Author’s Note: The events in this story happened nearly 25 years ago, yet it felt most appropriate to post “Trouble in Tibet” on this 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in March 1959 against Chinese rule. Thanks for following current news stories on developments concerning Tibetan demands for autonomy within the People’s Republic of China, and for following your conscience and what it calls for you to do.
Our fate fluttered in the wind. The five yellow-starred, crimson flag of the People’s Republic of China snapped and flapped defiantly from the mast towering above us. I closed my eyes, wishing I were elsewhere.
We had stopped to watch as a company of Chinese soldiers assembled. They looked resentful, unhappy and out of place, defending the homeland from their duty station 15,000 feet high on a windy, treeless plain in western Tibet. Their drab green uniforms mirroring their mood, the soldiers, rifles slung over one shoulder, metal rice bowls and wooden chopsticks in hand, marched single file for breakfast-steamed rice and boiled cabbage.
Daniel just had to get a snapshot of this scene. The army base commander, his neck veins pulsing, stormed toward Daniel, grabbing at his camera. George, a fellow backpacker from Hong Kong who spoke Mandarin Chinese, tried to defuse things. The commander only yelled louder, gesticulating wildly. The first to grasp the gravity of the situation, our Chinese driver, “Shuo”, locked the van and surrendered the keys. Several soldiers broke rank and barricaded the gate. An earlier, indelible memory of colorful Tibetan prayer flags offering protection and safe travel over a mountain pass filled my mind. I no longer felt protected or safe.
The commander accused Daniel of photographing a military installation, an alleged violation of Chinese national security. The rest of us were guilty by association, since we were all traveling together. We surrendered our passports and waited outside, while the commander ushered George and Shuo into a bleak, windowless building.
We shuddered in the steady November wind, with our warmer gear imprisoned in the van, thinking it would mainly be a driving day to Sagya, home to a Tibetan Buddhist temple and monastery that had somehow survived the carnage of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, we were detained at a military outpost a few miles from Tingiri, tantalizingly close to the Himalayas.
I desperately wanted to be somewhere else. To that end, I conjured up images from the day before, when we roamed freely in this stunning, soulful country. Our goal was Mount Everest, or Qomolungma, as it is known to Tibetans—not to climb it, but merely to glimpse one of their most sacred mountains, from a wind-pummeled ridge a long day’s walk from the army base.
Seeing Everest was to be the pinnacle of our Tibetan adventure. We had paid Shuo to drive us to Tingiri, the monastery towns of Sagya and Gyantse, and then back to Lhasa, the only place in Tibet we had official Chinese permission to visit. But a thriving entrepreneurial network arranged “tours” for backpackers. Chinese drivers then bribed government and military officials so that travelers could venture into parts of Tibet that had not seen foreigners in decades.
“How will the commander explain our presence in the compound?” we now asked each other. “Will he admit taking bribes for us to stay here for two nights?”
“Will he claim we broke into the compound to photograph state and military secrets, or that Shuo was a spy?” Daniel’s suggestion unsettled us all.
An image of a firing squad briefly came to mind. Another one appeared-an international stand-off, replete with sobbing parents, and orchestrated throngs of protesters mobbing our respective embassies in Beijing. Then it shifted to the American hostages five years earlier in Iran, and their 444-day detainment.
I ducked around the opposite side of the van, two soldiers rushing after me. Seeing that I was only pissing, they shrugged, then shuffled back to check on the other detainees. Martin and Jess, seasoned travelers from Australia, alternated between being dejected and hatching improbable escape plans. They both proffered humorous and hopeful reasons for our release, while Martin sketched comical detention scenes in his journal.
A Canadian couple, Lisa and Dan from Winnipeg, were the most dejected and distraught. Earlier that morning, Dan had entertained us all by chasing the free-ranging pigs around base. Lisa kept to herself now, crouching on the leeward side of the van and saying very little, especially to Daniel, a fellow Canadian from Toronto, and the alleged violator of Chinese national security.
