A Stranger in My Native Land

Part One: Around Kumbum

The two Chinese ladies sharing our compartment have been chatting ceaselessly for hours now, their conversation fuelled by an unending supply of roasted melon seeds. Earlier, in an unexpected gesture of friendliness – unexpected, because we had been travelling together for almost 18 hours and they had not once acknowledged our presence – they had brusquely offered us a handful of melon seeds and then, just as rapidly, retreated behind the curtain of their conversation. My wife, Ritu, and I have been in China for only three days but already we are accustomed to the indifference with which the Chinese seem to treat foreigners.

But Chinese attitudes to outsiders are the last thing on my mind as the train nears our destination, Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province. Ever since we entered China I have been in a state of permanent tension, strung equally between apprehension and excitement. I am a Tibetan exile, born and brought up in India. All my life I have thought of Tibet as my homeland and China as the country that deprived me of it. I can scarcely believe that I am finally here, deep inside enemy territory, approaching my father’s native land. Not far from Xining is Kumbum Monastery, one of Tibet’s great religious institutions and the defining landmark of the region where my father was born. Kumbum is at the edge of Amdo, one of Tibet’s three traditional provinces. Since the Communist Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949, most of this region has been incorporated into Qinghai Province.

Low, dun-coloured hills, eroded and fragile, stretch out on either side of the train. We have been travelling due west ever since we passed the old Silk Road outpost of Lanzhou a few hours ago. The Gobi Desert lies to the north and in the south, the Tibetan plateau begins its gradual rise; we can just about glimpse the faint adumbration of its mountains, ethereal above the undulating horizon. We pass villages – clusters of flat-roofed adobe dwellings – and farmland scratched out of the side of barren declivities. Factories appear, their chimneys seeping black smoke, then blocks of white-tiled apartment buildings and colonies of mud huts next to the tracks, slum-like yet surprisingly clean. There is none of the chaotic jumble of humanity and poverty that litters the approaches to large railway stations in India. I was brought up to think of Xining being as a part of Tibet, but there is nothing remotely Tibetan about this modern Chinese city that we are entering.

***

We used to have a photograph of Kumbum Monastery hanging prominently on one of the walls of our home in Darjeeling, the old British hill station where I was born and where I spent my childhood. It was an impressive picture, a black and white panoramic triptych of what looked like a town spread out at the foot of oddly denuded hills. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, a hive-like agglomeration of low, rectangular buildings, some with curved roofs, their courtyards surrounded by long, white walls. There were stands of autumnal trees in the foreground but the surrounding hills were barren which for me was unthinkable living as I did in the sub-tropical lushness of the Himalayan foothills. I could not imagine that my father had once lived there. Tibet seemed infinitely remote, unreal behind the great ramparts of the Kanchenjunga in whose shadow my sisters and I grew up.

My parents had left Tibet prior to the failed Lhasa uprising of March 1959 and the consequent escape of the Dalai Lama to India. In the early sixties, Darjeeling was full of Tibetan refugees and our house was a transit camp for numerous relatives and friends who had recently fled their homes. To my child’s eyes, their torn clothing, their haggard and tense faces, and above all, their ripe, unwashed body odours were all evidence of the horrors they had just left behind. Our unexpected guests were mostly my mother’s acquaintances from Central Tibet but every now and again we had visitors who were from the Kumbum region. These men were special; they spoke a strangely accented Tibetan but even more mysteriously, amongst themselves and with my father, they spoke in the Xining dialect of Chinese which none of us could understand. They also shared with my father a love of noodles, which they prepared in a variety of different ways, a culinary distinction that set apart our household from all other Tibetans.

Sometimes they would joke with me: “And where are you from?”

I would reply, “From Amdo!”

They would persist, “But where in Amdo?”

I would then triumphantly declaim, childishly proud of my improbable provenance: “I am from Amdo Kumbum!”

***

The train pulls into the station. We anxiously scan the faces of the people on the platform searching for my first cousin, Nima, who is supposed to meet us but there is no sign of him. We wait for him outside the main entrance. A small sign in Tibetan – Xining Railway Station – hidden amongst giant Chinese characters, is the only indication that this place has anything to do with Tibet. The plaza in front of the station is dominated by a bizarre sculpture, an arch shaped like two crossed yak horns. The milling crowd seems to be made up mainly of Chinese and Hui Muslims, the latter distinctive in their white caps, black headdresses and wispy goatees, their facial features more Central Asian than Chinese.

As we wait, we notice two Tibetan women at the far end of the plaza approaching the station. They stand out immediately in their long, black, sheepskin-lined robes, their hair braided in the 108 plaits typical of the nomads of Amdo, encrusted with heavy turquoise and coral jewellery. One twirls a prayer wheel while the other marks her prayers on the beads of a long rosary. Their languid, almost hypnotic, movement creates a kind of invisible force field that clears a path in front of them, the crowds peeling away in their wake. They climb the stairs leading to the main entrance where we are seated and then unexpectedly, with great composure and insouciance, squat on the ground in front of it. The two women seem to inhabit some other plane, oblivious of the swirling mass of people around them. Their faces are deeply creased, the furrows around their eyes flashing good-humour. They carry about them a whiff of the open air, of high mountains and endless grasslands. They speak to each other in the Amdo dialect of Tibetan, which I can vaguely understand. I feel a sense of pride and solidarity just looking at them.

“Our first real Tibetans!” I say to Ritu who is equally captivated by their presence. But the instinctive rush of excitement subsides and I realize how vulnerable they actually look, huddled together like two relics from a lost world, ignored and inconsequential amidst the bustle of a frantic and foreign city. After a while, a group of men led by a monk in maroon robes arrives. The women join them and they disappear into the station.

We have been waiting for a few hours now. I have made several calls to Kumbum Monastery where my cousin lives and works but he is not there and the person who answers the telephone can barely speak Tibetan. Our hearts sink at the thought of venturing out into what increasingly seems like a hostile city.

“Welcome home,” Ritu teases me.

***

Nima finally arrives, shouting and clapping his hands from across the entrance. Somehow, we had missed each other on the platform and he had returned to Kumbum Monastery, 25 kilometres away. He is the only member of my father’s family in Tibet that I have met before. He came to India in the early eighties; the political reforms that followed Mao’s death in 1976 allowed Tibetans for the first time since the Chinese occupation to visit their relatives in exile. His visit restored our family links in the Kumbum area after a gap of nearly thirty years.

As we drive through Xining, Nima chatters away excitedly, eager for news and gossip about family and friends in India and elsewhere. It is strangely comforting to be talking about these faraway yet familiar people and events. Fortunately for me, when Nima came to India he learnt to speak the Central Tibetan dialect which is the lingua franca among the Tibetan community in exile. It would have been hard enough for me to communicate in the Amdo dialect which is quite distinct from Central Tibetan, but here in the Kumbum region, even that would have been impossible for the local Tibetans have long since lost their language and speak only the Xining Chinese dialect.

The city sweeps by – broad avenues with surprisingly orderly traffic, pavements crowded with food stalls, modern high rises and everywhere, giant billboards flagrantly broadcasting the good capitalist life – and then we are out in the countryside. The harvest is in full swing. We pass endless rows of haystacks precision-lined like soldiers on parade and mud-walled villages and roadside eateries festooned with green banners, their signs all in Chinese. We soon arrive at Huang Zhong, or Rusar as it is known in Tibetan, the district headquarters just outside Kumbum Monastery. It appears to be another Chinese town. I catch sight of a few monks, conspicuous in their maroon robes, and a group of Tibetan pilgrims – nomads in sheepskin tunics – wandering about with slightly bewildered expressions. The final stretch leading up to the monastery is lined with souvenir shops. Nima tells me that they are almost all owned by Muslims.

The curved roofs of the monastery appear like a mirage, the first manifestation of Tibetan culture. I think of the black and white photograph of my childhood but my memory bears no resemblance to this freshly renovated complex that we are entering. I notice immediately that the hills behind the monastery that were so prominently barren in that picture have turned into farmland. We drive past the famous row of eight stupas that guards its entrance. They seem marooned in the middle of a large, newly paved plaza. The monastery looks freshly scrubbed; the main road is paved and clean. We pass a brand new public toilet. Coloured light bulbs are strung along the edges of the temples like decorations in an amusement arcade. Everywhere, there are signs of construction or renovation but some vital component seems to be missing, and then it hits me – there are hardly any monks visible. Every now and again, I glimpse them, in twos and threes, wraithlike in their robes, disappearing around corners, melting away into shadows and alleyways. I immediately think of the Tibetan refugee monasteries in southern India, not half as big or imposing as Kumbum yet alive with activity, filled with the din and clatter of religious endeavour, their atmosphere charged with a spiritual resonance.

