Chime Tsering Escape

We wanted to share with you escape stories we were unable to include in the book that illustrate the immense difficulties that had to be overcome by Tibetans fleeing Chinese oppression. The first is the story of Chime Tsering, a librarian with a quick mind who was helpful in researching our book.

Chime Tsering

Chime Tsering decided to leave his country on a lark. He was fourteen and it never occurred to him that he was making a dangerous journey that could cost him his life. Nor did he know how much it would change the life of an illiterate farm boy with no prospects.

Chime’s life in the small farming community was headed for a career ill-suited for the modernized Tibet developing under Chinese rule in the 1990s. His family was too poor to send him to school. He had few prospects other than eking out a living on the family farm. As Chinese cars whizzed by on Chinese built highways, Tibetan farming families like Chime’s worked the fields in much the same way as their ancestors before them. They were left out of the modern Chinese economy, relying mainly on the barter system. Chime and his friends were illiterate and destined to stay that way.

One of his friends had heard about a free school for Bonpo children in India at the Menri Monastery. For boys acutely aware of their educational disadvantage, the mere possibility of obtaining something so far out of their grasp in a faraway place set them to dreaming. The chance of a free education had its allure, but the adventure of an escape to India was even more appealing. Chime and two of his friends devised a plan of sorts to sneak away without telling their parents and go to Lhasa, a city they had heard was filled with wonders such as movie theaters and stores that sold wireless telephones. There they hoped they would find a way to India.

It was the summer of 1995 when the three boys decided to slip away on a starry night. Stealth was necessary because they knew that their parents would refuse permission to go to Lhasa, much less India. According to plan, Chime was pretending to be asleep. The lights in the house were out when he heard rocks clunking against the earthen wall of his family’s house. The rocks were the agreed signal for Chime to slip out of the house and meet his two friends. He silently slipped past his sleeping family and into the courtyard, taking only a small sack of ground barley, known as tsampa, and the clothes he wore. The three boys walked out of the valley and into the steep hills, walking all night to reach a village on the main highway to Lhasa where one of his friends’ relatives had agreed to put them up. They arrived about 3 a.m. and the relative put them on the lower floor where the livestock was kept. The spent the night with a flock of sheep.

The next morning, the boys began hitching rides on trucks heading for Lhasa. The longest ride was on the top of a load of lumber bound for Tibet’s largest city. The truck dropped them off on a street corner in Lhasa. None of them had ever been to Lhasa before and they had no idea where to go. They knew about Drepung, once the largest and most powerful Buddhist monastery in Tibet, and knew that the Drepung monks would at least allow them to shelter there. They got directions from an old man and walked the three miles to the monastery. The boys stayed for two days in the main temple with no food except the tsampa they had brought. They longed for vegetables, butter and cheese.

One of Chime’s friends was able to track down a sister who lived in Lhasa. She allowed them to stay in the small apartment where she lived with her husband. Her husband worked for a Chinese contractor and he arranged for them to be hired as laborers. They worked for six months unloading truckloads of construction material, earning enough money to pay for a guide to help them escape. They found one through word of mouth and met with him twice at their host’s house. The guide noticed that Chime was the youngest of the three friends by several years. He told Chime that he was too young to make such a dangerous journey and that he should go home. He took a 2,000-yuan payment from the other two. Chime was so distraught that he cried, telling the guide that he could not return home and face his parents. Finally, the guide relented, but refused to take Chime’s money. He did not want to take responsibility for what might happen to him.

Four days later they hopped onto the back of a truck at a designated street corner in Lhasa. Wearing the new shoes the guide had told them to purchase, they crept underneath a tarp covering thirty-two other Tibetans the guide would lead across the Himalayas into Nepal. They rode all night and all of the next day. About 10 p.m. they grabbed their backpacks, hopped off the truck and began walking. The guide whispered that silence was imperative to avoid detection. At best they faced imprisonment and grueling reeducation sessions if apprehended by police or Chinese troops — if they were not tortured or shot on sight. They walked until 2:30 a.m. and it began to snow. They tramped on through the fresh snow until they found a cave. Inside, the guide kindled a fire. Chime dined on water from a flask and a fingerful of tsampa. The group left at 6 p.m. the next day, beginning a routine of walking at night and hiding during the day.

The weather got progressively colder the higher they climbed into the Himalayas. As the day wore on Chime’s feet began to hurt. His new shoes were too small, but they were all he had. He clenched his fists and walked on. The snow became so deep that they began sleeping in snow caves at night, placing a piece of plastic at the mouth weighted by stones to keep out the wind.

Chime felt a pang of fear as his party filed by the remains of people who had died on the same trail. Some had run out of food. Some had fallen and broken a leg and were left to die. Some had succumbed to frostbite, their feet turning black. Their guide showed them a cave where 10 people had died. There were no fatalities in Chime’s group so far, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that only luck prevented him from joining the dead along the trail. He realized that their guide likely saved their lives by making sure his charges were well prepared. At his urging everyone in the group had brought plenty of food, warm clothing and sturdy, if ill fitting, shoes.

After three weeks of walking they forged through deep snow to reach the border at the top of a mountain. The border was marked by hundreds of prayer flags that flapped crazily in a fierce wind. The wind howled so loudly that it was impossible for the refugees to speak with each other and be heard. On the other side of the crest they found a large cave well protected from the wind and settled in for the rest of the night. They were well away from patrols by now and abandoned their practice of traveling at night. They set off the next morning at 5:30 a.m. It took them four days to reach the first Nepalese village. They didn’t tarry because the villagers were unfriendly and threatened to turn them in if they didn’t pay a bribe. They paid and kept going. Past the village was a narrow bridge, the only way across a deep and fast-moving river. They waited until night.

Nepal assisted the Chinese in patrolling the border and it tried to thwart efforts to assist newly arrived Tibetan refugees. The Nepalese border guard swept the bridge with a searchlight at regular intervals. The refugees timed the intervals and rushed across the bridge in groups of threes and fours. One of Tibetans in the last group froze with fear and refused to cross until two of his companions grabbed him by the arms, half carrying him across. After crossing, the group fled into a thick forest, where they remained concealed for two days. They left the forest only after they were certain the police were not watching. The group boarded a bus for Katmandu at the next village, then walked to the Tibetan Refugee Center. From there Chime took a bus to the Menri Monastery in India, the new seat of the Bon religion founded by Tenzin Namdak, now formally addressed as Yongzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche.

At Menri, Chime was accepted into the government-run school and learned to read, write and speak several foreign languages, including English. He excelled at his studies and attracted the notice of the Abbot Sangye Tenzin — formally addressed as His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, the thirty-third Menri Trizen — who put him to work at the Menri library after he graduated. One of his first projects was to digitize the entire Bon cannon.⁠

Photo: Chime Tsering in the Indian Himalayas in 2020. Photo Courtesy of Chime Tsering.

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