Wednesday 6 January 2010
The sky was clear except for the few clouds which moved slowly with the wind. At 15,000 feet above sea level the air feels crispy fresh and without pollution. I could feel the sensation of cleansing as I breathed the air into my lungs and exhaled it out into space. The surrounding mountains were covered in thick snow since the heavy blizzards over the last couple of weeks. After trekking for four days we reached the base of Nangpa-la pass; this was the last barrier before freedom, then we could sneak across the Nepalese border and fulfil our dream of seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama in exile.
"This is a notorious pass." Warned our guide Topgyal, a middle aged man with a well built, agile body with an expert knowledge of this mountainous region. Years of assisting his fellow Tibetans along this treacherous route into exile, who were seeking a better life and freedom, had made him into a tough man. "The weather is unpredictable on this part of the pass and the worst Chinese border forces patrol this region." He lit himself a cigarette, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and he let the cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. "And they won’t hesitate to shoot if they spot us. These bastards don’t care if they kill Tibetans." He said flatly. A chill ran down my neck, I knew we were facing a drastic predicament. And he continued, "A Tibetan life doesn’t count to them. In stead, they get a promotion once they return to their base; for completion of service." I looked at my childhood friend and escaping companion Tenzin, whose face turned white with fear. He untangled the rosary from his right hand and started to pray silently. I put my hand over his shoulder and patted him. Even through the thick coat I could felt his bones.
"We will be fine, the gods dwelling in these mountains will keep an eye on us." I encouraged him, I knew the risk involved was immense but we had to face it. My father says; "If you want something whole heartedly, then never be afraid to pursue it, for nothing can stop you". So, the Chinese bullets won’t be able to stop us from getting our freedom. Tenzin forced a smile revealing a bunch of white teeth. He put his hand over his eyes to shield the sun while looking at me and nodding his head in agreement. "You right, Dhondup." He said after pondering for a moment. His head looked big and precarious balancing on his thin shoulders. "We have come so far and it’s too late to turn back. On top of that we have paid a hell of a lot of money to our guide." I looked down at his feet and saw an opening in his Chinese canvas shoes and one of his toes was clearly visible. Sudden concern captured my heart as I thought about how he would be able to cross this pass in that torn shoe.
I opened my bag pack and took out some of the dried yak meat. I passed a big chunk each to Tenzin and Topgyal. They started to chew on it hungrily. I wolfed down my piece in no time; we hadn’t had a proper meal since leaving home nearly a week ago. "We could be lucky, you never know. Sometimes they leave the border unguarded when the weather is bad." Our guide said through his mouth full of meat, he adjusted his amulet that slung from his shoulder with his elbow while still holding the remaining dried yak in his hand. I looked up at the sky and saw two eagles circling high above us. I wished I could fly, then the escaping would be much easier.
We set off after breakfast. As we started to ascend it became more difficult to breath and the icy wind bit into my face. We had to cover our faces with scarves. The gusts made a howling sound while blowing flurries of fresh snow along the way. We were walking in single file as the path was so narrow. My backpack seemed to get heavier as the exhaustion took over my body. So I had to hunch over to keep up with the pace. The snow made a squashing sound with each step and only our footprints remained behind; which would eventually vanish under the next snowfall. After an hour or so the path opened out onto to a valley of flat icy ground. Our guide turned around and said between his exhalations. "By 4 pm we’ll be over the pass and then it will be down hill all the way to the Nepalese border." My heart leaped with happiness to realise that freedom was not that far. We stopped briefly to rest before we moved on. The sun was high and the surface we were standing was a frozen river. I saw a reddish fabric a few yards away embedded in the frozen ice and snow. "What’s that maroon thing? It looks like a monk’s robe." I asked with astonishment. I threw down my backpack and walked over to have a closer look.
"Some don’t make it," said Topgyal, with a certain acceptance like he had seen it many times, "These treacherous paths to freedom claim their lives." We stooped over and inspected the dead body which was frozen hard and well preserved. "It’s a body of a monk." My voice quivered with lament as I had never seen a human body lifeless, and that too of a monk. "And by the look of it, he is barely 17 or 18 years old." We recited prayers for his departed soul. My earlier joy of freedom not being far had been replaced by grief. It must be a great loss for the dead monk’s family, and they would never know what happened to their son. We were dumb stuck. No one uttered a single word as we moved on with our journey.
"My father was a former monk." Confessed Topgyal after a while realising the quietness among us. "But, he was forced to disrobe during the Culture revolution." With an eagerness I asked, "What made him to leave the monastery? After all it should be a great honour for him to follow the Buddha’s teachings." Our guide sounded proud, "He was one of the best students his teacher Geshe Ngawang ever had." His focus was still firmly on the path. I could see his breath condense in the air in front of him like he was still smoking.