***

Kumbum Monastery grew up around the spot where Tsongkhapa, one of Tibet’s greatest scholar-saints, was born in 1357 to a nomad family. Tsongkhapa reformed Tibetan Buddhism and his teachings gave rise to the Gelugpa Order, which became the dominant religious and political force in Tibet. The monastery was consecrated in 1582 by Sonam Gyatso, the Third Dalai Lama, and in time became renowned as one of Tibet’s six great Gelugpa monasteries.

In my father’s time, nearly four thousand monks lived here, their collective energy engendering several of Tibet’s great religious thinkers and scholars. They came from all over Amdo and from as far away as Mongolia and the Russian Buddhist enclaves of Buryatia and Kalmykia. The monastery was closed down soon after communist Chinese forces took control of the region in 1949 and a large section was levelled during the Cultural Revolution. In the late seventies Kumbum slowly came to life again but the activities of the monastery were tightly regulated and today, only a maximum of 400 monks can be enrolled. With restoration Kumbum suffered another fate; its proximity and accessibility to China made it a potential tourist attraction, and in an effort to realize this, the authorities turned the monastery into a museum-like heritage centre.

We are staying within the monastery complex at the residence of Zorgey Rinpoche, one of Kumbum Monastery’s high lamas, who is closely connected to my family; the previous incarnation and the founder of the lineage was my great uncle. The present Zorgey Rinpoche is now in his seventies and has lived in exile for the past four decades, the last thirty years in America. Following a family tradition, Nima is the rinpoche’s steward, and despite his master’s absence, represents his interests at the monastery.

All tourists pay an entrance fee to visit the monastery but pilgrims are exempt. Thanks to our guide, an old monk who works with Nima, we fall into the latter category. We go from shrine to shrine, making our offerings, joining the pilgrims who are mostly nomads, traditionally dressed and speaking the Amdo dialect. Photographs of the Dalai Lama and the late Panchen Lama are prominently displayed in all the chapels, a reminder of the extent of the Dalai Lama’s influence inside Tibet. Pressed up against the pilgrims in the dark interiors of the temples, the hushed sounds of their devotions mingling with the familiar smell of butter lamps, and watched over by the serene faces of the giant Buddha statues, I can imagine what Kumbum must once have been like. But the spell is broken by a group of Chinese tourists who barge into our midst, unconcerned by the display of reverence and piety around them, their bullhorn-toting leader loudly explicating in her brutally insistent and shrill voice.

We visit a building that houses displays of the butter-sculptures that Kumbum is renowned for – intricate tableaux of scenes from Buddhist mythology populated by gods and goddesses and lesser beings, all meticulously shaped out of vividly coloured butter. But the skills of Kumbum’s butter sculptors are obviously adaptable; one display case encloses a large tableau of the Palace of Heaven at Tiananmen Square complete with tiny representations of Mao, Zhou, Deng and company, frozen in the archetypal Communist gestures of applause. I marvel at this improbable juxtaposition of the sacred and the stridently profane.

I find it disturbing that most of the monks we encounter speak only Xining Chinese. I begin to wonder whether the monastery has, in fact, become a mere showpiece for tourists, its monks there simply to provide the requisite colour. It is only after we have been here for a few days that I discover that Kumbum’s monastic legacy is very much alive. In one of the old courtyards of the monastery we come upon a group of about fifty monks engaged in a vigorous debating session – the formalized system of dialectical inquiry that is at the heart of the Gelugpa tradition. The staccato explosions of their ritual handclaps punctuate their excited arguments. To my surprise they are debating in Tibetan. The majority of the monks look to be in their twenties and would have been born long after the Communist Chinese takeover of Tibet. They would have grown up in a world bereft of religion; Kumbum would have lain empty and in ruins, a decaying symbol of a forgotten past. And yet, here they are, their faith undimmed, once again engaged in the spiritual traditions that are at the core of their identity as Tibetans.

***

My father was born in the village of Nagatsang five kilometres from Kumbum Monastery. Our ancestors were nomads who settled there shortly after the establishment of the monastery in the 16th century. From the 17th century onwards, large groups of Chinese and Muslim migrants moved into this region and soon outnumbered the sparse Tibetan population. When my father was a child, the three original Tibetan families of Nagatsang were surrounded by over fifty Chinese households and this is the case even today, except the families have multiplied and the village has expanded.

As the youngest son, my father was destined to become a monk at Kumbum Monastery – two of his older brothers were already monks. But my grandfather was unusually far-sighted and realized that unless Tibetans became proficient in the Chinese language they would increasingly become marginalized in a society that was completely dominated by Chinese and Muslims. So, instead of Kumbum, my father was sent to the local Chinese school and from there, in 1945, to the Institute for Frontier Minorities in Nanking. Soon after his arrival in Nanking, he met and befriended Gyalo Thondup, the older brother of the Dalai Lama, who had come to study at the nearby University of Political Science.

My father briefly returned to Nagatsang in 1946. This was his last visit home. In early 1949, the Communists were on the verge of a national victory and their troops were poised to enter Nanking. Gyalo Thondup and my father fled to Shanghai and from there to India. By the time they arrived in India and based themselves in the border town of Kalimpong – then the most important Indian trade-post with Tibet – Communist troops were already on their way to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. The two went to Lhasa in 1952 but their visit was short-lived; the Chinese occupation forces had set up base there and were suspicious of Gyalo Thondup’s motives for coming back. After their return to Kalimpong, Gyalo Thondup initiated a number of operations in support of the growing resistance movement inside Tibet the most significant of which was to solicit support from the CIA. My father was delegated to coordinate and oversee the CIA’s undercover aid programme. Before long, he found himself embroiled in the murky world of espionage and guerrilla warfare, an involvement that dictated his life for the next twenty years.

After the fall of Lhasa in 1959 the resistance forces, supported by the CIA, regrouped in a remote corner of northern Nepal; my father was the key liaison between the two. The CIA pulled out abruptly in 1969, a precursor of the soon-to-come dÈtente between America and China. The guerrillas continued their campaign until 1974 when they were finally disbanded after a tense showdown with Nepalese troops. My father was involved in this confrontation and, along with six other guerrilla leaders, spent seven years in a Nepalese prison as a result. After his release, he worked for the Dalai Lama’s Government-in-exile in Dharamsala in northern India and eventually attained the rank of a minister. Fifty years have passed since my father left Nagatsang.

***

A few days after our arrival in Kumbum Monastery, Ritu and I visit Nagatsang. The low, rolling hills on either side of the dirt road from Rusar are dotted with neat stacks of freshly harvested wheat, row after row of aesthetically pleasing inverted V’s that somehow look quintessentially Chinese. We enter the village; high mud walls surround each dwelling and intricately carved wooden entrances – their frames papered with auspicious Chinese characters – lead into their compounds.

We stop outside the house of one of my relatives. Dhondup, the eldest of my first cousins, comes out to greet us. Inside, a lot of people are gathered – various cousins, their wives and children – all smiling and laughing and speaking Xining Chinese while I, also beaming, reply in Tibetan, our greetings spontaneous, warm and mutually unintelligible. We are ushered into the main room. There are sofas on either side of a low table and a wood-burning stove in the middle. The walls are decorated with glossy posters of sylvan, Alpine scenes; post-card chalets beside tranquil lakes. Picture frames crammed with snapshot collages hang prominently. I notice photographs of my family, even a few wedding pictures of Ritu and me, and it is suddenly moving to think that my relatives, who I am now meeting for the first time, have spent years of their lives with our pictures on their walls.

Dhondup has flourished since the economic reforms; he is now a building contractor and a rich man by village standards. We are offered small cups of strong alcohol that we are made to knock back in a gulp. Bottles of beer are opened and simultaneously, cups of a local specialty – green tea, dried fruits and rock sugar steeped in hot water – are placed in front of us. The women serve us; a pork dish, the meat succulent with fat, chicken stewed in soya sauce, stir fried green peppers with mutton, fried aubergines, all accompanied by steamed and baked breads.

Three of my first cousins sit with us steadily downing alcohol. Nima interprets for us; none of the others speaks a word of Tibetan. Dhondup is the most garrulous. He is also the only one who remembers my father: “Your father used to come home from school and he would play the flute. We were only children then but we loved him so much. Oh, I have so much to talk to you about, if only I could speak Tibetan!”

“Is she Tibetan?” asks one of my cousins, pointing at Ritu.

“No,” I say, “She is Indian.”

