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For fear of Chinese soldiers, they only dared walk through the freezing nights, with no light to guide them but the stars. The mountains were black towers before the dark sky. The group, numbering a dozen or so, had set out shortly before the Tibetan New Year festival, which, like the beginning of the Chinese calendar, usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. New Year was deemed the best time to escape. [private]The high passes were covered in snow, and icy winds whistled across them, but the snow was frozen hard at night and was sometimes even stable by day, in contrast to the warm season, when trekkers sank knee or navel-deep into a mixture of snow, ice, water, mud and scree. It was common knowledge that the Chinese border guards preferred to keep warm in their barracks during the winter rather than go on patrol in the biting cold. Everybody agreed that the soldiers would sooner spend the New Year festival, the most important Chinese holiday, celebrating, drinking and playing cards than doing their actual duties.
My mother Sonam’s heart beat wildly as she struggled to keep up with the adults. She was only six years old.
Soon they caught sight of danger looming in the distance. In the valley far below their path, they saw large, brightly lit buildings. They could only be housing Chinese soldiers; Tibetans had no such huge and uniformly built houses as these, with such bright lights. Shouting voices, crashes of music, laughter, sometimes terrifying screams emanated from the buildings, echoing off the mountain. The Chinese soldiers loved chang, Tibetan beer made from barley, and they presumably had plentiful supplies. The sounds Sonam heard were blood-curdling, like a herd of wild beasts gathering in the distance. But her mother whispered to soothe her. ‘It’s good that they’re celebrating,’ she said. ‘They won’t come up here if they’re cosy and warm and drunk.’
The refugees’ path was narrow and stony and barely visible in the darkness. Often the group had to pick their way through thorny scrub and fields of scree, and then carry on between low trees. The roots of the trees protruded from the ground, tripping them up, and the dry branches scraped their hands and faces. All of them were covered in scratches, their feet bleeding and their clothes torn. The higher they climbed, the more often they had to cross snowfields.
It was the winter of 1959, the same year the Dalai Lama went into exile and a prophecy made by Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, was being fulfilled in a terrible way. This ostensibly 1,200-year-old prophecy says: ‘When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth and Buddhist teachings will reach the land of the red man.’ The iron birds, or Chinese planes, were flying over our land, and the horses on wheels, or Chinese trains, had brought troops to the border, forcing my mother and grandparents to set out on a perilous journey.
Although the Chinese had invaded and occupied our land in 1950, it was not until years later that they dropped their initial false friendliness and began systematically arresting, torturing and imprisoning Tibetans, especially Buddhist monks and nuns, and aristocrats. As my grandmother was a nun and my grandfather a monk, they were in great danger. Their monastery was attacked and pillaged by Chinese soldiers. The Chinese ran riot in the village below the monastery. They dragged aristocrats across the village square by their hair and beat them, made them clean latrines, destroyed their houses, stole their sacred statues and gave their land to the peasants. They stole livestock, hurled insults at venerable lamas and trampled on centuries-old village traditions. It was this barbarism that made my grandmother Kunsang Wangmo and my grandfather Tsering Dhondup decide to flee to India with my mother Sonam Dolma and her four-year-old sister.
They planned to cross the Himalayas on foot, with little money and no idea of the trials and tribulations they would meet along the way. They were equipped with nothing but home-made leather shoes, woollen blankets, a large sack of tsampa – ground-up roasted barley – and the certainty that escaping to the country that had taken in the Dalai Lama was their sole chance of survival. This conviction was based solely on their unshakeable faith. My grandparents couldn’t speak any Indian language, they knew not a single person on the Indian subcontinent and they hadn’t the slightest idea of what awaited them – apart from the knowledge that the Dalai Lama, whom they had never seen in their lives but who for them was the supreme authority, had been granted asylum there.
My mother’s shoes were hardly adequate footwear for climbing mountains in the winter. The smooth leather soles slid across the snow, sending her slipping or falling to the ground every few feet. The snow gradually soaked through the roughly-sewn seams, making the hay she had stuffed into her shoes in place of socks cold and slimy. She wanted only to sit down and cry, but she had to concentrate all her willpower on placing her feet, one step at a time, into the footprints left by the adults ahead of her. Just don’t get left behind, she repeated to herself. She knew it would be the end of her.[/private]
Yangzom Brauen is an actress and political activist. Born in 1980 to a Swiss father and Tibetan mother, she lives in both Los Angeles and Berlin and has appeared in a number of German and American films. She is also very active in the Free Tibet movement, making regular radio broadcasts about Tibet and organising public demonstrations against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Across Many Mountains will be published by Harvill Secker on 3 March 2011.
You can also read our exclusive Q&A with Yongzom.