A Cry for Help from High in the Mountains
A colorless sky laid heavy over the magnificent landscape, the atmosphere threatened. Black uniformed police, soldiers in green military uniforms with guns, and plainclothes officers promised silence. Edicts had been issued, the monks had been warned that those who had taken part in the peaceful demonstrations were to turn themselves in or else. The else was creating a state of terror wherever we turned. Now everyone waited, in Tongren the police were expected by evening.
The terror of the young monk swallowed us. He told us that he was willing to die if only this oppression, this utter lack of freedom could be lifted. Standing beside the altar in the great hall we talked, behind us a large photo of the Dalai Lama. There is no one on the Tibetan Plateau who does not know the heavy cost of possessing such a photo, but there it stood, the monks silent protest. We were seeing an indication of the tremendous courage of the monks, of their utter desperation after forty-nine years of being told by the Chinese Government what they could study, when they could study, and if they could study at all, and whether or not their teachers were allowed to teach. Forty-nine years watching Han Chinese flood in, overrunning Tibetan villages, turning them into high-rise Chinese cities and their grasslands into Chinese tended fields. Now the monks here are refusing their own fear.
On the veranda outside the great hall a woman continued her prostrations without pause, young monks bounced a ball on the street, older monks wandered into one small shop after the next. Messages so thick in the air one gasped for breath. Young green uniformed soldiers stood guard, black guns with thick barrels at the ready, before a military transport parked in front of the Prosecutors Office. The repercussions were underway. Terror is not threatened, it is reality. Monastery after monastery, town after town we traveled, driving hundreds of miles down unpaved roads; The same story, the same choked silence.
Arriving in Labrang the golden roofs of the monastery were brilliant under even the dull sky, but so few monks and everyone uncharacteristically distant. Missing was the usual bright welcome, the cheering gait, the gentle reaching-out, the shared cups of tea. Out on the street we were met with downcast eyes and when met they were eyes filled with anguish. Once inside, away from the ever present police and plainclothes officers, the monks and shopkeepers could not repress their horror with their helplessness, their exasperation with the continued brutal repression. A young shopkeeper burst into silent pantomime of violent kicking, beating, shooting as a phalanx of young Chinese soldiers marched, two abreast, down the main street in stiff green uniforms. 'THAT is what they do!' She quietly shouted while her husband ceremoniously attended to tidying already tidy shelves, gently urging her to quiet. In the shadow of the shop I reached out to embrace her shaking, barely restrained valor, her horror with her inability to protect the monks and other peaceful protestors.
After a guided tour of the monastery I returned to the temple where a friend of mine was once caretaker and asked after him. The young monk knew exactly who I meant and led us to his room. My friends were left in the outside room while I was directed through two more doors. Inside Ghen-lah sat at his desk concentrated on writing on a small piece of paper. I waited, my delight at seeing him alive and well escaping into a torrent of greetings, asking if he remembered me. The little monk sitting there wrapping strings around blessings explained that Ghen was in retreat, that he was mumbling because he could not speak until after his retreat. Writing completed, Ghen-lah turned to me handing me the carefully written note: Come this evening at eight or tomorrow at noon, then he could speak. I clasped his hands placing them on my head, took his note and reluctantly left. Eighteen years had passed since our last meeting, in answer to my question of whether he remembered me, he had written my name on another carefully torn piece of paper. Eighteen years vanished, but the doors closed again.
In the anteroom we talked with the young monk. He told of the police taking away his thirty-one year old brother, yet another to be added to the list of missing and anxiously awaited. He told of seven monks being taken from the monastery by police days ago, no news of their whereabouts. He told of four young men who had demonstrated in a neighboring village. When the police came after them they plunged their knives into their own hearts to avoid certain torture and death at the hands of the police. Shaken by the potential price of our visit and fearing for the monks I suggested we leave. First let the journalist ask his questions, the monk replied. I asked about coming tomorrow to visit with Ghen-lah as he had directed in the note. Is that not dangerous? I asked. 'Very seriously dangerous.' He replied, 'You decide. We are here.' There is nothing nonchalant in their courageous tossing off the heavy cloak of terror.
The next morning walking alone to the old residential part of town, I was confronted by two police cars. I turned to walk in the opposite direction but was followed and later stopped. They asked for my passport, which they scanned on the spot. Not speaking English, they then handed me their cell phone to speak with Nicholas, who said he would like to meet me later. He then inquired of my traveling companions, not wanting to implicate them I remained silent, then handed back the telephone.
Dazed by this encounter with the black uniformed PSB and plainclothes officers I sat down to ponder my own fate and watch as people walked the korwah saying prayers. Into my little nook hands reached out in greeting and urged me to join them in their walk. An elegant old man paused, looking me in the eyes. "Tugeechay," said he, THANK YOU.
Returning to our hotel we quickly packed and loaded baggage into our waiting car but an hour outside of town we were met with a police road block just outside of LuQu, our passports taken away. We waited along side the road for two hours under guard, when they finally returned they forced us into a police van along with five plainclothes officers from "the travel bureau," or least so we were told. I noticed that the officer who claimed to speak no English listened attentively to our conversation and later spoke to us in English.
Sitting in the van, fully expecting hours of interrogation and likely worse, I relaxed for only the second time on this trip, the first was on meeting my travel companion-the China Bureau Chief for one of the world's largest newspapers. The tension generated by the background of violence, by the overwhelming number of police and armed military and silently watching undercover officers evaporated. The only gap in that quiet was when my quietly courageous companion noted, "Ahh, they are taking us to a very secluded place." Then came the calming thought: we are truly with the people now, the government has kindly included us. Oh, if only our inclusion could help shift the balance that would finally move the military OFF the Plateau, if only the people's voices could be heard and the drowning immigration stopped before it is too late, if only this rich culture could be given a chance to breathe, not survive as a tourist attraction but to truly live. As our van drove off the highway down narrow dusty country lanes we saw ahead of us at the end of the road what appeared to be a gated government building but then the driver made a ninety degree turn and continued on. Only a shortcuts.