“Is she a Tibetan born in India?”

“No, she’s a real Indian.” I ask Nima, “Have they seen Indians before?”

“Only on television,” he replies.

“He is Tibetan but he looks like an Indian,” says another of my cousins, pointing at me.

“I guess I’ve lived so long in India that I’ve become an Indian myself!” I reply to their merriment. But in fact, the irony is that in exile, I have had the freedom to develop and express my identity as a Tibetan more completely than my relatives here and unlike them, I was brought up with strong nationalistic aspirations. Here, Tibetans have been a minority for so long that for them to even consider the notion of a separate and independent Tibet is unimaginable.

The morning advances. My father becomes the focus of our conversation. To my cousins, he is the last surviving member of their parents’ generation and, as such, the patriarch in absentia. They tell me to convince him to return; they want him to live out his final years in his family home among his many relatives. I promise to convey their message but deep down I know that my father will never come back. He has spent most of his life actively working for the cause of Tibet’s independence. For him to return would be an admission of failure, a negation of his entire life’s work.

The talk, the alcohol and the rush of memories make Dhondup melancholic and he unexpectedly breaks down and sobs like a child, hugging me, speaking to me in Xining Chinese, shaking his head and groaning as if racked by some deep, searing pain. I cradle him and try to comfort him, confused, the alcohol gone to my head as well – these unfamiliar surroundings, this stranger in my arms with whom I have nothing in common and yet who is bound to me by ties that are more deep-rooted than shared memories or experiences.

After a while, we visit the very spot where my father was born; the original house has long-since been dismantled and literally divided among three of my cousins.

“These are the beams from the old house,” Dhondup says. “And that tree was there when your father was a child – take a picture of that, he’ll remember it – and that’s the spot where he used to sit and read his books or play the flute.” My cousin has recovered from his momentary breakdown and he is now even more drunk, staggering, grinning broadly, doing an impromptu jig and saying to me, “This is one of the happiest days of my life because you have come back to your native land and we have finally met.”

We are now to pay our respects at the graves of our ancestors. We walk through the village in conspicuous procession, Ritu and me in our Western, mountaineering-style clothes, various cousins and nephews carrying bits and pieces of our gear – my camera bag, the video backpack, a tripod – and my drunk cousin, supported on either side by two boys, singing and lurching wildly. We pass a group of old men sitting beside the road. One of them remembers my father; they had gone to school together as children. He peers at me as if to find some identifying feature that will connect my face to the one he dimly remembers from more than sixty years ago, but he shakes his head, either giving up on the effort or simply not believing that I am who I claim to be.

Just outside the village, in a small clearing beside the path, lie a few unmarked mounds of earth. These are the graves of my grandparents. I am taken by surprise since Tibetans usually cremate their dead or feed their remains to vultures. But here in the Kumbum area, Tibetans have assimilated the Chinese custom of ancestor worship. A cousin burns coloured paper – symbolic money – as an offering while the rest of us make prostrations in front of the graves. Seeing me participate in their family ritual, Dhondup is again overcome by emotion. Wailing loudly, he collapses on top of one of the mounds: “Grandma! Two of your grandchildren have come all this way to see you, and you are not here to receive them…”

We troop across the fields to a site above the village where more mounds are scattered – various granduncles and aunts. From here, the golden roofs of Kumbum are visible at the far end of the narrow valley.

Dhondup is once more in high spirits. “This spot,” he says, his arms flailing, “is your father’s, and this…” he stumbles towards me, “is your spot, and this …” he gestures at Ritu, “is for you!”

The sun is setting. The surrounding hillsides have taken on a warm, golden, almost liquid sheen, and their rows of haystacks stand out, stark and surreal, like a de Chirico painting.

My relatives, like most Tibetans in the Kumbum region, are literally clinging onto the last shreds of their cultural identity. They still have Tibetan names and are officially registered as ethnic Tibetans, a minority status that allows them certain privileges, and most importantly, they still maintain their faith in Tibetan Buddhism – the proximity of Kumbum Monastery continues to exert a strong influence on their lives. But in every other respect, they have become indistinguishable from their Chinese neighbours. Until the onset of the Cultural Revolution, their womenfolk could always be recognized by their Tibetan dress without which they never ventured outside, but the madness of the intervening years wiped out that one surviving display of ethnic separateness.

The loss of language and traditions is the first step in the dissolution of cultural identity. Here among my relatives, in this far corner of Tibet, that process seems almost complete.

***

One evening, we return to our quarters at the monastery to find two Chinese men waiting for us. They are in their early thirties. As soon as they see us they leap to their feet, their faces beaming with a friendliness that seems excessive. The insincerity of their reception is confirmed when, instead of shaking hands, they insist on folding their palms together and mechanically rocking their heads back and forth in a parody of the Indian gesture of welcome which they no doubt believe is the proper way to greet a Tibetan from India. Their strange behaviour is explained when I learn that they are from the United Front, the insidious Communist Party organization whose aim is to bring within the control of the Party – at any cost – all non-Party and non-Chinese groups and minorities. It is at the forefront of any dealings between China and the exiled Tibetans.

The taller of the two, a bespectacled and slightly nervous-looking character, welcomes us in Chinese and immediately launches into a little speech, thanking me for coming back to my motherland and apologizing for not knowing earlier about our arrival and therefore for not being able to look after us. Could we, he asks, join them for a meal and a friendly chat tomorrow? Nima translates for us. I feel trapped. I have no wish to have anything to do with them, yet I fear that any unfriendliness on my part will have repercussions on my relatives. I explain to them that my wife and myself are here on a family visit and that they are most kind but there is no need for them to go through so much trouble on our behalf.

“No,” he insists, “You must give us at least an hour of your time. Please, an hour is all we ask.”

Ritu and I look at each other; there is no escape. “Alright,” I say to them, “We would be happy to meet you for an hour tomorrow morning.”

I feel apprehensive about our impending meeting; in a sense, I am finally coming face to face with my enemy.

“Don’t worry,” says Ritu unconvincingly, “it’ll be an experience.”

The next morning, Mr Chen, the bespectacled man, comes to pick us up. He has brought with him an interpreter, a young, well-dressed Chinese woman whose English has traces of an American accent although it transpires that she has never studied in America. She seems keen to make a good impression on us. Her presence and her eagerness to show off her English dispels my anxiety.

We are driven to an official guesthouse in Rusar and ushered into a room where a number of other men are waiting. Over mugs of Chinese tea, Mr Chen makes another speech, the gist of which is to ask us if we have had any problems during our stay. I say that our stay has been very pleasant and that it has been wonderful to meet my relatives but that I am very disturbed to find that none of them speak Tibetan. I suggest that perhaps more could be done to promote the Tibetan language. The interpreter seems surprised to hear this and tells me that as far as she is aware both Tibetan and Chinese are taught at schools in Qinghai. I tell her that that may be so in other parts of the province but that around Kumbum, it is definitely not the case. Mr Chen quickly interjects that they are grateful for my advice and that, in fact, the government has already initiated certain programmes to do precisely what I have suggested. He then casually says, “Your father is very old now, he should return to his homeland. He has been away for too long. Please tell him that we welcome him back. We will be happy if he comes back to live here but if not, we will be equally happy if he only visits us. Please tell him that we will look after all his needs and he will have no worries when he comes here.”

So this is what it is about, I think to myself. I reply that I will certainly convey their message to my father but that because of his age I doubt he will be able to make the journey.

“Has your father ever been to Hong Kong?” Mr Chen asks.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Well, if he cannot make it to Qinghai then we will be happy to meet him in Hong Kong,” he says, making his earlier appeal redundant. I wonder what they think they can achieve by meeting him, in Hong Kong or anywhere else.

We sip some more tea and make small talk; the main purpose of the meeting is clearly over. We are about to take our leave when Mr Chen announces that we will now have lunch. I protest that this was not part of our agreement but he is insistent. He tells us that arrangements have already been made. We are led to another room where a large round table is laid out for a feast. Along the way, one of our hosts unexpectedly asks us to pose for a photograph with the others. Ritu immediately declines. He turns to me.

“It’s only to have a memento of your visit here,” our interpreter says genially. I hesitate for a second and catch Ritu’s eye. “I’m sorry,” I say, “But I would rather not.” The pages of Chinese propaganda journals are full of photographs of returning exiles, smiling happily with their United Front patrons; undoubtedly, Ritu and I would have made a welcome addition. Our hosts are noticeably offended but do not insist.

