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My STORY

I was born in Amdo Tsonung, Tibet....

My village’s name was Windu, the same village in which the 10th Panchen Lama was discovered. Growing up, I didn’t know who my father was and I didn’t meet him until I was 16 years old. He had another family, and didn’t care for me. When I was 10 years old my mother grew very ill. No-one knew what was wrong with her, and with no local hospital to go to, she died a year later. My 2-year-old little brother was sent to live with my mother’s twin sister, whilst I had to go and live in my uncle’s home, working for him as a nomad. Later, when he was older, my brother contracted a disease which, because he couldn’t get treatment, left him disabled in both legs. When he was thirteen, he passed away suddenly.  

When I was growing up at first I was chosen to be a ngakpa (Tibetan shaman/yogi). And so my hair was cut to be short on the sides and bottom but leaving a long pony-tail on top. I wasn’t happy, I didn’t want to be a ngakpa and I really wanted long hair, like the mandolin players I had seen. And because I had long hair all the kids used to be able to catch me and hold onto my pony-tail when we were playing. Later, my grandfather decided I should be a monk, so he shaved off all of my hair. I was so afraid of the razor, I cried every time he did it. And I didn’t want to be a monk. I still wanted my long hair. Later, when I was working as a nomad, I would spend three or four months away from home with the herds and then I would come back. My hair would have grown so long but my uncle’s wife used to cut it when I slept (she said I looked like a girl!) so I would wake up with nothing left. But she would cut it in a really ugly way – with big scissors and unevenly. There was no hairdresser to do it for me!

 

When I was 16 though people stopped trying to cut my hair. That year I had become very big, very strong and tall. And my hair had gotten very long as well. That Losar I participated in the shooting competition where you have to shoot a musket from horseback at a target. At this time we also race carrying large arrows to the mountain top to offer them to the god. Everyone was looking at me – I shot the musket well, and I was wearing a tsaru chupa (lined with sheepskin from young lambs – a really high quality chupa!) my grandfather had made for me. Everyone was asking who was I? At that time I felt really proud, I sang, raced and shot well and made my Grandfather proud as well. And then no-one ever told me to cut my hair again! In fact, I never again shaved my head until 2008 when I cut off all my hair in solidarity with writers and musicians in Tibet who at that time had shaved their heads to demonstrate their lack of freedom and solidarity with those imprisoned in Chinese jails whose heads are shaved by the guards. When I was around 17, I visited my local city for the first time. Prior to that, I had worked as a nomad in the countryside. I loved the animals I worked with, the sheep, the dogs. Before visiting the city I had never thought I wanted to do anything else. But on that visit, I had found myself lost and confused, unable to ask anyone for the way home because I spoke no Chinese. I suddenly realized that I needed an education. It was then that the idea to run away to Lhasa occurred to me. My uncle had no plans to educate me – he only thought to use me to work for him. Moreover, I no longer had any family to be responsible for, all having passed away. So, one Losar (Tibetan New Year), myself and a friend, who had saved a little money, packed our things and headed towards the capital. We first headed to Xining, our local city, where we bought what we thought was a bus ticket to Lhasa. We found out later, however, that the ticket would only take us half way. We sold all our belongings, clothes, and jewellery to purchase the second half of our ticket. Because we couldn’t pay for the ticket in full, for one night we had to cling on to the back of the bus. By the time we arrived in Lhasa we were completely black from head to foot and frozen cold. But we were happy. We spent all night trying to find the Potala Palace (historic home of the Dalai Lamas) but couldn’t understand any of the directions given to us by Tibetan locals, who spoke with a different accent. And we didn’t understand Chinese either. By morning, however, we found the Potala with no difficulty, rising as it does over the city. We were so emotional to see it. This was the home of the Dalai Lamas that I had learnt all about. We wept, we were so happy.    

When I was 16 though people stopped trying to cut my hair. That year I had become very big, very strong and tall. And my hair had gotten very long as well. That Losar I participated in the shooting competition where you have to shoot a musket from horseback at a target. At this time we also race carrying large arrows to the mountain top to offer them to the god. Everyone was looking at me – I shot the musket well, and I was wearing a tsaru chupa (lined with sheepskin from young lambs – a really high quality chupa!) my grandfather had made for me. Everyone was asking who was I? At that time I felt really proud, I sang, raced and shot well and made my Grandfather proud as well. And then no-one ever told me to cut my hair again! In fact, I never again shaved my head until 2008 when I cut off all my hair in solidarity with writers and musicians in Tibet who at that time had shaved their heads to demonstrate their lack of freedom and solidarity with those imprisoned in Chinese jails whose heads are shaved by the guards.

When I was around 17, I visited my local city for the first time. Prior to that, I had worked as a nomad in the countryside. I loved the animals I worked with, the sheep, the dogs. Before visiting the city I had never thought I wanted to do anything else. But on that visit, I had found myself lost and confused, unable to ask anyone for the way home because I spoke no Chinese. I suddenly realized that I needed an education. It was then that the idea to run away to Lhasa occurred to me. My uncle had no plans to educate me – he only thought to use me to work for him. Moreover, I no longer had any family to be responsible for, all having passed away. So, one Losar (Tibetan New Year), myself and a friend, who had saved a little money, packed our things and headed towards the capital.

We first headed to Xining, our local city, where we bought what we thought was a bus ticket to Lhasa. We found out later, however, that the ticket would only take us half way. We sold all our belongings, clothes, and jewellery to purchase the second half of our ticket. Because we couldn’t pay for the ticket in full, for one night we had to cling on to the back of the bus. By the time we arrived in Lhasa we were completely black from head to foot and frozen cold. But we were happy. We spent all night trying to find the Potala Palace (historic home of the Dalai Lamas) but couldn’t understand any of the directions given to us by Tibetan locals, who spoke with a different accent. And we didn’t understand Chinese either. By morning, however, we found the Potala with no difficulty, rising as it does over the city. We were so emotional to see it. This was the home of the Dalai Lamas that I had learnt all about. We wept, we were so happy.