Three hours later the van drove into a big hotel in Linxia and stopped. They helped us out telling us we were to stay there for the night for tomorrow they would accompany us on down to Lanzhou. We firmly explained that we had no wish whatsoever to stay the night, that we would continue to Lanzhou; and we did so, at once. Half of our journey cancelled, we were once again blocked from seeing or hearing of the true cost of maintaining China's face and stability, after a perilous journey in the dark over boulder strewn washed out roads we arrived late at the point where we had begun.
Next morning after a full Chinese breakfast we were back on the road to PingAn County (birthplace of the present Dalai Lama), Tongren and Ledu. Tongren-in Huangnan, Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture-was of particular concern for on the 21st of February, even before the protests began in Lhasa, monks had clashed with police. And when we arrived in April, it was clear that trouble was once again near, the atmosphere was thick with fear, soldiers and police were everywhere. The terrified monks were expecting the military to appear in the evening. That their deaths might lead toward freedom was the best hope they had.
Now, another horror behind us, our four-wheel drive vehicle was put to full use driving to the Dalai Lama's family home in Takster. There are no signs, so at every juncture we must stop and ask directions from Hui villagers. They offered directions without hesitation, assuring us that we would 'easily find it as everyone knows this place.' After driving what seemed hours, down narrow, unpaved and torn up roads we finally started climbing steeply, but slowly upwards. Finally, the road ended in a narrow walkway. A local standing nearby said it was a very short walk up the hill, we would see it. And sure enough, the first and only sign that we had entered a Tibetan village was the great red pair of doors with hundreds of khatas tied to the shiny brass handles; but the doors were firmly locked. On each side of the gates were nailed notices from the provincial judicial authorities dated the 2nd of April 2008, one in Tibetan one in Chinese, stating that the authorities prohibited all 'destructive anti-governmental behavior' and the reproduction or distribution of the Dalai Lama's image in any form. Further the notice said that anyone providing information about such activities would be rewarded.
We went around the house and knocked, a middle aged woman cracked the door saying she would ask her husband. When he appeared his weary frightened eyes told their story. Said he, 'We cannot help you at the moment, and we would like you to leave immediately.' According to neighbors, we had just missed the police. Apparently the road to the house has been blocked during the day since the protests began. That was The News from Takster.
After a good night's rest in Xining we drove on to Kumbum Monastery. We were surprised to find the road to the monastery completely open. On arriving, there were barricades, but a young Chinese woman introduced herself as we paused for directions saying, that as our guide she could get us inside, so guide she was. She jumped in and directed us to the parking lot. She showed us to the ticket counter, then walked us around talking loudly nonstop, telling us she was half Han half Tibetan but really Han. And truly there was nothing about her manner that would indicate otherwise. We saw many beautiful temples but few monks, and it was clear that we were not to speak to those we met. As we neared the last temple I asked if we could speak to a monk; this was a monastery after all. So she took us off to buy khatas and presented us to one who could only be called 'the Government's demonstration lama' telling us he would bless things if we wished. Despite being such a distinguished monastery, it all felt grossly set up, put down your money and get your whatknots blessed, offer a scarf and get a chanting lama, but do NOT ask any questions because the monk is under full surveillance. As the lama explained on my way out the door, he can say NOTHING. This entire well-repaired monastery had the feeling of a museum. Indeed, the reinstitution of political re-education had set the tone in line with the banners praising stability.
On the way out, a visiting monk who had walked along with us on our tour jumped into our car for a ride back to Xining. As we drove, he told us that though there were no troubles at his monastery a few hours distant-at Qinghai Lake-political re-education classes had begun and severe restrictions placed on the monks.
Traveling from Xining before ReKong we noticed on the side of the highway a check post set up with a table at Jianzhan to Lama Dechen Gonpa-people had not only to show identification, but sign that they have entered.
Clearly, the cost of maintaining stability in China is very high. Since mid-March the CCTV television screens have played and replayed the same few images. The country has been subjected to twenty-four hour propaganda disparaging Tibetans for their ungratefulness to the state, and characterized Tibetans' protest against the Government's unbearable repression as "ethnic conflict." On my return while sitting at the airport in Detroit, I heard highly educated visiting overseas Chinese repeat these charges. There is a possibility that the hatred constructed by such propaganda could get out of hand.
For Tibetans this use of brutal force to create "stability" or at least silence has created a life drenched in terror and loss; loss of family members, loss of land, loss of culture, loss of vital monastic establishments, loss of environmental integrity, indeed loss of freedom
in any sense. And, it is clear that Tibetans for the most part have already lost their larger towns and cities to the overwhelming influx of Han Chinese. Even small Tibetan towns one after another are now splattered with high-rise apartment buildings and important Tibetan institutions are inevitably surrounded by a thick belt of newly built Han housing-for stability since no one can enter or leave without passing through this Han belt.
We need to go to Tibet to witness, not in times of peace but in these times of courageous unrest, we must go where the trouble is, where restriction is heaviest. And importantly, we must leave indications that we have witnessed with the Chinese.
During this trip I was reminded again and again how we-with all of our freedoms--are nonchalantly allowing our own governments to resemble more and more this totalitarian regime. Perhaps it is time we seriously consider the direction in which we travel and join China's courageous dissidents in rejecting and exposing this in our own countries.