We sit around the table. A bottle of alcohol is taken out of its packaging. We tell our interpreter that it is too early in the day for us to drink strong spirits. Some of our companions look disappointed when the bottle is taken away. We are undoubtedly about to partake in one of the official banquets that are reportedly causing such a drain on the state exchequer, and since copious quantities of alcohol are one of their main attractions, we must appear like real spoil-sports. The meal comes in courses and we are served at least twelve or thirteen different dishes.

Under Ritu’s questioning, Mr Chen and the interpreter admit that they cannot speak the Xining Chinese dialect very well and that this part of China is completely different from their native province which is far away on the eastern coast. They talk about the difficulty of adjusting to the altitude – Xining is at 2700 metres – and of getting used to the different food habits and customs. A certain wistfulness creeps into their conversation. The absurdity of their situation becomes clear; here they are, playing out the fiction that we – Tibetan and Chinese of Qinghai Province – are brothers when the reality is that they are themselves strangers to this region. I see them for what they are, the bureaucratic elite of a colonial power, serving time in a distant corner of the empire.

***

One day we visit Taktser, the village where the present Dalai Lama was born, a two-hour drive from Kumbum. On the way we pass huge factories, some shut down, and small towns where most of the restaurants seem to be owned by Muslims, their presence announced by the familiar green banner with the crescent and star imprint. We stop to eat in one of them. Nima tells me that the Muslims make the tastiest food and can be trusted to be clean. Throughout this region, the main staple is flour, and most of the restaurants specialize in noodle dishes, some of which are familiar to me from my home in India. Like most Amdos in exile, the one cultural trait that my father retained from his childhood was his love of noodles and we grew up eating a variety of noodle dishes that were native to his province. And so it is that coming here to my father’s homeland and discovering how much of a stranger I am, the one recurring point of familiarity is the food.

The road to Taktser becomes a dirt track that climbs up the side of a hill. We pass huge coloured rock formations, deep red chimneys of stalactites bunched together like a Gaudi cathedral. The earth is browner, more desert-like, more suited to the grazing of animals. The familiar inverted V haystacks are beginning to seem faintly sinister, as if these precise military formations somehow symbolize the transformation of nomadic land into agrarian, the essential component in the settlement of Tibet by Chinese immigrants.

Near Taktser we see a large stupa in the distance. My cousin tells me that it commemorates the passage of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama through this area in 1909 when he was returning to Lhasa from Mongolia. According to tradition, he pointed to the village of Taktser high on its spur and remarked how pretty it looked thereby foreshadowing his own rebirth there.

We drive into Taktser. The village seems deserted. It is similar to all the other villages we have been to; the same high mud walls and carved wooden entrances decorated with Chinese characters. Nima goes to look for the person who still lives in the house where the Dalai Lama was born. He is the last surviving relative of the Dalai Lama in his native village. The original house was torn down a long time ago and a new one built on its spot. The man is not at home but his wife is. She cannot speak Tibetan but this fact no longer surprises me. Behind the house is a temple that the Chinese built in the early eighties at a time when they were making efforts to induce the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet.

The main entrance to the temple, an imposing gateway, seems permanently locked. The temple, fronted by canopies of white canvas with stark, black designs, is in the traditional Sino-Tibetan style of the area with a distinctive pagoda-like roof covered in tiles. A huge flagpole – attached to the four corners of the courtyard by strings of prayer flags – dominates the complex. The place seems forlorn and lost, wrapped in a silence that is broken only by the rhythmic flapping of the canopies. In the main shrine room, a large framed photograph of the Dalai Lama rests on a throne. A bowl of apples, smaller bowls of rock sugar and boiled sweets, a couple of unlit butter lamps and a few ritual articles are laid out on a table in front of the picture. A few thangkas – religious scroll paintings – hang on the walls and some statues rest on the shelves of a long wooden cabinet behind the throne. The temple is devoid of any sense of spirituality.

I think of the Dalai Lama, thousands of miles away in his exiled home in Dharamsala; it seems unimaginably remote. I think of the long and eventful course of his life, inextricably bound to the tragic fate of his country, and I find it hard to believe that it all began here, sixty years ago, in this forgotten outpost at the furthest edge of Tibet.

***

Part Two: Lhasa

The train jerks to life. Hurried hugs, last-minute goodbyes, then Nima and Dhondup who have come to see us off at Xining station, jump off the moving carriage. They walk alongside our window, waving at us until we gather speed and leave them behind, Dhondup’s wizened, childlike face, screwed in a grimace that is both an attempted smile and a suppressed sob. For a while I sit numbed in silence. I wonder if I will ever return. Although our stay has been emotionally turbulent and I have had to reconcile myself to the reality of Kumbum’s ethnic and cultural isolation from the rest of Tibet, I still feel a sense of affinity, of connection, to the place. I have met long-lost relatives and re-established long-severed family ties; in a sense, I have taken that first step towards discovering my own personal history and locating my place within it.

After a few hours, the enormity of our impending journey sinks in – we are finally on our way to Lhasa. We have been hearing conflicting reports about whether or not tourists are being allowed to travel to Lhasa. The official celebrations to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region have just concluded in Lhasa amidst tight security and a conspicuous absence of publicity. From what we can gather, tourists were banned during this period but no one seems to know if that is still the case. There is a chance that we might be stopped at Golmud, the rail terminus from which buses to Lhasa leave. Excitement, tainted by the omnipresent undercurrent of fear, propels us into the unknown.

By nightfall we are on the shores of Tso Ngon, Tibet’s largest lake and one of its most sacred. The rhythmic clatter of the train echoes across its phosphorescent surface, an endless sheet of calm water that disappears into the gloaming. The young Chinese tour guide in her fashionably tight black jeans and Nike trainers sits across us, engrossed in a glossy magazine. She is with a group of Taiwanese tourists who are going to Golmud and from there by car to look at the Kun Lun mountain range. Above her the Muslim couple who had earlier chattered and cooed to each other like two pigeons in love now sit perched on their bunk bed, lost in a deep and mutual sulk, the beginning of a battle that continues through the night, its ebbs and flows drifting in and out of our sleep.

Earlier, the woman had attempted to engage us in conversation, using the Chinese girl’s limited English as a go-between:

“Where are you from?”

“From England.”

“Where are you going?”

“To Lhasa.”

“Lhasa!” She had rolled up her eyes in an expression of horror, “There is nothing in Lhasa!”

“Where are you going?” we had asked her.

“To Golmud. My husband… business… I hate Golmud. I hate this…” She had waved her hand extravagantly at the window, “All desert. No trees. No people…” and rolled her eyes again in despair.

***

In the morning, the scenery has changed dramatically. We are travelling through a truly bleak and forbidding landscape. Huge salt flats coruscate in the morning sun. In the distance, a line of trucks, silhouetted against the stark whiteness, shimmers unsteadily. We pass small settlements, wretched and makeshift, like science fiction penal colonies. And even as the thought passes my mind, I remember that this is where some of China’s worst gulags are located, where thousands of Tibetans met their end in the first decades of Chinese rule and where numerous political prisoners are still incarcerated.

Golmud appears out of the desert in the early afternoon like the frontier town it is, its presence heralded by rusting heaps of machinery, hulks of factories, and then rows of apartment buildings – everything tinged with an air of temporariness. A rabble of touts descends upon us as soon as we leave the station. We shake them off and walk uncertainly across a vast concourse. An empty bus drives up behind us and the driver calls out, “Lhasa! Lhasa!”

He looks Tibetan to me. I ask him, “Do you speak Tibetan?”

He is taken aback but quickly recovers and says in the Lhasa Tibetan dialect, “You’re Tibetan! Going to Lhasa? Well, get in fast. This is the first bus to Lhasa.”

“Where are the rest of the passengers?”

“Don’t worry Gen-la, just get in,” he says with a friendly grin. “Gen-la” is an honorific term for teacher and is commonly used – particularly in Lhasa – to address older men or strangers.

“Are foreigners being permitted to travel to Lhasa?”

“Of course. Only yesterday, we took two Westerners.”

“How much is the ticket?”

“It’s not expensive. Don’t worry; it’s the same for everyone. You’ll find out as soon as we get to the office.”

I find it a bit disconcerting that he cannot tell me exactly what the fare is but the newness of our experience – the excitement of actually being able to talk to a fellow-Tibetan – dulls our suspicion. The driver keeps up a non-stop monologue the refrain of which is that we are Tibetans and can trust each other. His final word of advice is: “Stay away from the Muslims. They’ll cheat you blind – they can’t be trusted and they’ll kill you if they can.” I’ve noticed this mistrust of Muslims even in Kumbum; a mixture of awe and fear seems to inform any discussion about them. Above all, the Muslims are clearly seen as a separate and insular group, one against whom the Tibetans and Chinese, at least around Kumbum, seem instinctively allied.