 

 

But our difficulties were not at an end. We reached Lhasa penniless and looking like beggars – we were so black from the fumes of the bus and had sold all our nice clothes. Once in Lhasa, I had nothing to buy food with, and consequently did not eat for three days. After the third day I was very dizzy and seeing double. Finally I managed to get a job washing dishes at a restaurant (my friend had left me for a job with another friend). Life was hard – I only earned 150 yen per month, and I experienced many language difficulties. I sang for my living as well, at night in the clubs but since I could only sing in Tibetan I earned very little. Singing in Chinese would have earned me more, but at that time I couldn’t speak the language. I worked at this restaurant with another pot-washer. We worked during the day at the restaurant and slept in the restaurant at night. In the beginning I used to spend all my money going to the clubs (nangma) – all I wanted to do was sing and be like the other Tibetan boys in Lhasa, spending money all night, drinking and dancing. Then one day, I met my fellow pot-washer’s brother. I’d seen him about the city before, near the Tsuglakhang begging, but I never knew he was the brother of the man I worked with. Anyway, this night he came to sleep in the restaurant with us. His brother offered him food when he arrived, but he declined – he didn’t want to get him into trouble. Then we began watching TV, we were planning to stay up late – we didn’t normally get a chance to watch TV. But the beggar brother didn’t want to stay up late. He told me, tomorrow is the 15th day of the month, lots of people will be coming to do the kora (circumambulation) around the Potala, and I want to be there at 3am so that I can make the most of this begging day. This boy was only seven years old yet he was making plans to get up early to beg – a hard job, and one I hadn’t succeeded at when I first came to Lhasa. It turned out that he and his brother and father had attempted to escape to India when their mother had died, but they had been caught by the Chinese army who had taken all their money and possessions and left them penniless and alone in Lhasa. Their father had had to travel far away to find work, the other brother had found a job as a dishwasher and the younger had been left to beg. That this boy, this young boy, was working so hard, getting up so early to save and save money so that he and his family to try to go back to India was so inspiring for me. Until then I had been merrily spending my money, living the Lhasa life, wasting it on clubs. Now I began to work hard, practising making noodles at night in the restaurant, and practising cooking until I was good enough to get a job as a cook.    

But our difficulties were not at an end. We reached Lhasa penniless and looking like beggars – we were so black from the fumes of the bus and had sold all our nice clothes. Once in Lhasa, I had nothing to buy food with, and consequently did not eat for three days. After the third day I was very dizzy and seeing double. Finally I managed to get a job washing dishes at a restaurant (my friend had left me for a job with another friend). Life was hard – I only earned 150 yen per month, and I experienced many language difficulties. I sang for my living as well, at night in the clubs but since I could only sing in Tibetan I earned very little. Singing in Chinese would have earned me more, but at that time I couldn’t speak the language.

I worked at this restaurant with another pot-washer. We worked during the day at the restaurant and slept in the restaurant at night. In the beginning I used to spend all my money going to the clubs (nangma) – all I wanted to do was sing and be like the other Tibetan boys in Lhasa, spending money all night, drinking and dancing. Then one day, I met my fellow pot-washer’s brother. I’d seen him about the city before, near the Tsuglakhang begging, but I never knew he was the brother of the man I worked with. Anyway, this night he came to sleep in the restaurant with us. His brother offered him food when he arrived, but he declined – he didn’t want to get him into trouble. Then we began watching TV, we were planning to stay up late – we didn’t normally get a chance to watch TV. But the beggar brother didn’t want to stay up late. He told me, tomorrow is the 15th day of the month, lots of people will be coming to do the kora (circumambulation) around the Potala, and I want to be there at 3am so that I can make the most of this begging day. This boy was only seven years old yet he was making plans to get up early to beg – a hard job, and one I hadn’t succeeded at when I first came to Lhasa. It turned out that he and his brother and father had attempted to escape to India when their mother had died, but they had been caught by the Chinese army who had taken all their money and possessions and left them penniless and alone in Lhasa. Their father had had to travel far away to find work, the other brother had found a job as a dishwasher and the younger had been left to beg. That this boy, this young boy, was working so hard, getting up so early to save and save money so that he and his family to try to go back to India was so inspiring for me. Until then I had been merrily spending my money, living the Lhasa life, wasting it on clubs. Now I began to work hard, practising making noodles at night in the restaurant, and practising cooking until I was good enough to get a job as a cook.

 

 

One day, I was riding my friend’s bicycle in Lhasa. Some police stopped me and asked for my papers. There was a rule that all Tibetans from other regions must have a document to allow them to stay in Lhasa. I didn’t know about this, and so the police beat me, took my bicycle, and threw me in jail. I spent five days in a small cell with three other people. There were no windows, only a small hole in the door that the guards would talk to us through. There was no toilet, just a small bucket. I was beaten repeatedly. The police would make me stand against the wall while they beat me. One guy in my cell had family members who would send food that was passed through the small hole in the door. The rest of us were not fed. On the third day I felt very sick, and this man shared his food with me. Then, I was moved to another cell where I was beaten and questioned by the police. My hands were tied behind my back with ropes the whole time. When the rest of the police left, one Tibetan police officer watched over me. He noticed that I had a necklace with a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He told me to hide it so I wouldn’t have any trouble with the police, and he shared his food with me. That night, I was able to untie the ropes behind my back. I thought to run away and try to escape, but then I thought about the Tibetan police officer. He was supposed to watch me and might get punished if I escaped. So I retied the ropes. In the morning, they released me from jail. I was always very interested in the English speaking tourists who came to the restaurant and this made my interest in English grow. The son of my boss was learning English at the time. One day he wrote on my arm ‘Tashi Delek’ in English, and I copied and copied it until I could write it too. Since then, I always listened to him speak English with amazement. One day a Tibetan man from India came to my restaurant. He told me that if I wanted a good life, and to run a profitable business, Lhasa was the place for me. But, if I wanted to learn English and to become educated, I should escape to India. He was the one who convinced me to go there and he explained to me how to go about it. So I laid my plans and began to save money. There were 49 people to begin with, on my journey from Lhasa to the Tibetan refugee reception centre in Nepal. We all met one night with our two guides and paid them 2500 yen each. We drove off in big lorries, mashed together inside. Although all of different backgrounds, we soon found out how similar we all were, together in that lorry. After driving some way, we had to get out and begin walking. Our guide walked with us for 3 days and showed us the way through the mountains. It was a very difficult journey. We chose, like others, to go in winter time, since at this time the Chinese guards are not so vigilant – mostly they stay in their tents. But going in winter made our journey more difficult, of course. If you stopped walking and cooled down you could freeze to death. We always walked at night-time, when it was coldest (so we were moving) and when the Chinese were not looking for us. Many people suffer from frost-bite in these conditions, and had to have their limbs amputated. It was so cold that that my skin split open on my face and all around it went red. I still have the scars today. On the fourth night, going through a particularly dangerous mountain pass, we saw flashlights shining in our direction. We thought it was the Chinese army that had spotted us, so many people scattered. The next morning, only 24 people remained. We did not know what had happened to the rest. We tried to look for them but they were nowhere to be found. The guide disappeared as well, and we knew that if the Chinese army had caught him, he would already be dead.    

