Every year, hundreds, if not thousands of Tibetans risk their lives by crossing the border between Nepal and Tibet. Many, without documents, travel by foot over the high and dangerous passes of the Himalaya. Some cross the border at Dham, or Tatopani, others cross in the Solukhumbu region near Mount Everest. The risk of being caught by the police is high, especially on the Chinese side, where the army may open fire, or may incarcerate those they find in a horrible prison, striped of all basic human rights. Yet still, many Tibetans are willing to take this risk, either because they want to find political and religious asylum in India or Nepal, or they want to return to Tibet to be with family members and see their homeland, which they miss so deeply.
This July, Heruka and I accompanied and helped two of our friends, Tenzin and Dorjee, on the footpath to Tibet in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal. Our friends wanted to return to Tibet after living in Nepal and India for several years. They were homesick and wanted to return to their families. Even though I knew the risk was great, I also knew that their strength and desire to return home was powerful. We decided to go, with Heruka as our translator and leader. So, I will tell you about our some of our experiences on the road.
On July 11, 2010 we began our journey from Kathmandu. Before leaving we prepared some food: sugared tsampa, kaptse, biscuits, dried fruit, nuts and oatmeal and clothes suitable for the rainy season. Then we boarded the early morning bus to Jiri. The road was terrible: hairpin turns winding up and down mountains, near collisions with other buses and bumps and potholes which made many of the passengers sick to their stomachs. At one point, our bus nearly veered off the road over a steep hill and everyone had to get off the bus. Some of the passengers helped the driver dig the tires out of the mud.
Eight hours later we arrived in Jiri, a bit shaken up, and our journey by foot began. We left Jiri as quickly as possible to avoid any problems with the police. Soon we were making our way up and down mountains, across long suspended footbridges over gushing rivers and through areas inhabited by the Sherpa people, who share with Tibetans common ethic and linguistic origins.
We walked from morning to night every day, but since it was the monsoon season, we could not sleep outside. The first night we slept in a small lodge run by a Sherpa family. The second night we could not find a lodge to sleep in. Because the four of us did not have much money, we decided to sleep outside near an empty house. Tenzin and Dorjee put their sleeping bags in plastic tarps and slept in the open. Heruka and I didn’t have tarps, so we tried to sleep under the awning of the house. It rained all night and the sleeping bags were soon soaked. There were leaches everywhere. I didn’t sleep that night.
On the third night we reached Thubten Choeling Gompa, the oldest and largest Tibetan nunnery in Solukhumbu region. I was exhausted and glad to be somewhere warm for the night. We were served a dinner of cheese momos, aloo and milk tea. It tasted delicious. Heruka told the monks our story and they wished us good luck and were very kind to us. We slept well that night and the next day the nuns gave Tenzin and Dorjee blessings for a safe return to Tibet. After four more days of difficult terrain, we reached the checkpoint for Mount Everest National Park. Heruka had warned us about the checkpoint and I was given the Chinese money to hold, just in case the police checked the boys’ bags. When we reached the checkpoint we did indeed have a difficult experience with the police. The police asked where we were going and they asked the boys about their identity. They boys had no way to prove their nationality so the police searched their belongings and would not let us enter. I felt scared for the boys because they were powerless in the situation. Only Nepalese and foreigners with passports are allowed to enter the area.After four hours, they let us go. The boys had to sign a declaration which said that they are Nepali citizens and plan to return after three days time. Of course this was not true, but this was our only way to go on. By that time, it was evening and darkness was falling. My heart was beating quickly and I felt nervous from our experience with the police, so I walked swiftly. The landscape became more awesome, with wide rapids, rushing down from the glaciers.
Soon it was dark and we were making our way up the mountain towards Namchee Bazaar. The climb was a steep 600 meters. But strangely, I didn’t feel tired. When we finally arrived at Namchee Bazaar it was ten o’clock. Luckily we found a place to stay that night and in the morning we walked two hours to Kare Gompa. We passed one more police checkpoint, but this time, no problem. When we arrived at Kare Gompa the weather was cold and rainy. At Kare Gompa we were given tea and tsampa and we prepared to say goodbye to Tenzin and Dorjee. We decided to walk an hour more on the road and then Heruka and I would walk back to Lukla and Tenzin and Dorjee would cross the mountain passes to Tibet. After we said goodbye, we watched Tenzin and Dorjee disappear around the side of the mountain. I prayed for their safe return.
Now half of our journey was over. But the difficulties were not yet over. Heruka and I walked for seven more days until we arrived at Jiri to return to Kathmandu. At some points I was so hungry and my energy was so weak, it was difficult to go on. Everyday it rained, our shoes and clothes were always wet. All I could think about sometimes were food and a warm bed. After much physical suffering, we made it to Jiri, and after ten terrible hours in the bus, we were in Kathmandu again.
The story for Tenzin and Dorjee ends happily: after a total of thirteen days, they made it home to Tibet safely. However, the story does not end happily for many Tibetans who travel the same road every year. Some end up in jail, others die due to dangerous conditions of the road, and others are killed by men with guns. Perhaps we can say our luck was good, but what we did was risky and endangered the lives of our friends. All I can say is we did what we had to do. The human rights of national identity, protection, and movement were not given to my Tibetan friends, and so they risked their lives to return to their families and homeland. My sincere hope is that Tibetans and all other oppressed peoples of the world are allowed the simple rights of freedom to ensure safety and provide a foundation for a happy and fulfilling life.
By Sandra Jayne