Our bus pulls into a depot. We see another bus, already packed with passengers, waiting to depart. Our driver casually tells us that we have to shift to the other bus as that will leave first.

“But you told us that this was the first bus to Lhasa,” I tell him indignantly.

“No, no, I meant that we’re all the same. We’re all official Lhasa buses so it doesn’t make a difference. Anyway that is a Japanese bus and it has a heater. You’ll be grateful for that when you cross the Dang La Pass. It can be bitterly cold up there.”

Karl, the young German traveller who was the only Westerner on the train with us, is standing by the bus, fuming with anger.

“Bloody Chinese, they want 1100 yuan from us and the ticket is actually only 300 yuan. I’m not going to pay them a single extra yuan!”

We go into the CITS (China International Tourist Services) office with Karl. The surly Chinese woman behind the desk informs us in barely intelligible English that we have no choice; all foreigners travelling by bus from Golmud to Lhasa have to buy a special ticket for 1100 yuan, which includes three days of official sight-seeing in Lhasa whether or not they want to avail of the privilege. Karl explodes in a paroxysm of rage and screams at the woman, accusing the CITS of being bandits and thieves. She merely ignores him, undoubtedly inured to such scenes, which must be a regular occurrence here. In the end, she agrees to deduct 100 yuan from his ticket since he is a student. He considers this a small victory in his personal and ongoing battle against the depredations of the CITS who have fleeced him for months across China. Ritu and me are secretly relieved; at least nobody is stopping us from going to Lhasa.

Most of the good seats on the bus are already occupied. The passengers seem to be mostly Chinese. I tell the driver who brought us here that he has not been frank with us and ask him to at least find us some good seats. Looking sheepish, he orders a young Chinese couple to vacate the front row and offers it to us.

“Gen-la, these are the best seats. I told you, you could trust me. Don’t worry, the driver is Tibetan and the bus is Japanese. You don’t have to worry about a thing!”

***

The route takes us through a vast desert plain flanked on both sides by mountains. The crests of the range on the left are uniformly rounded and snow-capped like the crenelated battlements of a fairy-tale castle. On the right, a jagged tangle of untidy peaks, stark and hostile, stretches as far as the eye can see. A giant pipeline snakes beside the road, disappears for miles and then unexpectedly reappears, burrowing out of the hillside like a monstrous worm. Out of the dead desert, a herd of kyang – the Tibetan wild ass – magically materializes, racing away from the speeding bus. Two bactrian camels appear, plodding regally in the opposite direction, the identities of their riders too distant for me to discern. All the while, we are heading straight for a barricade of icy peaks that seems to emerge like an optical illusion from a point beyond the horizon. Before we know it, we come up against it and at the last moment, veer to the right. The wall of snow mountains rises perpendicularly from the side of the road itself. These are the Kun Lun mountains which stretch deep into the northern plateau all the way from the Sinkiang border. I can now understand why a group of Taiwanese tourists might want to come all this way just to catch a glimpse of them.

We halt at a truck stop in the shadow of the mountains. The restaurants are mostly Muslim, a few are Chinese. Everyone in this forlorn outpost seems depressed and grim-faced. These are the dregs of China’s deprived millions, the men and women who are threatening to overwhelm Tibet. For them, even the unremitting loneliness and hostility of life in this alien land is better than the poverty they have left behind. As we walk back to the bus we notice with surprise a Tibetan restaurant. A beautiful Amdo woman, bejewelled and traditionally dressed, stands at the doorway, shining radiantly like a ray of hope in this mean and desolate truck stop. I wonder what has brought her here.

The two drivers exchange places. There is a bunk in the front for the spare driver to sleep on. Darkness descends swiftly as we cross the Kun Lun pass. Late at night, we are awoken by loud voices; the bus has stopped at a check-post. Two officers climb aboard. Thickly moustached and smelling of alcohol, they look like brigands in a Bollywood movie ineptly disguised as policemen, their long, dandruff-flecked hair struggling raggedly from under their peaked caps. They move through the bus checking permits and papers. They stop when they see us. They look Tibetan to me. I can see them silently debating whether or not to ask us for our papers. Earlier, at another check-post, the inspecting officer, a Chinese, had not even bothered to look at our passports but now, the more evil-looking of the duo decides to have some fun and loudly asks me in Chinese to show him my passport. I hand it to him and, like a buffoon in a Monty Python sketch, he reads it upside down until he comes to my photograph at which point he triumphantly points at the picture and then at me. Laughing loudly, he hands it back to me and the pair stagger off the bus.

It is bitterly cold. I ask the driver to turn on the heater but he tells me that it has stopped working a long time ago. So much for trusting fellow-Tibetans! I settle back to sleep. After a restless slumber filled with strange dreams that seem full of portent, I am jolted awake again. The bus is struggling up an incline. In the beam of the headlight I can see that the road is muddy and rough and rutted with ridges. Outside, the faint moonlight reveals a sea of peaks surrounding us like the crests of petrified waves. We must be approaching the Dang La, at 5220 metres the highest pass on our way to Lhasa and the watershed between Amdo and Central Tibet. I try and stay awake to witness this momentous crossing but the next thing I know it is morning and the sun is streaming through the window.

***

We are travelling through lush, rolling grassland, rimmed with brilliant snow-mountains. Nacreous cloud-puffs hang dreamily in the inky, ultramarine sky. We pass herds of yak, silent rows of crumbling stupas, and clusters of whitewashed villages, flat-roofed and spiked with fluttering prayer-flags. In the brittle, early morning sunlight, the landscape appears mythical, like a scene in a thangka painting. At these altitudes – we must be over 4,000 metres – one is constantly in a state of mild hallucination; the lack of oxygen and the clarity of light conspire to induce a sense of euphoria which might explain why the Tibetans, despite being a practical and down-to-earth race, produced so many mystics, saints and seers.

By mid-morning we are in Nagchu, its muddy main street lined with more Chinese and Muslim restaurants. We have not eaten since last evening but the two drivers working in tandem seem determined to go all the way to Lhasa without another food stop. Two Tibetan ladies enter the bus and bully the surly, second driver, an Amdo from Tso Ngon, into sharing his bunk with them. My heart warms to see them; they are dressed in the typical style of Lhasa which is not much different from the way my mother still dresses in India – multicoloured, striped aprons over long chubas (the traditional, gown-like dresses that are worn, with slight variations in style, throughout Tibet), their hair braided into two plaits with tresses of brightly coloured thread. They banter with the Amdo driver, speaking in the mellifluous tones of the classic Lhasa dialect, which now sounds like music to my ears. Everything about them seems familiar to me. I feel a pang of homesickness, a yearning for something – a sense of identity, perhaps – that seems so close and yet so elusive. I am finally encountering the Tibet of my imagination and yet, my thoughts are of my home and family in faraway India.

The two Lhasa ladies are nibbling on long strands of dried cheese that are unlike anything I have seen before. They notice me staring at them. Smiling in a friendly manner they offer some to us. The dried cheese is delicious, soft and chewy yet brittle enough to snap off. The Amdo driver tells them that I am a Tibetan and they are properly amazed. They tentatively ask me where we have come from and when I respond in Tibetan they exclaim with disbelief. When they learn that I was born in Darjeeling, one of them asks me if I know her relative who also lives there. I tell her that I don’t recognize the name. Finally, unable to contain herself any more, the lady with the relative in Darjeeling leans forward and says conspiratorially:

“Do you know a place called Gangtok?”

“Yes, It’s not far from Darjeeling.”

“Wasn’t a Kalachakra Initiation Ceremony held there last year?”

“Yes.”

“And didn’t Kundun (the Dalai Lama) conduct the ceremony?”

“Yes, he did.”

“My relative was there. I had planned to meet up with him but the Chinese wouldn’t give me a permit. Did you go? Have you ever seen Kundun?”

“No, I wasn’t able to go to Gangtok but I have seen Kundun many times, in Dharamsala and in the West.”

“You are so fortunate. We have no freedom at all. Don’t believe what the Chinese tell you and don’t believe what you see in Lhasa. It looks like they’ve done a lot but for us the situation is worse than ever. Everything is tense and uncertain – it’s as if we are lying on a bed of thorns – we never know when things might change for the worse.”

She changes the subject suddenly, realizing that she has said more than she should have. We continue to talk for a while but a certain wariness has now crept in, a kind of unspoken warning against speaking out too freely. They go back to their own conversation but in more subdued tones. I look around. Everything seems as it was but something subtle has changed: we have spoken publicly about matters that are taboo and in a country where control is maintained through the organized dissemination of fear and paranoia, even the slightest deviation from protocol is enough to taint the atmosphere with suspicion.