One day, I was riding my friend’s bicycle in Lhasa. Some police stopped me and asked for my papers. There was a rule that all Tibetans from other regions must have a document to allow them to stay in Lhasa. I didn’t know about this, and so the police beat me, took my bicycle, and threw me in jail. I spent five days in a small cell with three other people. There were no windows, only a small hole in the door that the guards would talk to us through. There was no toilet, just a small bucket. I was beaten repeatedly. The police would make me stand against the wall while they beat me. One guy in my cell had family members who would send food that was passed through the small hole in the door. The rest of us were not fed. On the third day I felt very sick, and this man shared his food with me. Then, I was moved to another cell where I was beaten and questioned by the police. My hands were tied behind my back with ropes the whole time. When the rest of the police left, one Tibetan police officer watched over me. He noticed that I had a necklace with a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He told me to hide it so I wouldn’t have any trouble with the police, and he shared his food with me. That night, I was able to untie the ropes behind my back. I thought to run away and try to escape, but then I thought about the Tibetan police officer. He was supposed to watch me and might get punished if I escaped. So I retied the ropes. In the morning, they released me from jail.

I was always very interested in the English speaking tourists who came to the restaurant and this made my interest in English grow. The son of my boss was learning English at the time. One day he wrote on my arm ‘Tashi Delek’ in English, and I copied and copied it until I could write it too. Since then, I always listened to him speak English with amazement. One day a Tibetan man from India came to my restaurant. He told me that if I wanted a good life, and to run a profitable business, Lhasa was the place for me. But, if I wanted to learn English and to become educated, I should escape to India. He was the one who convinced me to go there and he explained to me how to go about it. So I laid my plans and began to save money.

There were 49 people to begin with, on my journey from Lhasa to the Tibetan refugee reception centre in Nepal. We all met one night with our two guides and paid them 2500 yen each. We drove off in big lorries, mashed together inside. Although all of different backgrounds, we soon found out how similar we all were, together in that lorry. After driving some way, we had to get out and begin walking. Our guide walked with us for 3 days and showed us the way through the mountains. It was a very difficult journey. We chose, like others, to go in winter time, since at this time the Chinese guards are not so vigilant – mostly they stay in their tents. But going in winter made our journey more difficult, of course. If you stopped walking and cooled down you could freeze to death. We always walked at night-time, when it was coldest (so we were moving) and when the Chinese were not looking for us. Many people suffer from frost-bite in these conditions, and had to have their limbs amputated. It was so cold that that my skin split open on my face and all around it went red. I still have the scars today.

On the fourth night, going through a particularly dangerous mountain pass, we saw flashlights shining in our direction. We thought it was the Chinese army that had spotted us, so many people scattered. The next morning, only 24 people remained. We did not know what had happened to the rest. We tried to look for them but they were nowhere to be found. The guide disappeared as well, and we knew that if the Chinese army had caught him, he would already be dead.

 

 

We now had a shortage of food, which had been lost with the other people. We could see the snowline of the mountains and we knew that we had to keep going across the mountain passes. We had no map or any idea where we were supposed to go so we decided to climb the mountains, so we could work out where to go by eye from the top. This was why our journey took so long. On our way we passed Chinese army tents but we were lucky, it was so freezing that the police did not come out. The journey wasn’t easy though. We had decided to carry no money – if the Chinese caught us they would take everything anyway. So I had spent the money I’d saved on some new boots, a new bag and a brand new mandolin which I thought I would use once I reached India. One day, as we were walking, I got stuck in a snowdrift. Trying to get out, my mandolin fell from my pack and down the hillside. Everyone around me was saying, don’t get it – it’s only a mandolin, it’s not worth it. At first I thought I would leave it as well, and then I thought again – this mandolin was new, with all its strings, I’d bought it especially and perhaps there were no mandolins in India. So I went to fetch it. But only 4 friends remained waiting for me, the others decided to carry on. But it didn’t matter anyhow – no-one had food. 4 days we went without food. And without water as well – everywhere was ice, no snow to melt. Once we came across a yak lying dead in the ice. We were so happy – meat! But when we got to the yak we found it frozen solid. Our knife wouldn’t cut it and there were no rocks sharp enough to hand. We had to leave it where it was. (We found out later that the other groups who had gone before us had also tried to cut into the yak but had had as little success.) We were at a very low point now. Days without food and water. And it was perishingly cold. We reached the half-way in our journey and I was so sad. All the way I was thinking, why did I leave? And I was so hungry, and so thirsty. First I missed mo-thuk (momo soup). On the second day I missed pork. And on, and on, each day missing a different thing. And feeling guilty about all the food I had wasted in Lhasa. It was water I missed most all though. After a while, it’s only the water you think about. After 2 days without food or water we came across a bottle of something. We didn’t know what it was, it was half-open, but we drank it anyway and it burned and stung. I was worried we might have poisoned ourselves, drunk something that would make us feel worse rather than better. But when you’re thirsty you drink everything. And there were other dangers as well – the ice wasn’t easy to walk on, and the glacier we were following had deep crevasses in it. I had almost fallen into one – so close to death. I was so terrified and angry, but tremendously relieved to have avoided death so narrowly. We later came up to a pass where there were Tibetan flags and khataks (blessing scarves) left by the Tibetans who had passed this way. I pulled down my trousers and took a shit where I stood. My friends shrieked at me – this was a special place, sacred, you can’t shit here! I damn well can, I shouted back. I’m never coming this way again, it’s not special to me, I’ll shit right here on the path if I damn well like! There were some good moments as well though. I remember one night when we slept right on top of the ice. The moon was bright and it touched the top of the mountains, catching the spindrift as it flew off the top. It was beautiful. And we were in Nepal. We were almost there.    