Ian, from New Zealand, was already on his third international adventure. We were the only two detainees who had glimpsed Everest the previous day, flashbacks of which continued to help distract me from our present predicament.
Ian and I had departed camp for Qomolungma after a steamed rice and cabbage breakfast. The ground shimmered with early morning frost. The sun climbed higher, revealing thousands of holes dug into the earth, with countless gophers foraging, running, and peeking out of their homes. Tired of negotiating the uneven hummocky terrain, we headed for a higher, rocky ridgeline to make better time.
Crossing a frozen river came next. We threw increasingly larger rocks onto the ice to test its strength, and decided to negotiate a narrower section upstream. It was mid-November. Having grown up in Virginia, I shivered, imagining winter’s already unforgiving grip on this harsh yet mesmerizing landscape. Shortly after lunch we arrived in Lunjgang, a walled village with grazing yaks, and naked children playing outside with homemade toys.
An elderly Tibetan man approached and asked in Chinese if we were looking for Qomolungma. Ian, who had learned some Mandarin Chinese on previous Asian travels, could follow his description of two trekking options to see Everest. Option one was a two-hour climb from Lungjang, with two ridges lying between our vantage point and the mountain. The second route would take three hours, with just apparently only one ridge in between. We sipped yak milk-flavored bark tea with our Tibetan host, then set off, having decided on the first option.
We crisscrossed innumerable streams, occasionally stopping to photograph yaks grazing in the foreground, with the planet’s tallest mountains buttressing the horizon. Only halfway up the first ridge after an hour of effort, and frustrated by poor progress at high altitude, we bailed for option two.
The new route was no easier. Rocks, rocks and more loose rocks, then hard, sloping ground. Distances were deceiving. Our vantage point appeared to be atop the next ridge, mirage-like, but still remained several ridgelines away. We spooked a number of hares as we climbed higher. I found myself wishing we could navigate the terrain as nimbly as they. The final ridge was taxing. We would aim for a certain rock or boulder 100 yards upslope, then stop, sit, wait for zooming heartbeats to return to normal, and climb onward. It took nearly another hour to ascend, but the views that waited made it hard to catch our breath.
Miles away, Qomolungma soared over other jagged and battered peaks of the Himalayas. Its glaciers sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Eagles, ravens and vultures floated above. To the south of Everest lay Nepal. Behind us, another maze of snow-covered ranges rambled west and north beyond Tingiri. We could have easily lingered, but had a long return walk to the base. The sudden onset of icy winds propelled us homeward.
Ian and I neared Lungjang as the last rays of light illuminated ridgelines to the south, and stars eclipsed mountains on the northern horizon. We were way off course. The sun had now set. Neither of us had headlamps or flashlights. We reached the river at a different location from where we had crossed earlier. Here, it split into several smaller branches. We were unsure which one lead upstream to the bridge leading home to Tingiri.
Light-headed and parched from our high altitude wanderings, we stumbled and zigzagged across an interminable expanse of tundra. We climbed a hill to find the lights of town. The steady wind died upon the hilltop, and the moon finally rose, revealing the bridge, and Tingiri glowing in the distance. Elated, we descended an unforgiving talus slope, sending rockslides into the river below. Once across the bridge, the remaining few flat miles home felt the most grueling. Walking was now painful and also strangely numb.
Back at the base, Ian and I opened a bolted gate, and entered the wrong compound. We finally found the right gate, which had been left unlocked. Daniel, Martin, Jess, Lisa, Dan, and George offered us soothing tea and a warm place by the fire once we found our sleeping quarters. We talked excitedly for over an hour, raving about the views and recounting our adventures. Sleep came easily, unlike anything that was to come the following day. I awoke the morning of our eventual detainment feeling every rocky mile traveled to glimpse Qomolungma.