The Nyenchen Tangla massif rises on our right, its thrusting triangular crown lost in a brooding mass of cloud. We pass long convoys of military trucks heading back towards China; they are empty. Every now and again the road becomes perfectly straight for stretches, its surface smoothly paved over and painted with strange oracular markings – diamonds, arrows, dashes. I recall having heard that in Switzerland the highways have been constructed such that in times of war they can double up as runways for fighter jets. These stretches of road look like perfect landing strips – ominous signs of the phantom army that the truck convoys have just replenished.

We cross a number of small passes. As the bus sweeps past the cairns and prayer flags that mark their summits, the two ladies shout out in unison, “Lha Gyal Lo! (Victory to the gods!)” I find their spontaneous exhortations stirring; all else may be lost but some deeper reserve of faith and resistance remains uncowed.

***

It is early afternoon when we enter the broad Lhasa Valley. At the outskirts of the city, the highway becomes a wide boulevard, its verges neatly fenced and landscaped. I have no illusions about Lhasa – I know the Chinese have transformed it beyond recognition – but even so, I can barely contain my excitement. Every Tibetan, old or young, in Tibet or in exile, yearns to visit Lhasa; it is our Mecca, the focus of our identity as Tibetans and its overwhelming physical symbol is the Potala Palace whose familiar outlines are etched into our psyches like a subliminal imprint of our origins. I strain to catch my first glimpse of the Potala, but all I can see are block after block of modern houses, clinical and characterless, their signs mostly in Chinese. The first and most depressing truth about Lhasa hits me like a blow between the eyes; it has been reduced to just another, provincial Chinese city. We drive past a roundabout which encloses a travesty of a public monument – two giant, golden yaks posing heroically in a posture that only Communists could imagine – and suddenly we are released into a vast, empty, concrete square, and here, towering above us, is the Potala itself.

The palace is enormous, larger than any picture could ever convey, and it is breathtakingly magnificent, undiminished in impact despite its iconic familiarity. It seems to have magically evolved out of the hard escarpment – an organic unity of form and colour, massively solid yet exuding a sense of lightness, like a giant ocean liner straining to break loose from its moorings. Once, the historic village of Shol lay at its foot but only recently most of it was bulldozed to make way for this broad, soulless plaza. Streetlights shaped like kitsch chandeliers line the brand new boulevard that traverses the square and leads into the heart of what remains of the old city.

***

Karl, our German companion, has a copy of a well-thumbed Rough Guide to Tibet and according to it the only place for budget travellers to stay in Lhasa is the Yak Hotel. For want of an alternative suggestion we decide to go there. A large wooden gate leads into the hotel courtyard. We enter and cannot believe our eyes; it is crowded with young Western tourists sunbathing and drinking beer! We could be in Kathmandu or Bali, the scene is so outrageously contradictory to our expectations of Lhasa.

The Yak Hotel is situated on the busy Beijing Shar Lam in the old quarter of Lhasa. The street is crowded with shops, restaurants and karaoke bars, and threaded by small alleyways that lead into mysterious recesses. Cycle-rickshaws with bright, Tibetan-style canopies ply the street and on this one stretch, Tibetans seem to be in the majority. A side street near the hotel leads to the Jokhang temple, Tibet’s holiest shrine. The square in front it is a heaving, surging mass of humanity, an exhilarating conflation of motion and colour and sound. For a moment we just stand there, the crowds eddying past us, our senses reeling under this onslaught of visual and aural stimuli, my mind stunned by a profusion of conflicting emotions – joy, amazement, sorrow. Stalls selling trinkets of every description disappear into the Barkhor, the narrow souk-like marketplace that circumscribes the temple complex. Pilgrims and traders from every corner of Tibet, represented in a bewildering array of costumes and hairstyles, lend a festive touch. Here, one can still catch a glimpse of the old Tibet, precariously preserved, like an oasis in the middle of an encroaching wasteland.

We walk slowly towards the Jokhang complex. I notice the disproportionately large presence of security personnel in their blue uniforms, lounging uncouthly. I notice the surveillance cameras perched at vantage points around the square. In recent years, the Jokhang Square has been the scene of several pro-independence demonstrations. Underneath the surface of this pleasing scene of medieval hustle and bustle, I can feel the tension, stretched taut like the skin of a balloon waiting to explode.

In the small courtyard in front of the temple entrance, pilgrims make full-length prostrations, the flagstones dark and glistening, polished by the ceaseless sweep of their bodies. We enter the temple, following the beacon of flickering butter lamps held aloft by the faithful, lulled into a reverie by the continuous drone of murmured prayers and the smell and aura of sanctity that smothers us like a gentle, blinding fog. Swept along by the measured shuffle of the crowd, we enter the sanctum sanctorum, aglow in the golden wash of giant butter-lamps. We look up at the Jowo Rinpoche, Tibet’s most venerated Buddha image, swathed in khatas – the white scarves that symbolize respect and goodwill – his face incandescent and compassionate; a shiver runs down my spine. The throng of people push us along, around the statue and out. We wander as in a dream through the maze-like interior of the temple, along corridors where shafts of light paint passing pilgrims in medieval chiaroscuro. We make our offerings at the multitude of shrines that lead one into the next until we seem to merge into the substance of the place itself, becoming a part of a continuum that seems to stretch back to some ancient and unremembered past. Perhaps, this is the essence of Tibet, its elusive genius locus, this alchemic concoction of magic, tradition, faith and spirituality.

We find a steep staircase that delivers us, blinking and dazed, into the blinding sunlight of the rooftop. Everything seems silent, then the hum and bustle of the city intrudes and the spell is broken. Ritu points out to me that we are standing on the exact spot from which a Chinese police videographer shot some of the harrowing scenes of police brutality against unarmed monks here inside the Jokhang during the pro-independence demonstrations of March 1988. That footage was smuggled out of Tibet and the more graphic scenes were subsequently broadcast throughout the world. One particular image leaps to my mind – less publicized because the scene it depicts is so fleeting: A plainclothes officer in trademark leather jacket is standing in the shadows – perhaps right there on that level below us – surveying the mad scramble of panicked monks as they are chased and beaten up by uniformed policemen armed with batons; suddenly, he launches a vicious kung fu-style kick at an unfortunate monk who strays too close to him and then, having made crunching contact, coolly withdraws into the fringes of the action, as if that premeditated burst of violence was merely routine target practice, as if the monks running helter-skelter in blind terror were no better than animals.

We walk across the roof terraces. All that terror and mindless violence seems far away. A group of young monks are huddled together in the courtyard below us. One gets up, laughing, and runs away; the others chase him in boyish excitement. In the distance, the Potala Palace looms like a sombre shipwreck beached on the shores of an alien city.

***

The days pass by, each more depressing than the previous. In the tea-shops and restaurants around Beijing Shar Lam, on public buses, inside the shrine rooms at the great monasteries of Drepung and Ganden, inside even the heavily monitored Potala Palace, people open up to me when they discover that I am Tibetan, some overtly, others in couched terms, all describing in one way or another, the desperation of their situation, all risking, by this one act of defiance alone, prison and torture. They tell me about the influx of Chinese settlers that has already marginalized them; they tell me about the lack of educational opportunities and the discrimination against Tibetans that has led to large-scale unemployment among their youth, most of whom can be seen whiling away their time in the pool halls, video parlours and karaoke bars that seem to dot the streets in and around the old quarter. Their hatred of the Chinese is barely contained, their desperation stretched to the limit. Inside the darkened recess of a shrine room in one of the monasteries, a young monk says to me, “We are like exhausted birds momentarily resting on a branch; we don’t know when we’ll be forced to fly off again.” They beg me to carry their message out, to the Dalai Lama, to the world. They display a naive faith in the ability of the international community to help them. They cling on to the belief that their cause is neglected only because it is not adequately publicized. All I can do is hold back my tears and promise them that I will do my best. I am overcome by a deep, helpless rage.

Lhasa is a microcosm of the effects of four decades of Chinese rule in Tibet. Walking around it is to see a city violated and brutalized beyond belief. And yet, this systematic deconstruction of the history and culture of an ancient civilization is taking place utterly brazenly, without even the pretence of subtlety or subterfuge. Thus, the blurb on the ticket to enter the Potala Palace ascribes its construction to the seventh century Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo and makes no mention of the Fifth Dalai Lama during whose reign, a thousand years later, the major part of the palace was built, and nor does it allude to the fact that until 1959, the palace was the residence of the Dalai Lamas. The tickets to visit Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, contemptuously refer to it as Luo Bu Lin Ka, a crude Sinicisation that, like the newscasters on Lhasa Television who are made to read Tibetan in the nasal, whining tones of Mandarin Chinese, perverts the language beyond recognition. And while the city expands and preens its glass and concrete achievements, the Tibetans themselves are ghettoized into the confines of the old city, useful only as adjuncts in the sanitized reduction of Tibetan culture into a tourist attraction.