We now had a shortage of food, which had been lost with the other people. We could see the snowline of the mountains and we knew that we had to keep going across the mountain passes. We had no map or any idea where we were supposed to go so we decided to climb the mountains, so we could work out where to go by eye from the top. This was why our journey took so long. On our way we passed Chinese army tents but we were lucky, it was so freezing that the police did not come out.

The journey wasn’t easy though. We had decided to carry no money – if the Chinese caught us they would take everything anyway. So I had spent the money I’d saved on some new boots, a new bag and a brand new mandolin which I thought I would use once I reached India. One day, as we were walking, I got stuck in a snowdrift. Trying to get out, my mandolin fell from my pack and down the hillside. Everyone around me was saying, don’t get it – it’s only a mandolin, it’s not worth it. At first I thought I would leave it as well, and then I thought again – this mandolin was new, with all its strings, I’d bought it especially and perhaps there were no mandolins in India. So I went to fetch it. But only 4 friends remained waiting for me, the others decided to carry on. But it didn’t matter anyhow – no-one had food. 4 days we went without food. And without water as well – everywhere was ice, no snow to melt. Once we came across a yak lying dead in the ice. We were so happy – meat! But when we got to the yak we found it frozen solid. Our knife wouldn’t cut it and there were no rocks sharp enough to hand. We had to leave it where it was. (We found out later that the other groups who had gone before us had also tried to cut into the yak but had had as little success.)

We were at a very low point now. Days without food and water. And it was perishingly cold. We reached the half-way in our journey and I was so sad. All the way I was thinking, why did I leave? And I was so hungry, and so thirsty. First I missed mo-thuk (momo soup). On the second day I missed pork. And on, and on, each day missing a different thing. And feeling guilty about all the food I had wasted in Lhasa. It was water I missed most all though. After a while, it’s only the water you think about. After 2 days without food or water we came across a bottle of something. We didn’t know what it was, it was half-open, but we drank it anyway and it burned and stung. I was worried we might have poisoned ourselves, drunk something that would make us feel worse rather than better. But when you’re thirsty you drink everything.

And there were other dangers as well – the ice wasn’t easy to walk on, and the glacier we were following had deep crevasses in it. I had almost fallen into one – so close to death. I was so terrified and angry, but tremendously relieved to have avoided death so narrowly. We later came up to a pass where there were Tibetan flags and khataks (blessing scarves) left by the Tibetans who had passed this way. I pulled down my trousers and took a shit where I stood. My friends shrieked at me – this was a special place, sacred, you can’t shit here! I damn well can, I shouted back. I’m never coming this way again, it’s not special to me, I’ll shit right here on the path if I damn well like!

There were some good moments as well though. I remember one night when we slept right on top of the ice. The moon was bright and it touched the top of the mountains, catching the spindrift as it flew off the top. It was beautiful. And we were in Nepal. We were almost there.

 

 

Arriving in Nepal didn’t mean we were safe, though. We only knew that we had to get to Kathmandu, not how to get there, so we had to ask people. We didn’t speak any Nepali and they didn’t understand Tibetan, so many times we ended up walking the wrong way and having to double back. We were out of food again, as well. We’d been given some food by a Tibetan nomad family a while back, but it had all gone. Begging didn’t work here – people slammed the doors in your face immediately. We had to steal. I was the one who acted – creating a big fuss with the shop-keeper, asking the price for lots of different goods, whilst my friend took biscuits and powdered milk from the stall behind my back. And so we managed to survive. We carried on walking. Finally we saw a police station. We’d heard that the Nepali police would arrest Tibetans and take them to the refugee centre in Kathmandu. We finally thought we were safe – we were going to survive, we were going to make it. So we ate all of the food we’d managed to steal and marched into the police station, making a big fuss and demanding that they arrest us. But no. They threw us out, pointing us towards the main road towards Kathmandu, but not before they’d taken the remainder of our belongings that were worth anything. And so we had to carry on walking. But we couldn’t walk any longer. We tried to jump into vehicles heading towards Kathmandu, but we could never get all four of us in at the same time. So we made a new plan. We’d stop each passing bus by standing in the road, hand in hand. We’d get on the bus and sit separately, well-spaced apart. So that when the conductor came for ticket money we’d fumble around our clothes, pretending to look for money we didn’t have. By the time he’d reached the end of the bus, and sold all the other tickets, we’d be a few miles further down the road before we were finally kicked off. It was in this manner that we finally reached Kathmandu. When we arrived on the bus we were so happy. Though even now we still weren’t safe. We could see the Nepali police running towards us – eager to be the first to reach us. The police, we’d heard, would search us and take anything valuable. And they tried to. But we were prepared. My friends had put all their valuables in their shoes. I, however, had bought special underwear in Lhasa. It had pockets and zips on the inside, and so I’d concealed my last, secret 300 yen and my knuckle-duster there. They stayed safe. For four days we rested in the police station. We didn’t know what to think – we were worried about what was going to happen to us, but at the same time we were relieved to be this far into our journey. Moreover, the food in the police station was good. We were fed regularly but this didn’t stop us asking for more. We quickly learned the word roti (flat Nepali bread) and would shout it from our cells. Not that we were given any extra. We also quickly learned the word for ‘no’ – tsaina. On the fourth day we were really worried. Someone important had arrived – people were saluting him, and he was on the phone. We could tell he was talking about us, and we could tell he was dealing. We could hear prices being bartered back and forth. So we thought he was selling us back to the Chinese. We couldn’t go back, so we made plans. We decided we’d sooner die in Nepal than go back with the Chinese army and endure all of the torture of re-crossing the mountains and whatever other torture awaited us at the other end. Nonetheless, after a while we were bundled into a jeep and locked in. What were we going to do? We tried to make more plans – we’d do something wild, we’d try to fight, better to die here than return.  

