ACROSS MANY MOUNTAINS (CHAPTER 1)
For fear of Chinese soldiers, they dared walk only 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. 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’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, and sometimes terrifying screams emanated from the buildings, echoing off the mountain. The Chinese soldiers loved chang, Tibetan barley beer, and barley liquor, and they presumably had plentiful supplies. The sounds Sonam heard were bloodcurdling, 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 cozy and warm and drunk.”
The refugees’ path was narrow and stony and barely visible in the darkness. Often the group had to pick its 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, 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 their 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 Dölma, and her four-year-old sister. They planned to cross the Himalayas on foot, despite having little money and no idea of the trials and tribulations they would meet along the way. They were equipped with nothing but homemade leather shoes, woolen blankets, a large sack of tsampa—ground, roasted barley—and the certainty that escaping to the country that had taken in the Dalai Lama was their only chance of survival. This conviction was based solely on their unshakable 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 was for them 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.
It became harder and harder for Sonam to continue. The water in her shoes had long since frozen. Her feet felt like big, heavy clumps of ice that she had to drag along with her. Her little sister was much better off; although she could walk, she would never have been able to keep up with the trek, so Kunsang carried her younger daughter fastened to her back like a rucksack, tightly wrapped in blankets to keep her warm. The little girl never cried or screamed. She sometimes reached a hand out of her blankets to stroke her mother’s head as she walked, whispering a soothing “ela oh” in her ear, meaning something like “Oh, I’m sorry” in the language of Kongpo. It was as if she wanted to apologize to her mother for adding to her burden. Sonam sent yearning looks up to the warm bundle on her mother’s back. How envious she was of her little sister!
When another joyless morning dawned after a long night’s trek, the group sought shelter under a rocky outcrop, beneath which a narrow cave opened up, just high enough for a small child to stand. At least the wind wasn’t blowing in their faces and nobody could spot them here. Yet it was bitterly cold in the small space between the smooth walls of the cave. My mother’s feet were completely numb, although she couldn’t tell whether the numbness was from the pain or from the ice and the cold. Cautiously, Kunsang freed Sonam’s feet from the ice-caked leather, now more like tattered spats or gaiters than shoes. With even more care, she plucked the frozen, crushed straw from Sonam’s blue-tinged soles, and placed her feet deep into the warming folds of her own dress and onto the bare skin between her breasts. What a shock those freezing feet must have been for my poor grandmother, and what an indescribable relief for my young mother.
That was the only pleasant part of the short rest the group granted themselves. Nobody was allowed to light a fire, so they were unable to melt snow for drinking water, and they were running low on food, since nobody had expected to be on the road for weeks.
The only way to quench their burning thirst and soothe their chapped lips was to gather water in their cupped hands at an ice-free spot where a rivulet ran across the rock, or to shove snow into their mouths. This allayed their thirst but left a terrible icy feeling in their throats and chests, and later in their stomachs.
Rocks and ice and snow were not the only obstacles nature had placed in their way. Every few hours, a stream, a foaming waterfall, or a wild river shot out from between vertical rock faces on the flanks of the mountains. Most of these rivers were only partially frozen and gave an impertinent display of their strength. Wading through them and continuing onward with their clothes soaked up to their hips was a miserable experience. Walking on the pebbles frozen to the thin soles of their shoes made every step a hellish torture.
A few hours after they left the cave, they heard the distant rushing of a raging stream, which grew louder and louder as they approached. The torrent sliced though the rocks, leaving a deep ravine with a rope bridge suspended above it. Their immediate feeling was relief—until they saw the condition of the bridge: Four ropes were stretched across the canyon, tied together at the bottom with thinner ropes intended as rungs. These were far apart from each other, and through the large gaps you could see spray and foam and the rocky ravine below. My mother was terrified, certain that she would lose her grip and plummet from this phantom of a bridge into the bottomless depths below.
Kunsang left her daughter no time for thoughts like that. With a jerk, she pushed her toward the precipice, then led the way, clinging firmly to the ropes but always leaving one hand free for Sonam. The bridge began to sway terrifyingly, the water roaring so loudly that even Kunsang, directly in front of my mother, could barely hear her piercing screams. She grabbed her daughter as the girl slipped, holding her up on the ropes and pulling her along, struggling to keep her own balance and trembling with fear. Step by step, they made it to the other side of the ravine.
Once they had crossed the swaying makeshift bridge, the familiar tortures began anew for my mother, tramping one foot after the other through the ever-snowier and ever-icier mountain wasteland with no destination in sight. She could see nothing but snow and ice and rocks. She had seen nothing else for days. To make matters worse, it was growing colder and the wind was becoming more biting. On and on the group climbed to the frozen heights of the Himalayas.
Suddenly the ground opened under Sonam’s feet and she slid into a crevasse. She bounced off an icy wall and fell six feet onto hard-packed snow. Panicking, she saw that next to her the crevasse dropped away again, becoming even deeper. And she saw, too, how far it was to get back up. Everything was white—the snow, and the cold, indifferent sky suspended above the mountains. Nobody had noticed her fall; she had been bringing up the rear. She waited, listening breathlessly, but heard only the whistling of the wind. She cried. She didn’t scream, because she was afraid to. Whatever happens, don’t call out, don’t cry, don’t scream, the adults had instructed her dozens of times. No fire, no noise, no shouting; the Chinese could be anywhere. Seized by panic, she clawed at the icy sides, yet her smooth, wet, snow-caked shoes slipped down the walls of her prison. Was this how her escape would end? Was she never to see her parents again? Was she to be imprisoned forever in this dark hole in the ice?
ACROSS MANY MOUNTAINS. Copyright © 2011 by Yangzom Brauen