Within living memory Lhasa was an entirely Tibetan city, the spiritual beacon for a civilization that stretched from the Himalayan kingdoms to the steppes of Mongolia. In 1950, when the first troops of the People’s Liberation Army entered Lhasa, there were, at most, a handful of Chinese here – mostly traders and businessmen. Today, at every level, the Chinese dominate Lhasa and the Tibetans are a minority, strangers in their own city.

***

It’s 9 p.m. and the streets of Lhasa are in total darkness. This has been a regular occurrence since our arrival; with a perverse sense of timing that might simply be an unsubtle form of state control, the lights go out every evening just as the sun sets and don’t come back on again until the middle of the night. Every now and again the gloom is shattered by a burst of neon and flashing lights – the karaoke bars seem to have no electricity problems. We are with a young Tibetan who we met earlier on the pilgrimage bus to Ganden Monastery. He had promised to take us to visit a karaoke bar but now, as we pass the sleazy allure of their garish signs, he is reluctant: “Let’s forget about going to a karaoke bar. They can get rough – people get drunk and start fighting – they’re not very pleasant. I’ll take you to another place; it’s a new restaurant – one of Lhasa’s fanciest. We don’t have to eat there – it’s too expensive – but we can have a drink and watch the scene. Gen-la, you should see this side of Lhasa as well.”

We insist that we want to see a karaoke bar but our companion is determined to take us to the restaurant. He is an unusual character; soft-spoken, bright, vehemently critical of the Chinese, and – as we later realize – deeply depressed. He has no fixed employment and gets by on a variety of odd jobs. His melancholia affects me acutely; through him I glimpse, if only for a moment, the desperation of trying to survive as a young Tibetan in Lhasa.

In a side street just beneath the ghostly hulk of the Potala Palace we stop outside a building that looks like it is still under construction. A neon sign proclaims in English: Highland Lake Palace Restaurant. We walk up a flight of stairs to the top floor. The building site ambience of the preceding floors gives way to a grand entrance, surprising in its unexpected formality. Bow-tied waiters usher us into a spacious, softly lit hall – a fantasy nightclub from a Bollywood movie. At the far end, on a stage swathed in red velvet, a Nepalese band from Kathmandu plays the latest Hindi film songs. Everyone here is Tibetan, mostly middle-aged, the men in dark Western-style suits, tie-less for the most part, and the women in smart Tibetan dresses. I feel incongruous in my down jacket and heavy work boots. Despite the din, some men are jabbering loudly into their cellular phones; others display their beepers prominently. These, we are told, are the proud symbols of Lhasa’s nouveaux riches.

The Nepalese singer, dressed in a sherwani – the long, formal Indian jacket – sits cross-legged in front of a harmonium in the pose of an Indian classical singer. Completely contradicting his image, he launches into a raucous Bombay disco number. The lights dim and a crystal ball spins drops of coloured light across the room. Two men walk up to the dance floor and unexpectedly start to waltz. The men dance awkwardly but determinedly, locked in a kind of surreal tango, following an inner rhythm that has nothing to do with the synthesized backbeat of the musicians on stage.

Our Tibetan companion looks around him in disgust and whispers to me, “They’re all businessmen. They’ve got so much money they don’t know what to do with it. They don’t give a shit about Tibet. If they wanted to, they could do so much, but all they’re interested in is making more money”

The restaurant is now packed and the atmosphere boisterous; money and alcohol seem to be flowing liberally. Strangely though, after that first tentative waltz and despite the repeated exhortations of the singer, no more dancers venture onto the floor. Our companion tells us that perhaps Ritu’s and my presence – a couple of foreigners – right next to the dance floor is inhibiting the normally energetic crowd; we are spoiling what is in effect an in-house party. This is confirmed by the behaviour of the waiters who attend to us ever more vigilantly, firmly filling up our glasses after each sip and bringing us the bill even before we have emptied our beer bottles. But we have seen enough and don’t need any persuasion to leave.

Outside, the sidewalk is full of motorcycles and a few brand new Toyota Land Cruisers. We make our back to the old city in pitch darkness accompanied by the serial yelping of unseen dogs.

***

After a few days in Lhasa, Ritu and I decide to go to Sangta to meet my relatives – my mother’s older sister and brother. We had hoped to send them a message warning them of our arrival but this proved impossible; despite being able to call anywhere in the world from Lhasa’s brand new telephone exchange, the idea of calling Sangta just across the river was met with stares of blank incomprehension.

My mother was born in Sangta. Her family originally lived in a house just outside the village but some years before her birth, perhaps in the early nineteen thirties, bandits had raided their home. They tied my granduncle – the only man present in the house at the time – to the horns of a cow and sent my grandmother and her children scattering into the nearby hills before making off with the family wealth. Thus impoverished, my family moved into a small barn in the middle of the village where my mother was born a few years later. Not long after her birth, Sangta, along with a number of other villages, became a part of the estate of the present Dalai Lama’s father who had then just accompanied his young son to Lhasa. It was traditionally the custom that the families of the Dalai Lamas were instantly elevated to the status of aristocrats and granted large estates by the government. When my mother was sixteen, she was conscripted into the service of the Dalai Lama’s late elder sister as a maidservant. In 1956, my mother accompanied her to India on an extended pilgrimage during which they also went to Darjeeling where the Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup, was then living. There, she met my father and the two decided to get married. She never went back to Tibet.

My mother was fortunate; her family soon suffered the full brunt of the Chinese occupation. My grandmother was singled out as a class traitor. For years, she was forced to live in a tiny cowshed and made to endure countless struggle sessions. Ironically, one of her crimes was that she was accused of having voluntarily offered my mother into feudal slavery. In late 1980, while I was away studying in America, my grandmother and my aunt came to India and after nearly 25 years were reunited with my mother. Although my grandmother stayed on for five years in Darjeeling, I was unable to visit her, trapped as I was at the time by my impecunious situation as a student, a missed opportunity that I regret to this day. Shortly after her return to Tibet in 1984, my grandmother died at the age of 85.

***

Travelling in a hired jeep, we cross the bridge that spans the Kyichu River at the eastern edge of town and follow a dirt track along the opposite bank. The broad showcase boulevards of New Lhasa are already a dream; it takes us over an hour to cover a distance of about 15 kilometres. We drive into Sangta on a wide, dusty road lined on both sides by houses that are enclosed within mud walls like mini-fortresses. A solitary man walks past and we ask him for directions. He tells us that my aunt lives just down the road. We continue driving until we see an elderly lady, slightly hunched, her face sunburnt and creased, her head wrapped in a scarf, standing outside a house. We stop beside her. She looks at us curiously, her face breaking into an expectant smile. I’ve seen photographs of my aunt from when she visited India and although there is nothing immediately familiar about this stranger’s face, something moves me to ask, “Are yousomo-la (aunty)?”

Her face lights up in shock and then crumples into an expression of pure grief. She throws up her arms and wails loudly, “Oh my God… you’ve come… we didn’t know if you would make it…”

I get out of the jeep and hug her tightly, flustered at this unexpected revelation, murmuring confused greetings and explanations. I hold her in my arms, her bony and wiry frame racked by heaving convulsions. Only one thought reverberates foolishly in my mind – this is my aunt – and simultaneously, I find myself noticing the grime and caked dirt on her dusty chuba and the smell of hay and soil that emanates from her. Her daughter, Dolma, tall and gangly, her head also wrapped in a scarf covered with bits of chaff, approaches us awkwardly and shyly hugs me.

Later, we sit inside my aunt’s shrine room, which also doubles as the guest room. My uncle has been called from next door and he now sits beside me, looking at me in wonder and saying, “Son, this is like a dream… you’ve dropped in on us like a dream.” My aunt’s husband and Dolma rush in and out in a fluster, offering us salted, butter tea and then sweet tea and then plain hot water, uncertain about our tastes. The room is small but comfortable, dominated by a large, elaborately painted and carved, wooden cabinet. Inside its glass case are displayed numerous statues of Buddhist deities and photographs of the Dalai Lama and other high lamas. A wooden pillar props up the ceiling in the centre of the room and next to it, a kettle burbles away on a wood-burning stove. A large frame hangs on one wall, crammed with snapshots, many of which are of my family in India.