Arriving in Nepal didn’t mean we were safe, though. We only knew that we had to get to Kathmandu, not how to get there, so we had to ask people. We didn’t speak any Nepali and they didn’t understand Tibetan, so many times we ended up walking the wrong way and having to double back. We were out of food again, as well. We’d been given some food by a Tibetan nomad family a while back, but it had all gone. Begging didn’t work here – people slammed the doors in your face immediately. We had to steal. I was the one who acted – creating a big fuss with the shop-keeper, asking the price for lots of different goods, whilst my friend took biscuits and powdered milk from the stall behind my back. And so we managed to survive.

We carried on walking. Finally we saw a police station. We’d heard that the Nepali police would arrest Tibetans and take them to the refugee centre in Kathmandu. We finally thought we were safe – we were going to survive, we were going to make it. So we ate all of the food we’d managed to steal and marched into the police station, making a big fuss and demanding that they arrest us. But no. They threw us out, pointing us towards the main road towards Kathmandu, but not before they’d taken the remainder of our belongings that were worth anything. And so we had to carry on walking.

But we couldn’t walk any longer. We tried to jump into vehicles heading towards Kathmandu, but we could never get all four of us in at the same time. So we made a new plan. We’d stop each passing bus by standing in the road, hand in hand. We’d get on the bus and sit separately, well-spaced apart. So that when the conductor came for ticket money we’d fumble around our clothes, pretending to look for money we didn’t have. By the time he’d reached the end of the bus, and sold all the other tickets, we’d be a few miles further down the road before we were finally kicked off. It was in this manner that we finally reached Kathmandu.

When we arrived on the bus we were so happy. Though even now we still weren’t safe. We could see the Nepali police running towards us – eager to be the first to reach us. The police, we’d heard, would search us and take anything valuable. And they tried to. But we were prepared. My friends had put all their valuables in their shoes. I, however, had bought special underwear in Lhasa. It had pockets and zips on the inside, and so I’d concealed my last, secret 300 yen and my knuckle-duster there. They stayed safe.

For four days we rested in the police station. We didn’t know what to think – we were worried about what was going to happen to us, but at the same time we were relieved to be this far into our journey. Moreover, the food in the police station was good. We were fed regularly but this didn’t stop us asking for more. We quickly learned the word roti (flat Nepali bread) and would shout it from our cells. Not that we were given any extra. We also quickly learned the word for ‘no’ – tsaina.

On the fourth day we were really worried. Someone important had arrived – people were saluting him, and he was on the phone. We could tell he was talking about us, and we could tell he was dealing. We could hear prices being bartered back and forth. So we thought he was selling us back to the Chinese. We couldn’t go back, so we made plans. We decided we’d sooner die in Nepal than go back with the Chinese army and endure all of the torture of re-crossing the mountains and whatever other torture awaited us at the other end. Nonetheless, after a while we were bundled into a jeep and locked in. What were we going to do? We tried to make more plans – we’d do something wild, we’d try to fight, better to die here than return.

 

After some time in the jeep we saw a Tibetan woman crossing the road. What was going on? Weren’t we being sold back to the Chinese after all? She crossed to our car and came to talk to us. ‘You’re safe now,’ she said. We were there. We’d made it. Thank god. We were so relieved, confused and happy. Later we found out that the Tibetan Refugee Centre had paid 2000 rupees for each of us. The police chief, acting so proud to have saved us, had actually been handsomely bribed. For the first day, I was so happy. I showered and ate and ate and ate. Later we met the rest of our original group, or rather those who had survived the journey. On the way, this group of 17 had met some tourists who were trekking. The tourists had managed to save 7 children – they’d called for a helicopter and flown them to safety. The others had had to continue on foot however. These ten were unlucky. They met Nepali soldiers as they entered the country, were arrested immediately and sold back to the Chinese. As they were en-route back to Lhasa in the Chinese van, one man decided to jump. He made it into the river and swam across to the other side. He had grown up in Amdo and was an incredibly strong swimmer. His monk- friend was not so lucky, however. He also jumped but landed on a rock, not in the water. He didn’t survive. We also found out that another girl had fallen into the same crevasse that I had almost fallen into. I felt so lucky that I had made it safely. They had tried to pull her out by tying the khataks from the cairn together but at the last minute they had broken and she had fallen even further in. They had had to leave her there, they couldn’t reach her body. In our culture the body is very important. If you can’t bury the body, or burn it, put it in water or feed it to vultures the namshi (the spirit) will remain, and won’t go and find another body. But this group could do none of these things. They had to leave her where she was, or die themselves. One day I went to the reception hall to pray – every day there were prayers that we attended. I saw on the wall this beautiful picture, in bright colours. I asked someone what it was. The Tibetan flag, I was told. You don’t know it? No I didn’t. I’d never seen it. Suddenly I understood what the Chinese had done to us, how they had made a fool of us. I’d heard stories as a child – how there had been hard times with no food and many dangers. But no-one had told me why we were suffering, and who had made us suffer. I realized my family had tried to protect me – they didn’t want me to protest and put myself in danger. In the reception centre we were shown a documentary film called ‘The Cry of the Snowlion’. This was how I began to learn about what the Chinese had done to my people. I began to help out in the kitchens at the refugee centre. I was happy to – I enjoyed cooking. One day very early in the morning, a Tibetan woman came to us. She was a complete mess – she had only one slipper and her other foot was cut all over. Around her waist she had only a thin sheet, on her top a very old, dirty T-shirt and her hair was all messed up. She was so embarrassed. She’d come from Tibet to see her son, who was at school in India. She had a pass to be allowed to cross into Nepal. She’d owned a good business in Tibet and so had worn her wealth in necklaces and clothes. When she’d reached the Tibet-Nepal border she’d been taken by a group of bandits. They’d taken all her belongings and raped her. Leaving her with nothing to wear, nowhere to go and no food to eat. She had arrived to us in Kathmandu completely destitute and shamed. Until this point I’d felt that I had had a terrible time crossing the Himalayas – the worst, even. Here was someone else with an even more terrible story. I felt lucky. Later, we were given help at the refugee centre with travelling to India. They organized everything– we only had to choose where we wanted to go to school and they organized permits and buses and paid for it. We were told that if we were 16 or under we could attend the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) school at Bir, where we’d get the full education available, but if we were over that age, we’d have to go to the Tibetan Transit School (TTS) in Dharamsala. We all wanted to attend the school at Bir – we knew that if we went to Bir we’d get a longer education, maybe the chance to go to college and the chance to get a good job at the end of it. At TTS, though, you’re only schooled for 5 years. And the curriculum is mostly comprised of the Tibetan and English languages. After 5 years, you’re on your own. I was 20, but I applied for the school at Bir saying I was only 16, as did all my friends (lots of people tried to change their age at the reception centre so they could go to the TCV schools). After we heard that the Bir school was very full (around 3000 students), and that there was not much food to go around there – only one tingmo (steamed Tibetan bread) for breakfast each – we opted to go to TTS instead, modifying our ages again.    

