From The Land Of The Snows
An Old Monk's Story

Shurna Robbins

© Copyright 2004 by Shurna Robbins

Photo of a monk leading a demonstration during the 1987 Tibetan uprising.

They say he has brain damage. Understandable - since he spent 18 years in Chinese prisons and re-education camps - Gutsa, Shigatse, Sangyip, Drapchi. The interview is limited to an hour. With a Tibetan translator and short questions that means 30 minutes. It isn’t nearly enough time.

Down the hallway, a curtain is pushed back; the door behind is open, revealing a room in shadows. The winter sun provides light and heat. Thousands of mantras have been chanted in this room; hands fingering a string of wooden beads.

He turns towards me. Loose skin droops over his eyes. Brown spots sprinkle his cheeks. Thupten Tsering’s gaze welcomes me; a smile tugs his lips.

The man introducing me says Tsering la will be coming soon and leaves the room. Tsering la is the translator provided by Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet, an NGO for ex-political prisoners, located in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. I sit down on the cot facing him. We are alone.

For several moments, we look at each other. I say, “Tashi delek” - greetings. His hands are clasped together as in prayer. He says, “Tashi delek.” This is the extent of our conversation.

Thupten looks at me unblinking. I look at him. I smile. He smiles. I laugh - happy. He laughs too, a tinkling - whispery laugh, revealing straight upper teeth, with a few missing on the bottom. Greetings and smiles finished, I check my watch. Where is that translator anyway?

Thupten twists a prayer wheel sitting on the table and mutters something. “Om Mani Peme Hu-mm, Om Mani Peme Hu-mm.” He looks up and nods his head toward me. It is my turn to try.

I twirl the prayer wheel and it spins as I stumble over the words, “Om-m Mani Uh-la-la.” After some time, the translator appears.

As Thupten speaks, his arms move back and forth, restless fingers gesturing. He looks out the window, as if seeing again - the grassland and wildflowers where his family had grazed yaks, sheep, and goats so many years ago. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this 78 year-old man.

“When the Chinese first came,” says Thupten. “They said there is going to be freedom as we enjoyed in the old society. Some people believed what they said.”

There were only a handful of foreigners, including Chinese, living in Tibet before 1949. That changed after World War II, when a communist army marched into the eastern province of Tibet. If ten Chinese soldiers were killed, a hundred replaced them. The Tibetan army and Khampa guerilla fighters were armed with old rifles, swords and knives; they slowly gave ground to the Red Army.

Meanwhile in another part of Asia, the war against communism was being fought in Korea but who knew about Tibet? Or for that matter - about Inner Mongolia or East Turkestan? For centuries, the Himalayas had protected Tibet from invaders and world politics. Now, as Tibet was invaded there was no one coming to their aid.

“By 1959, all of Tibet was under Chinese occupation,” says Thupten. “Each passing day they got more aggressive. After sometime it became intolerable to live with the Chinese.”

It was 1966 and the Cultural Revolution had already started when Thupten tried to escape the country. He was carrying incriminating documents on China’s campaign to wipe out their culture. Thupten was hiding in Gyantse, trying to find a way across the border when the Chinese found him.

The Cultural Revolution was intended to assimilate socialism across the Motherland. The traditional way of life was to be done away - customs, culture, habits, thinking, to be replaced with the new society.

Holy texts, religious idols, monasteries were destroyed. Anything yellow and maroon, monastery colors, were burned. Children attended Chinese schools and sang their songs. Mao’s Little Red Book became the new bible. Friends and neighbors accused each other for real and imagined crimes. They must love the Party and be grateful for liberation. Those who resisted were sent to labor camps for re-education.

Thupten was sentenced to seven years. Because of time constraints, the details of prison life were filled in with other prisoner testimony who shared the same experiences - interrogations, torture, beatings, executions, suicide, and hard labor. Monks and nuns were targets for thamzings - struggle sessions.

Palden Gyatso, a fellow prisoner, describes the notorious thamzing in his book, Fire Under The Ice. “The thamzing always started with verbal condemnation and usually developed into beatings…anyone who did not participate with the required enthusiasm was sure to get a visit from Party officials.”

Thupten recalls, “Thamzing sessions would get so severe that prisoners were driven to their death-bed, and shortly before dying, the prison authorities would send them to the hospital.” One monk from Sera Monastery “was hung from a rope and suffocated with rags stuffed in his mouth.”

Work assigned to Thupten included fertilizing the vegetable garden. Another prisoner explains, “We had to take out the waste in wooden buckets from the latrine and bring it to a pit… close to a vegetable garden. While transporting the waste we were not allowed to wear gloves or cover our mouths. As we fetched the feces from the tank, the pool of feces became shallower, so we had to go deeper into the tank… At times when there was no water so we had to go from the waste tank to eat our midday ration without washing our hands.”

Prisoners were tortured individually and in groups. A prisoner’s hands are tied behind the prisoner’s back, the rope is wound around the neck, and they are hung from the ceiling for hours. A group of prisoners are gathered outside; they must balance a bowl of water on their heads while looking into the sun. If the bowl falls, the prisoner is beaten; if the bowl stays balanced, his reward is poor eyesight.

