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Travels – and Troubles – in Chinese Tibet


The Italian ethnologist, Fosco Maraini, once wrote, “There are two ways of travelling. One is to cover long distances in a short time, taking in the general outline of mountain and valley and the most obvious characteristics of the people. The other is to stop, if but for a moment, go deeper, strike root to some extent, and try to imbibe from the soil the invisible spiritual sap which nourishes the inhabitants of the place.” (p83, Secret Tibet)

The ancient caravan trail we’d been trudging all day suddenly opened out to a vast plateau. Or was this merely a fatigue-induced mirage? Herds of shaggy yak nibbled somnolently on scrubby grass while black-frocked mothers and daughters disappeared then surfaced again among the tall fields of barley as they chopped, gathered and carted away an abundant, golden harvest.

Kom, our friend (photo Reginella Sala)

Beneath the early autumn sky burning blue over the jagged Himalayas dividing China’s Yunnan Province from Tibet, our hike had culminated in an epiphany. The smoky Chinese village where my wife and I had set out at daybreak had long ago dissolved in the mists of distant valleys, while at 14,000 feet we gazed out ahead of us across the Tibet plateau at an array of majestic, snow-capped peaks glistening in the stark sunlight.

It was the sound of distant bells tinkling in the breeze that made us aware of the Buddhist monastery rising gradually on the horizon. As we approached the 400-year-old abbey of the Gelug sect (“Virtuous Ones”), a young monk wearing a crimson, woolen habit beckoned us to a stone wall enclosing a dirt courtyard. It almost seemed that the monk, who introduced himself as Kom, had been expecting us. “Come, come,” he said. “Let us sit.”

Tibetan villages bear an uncanny resemblance to medieval Italian hamlets: stout sun-dried mud brick houses cascade steplike down steep mountain slopes. Three massive, whitewashed square temples crown the village summits like a fortified castle.

We broke the ice with Kom by expressing our admiration for the Tibetan nomads and their rugged way of life out in the remote plateau. We remarked on the stunning beauty of the landscape and on the cheerful disposition that characterizes the locals.

Tying prayer flags (photo Reginella Sala)

Kom explained that he has lived at the monastery as far back as he can remember. Orphaned at four years old he was taken by relatives to the abbots who trained him in their austere discipline, a regimen based on the memorization and recitation of ancient prayers and strenuous daily meditation. At 29 years of age, Kom has recently been appointed the youngest of the order’s chief scribes. “When I was a child, I began writing every day at five o’clock in the morning,” he said. “I learned the ancient calligraphy and copied the sacred texts over and over again all day [in order to honor] Dalai Lama.”

Although he has never met the Dalai Lama, Kom draws his inspiration from Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader. “Everything I know comes from Dalai Lama,” he said, folding his hands and bowing his head in reverence each time he uttered the name of His Holiness. “But Dalai Lama cannot return to Tibet,” Kom said. “If Dalai Lama returns to Tibet, he will lose his life. Come on, let’s go inside.”

We followed the gracious monk past a temple where the perfume of burning incense wafted from a glowing interior brightened by butter votive candles. A group of young devotees had gathered and were seated in lotus posture on long cedar planks where they repeated the mantra, Om mane padme hum, which they counted on sandalwood prayer beads.

Once inside the shadowy solitude of the abbey’s spacious, sooty kitchen, Kom shared with us his thoughts about the Chinese occupation of his country. “We try to live in our own way, but it is very hard because so much has been taken from us,” he said laying twigs in a wood-burning stove in preparation of the traditional yak butter tea. “But if the pandas have a right to survive, then so do we!” he added ironically.

According to the Tibetan Review, a bimonthly journal published in Dharamsala, India, more than a half-century of Chinese occupation has claimed by violence and by privations an estimated total of 1,278,387 Tibetan lives, slightly less than one-fifth of the population. The religious persecution and genocide initiated by Mao Tse Tung in the 1950s and culminating in the years of the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), has come to characterize China’s illegal policy toward its Tibetan neighbours.

Monastery courtyard (photo Reginella Sala)

The Chinese troops also ravaged the Tibetan landscape: although some reconstruction work has taken place in recent years, barely twenty of the some 6,000 holy sites throughout the country–monasteries, chapels and shrines–remain standing.

We asked Kom about his family. “My family?” the scribe responded quizzically after a long, reflective silence. “You are my family,” he exclaimed, looking us squarely in the eye. “You in America and in Italy (the writer’s wife is Italian)…And in all the world. We are all one family.”

Kom emphasized his words with hand gestures as graceful as the colorful, little banners waving in the wind on the hilltops throughout the country, known in Tibetan as lung-ta. The villagers’ prayers are inscribed on the flags, which emanate a spiritual aura when ‘sung’ by the breezes.

The fire Kom had kindled was blazing and the tea was beginning to boil. The monks use the tea as a beverage but also mix it with barley flour to form a paste which they eat, this is often accompanied by salty yak cheese which provides an important source of protein to their meager diet. After the tiresome, ten-hour hike through the mountains, the steaming cups of tea and Kom’s affability were revitalizing.

After tea, we stepped back out into the courtyard where a of the few elderly monks were educating a group of about 20 young novices. Kom introduced us to an elder abbot, a lama, who greeted us with dark eyes that gazed out tenderly from behind a lined and weathered old face. He seemed eager to communicate something to us but spoke no English.

Kom told us that the lama had survived the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. In those years, the Chinese troops forced the monks to renounce their Buddhist faith and the Dalai Lama, and to vow allegiance to China’s People’s Party government. Those who refused were either imprisoned or executed.

Barley fields (photo Reginella Sala)

The lama turned away to wipe a tear. Regaining his composure he asked to see the English-Tibetan phrasebook we’d brought along with us and, after a moment’s search, he pointed out a word which seemed to stir him deeply. The word was, ‘wonderful’. He closed his eyes briefly, folded his hands and assumed a meditative pose. When he opened his eyes again, he looked all around the horizon and in a circular fashion indicated the monastery grounds, the green plains below us and further out to the snow-topped mountains beyond. “Wonderful!” he declared. “Wonderful!” It appeared the old lama sought to express something he had discovered during years of meditation that has enabled him to transcend the tragedy of his life. He smiled and bowed slightly our way, adjusted his heavy woolen habit and walked quietly out of the courtyard.

Kom turned to us to ask if we would be coming back tomorrow. But we still had a bit of a trek ahead of us and a flight to catch the day after next. “We all need help in life,” he said bidding us farewell. “You help me, I help you. We all help each other.” He took a cone-shaped block of yak cheese, broke it in two and gave us half. “Thank you to America, to Italy, and to all the people who try to help Tibet. Thank you for your friendship.”

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