After some time in the jeep we saw a Tibetan woman crossing the road. What was going on? Weren’t we being sold back to the Chinese after all? She crossed to our car and came to talk to us. ‘You’re safe now,’ she said. We were there. We’d made it.

Thank god. We were so relieved, confused and happy. Later we found out that the Tibetan Refugee Centre had paid 2000 rupees for each of us. The police chief, acting so proud to have saved us, had actually been handsomely bribed.

For the first day, I was so happy. I showered and ate and ate and ate. Later we met the rest of our original group, or rather those who had survived the journey. On the way, this group of 17 had met some tourists who were trekking. The tourists had managed to save 7 children – they’d called for a helicopter and flown them to safety. The others had had to continue on foot however. These ten were unlucky. They met Nepali soldiers as they entered the country, were arrested immediately and sold back to the Chinese. As they were en-route back to Lhasa in the Chinese van, one man decided to jump. He made it into the river and swam across to the other side. He had grown up in Amdo and was an incredibly strong swimmer. His monk- friend was not so lucky, however. He also jumped but landed on a rock, not in the water. He didn’t survive. We also found out that another girl had fallen into the same crevasse that I had almost fallen into. I felt so lucky that I had made it safely. They had tried to pull her out by tying the khataks from the cairn together but at the last minute they had broken and she had fallen even further in. They had had to leave her there, they couldn’t reach her body. In our culture the body is very important. If you can’t bury the body, or burn it, put it in water or feed it to vultures the namshi (the spirit) will remain, and won’t go and find another body. But this group could do none of these things. They had to leave her where she was, or die themselves.

One day I went to the reception hall to pray – every day there were prayers that we attended. I saw on the wall this beautiful picture, in bright colours. I asked someone what it was. The Tibetan flag, I was told. You don’t know it? No I didn’t. I’d never seen it. Suddenly I understood what the Chinese had done to us, how they had made a fool of us. I’d heard stories as a child – how there had been hard times with no food and many dangers. But no-one had told me why we were suffering, and who had made us suffer. I realized my family had tried to protect me – they didn’t want me to protest and put myself in danger. In the reception centre we were shown a documentary film called ‘The Cry of the Snowlion’. This was how I began to learn about what the Chinese had done to my people.

I began to help out in the kitchens at the refugee centre. I was happy to – I enjoyed cooking. One day very early in the morning, a Tibetan woman came to us. She was a complete mess – she had only one slipper and her other foot was cut all over. Around her waist she had only a thin sheet, on her top a very old, dirty T-shirt and her hair was all messed up. She was so embarrassed. She’d come from Tibet to see her son, who was at school in India. She had a pass to be allowed to cross into Nepal. She’d owned a good business in Tibet and so had worn her wealth in necklaces and clothes. When she’d reached the Tibet-Nepal border she’d been taken by a group of bandits. They’d taken all her belongings and raped her. Leaving her with nothing to wear, nowhere to go and no food to eat. She had arrived to us in Kathmandu completely destitute and shamed. Until this point I’d felt that I had had a terrible time crossing the Himalayas – the worst, even. Here was someone else with an even more terrible story. I felt lucky.

Later, we were given help at the refugee centre with travelling to India. They organized everything– we only had to choose where we wanted to go to school and they organized permits and buses and paid for it. We were told that if we were 16 or under we could attend the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) school at Bir, where we’d get the full education available, but if we were over that age, we’d have to go to the Tibetan Transit School (TTS) in Dharamsala. We all wanted to attend the school at Bir – we knew that if we went to Bir we’d get a longer education, maybe the chance to go to college and the chance to get a good job at the end of it. At TTS, though, you’re only schooled for 5 years. And the curriculum is mostly comprised of the Tibetan and English languages. After 5 years, you’re on your own. I was 20, but I applied for the school at Bir saying I was only 16, as did all my friends (lots of people tried to change their age at the reception centre so they could go to the TCV schools). After we heard that the Bir school was very full (around 3000 students), and that there was not much food to go around there – only one tingmo (steamed Tibetan bread) for breakfast each – we opted to go to TTS instead, modifying our ages again.

 

 

We had arrived in Nepal seven days before His Holiness the Dalai Lama was due to start giving the Kalachakra teachings at Bodhgaya in India. We were very lucky – normally Tibetans had to wait around three months in the Nepal Reception Centre before going anywhere, but because we’d arrived at this time, we were taken straight to Bodhgaya to see His Holiness. When we arrived though, we found out that His Holiness was ill (some people said he had been poisoned) and couldn’t give the teachings. I remember, though, that he came to tell us all that he was very sorry not to be able to complete the full Kalachakra. We got to sit at the front because we were newcomers. Instead he gave us a blessing, saying that we had received exactly the same benefit through this blessing as we would have done by attending the full Kalachakra Afterwards, myself and my friends and the rest of the group were taken on to the TTS in Dharamsala by train. There I learned English for one year. I saw that they had a Tibetan traditional art class thangka painting was taught, so I decided to sign up. In Tibet, I had been good at woodcarving and was always drawing on rocks and moulding little stupas from the earth. I learnt thangka painting quickly, winning second prize in my class, but began to dislike it because there were many rules to follow and there was no freedom in the art form. For example, when painting a thangka, it’s important to follow rules about spiritual cleanliness – whilst you are working on thethangka it is important not to have sexual intercourse. Also you should not wet your brush with your mouth, even if you need to in order to add fine details to the image. The deities themselves have to be drawn in a very specific way according to particular iconometric rules so there is no room to use your own style. I also disagreed with the practice wherebythangkaartists do not put their names on their works. This is because in traditional Tibetan culture thangkas, once blessed, become the homes of deities (the god manifests itself in the painting) and so the artist is rendered secondary to the deity. Thus out of respect, we cannot claim the painting as ‘ours’. However, I still feel that not naming the thangkas you paint is problematic – if artists were to add their name to their work, customers would be able to identify them and to return to that artist for more work in the future. If the customer knew who the artist was, they would know that they’d get similar good quality if they commissioned a thangka from the same artist again. Good quality is, of course, also important for the working of the thangka in a spiritual sense. Naming work would also make it easier for customers to distinguish work by Tibetans from work by others (e.g. Nepalese). And so I grew increasingly discontented with thangka painting, turning instead to contemporary art. Here, there was more freedom of expression and technique. I still produce my own modern works. Whilst I was at TTS I also learned the guitar – not formally though. On Sundays, one of the teachers who could play guitar would help me to play, and I would practice at night on my own. Whilst at TTS I also began cutting hair. Because very few people at TTS could speak Hindi, they found it difficult to communicate with local hairdressers and would come back with really ugly haircuts. I approached the head of the TTS, offering to cut peoples’ hair for free. He gave me a place to cut, and bought the equipment I needed to begin. By practicing on my fellow students, I grew more and more skilled until I only used blades to cut the hair, no longer scissors.    