During the winter, guards would pour water onto the ground where it froze into a sheet of ice. Prisoners stood barefoot as the ice adheres to their skin, ripping off when they are allowed to move. Then there are the electric cattle prods - inserted into the mouth or anus, or if female - the vagina.

Executions demonstrated how futile it was to resist China’s authority; Thupten witnessed nine men executed. More prisoner testimony describes the procedure. They were “lined up in front of ditches and shot so that they would fall in these ditches. If they were just injured, they would then be shot once more at close range. Some prisoners even after being shot two or three times did not die, and in the end they would simply be buried alive.

“The victim’s families would be informed of the execution in the form of an invoice made out for the number of bullets fired and the length of rope needed to tie the prisoner up.”

In 1972 - Thupten’s seven-year sentence came to an end; he wasn’t released. He was sent to a labor camp for another five years instead.

During Thupten’s 12 years incarceration, communism was being fought in Vietnam; China was admitted to the United Nations; Richard Nixon became the first US president to visit China; nuclear military bases were built in Tibet, a strategic position against India. Then Chairman Mao died.

My thoughts are interrupted as Tsering la says it is time to go. I was so absorbed in his story, I lost track of the time. But Thupten doesn’t seem tired; there is still so much left of his story.

While my request for another interview is translated, I wait, hoping. To be here, I took a train for two days, a bus to the wrong town, then a private jeep to Dharamsala. I need more time. Thupten says, “Rey” - yes.

The next morning in a local shop, I consider the possibilities, incense, books, music. Nothing seems right. He has his own room, rosary beads, prayer wheel, tea, and freedom. What do you give a 78 year-old monk? Then I see it, a small-framed picture of the Dalai Lama, a cherished possession to a monk - illegal in occupied Tibet. It will look nice on his coffee table, next to the bottles of medicine. It was 90 rupees. Sold.

When Mao died, a more relaxed era of Chinese occupation emerged. China promoted their compliance with UN human rights policies. People who disappeared in the 1960’s into prisons and labor camps were coming home. Monasteries were being rebuilt and limited numbers of monks and nuns were returning to monasteries and nunneries. Moreover, the borders were opened and tourism was born into a previously secluded country. Tibetans who had escaped years ago were allowed to visit their families. Freedom was an illusion.

Seven million Chinese civilians were now living in Tibet, making Tibetans a minority in their own country. China was rewriting Tibetan history. The best education and jobs were reserved for the Chinese. Under-educated and under-employed, Tibetans were becoming marginalized. For the first time, there were Tibetan beggars in the streets and youths forming gangs.

In this uneasy climate, Geshe Jampa Gyatso obtained a visa. Jampa had escaped in 1959 and later immigrated to Italy. Sixteen Italians came with him on a pilgrimage to Lhasa – the spiritual mecca of Tibet. One evening he had dinner at the house of his cousin - Thupten.

Someone showed footage of old Tibet. One thing led to another, and the Italian visitor was videotaping Thupten and Yulu Dawa, another dinner guest, about their life under Chinese occupation. When Jampa and the Italians left, they didn’t have trouble getting the tape through Customs. Thupten doesn’t know what became of the tape after that, but five months later, they were arrested for spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda. Thupten got six years, Yulu Dawa got ten.

He was sent to Drapchi - a prison synonymous with torture, starvation, suicide, and death. Thupten could not know political unrest stirring in the streets of Lhasa would spill over into Drapchi.

People were demonstrating in Lhasa. Each demonstration triggered another bigger uprising. For the first time young Tibetans, born under Chinese occupation, were demonstrating in the streets.

It all started in September 1987 when 21 young monks from Drepung Monastery marched around Barkhor Market chanting “Long Live His Holiness Dalai Lama” and “Free Tibet.” Everyone knew they would be arrested so few people joined the monks as they circled Barkhor Market.

A few weeks later in October, the monks from Ganden Monastery, once home to 5000 monks, staged their own larger protest. More people set aside their reservations and joined the demonstrating monks;14 were killed; dozens more were arrested.

The next demonstration started on the last day of Monlam Prayer Festival in March 1988. People in schools, homes, and shops looked out their windows and doorways, saw monks and nuns protesting, they dropped what they were doing, and rushed into the street. On rooftops, police filmed the demonstrators; in the streets, police fired teargas into the crowd.

One year later, again during the Monlam Festival, protestors took to the streets of Lhasa. This time the police force could not disperse the crowds - there were too many. Three days later, they called in the army. Marshal law was declared. Arrests and interrogations continued for months afterwards. Jails and prisons were filling up. There were not enough solitary confinement cells for the instigators.

Nothing like it had ever happened in Drapchi before. The first protest began when Lapka Tsering arrived at Drapchi. Lapka was head of the political activist group - Snow Lion - when he was arrested. He had massive internal injuries from repeated beatings. Cellmates begged prison officials to send Lapka for medical treatment. Eventually, Lapka was taken to the hospital. According to witnesses, “Blood and froth started coming out of his mouth and he became very weak. The following day he died. The Chinese authorities issued reports saying that he had died of peritonitis,” - inflammation of the abdomen lining. He was 19.