The first signs of frostbite-a tingling, numbing sensation-reminded me to keep moving. I briskly walked the compound perimeter. Nearly three hours had passed since Shuo, George, and the commander had disappeared. Martin offered one of the guards a cigarette as he lit one for himself, and soon a dozen soldiers joined him for a smoke break.
The commander suddenly stormed outside, ordering a nervous, junior-ranking officer inside. Several minutes later, George re-emerged from the building, lit a cigarette, and bowed deeply to the commander. Shuo remained inside. The two officers slammed the door behind them. Sounds of strained shouting and the banging around of furniture escalated.
Strangely, our captors mellowed in their treatment toward us. “Your driver is in trouble for bringing you here,” one told George. “If he had not done so the foreigner would have never taken the pictures. He is responsible for this situation.”
George nodded and bowed slightly in reply. Since Shuo was the only one in the group over whom the commander had any legal power, his public apology and shaming would likely secure our release. George turned away from the soldiers, sighing deeply after starting his third cigarette. We walked around to stay warm, and talked, waited and smoked, while the banging and shouting continued.
Shuo trudged out of the interrogation room. Looking downcast and annoyed, he bowed, glaring at George and us. Great, I thought, a sullen, vengeful driver to transport us over mountain passes, river barge crossings and battered roads all the way back to Lhasa.
Daniel and George were summoned inside. The commander offered them cigarettes upon entering, a hopeful omen. Daniel exited shortly afterwards, camera in hand, face down toward the dusty ground of the compound, with George walking and whispering closely behind him.
Shuo’s keys were returned. He quickly unlocked the vehicle. We grabbed gloves, hats, other warmer clothing, plus food and water held hostage throughout the entire interrogation. After calling his troops to attention, the commander announced his verdict, and publicly berated Shuo a final time. We could return to Lhasa via the monastery towns of Sagya and Gyantse, our original intended route, despite the lack of truly official permission to travel anywhere outside of Lhasa in Tibet.
Lastly, Shuo would lose his “taxi” driving privileges if he had future problems with foreigners or Chinese officials. Daniel, surprisingly, was never publicly lectured after the initial accusation and confrontation. He remained uncharacteristically brief, saying he would explain everything once we were safely off base.
Relieved and re-energized, we departed for Sagya before the commander had time to relent. Shuo hit driving speeds previously not experienced in Tibet, barreling down a narrow gravel road hemmed in by rust-tinted tundra extending to the horizon. Nervous laughter and excitement filled the van. Shuo grew ever more sullen.
In the end, Daniel was allowed to keep his camera and film. The commander, after blaming and shaming Shuo, turned quite cordial toward Daniel and George. Daniel was to surrender his film to the Public Security Bureau upon returning to Lhasa. If there were no military pictures or negatives, there would be no problems. If there were, Daniel would be in trouble, the commander warned him. A totally unenforceable yet face-saving agreement had been brokered, with Shuo paying the price for eight foreigners bribing and bumbling their way around Tibet.
At twilight, multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags shimmered and waved as we crossed back over Lakpala Pass, welcoming us, as they have for travelers and pilgrims for thousands of years, protecting them from the unforeseen and the unexpected. Bowing, I silently offered prayers of deliverance and gratitude, slowly sketching this memory into my mind.
Since 1984, when I visited Tibet, this “autonomous province of China” has become a more restrictive place under Chinese control. Carefully vetted group tours, often led by Chinese rather than Tibetan guides, lead visitors on a strictly monitored itinerary, with very little money trickling down to Tibetans, who are now outnumbered by Han Chinese in the province. The Tibetan spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, continues to live with his government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. Paved roads and a rail link to Lhasa have helped to cement Chinese control over Tibet, but modern communications, when they are not being “upgraded” or “serviced”, also give native Tibetans an equal voice in getting the word out on continuing human rights abuses that started long before March 1959, when the Dalai Lama and followers fled to India and the Chinese government forcefully invaded and occupied Tibet.