories like this one and feel the realities for Tibetans are far too often overlooked. These gripping stories of escape, clearly illustrate the plight of Tibetans as well as their tenacity and strong spirit.
    Thu je Chey!

  2. Legshel Thakarpa says:

    Yolanda,
    I found your story very entertaining. I wanted to seek your permission to write a pilot or a feature film script based on Tenzin’s story.

    • Thanks so much, Legshel. We are happy to offer you permission to write a pilot or film script based on Tenzin’s story, providing that you give credit to YoWangdu.com if it gets produced. Are you a writer? Best of luck to you!

  3. Lin Eyer says:

    Tenzen’s story of bravery along with the kindness of those that helped him touches the deepest part of my heart . My prayer is that a day is coming soon where all Tibetans may travel where they choose and without fear. Here in the United States crime & violence is due to the private sector. It is my sincere wish that China wake up and realize how the world would embrace her if she would only recognize that all humans have the right to be, and follow their dreams without tyranny. Thank you for sharing such a courageous story. I believe it will offer others the realization that freedom is available to anyone determined enough. Namaste.

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