I have no idea how, as a writer living in Edmonton, I became so intimately connected to the Tibetan town of Kyirong and a Buddhist monk born within its curve. He, Kushok Lobsang Dhamche, would call it karma; others might call it luck. What I know is that Tibet entered my veins like honey, and Kushok was woven into my life as I pulled pieces of his history together for a travel book I was writing. And one thing became clear as I worked to record his story: I would try my best to take him back to the home he had been exiled from over 45 years ago. I wanted Kushok to see Kyirong again before tourism and development altered the “Happy Valley,” as its name translates.
It’s a place that has won the hearts of adventurers and wandering yogis. It has also captured the minds of the occupying Chinese government, which is constructing a road and trade port directly through it. We could only imagine what the valley looked like now as it was prepared for tourism and trade.
From Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, Kyirong is a vomit-inducing drive through swaying bamboo stalks, waterfalls, pine-covered mountains and villages precariously balanced on terraces at the edge of those mountains. Kyirong lies just beyond these scenes of rural Nepal and behind the peak of Langtang, which stands above the greenery like a white giant.
Kushok was born in Kyirong in the early 1950s. By the time he was five, his father had been killed and his mother had died, the Chinese army was moving westward toward his village and the Dalai Lama had fled Tibet. There had been an exodus of Tibetans over the border, and Kushok remembers the fleeing ones clogging the river that flowed into neighbouring Nepal. It was from these beginnings that Kushok decided he must escape. In 1963, at age nine, his uncle took him across the Himalayas to the border where he was loaded onto a truck and said goodbye to his uncle forever. Kushok eventually enrolled at the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Dharamsala, India, where he studied for 30 years. During that time, he trained his mind to accept his situation as an orphan without a family, home or country. He achieved his Geshe degree (similar to a master’s degree in Buddhism), served as a chaplain for the Indian army and learned the arts of butter sculpture, sand mandala and chanting.
In 1987, Kushok had his last glimpse of home when he snuck across the borders at a time when they were relaxed. He saw how the Cultural Revolution had decimated Kyirong’s temples and, only months later, Tibet was once again sealed off due to violent riots and he returned to the Dalai Lama’s monastery.
After all those years in South Asia, near home but never in it, he boarded a plane in 1999 and rode the winds across the world to North America. He eventually found himself living in the unlikely location of Edmonton, invited there by the local meditation society to become a teacher. Immersed in a foreign culture, and the only Tibetan in the city, Kushok began teaching at the Gaden Samten Ling Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Society. I came across his mini-biography on the society’s web page and was immediately compelled to meet him.
“One day we go to my village, to Tibet,” Kushok told me after our first encounter, exactly one year ago this month. I was hooked. Or perhaps karma had grabbed my hand.
* * *
Kathmandu is holy and distressing. Especially under the scorching October sun after 32 hours of travel from Edmonton.
Human waste runs in rivulets past vendors selling yards of sari cloths, ginger roots and unrefrigerated cuts of fly-infested meat. A beggar with no fingers reaches out to accept my coins. The polluted skyline sunken in a valley below the Himalayas is dominated by a massive white stupa (a domed Buddhist structure) with its golden spire piercing the smog and its painted Buddha eyes gazing over brick-and-mortar buildings. The Boudhanath stupa is one of the largest in the world and many exiled Tibetans have settled around it. So that’s where we stayed, in a humble guesthouse in the stupa’s shadow, barely able to cool.
“Free Tibet” tourist items were banned even there, and Tibetan monks and nuns were being arrested without cause because of close ties between China and Nepal. It was then we learned that the 60th anniversary of Communism in China, combined with a recent promise to post 12,000 Nepali soldiers along the Tibetan border, would make it impossible to get Kushok home.
It was probable yet devastating news; before we’d traversed the grand swath of the Atlantic, we knew that there was a chance Kushok would be denied entry. Yet during planning, our Kathmandu-based guide kept assuring me that his “connections” had gotten other Tibetans home and could get Kushok in, too. I had to try. But upon meeting the guide, he told us it was prohibited to enter Kyirong. The huckster was trying to trap us into doing a tour, but to nowhere we needed to go. It seemed, even after so many years, invisible borders were holding Kushok back.