We had arrived in Nepal seven days before His Holiness the Dalai Lama was due to start giving the Kalachakra teachings at Bodhgaya in India. We were very lucky – normally Tibetans had to wait around three months in the Nepal Reception Centre before going anywhere, but because we’d arrived at this time, we were taken straight to Bodhgaya to see His Holiness. When we arrived though, we found out that His Holiness was ill (some people said he had been poisoned) and couldn’t give the teachings. I remember, though, that he came to tell us all that he was very sorry not to be able to complete the full Kalachakra. We got to sit at the front because we were newcomers. Instead he gave us a blessing, saying that we had received exactly the same benefit through this blessing as we would have done by attending the full Kalachakra

Afterwards, myself and my friends and the rest of the group were taken on to the TTS in Dharamsala by train. There I learned English for one year. I saw that they had a Tibetan traditional art class thangka painting was taught, so I decided to sign up. In Tibet, I had been good at woodcarving and was always drawing on rocks and moulding little stupas from the earth. I learnt thangka painting quickly, winning second prize in my class, but began to dislike it because there were many rules to follow and there was no freedom in the art form. For example, when painting a thangka, it’s important to follow rules about spiritual cleanliness – whilst you are working on thethangka it is important not to have sexual intercourse. Also you should not wet your brush with your mouth, even if you need to in order to add fine details to the image. The deities themselves have to be drawn in a very specific way according to particular iconometric rules so there is no room to use your own style. I also disagreed with the practice wherebythangkaartists do not put their names on their works. This is because in traditional Tibetan culture thangkas, once blessed, become the homes of deities (the god manifests itself in the painting) and so the artist is rendered secondary to the deity. Thus out of respect, we cannot claim the painting as ‘ours’. However, I still feel that not naming the thangkas you paint is problematic – if artists were to add their name to their work, customers would be able to identify them and to return to that artist for more work in the future. If the customer knew who the artist was, they would know that they’d get similar good quality if they commissioned a thangka from the same artist again. Good quality is, of course, also important for the working of the thangka in a spiritual sense. Naming work would also make it easier for customers to distinguish work by Tibetans from work by others (e.g. Nepalese). And so I grew increasingly discontented with thangka painting, turning instead to contemporary art. Here, there was more freedom of expression and technique. I still produce my own modern works.

Whilst I was at TTS I also learned the guitar – not formally though. On Sundays, one of the teachers who could play guitar would help me to play, and I would practice at night on my own. Whilst at TTS I also began cutting hair. Because very few people at TTS could speak Hindi, they found it difficult to communicate with local hairdressers and would come back with really ugly haircuts. I approached the head of the TTS, offering to cut peoples’ hair for free. He gave me a place to cut, and bought the equipment I needed to begin. By practicing on my fellow students, I grew more and more skilled until I only used blades to cut the hair, no longer scissors.

 

 

After graduating from TTS, I joined the Akupema group which was a Tibetan performing arts group which toured the whole of India. Whilst in Akupema I performed as a singer, dancer and musician. Performing with Akupema, I became more and more skilled at my instruments. However, Akupema didn’t last long. Due to poor management of the group, members began to leave until I was the only one left and the group ceased to exist. And so I applied to the Norbulingka Institute as a modern artist. I worked as a modern artist, relief painter and music teacher. While living there I opened a hairdressing salon. This was the first modern hairdressing salon opened by a Tibetan. It was also whilst I was at Norbulingka that I opened my first tattoo shop. The skills required to be a relief painter – being able to paint a long line steadily, for example – are similar to those required for tattooing so these two skills went well together. I had actually started tattooing whilst I was part of the Akupema group. A friend in the group had created a tattoo on my arm painstakingly using a needle, and I had had the idea that it would be much better if there could be a machine to create the tattoo. So, I began working on a machine. The machine I eventually made comprised pieces from a cassette tape and ballpoint pen, and the battery pack from a keyboard and needles which I could change. And a lot of electrical tape. I began tattooing on the side using this home-made machine whilst I was at Norbulingka. I worked at Norbulingka for 2 and a half years. By the time I left, I had risen to be the main music teacher there, and I performed with my students at the 2006 Kalachakra held at Amaravati for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After this performance I left Norbulingka and came to McLeod Ganj. It was July. For a while I didn’t make tattoos but with the help of a friend from the USA, Serena, I bought professional equipment and opened a shop. In the beginning I didn’t know how to use the modern tattooing equipment Serena had helped me buy. And so I had to learn. I learnt from Philip, a tattooist from Chicago (USA) who visited Dharamsala, and also from Claudia Fanti, another tattooist from Brazil. It was at this time that I also bought my first computer – for 3000 rs! I’d never used a computer before. After some time, I had made enough money by designing and selling T-shirts to invest in more expensive and better quality tattooing equipment, which is what I use today. (Today, vice versa is true – the tattoo money allows me to make better designed and better quality T-shirts!) My tattooing business is now very popular, and I am well-known as a tattooist-activist. I use my tattoos to make political statements about the Tibetan situation. Through my tattoos I have met people from all over the world. My work was recently featured in the London-based magazine Total Tattoo (May 2012 issue) and the German magazine Tätowier (March 2012 issue). I’ve also featured in the New York magazine Ink.    