Prisoners were incensed. One young activist tore his bed sheet in two and made banners. “We mourn the death of Lhakpa Tsering,” and on the other side, “We demand improvements to the conditions of political prisoners.” Four prisoners walked outside holding the sheets like banners. When they stepped into the courtyard, 150 prisoners lined up behind them. “We marched like soldiers,” Gyatso writes. “We were dizzy with our own daring and courage.”

Five months after this protest, there was word that an American delegation was visiting Drapchi prison. Fresh meat, fruit and vegetables appeared in growing rations. Buildings were spruced up. They decided to write a letter- documenting the prisoners who had been tortured, the methods of torture, and the account of Lapka’s death.

On the day American Ambassador James Lilley arrived, Thupten was ill so he was resting in his cell. “I saw them through the window,” says Thupten. “He (ambassador) was carrying a photo of Yulu Dawa and asking where he was.” Amnesty International had adopted Yulu Dawa’s case.

Two other prisoners were also excused from work. Thupten remembers they “took permission from labor to go to the dispensary. As they were going to the dispensary, they saw the people.” While Yulu Dawa and the ambassador were talking in the courtyard, those two prisoners decided it was the right moment to get the letter to the ambassador.

With the letter in hand, one of them ran up to the ambassador and thrust the petition into his hands. The Chinese interpreter saw what happened, grabbed “the letter from the ambassador hands and handed it to the jailer. I saw the jailer through the window reading something. When the delegation left, the soldiers surrounded us and beat us senseless.”

There are five primary routes Tibetans use to escape - all leading to Nepal, a tiny country squeezed between two giants - China and India. Pakistan and Bhutan also border lower Tibet but ancient trading routes make Nepal more accessible. Yet even the simplest route requires a guide to find the way through the Himalayas and vast open spaces, to evade Chinese and Nepal border patrols, and steer clear of Maoist guerilla strongholds in Nepal countryside.

Two years after Thupten’s release in 1993, he made plans to leave the country again. “There were two guides, altogether 32 people. It was a mixed group of people, monks, nuns, lay people, children. From Lhasa we came in a vehicle to Gyantse. We disembarked from the vehicle and then we walked 20 days.”

He never knew the route he took since the average Tibetan does not have access to maps, trekking books, or a compass, much less a GPS; but most likely they traveled through the Mustang region, a remote - freezing - dangerous place. Often guides get nervous and abandon the people they are transporting. If this had happened in Mustang, Thupten and everyone in his group would certainly have died.

What must it have been like at age 70 and 18 years imprisonment? The air is difficult to breathe crossing passes between 16,000 to 19,000 feet. There are no sunglasses to protect the eyes from the snow’s glare. Holding onto a rope crossing a river, knowing he couldn’t swim if he fell; continuing on afterwards soaking wet. Avoiding villages for fear of thieves, and spies, knowing they would not replenish food supplies; sleeping outside - tied to a tree so as not to fall off the mountain.

“We reached Nepal. Just before Pokhara - we met the Nepali police. They asked where we were going. We said we were fleeing Tibet.”

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has a verbal agreement with the Nepal government to allow refugees to transit through their country, but Nepal is a nation in trouble. It is torn between an unstable government, dire poverty, Maoist uprisings, and its own human rights violations. Moreover, the Chinese reward Nepalese police for the return of Tibetan refugees. If Thupten’s group had reached Pokhara, they would have found in the Tibetan settlement there, safe transport to Kathmandu and UNHCR protection.

The Nepalese police handed them over to the Chinese police. Thupten was sure he was going back to prison, but they interrogated him and let him go. He never found out why.

Less than two years had gone by when once more Thupten tried to leave Tibet, but he didn’t think he was strong enough to trek through the Himalayas another time. Friends helped him find an experienced guide, a man who could carry him for 10,000 Nepalese rupees. There were only three in their group - practically invisible.

“At night we used to sleep in the forest. It was too cold. We crossed mountain passes. There was no food, no tea.” They made it to a place where they could catch the bus to Kathmandu. “We saw police when we took a bus to Kathmandu. I kept praying all the way.” After three tries spanning 30 years, Thupten had succeeded.

Like so many refugees before him, Thupten fulfilled a lifelong dream to meet His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, but it hasn’t been enough to quiet his mind.

Suddenly, the translator stands up and leaves the room. Hmm - I glance at Thupten; he is still looking at the doorway Tsering la exited. Then he looks at me, smiles and laughs that lovely soft laugh. He envelopes my hands in his; hands that have scooped sewage into buckets; hands that held on tight as he was carried across the mountains.

I walk up the steep hill leading back to the village center. Indian and Tibetan children play some ball game in the narrow street. Old and young Tibetans, nuns and monks, walk through the vegetable market. I hardly notice them because in my mind I see Thupten Tsering spinning his prayer wheel, chanting in his whispery voice, “Om Mani Peme Hum-m. Om Mani Peme Hum-m...”

Photo of Shurna and Thupten Tsering. (c) 2004 by Shurna Roberts.

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