My aunt has recovered from the shock of our unexpected appearance and now talks animatedly, her Tibetan tinged with a faint village brogue that I find quaint and endearing. She urges us to drink more tea, “Please pretend to have some, we don’t have much to offer, this really is a village, you must find it very strange…”

“No, no, we really like it here,” I reassure her, genuinely feeling at home. There is a sense of familiarity about my relatives, as if I have known them all my life, which makes me feel instantly comfortable.

“We received a letter from India several weeks ago saying that you might be visiting us, but we had given up hope. The funny thing is, last night I had this strange dream: your mother had sent me a present, all nicely wrapped up, and when I opened the packaging there were silver offering bowls inside. I knew they had been sent for a reason but I couldn’t remember what it was. I was telling Dolma about the dream this morning and wondering what it could mean, and now you have suddenly arrived…”

My aunt bears a strong resemblance to my mother but although she is not much older than her, years of suffering and hard labour have etched her face with deep lines and aged her far beyond her years. We talk late into the night, exchanging family news and gossip, packing a lifetime into a few short hours.

In the morning, we walk around their modest but comfortable home. Their storeroom is crammed with sacks of grain. I exclaim to my aunt that there seems to be enough stored here to last them several years.

She smiles apologetically and says, “It’s true. We have several years worth of grain here. I don’t know why we don’t sell it, the rats are eating it all.”

But I can guess why they feel the compulsion to hoard; like most Tibetans, they starved their way through the sixties and seventies, victims of the disastrous agricultural and nomadic reforms imposed by the Chinese in the first decades of occupation and then by the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. After the turmoil of those years, life in Sangta today seems to have returned to something of the same rural simplicity that existed before the invasion; if there has been any significant development, it is not readily apparent. It is as if, having been dragged bewildered and uncomprehending through a long and turbulent nightmare of physical and psychological terror, where everything that had ever seemed true, familiar or enduring was turned on its head and smashed into a million pieces, the people were then told to rebuild their lives from the shattered vestiges of the very thing they had tried to eradicate. I get a sense that for villagers like my family the last few decades have been like a bad dream from which they have just awoken, uncertain about what is real and what is illusory and how long this current phase of tenuous calm will last before the next round of madness erupts. For the moment, they seem grateful for small mercies – to have some freedom of religion, to be allowed to farm and trade and barter in relative obscurity.

News of our arrival has spread and several visitors – distant relations or friends of the family – have come to pay their respects, all curious to see us. I would love to spend more time with my relatives but I am concerned that our presence here will needlessly draw attention to us. The last thing I want is to be forced into some kind of meeting with officials of the Tibet Autonomous Region. We decide to return to Lhasa. My aunt burns some incense, an auspicious offering to see us on our way. My relatives put khatas around our necks. I hug my aunt and uncle and get into the jeep. Everything has happened in a flash, it already seems unreal. As we drive away, they wave goodbye in that peculiarly Tibetan way – hands cupped together in front of them, motioning up and down in a gesture that is partly respectful and partly instinctive. When and under what circumstances will I meet them again?

***

On the rooftop of the Potala Palace, we come across a local dance troupe performing for a Chinese television crew. The dancers are brightly clad. Their dance is choreographed in a pseudo-traditional style but the accompanying song sounds like an old folk tune, underpinned by the haunting strains of the piwang, the Tibetan fiddle. A Chinese woman directs the dancers. They go through their routine again and again, sweat breaking out across their painted and smiling faces.

Behind us, the golden, curved roofs of the Potala gleam in the intense clarity of the mid-morning sunlight; below us, the boxlike buildings of new Lhasa spread out in every direction, broken only by the yawning expanse of the empty square and the abrupt projection of the Chakpori hill, the site of Lhasa’s famous college of medicine, now dismantled and spiked by a television tower. I think of the Dalai Lama’s private apartments immediately below us, empty for 36 years, yet still retaining a sense of his presence. I think of the courtyard in front of it where Chinese tourists dress up in Tibetan costumes and have their pictures taken, tittering excitedly.

On the rooftop, the dancers start yet again, the melancholic melody of their song drifting over the city. For a moment, I feel utter despair. Then I look down again at the concrete sprawl of Lhasa; it appears insubstantial, out of place, an ephemeral imposition. In the distance, the great, barren hills, etched with deep black shadows, stand out in stark relief against the pure elemental sky. Suddenly, the dancers, the television crew, the tourists taking pictures, all fade into inconsequence. Only the indubitable solidity of the mountains and the imposing mass of the Potala seem real and enduring and somehow reassuring.

Tomorrow morning we leave for the Nepalese border. I will remember the words of the young man who told me, half in irony and half in deadly earnest, pointing at the rows of Chinese shops on Beijing Shar Lam: “Don’t worry Gen-la, next time you come back, we’ll make sure they’re all gone!”

***

Our minibus comes to a halt at Nyelam Thong La, 5200 metres high and the last pass before we leave Tibet. In front of us, a smooth arc traces the horizon where the Tibetan Plateau ends and plunges dizzyingly through deep gorges and canyons into the lowlands of Nepal; behind it and towering above us even at this altitude, rise the snowy ramparts of the Himalayan massif, unlike any mountain range we have seen in Tibet – higher, wilder, more jagged and precipitous.

We have been travelling for four days through the heart of Central Tibet, that vast swathe of barren flatland, flanked by row after row of stark mountain ranges and high, windswept passes where stone inscriptions stand in lonely piles and skeins of prayer-flags flutter heartbreakingly, transmitting entreaties to the gods who deserted their posts.

We leave Nyelam Thong La and with it our last view of the Tibetan Plateau. The mountains close in claustrophobically as we enter the deep gorge that leads us like a secret passage through the impregnable barrier of the Himalaya. The descent is unstoppable, the bus hurtles downwards like a mad roller coaster and before we know it thick sub-tropical vegetation covers the hillsides and the air is warm and humid and fecund. Our minibus is trapped in the narrow main street at the border town of Dram, a traffic jam of trucks and buses all waiting to cross into Nepal. Familiar Nepalese faces are everywhere; we could already be in Nepal. We leave the bus and walk to the border control, my heart pounding, one last bout of cold-sweat paranoia – will they be waiting for us here, ready to confiscate our Hi8 videotapes and our rolls of films? The officer who looks at our passports is Tibetan. She checks our visas and then passes them on to her Chinese colleague. He stamps our passports and waves us through. The Nepalese border post is still a few kilometres downhill. There is only one pick-up truck whose Nepalese driver offers to take us for an exorbitant fee. Ritu haggles with him in Hindi and brings the price down. We ride the bed of the truck down a monsoon-destroyed path until we come to the river that marks the frontier. Even here, at this furthest edge of Tibet, Chinese traders have set up makeshift stalls. We cross the bridge and enter the dingy, miserable, Nepalese outpost of Kodari. A rush of elation and relief floods us; five weeks of pent-up tension uncoils in an instant! Even the venal immigration officer who hints at a bribe before he will open up the office to issue us our visas seems like a long-lost friend.

Freedom! How we take it for granted. Tonight, we will sleep well in a comfortable hotel in Kathmandu but up there, beyond these vertical slopes, on the pure, high plateau of my sad, disempowered motherland, already so remote we might have dreamt it all, our less fortunate compatriots will sleep yet another night on beds of thorns.

***

Postscript

A little more than four years after we visited his native village, my father passed away in a Delhi hospital in January, 1999, his life’s dream of returning to a free Tibet unfulfilled. Earlier this year, we learnt that my cousin Nima, who was only in his early fifties, had died in a hospital in Xining. Nima was our one real link with my father’s family in Tibet and with his death, the tenuous bond that he and I had re-established between the long-estranged strands of our family seems once again to have slipped away; since his death we have had no news from Kumbum.

Meanwhile, the situation in Tibet continues to deteriorate. Although the Dalai Lama has long since given up the demand for independence, the Chinese authorities show no sign of relenting to his pleas for talks to bring about a negotiated settlement. On the contrary, they have stepped up the campaign to vilify him; photographs of the Dalai Lama are now completely banned, both in public places and in homes. The flood of Chinese migrants continues unabated and their burgeoning presence and influence threaten to swamp even the rural areas that have so far escaped their intrusion. And as a corollary, more and more Tibetans are escaping their homeland, braving the hazardous crossing of the Himalayan passes in a bid for freedom. Last year alone, more than 2000 new refugees arrived in Dharamsala. The fate of Tibet has never seemed grimmer.