After graduating from TTS, I joined the Akupema group which was a Tibetan performing arts group which toured the whole of India. Whilst in Akupema I performed as a singer, dancer and musician. Performing with Akupema, I became more and more skilled at my instruments. However, Akupema didn’t last long. Due to poor management of the group, members began to leave until I was the only one left and the group ceased to exist. And so I applied to the Norbulingka Institute as a modern artist.

I worked as a modern artist, relief painter and music teacher. While living there I opened a hairdressing salon. This was the first modern hairdressing salon opened by a Tibetan. It was also whilst I was at Norbulingka that I opened my first tattoo shop. The skills required to be a relief painter – being able to paint a long line steadily, for example – are similar to those required for tattooing so these two skills went well together. I had actually started tattooing whilst I was part of the Akupema group. A friend in the group had created a tattoo on my arm painstakingly using a needle, and I had had the idea that it would be much better if there could be a machine to create the tattoo. So, I began working on a machine. The machine I eventually made comprised pieces from a cassette tape and ballpoint pen, and the battery pack from a keyboard and needles which I could change. And a lot of electrical tape. I began tattooing on the side using this home-made machine whilst I was at Norbulingka.

I worked at Norbulingka for 2 and a half years. By the time I left, I had risen to be the main music teacher there, and I performed with my students at the 2006 Kalachakra held at Amaravati for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After this performance I left Norbulingka and came to McLeod Ganj. It was July.

For a while I didn’t make tattoos but with the help of a friend from the USA, Serena, I bought professional equipment and opened a shop. In the beginning I didn’t know how to use the modern tattooing equipment Serena had helped me buy. And so I had to learn. I learnt from Philip, a tattooist from Chicago (USA) who visited Dharamsala, and also from Claudia Fanti, another tattooist from Brazil. It was at this time that I also bought my first computer – for 3000 rs! I’d never used a computer before. After some time, I had made enough money by designing and selling T-shirts to invest in more expensive and better quality tattooing equipment, which is what I use today. (Today, vice versa is true – the tattoo money allows me to make better designed and better quality T-shirts!) My tattooing business is now very popular, and I am well-known as a tattooist-activist. I use my tattoos to make political statements about the Tibetan situation. Through my tattoos I have met people from all over the world. My work was recently featured in the London-based magazine Total Tattoo (May 2012 issue) and the German magazine Tätowier (March 2012 issue). I’ve also featured in the New York magazine Ink.

 

 

I have been an activist for a number of years now, volunteering my services as an artist to various Tibetan NGOs. My activism changed in 2008, however. After the March 14th killings in Tibet I became highly active and began selling political T-shirts and participating in every protest. In response to these killings I designed a collection of T-shirts and have continued to release a new collection of political T-shirts ever since, each year on 10th March – the anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa uprising. I still work with many NGOs in the area such as the Tibet Hope Center (THC) and Learning and Ideas for Tibet (LIT) who work to improve the language skills and lives of Tibetans in exile. Every Thursday I participate in THC’s and LIT’s Tibetan Traditional night where I play music and sell T-shirts. I am also a member of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) and the Democracy Party of Tibet.

In October 2011, I had my first acting role in the film ‘Escape from Tibet’ which was filmed in Ladakh, Kashmir. I played a rural Tibetan farmer who sends his children across the Himalayas to safety in India. Although it brought back painful memories from my past, I was very happy and proud to be part of this production.

I have remained an active musician since my days at Norbulingka. In 2012, I was finally able to produce my first album, Open Road. This contains a number of different genres of song, including a metal track – I am the first Tibetan musician to compose in the metal genre. Inspiration for the music came from the 2008 uprisings in Tibet as well as the recent tragic self-immolations. The album was made as a tribute to these heroes. This album also has special meaning for me. I was able, for the first time in 15 years, to meet my sister. She was able to come to India for the 2012 Bodhgaya Kalachakra ceremony given by His Holiness. When I met her in Nepal, at first I didn’t recognize her. My sister is a nun in Tibet. I was looking for nuns robes, and of course she wasn’t wearing them. Nuns and monks are no longer allowed to wear their robes in the capital city of Tibet, Lhasa, and so she had bought new Chinese clothes to travel to Nepal. When I saw her wearing the Chinese fashions, though, I thought it was very strange. She was still standing like a nun, walking very slowly and carefully, in the way nuns normally must do because of the way their robes hang. She was wearing ripped jeans – they’re very fashionable in Lhasa, she said! But I didn’t like them on her. She looked so strange. So I took her straight to the shop and we bought her nuns robes. Later, we recorded a track for my album. I recorded her singing a mantra for the Kalachakra song. We had sung a lot together when we were young children, but since she became a nun she had not had the opportunity to sing until now. The manager at the recording studio was very surprised by how beautiful her singing was – he said she had a voice like the smell of tsampa(Tibetan roasted barley flour)! We captured her voice on the first take, no more were needed.

Later, during the same Kalachakra, I had the opportunity to perform this song in front of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The lyrics of this song talk about the Dalai Lama’s life, the Kalachakra and exile. I was so happy to be able to perform this song – it was the perfect place and time for it. I remember His Holiness clapping and smiling and enjoying it – this was such a special experience for me.

All my music is political – I use it to further the freedom of Tibetans. My first album was entitled Open Road. All my future albums will also be titledOpen Road, until the day Tibetan gains its freedom. Recently I started a group with other Tibetan musicians and we gave our first concert on 20thOctober 2012. We hope to raise money to erect a commemorative pillar for those who’ve self-immolated for the Tibetan cause. In the future we hope to give concerts all over India and to work further for the Tibetan cause. I believe that music is an important vehicle for Tibetan politics – music is something that everyone engages with, almost every day, and tunes stick in your head. Through Tibetan music I try to remind Tibetans that they are still refugees and should try and work everyday for the Tibetan cause.

Böd Rangzen! བོད་རང་བཙན།

Tamding Tsetan