My feet are wandering neath the alien star My native land — the road is far and long. Yet the same light of Venus and Mars Falls on the small green valley of Rebkong. Rebkong — I left thee and my heart behind, My boyhood’s dusty plays, in far Tibet. Karma, that restless stallion made of wind, In tossing me, where will it land me yet?*
Gendun Choephel — “Rebkong”
FOR KALSANG DORJEE, a young Tibetan of university age, education and learning was to be the road out of his country and into an unknown, uncertain world. It would be his tool, his nonviolent weapon, for a Tibet that he dreamed would someday be free. Everyday life in Tibet had grown too oppressive under Chinese rule — no personal or academic freedom at all, as he experienced it — and at age 23, the student of Tibetan literature had now come to accept the possibility of death as the price of that freedom, as he slowly made his way over the Himalaya mountain range and away from his homeland.
KALSANG DORJEE had grown up in Qinghai Province in the Amdo region of China, one of the centers of cultural Tibet. He remembered well how, like many children of his generation, he was not allowed under the Chinese educational system to learn his own Tibetan language in primary school. By his own accounts he was a bright student, moving up through the educational system and eventually graduating from Qinghai Nationalities University with a degree in Tibetan literature. During school vacations, he would study Tibetan Buddhism at a monastery.
In 1999, “The situation in Tibet was very severe. Things seemed to be getting worse. There was no personal freedom at all,” he recalled. “Tibetans were forced to do work they didn’t want to do,” such as in farming or agriculture, “and a person might be put in prison or tortured” for refusing.
He desperately wanted to study more, but not just for himself: He felt that he wanted to use his education to “do something for Tibet and Tibetans” of the future, to “communicate to the Chinese government and the Chinese people” — and by extension, to governments and people around the world — as his own personal contribution for a free, independent Tibet. He wasn’t politically active; that was too risky at that time. He just had a passion for learning and a deep love for his culture. He saw only one avenue open, and that was getting out of the country before the gates of possibility were shut for good.
I sing for myself, the traveller The ever-wandering vagabond, Chased from where I belong Eluded by promises and hopes Belonging to a vaunted diaspora That fights from atop a beautiful hill, And for all travellers with no destination For all fights fought and yet to fight For the lost chord unfound For the trail that rises upward For the revised spirit For gentler hearts For the Promised Land The snow sunk upland Closer to where I want to die.
Bhuchung D. Sonam — “Song of an Old Tibetan”
Kalsang Dorjee joined a group of about 20 other Tibetans and made plans in 1999 to secretly slip over the Chinese border and across the Himalaya mountains. Destination: Nepal. There was no guarantee they would make it there alive. “It was very dangerous. If you wanted to do that, you had to be ready to die,” he says. By that time, he was. If the cold, harsh climate of the Himalayas did not kill you, the Chinese military’s border guards would — they were known to shoot border-crossing stragglers on sight.
“It was not a pleasure trip, and I had no special training” for being in the outdoors for long periods of time, he recollects. He and his compatriots survived on zanba, the roasted barley rolls that are a staple food of Tibet, as well as on Chinese herbal medicine drinks and some high-energy supplement pills that Chinese soldiers were known to take. More than the severe climate of the Himalayas, “Our biggest fear was getting caught by the Chinese army” stationed along the border, he says. “Of course, I was ready to die, but even so, it was harder to do than I imagined. But we couldn’t go back.”
Kalsang Dorjee and his group were not spotted by the Chinese military’s border guards, but another group of Tibetans following behind them were not so lucky: A few of the Tibetans in the other group were shot at and killed by border guards. His group kept on going. At times the cold and the hunger and the exhaustion would get to them, and some of his comrades, young men in their 20s, would wail uncontrollably. “If I had known how hard it would be” to flee Tibet over the Himalayas, Kalsang Dorjee says, “I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Once they finally did make it over the mountainous border into Nepal, “three or four in our group couldn’t walk any farther, so we had to leave them behind and keep going. It couldn’t be helped. It would’ve been too dangerous to keep going with them.” He thinks they eventually made it to safety. Twenty-four long days after leaving Tibet and crossing the Himalaya mountains, he was safely now in Nepal…and officially exiled.
Oh, you brave, brave people I greet you in exile! You have like me become An orphan of this world.
And like me, you will never ever Know what lies ahead now: But you must be patient While we remain exiled.
Now that the worst is over You must learn once again To smile at the rising sun: And to start all over again.
Norbu Zangpo — “To Boat People”
The Nepalese police took the weary Kalsang Dorjee and his fellow Tibetans to a local human rights organization, which looked after them temporarily. At the time, he remembers, a couple thousand Tibetans a year were making the same kind of trek due to the heavy oppression of Tibet under Chinese rule. He stayed two months in Nepal, then moved on to New Delhi, India. After that he relocated to the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, home to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, the chief representative of the Tibetan government in exile.
Tears are visible in Kalsang Dorjee’s eyes as the memory of that time of his life comes back to him. “It was great being there” in Dharamsala, he says, and though he never got to meet the Dalai Lama face to face, “I felt I wanted to do my best within the Tibetan refugee community, as they all are doing.” Kalsang Dorjee, like many of his fellow Tibetans, was deeply inspired and influenced by the world-renowned spiritual leader, and was more sure than ever that he wanted to further his education while in exile to do his part for the liberation of his people back home.
But India, he says, did not seem to be the right place to do it. “I was concerned about the many differences between India and China — the ways of thinking, for one — and India was not really up to confronting China. If I stayed in India, maybe I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of things I really wanted to do to help Tibet.” He eventually set his sights on Japan, with its own brand of Buddhism and spirituality, as his next home in exile.