"Things changed to worst around 1966 when Chairman Mao declared the Culture Revolution from Beijing; replacing the old ways with new ideology." His voice had a strong tone in it, he wasn’t talking anymore but more of a shout. He raised his hands in the air to emphasis his point. "The Red Army destroyed almost all the antique artefacts and much of the history of Tibet drained into the gutter. Monasteries were stripped of all the gold and silver Buddha statues which were centuries old." He then stopped in the middle of the path, turned to us with his hand akimbo. There was sadness and grief in his eyes. "They forced Geshe Ngawang to kneel during one of the public struggle sessions."
He searched in his front pocket and brought out a black and white photo. Then shoved the picture in my face. It was of an old monk with sunken cheeks looking straight into the lens. "That’s Geshe Ngawang. My father gave me the snap before he died soon after his release from the Chinese prison." The snowy mountains stood mute in their solitude like they were in mourning, except for us talking it was completely silent. I thought if he were to express his view in Lhasa, our guide could end up in jail for at least 5 years. He continued, "Then the red guards called my father over and ordered him to slap and humiliate his teacher. Telling him his master was a parasite and burden on society." His eyes were moist and his face flushed red. We kept walking. "At first he refused to do as they commanded. But, their guns were pointed at him. He had no choice but to hit his own teacher. A few years after that incident my father heard from his monk friends that Geshe Ngawang died of exhaustion in the labour camp."
Gradually the path ascends and snakes around a mountain flanked from two sides by lower mountains. When we reached half way it was around 2 in the afternoon. Topgyal started to look nervous and asked us to hurry. His eyes were on the surrounding mountains. We started to sense his tension. With fear in his eyes he said, "We are in the vicinity where a young nun was shot dead by the Chinese border guard last year. We should get going." Topgyal was right to be anxious. Around half past 2 there was a loud bang; crack that echoed before it faded away, then seconds later bullets poked the snow right next to my feet.
"Hurry, run! They are firing gun at us, quick!" Our guide shouted while starting to run along the steep mountainous path. Then all hell broke loose. Tenzin started to cry with fear. I shouted to my friend, "Run Tenzin run, drop your bag if its heavy." He dropped his bag and tried to run but it was hard so he crawled on all fours. After a while there was another crackling sound. This time it hit the ground a few feet away from us; making the snow jump in the air. There was no place to hide, on this snow field we were as visible as wandering yak on the open grassland. I threw my bag pack away while running, but my legs seemed to get heavier. I tried but I couldn’t run, and then one of my legs gave way, I landed on my face. I managed to get up and started crawling. I caught up with Tenzin. "Come on, hurry."
When I gripped him on his arm, it was warm and wet. Blood was dripping down his sleeve. He looked at me and said, "I’ve being hit, Dhondup." He was shivering. His voice sounded like someone who had already given up on a dream when it was so near. "Don’t worry." I said rapidly trying to comfort him while scanning the area trying to figure out where were they firing from. "You will be fine once we are over the pass. Come on hurry up." I dragged him along as fast as I could. My heart was pounding hard against my rib cage. My breathing was short and fast. I saw Topgyal in distance. I called after him, "Help! help me." But, he was too absorbed in saving his own life. All I could see was his hunched back pacing the way. I lost all sense of time, the crest of the pass was visible but, it was taking ages for us to reach. Then another shot was fired, the sound echoed in the wilderness. I dived for cover taking my friend with me, burying my face in the snow. I looked up in the direction of our guide. I saw him drop lifelessly. I thought this time he couldn’t have stood a chance, because the sound of the gun was viciously close.
After a few moments, the chaos subsided and there was complete silence again except for the wind and my heart beating in my ears. When we ran passed him, I saw him lying flat on his face with blood splashed red on the snow path. I could see some of his brain tissue on the ice. The sniper had aimed at his head; the vital point. His hand was still firmly on his amulet, perhaps he thought his own god wouldn’t give up on him that easily. Looking at the predicament, my heart wished that we could give Topgyal a proper funeral, but my mind knew that there was no time for us to do so. So, we kept going while feeling upset to see the death of a compatriot and still being taunted by the onslaught; we were as helpless as rabbits on an open field with a hunter aiming his rifle. As the silence of the gun prolonged I dwelled on the hope that we could escape with our lives and there was also the fear that the hope of staying alive could be shattered within a shot of one more bullet. But we held onto life. We managed to reach the top of the pass and out of bullets’ range and kept on with the struggle through the frozen snow and ice.
I was so relieved. I laid down on the snow and closed my eyes, letting my spirit to rest and the loud pounding heart to slow. The frozen terrain soon started to seep through my clothes, while the shadows crept gradually from the valley below as the sun made its retreat behind the mountains — that stood dominating the landscape in utter quietness.
In the twilight we descended into the valley that led us towards the Nepalese border. From there we would be free, but far from home.
The writer is a student at Thames Valley University, London.
(This piece was edited by Fiona Mallett.)
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