“You go to Tibet without me, Jane. Go see the important monasteries. Then we go to border of my hometown, but stay on Nepal side and I show you from where I escape,” Kushok advised me. Kushok wanted me to see the former dwelling place of the Dalai Lamas. He wanted me to witness Tibet with my own eyes so that I could understand, first-hand, what was happening there. It seemed ridiculous that a foreigner could be allowed in, but not a native of the land. It broke my heart, but I agreed.
The day came for my departure to Tibet. From a rusty Mercedes, an aged, charming driver took my pack. As the car drove away, I stared back at my friend with mixed emotions. I had failed him, yet he still wanted me to experience the heart of his home.
I could almost hear the winds of the plateau calling, the snapping prayer flags on the world’s highest passes and the whispers of the 1.2 million Tibetans who had perished there. Kushok was right. I had to go so that I could write the story authentically, from my own interpretations.
During my six days in Tibet, Kushok tried to arrange for his only surviving aunt in Kyirong to get a permit to cross to Nepal, since he could not cross himself. Perhaps then, I thought, Kushok would feel the excitement he always keeps carefully in check. Throughout our travels, I learned that his life of exile was about survival, not hope. A protective mechanism or a steady control of emotion – either way, I wanted nothing more than to see him reunited with his aunt.
Getting myself to the border was rigorous. The Mercedes broke down as it struggled up the ascending roads. Then, without a guide, I hitchhiked to the border in a Nepali cargo truck. As night blackened the dangerous path, I finally found a guesthouse for the night. Now only a river separated me from Tibet, a land I had dreamed about since first meeting Kushok. The land looked defeated by the waving red flags and armed guards poised at the bridge. The buildings were harsh and linear. I took some video with Kushok’s camera, filling it with snippets of home, then fell asleep to the smell of mould and the sounds of river churn and instruments played by Hindu celebrators nearby.
This was Tibet. She is a place that stands closer to the sky than the sprawling land below. She is awe-inspiring and wind-swept. She is the apex of the earth.
I felt the crush of repression as I watched Chinese soldiers with their rifles slung at their sides marching alongside Tibetan pilgrims. I felt defeat seeing the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s seat of power until 1959. But I also experienced the rush of absolute freedom while hanging prayer flags for Kushok in the mountains. As I strung the red, yellow, blue and green cloth rectangles stamped with black-ink prayers, they flapped in the oxygen-deprived air. I thought of Kushok as I travelled the land he had not seen in over 23 years and hoped the prayer flags were blowing blessings to him in Nepal. I imagined the sprawling script of the prayers catching on the fierce currents and streaking across the barren boulder fields, leaping over the canine peaks of the Himalayas and finally landing on the shoulders of my friend in Kathmandu. Judging by the wind speed, I guessed that they were.
* * *
After my immersion in Tibet, it was time to return to Kushok. I took an Air China flight from Lhasa back to Kathmandu over the silent, sleeping giants of the Himalayas.
Kushok and I quickly moved to the next leg of the journey: He wanted me to see his past with my own eyes. He wanted to show me his escape route that, almost a half-century earlier, had both freed him and barred him from home.
We packed warm clothing, medicine and money, and spent a few nights at a nunnery that was once in Kyirong before being moved and rebuilt on the outskirts of Kathmandu to prevent its destruction. The nunnery’s abbot agreed to help Kushok retrace his escape route of 1963. And so we travelled together, along with two additional nuns, in a Toyota Land Cruiser to the border village of Shyabru, where we would be able to gaze upon the mountains of Kyirong, though never cross into the valley.
The nuns had cordially invited an entire farming family along for the ride to a holy lake at the mountaintop. It was hard to protest – most of these farmers had never ascended the mountain that formed their backyard. I was jammed between the Tibetan family, a rice cooker and a huge picnic (which Tibetans are famous for). But I could be considered lucky, since one of the farmers had to ride on the roof.
We travelled for 11 hours on the road to Shyabru, a path with no fear of heights. The road was a smarting snake, violent and sharp in its switchbacks. “My hometown people always say this road goes to hell realm,” Kushok joked with an unsteady voice as we peered down the mountainside. There would be no stopping a vehicle if its wheels tripped on the edge. (Unsurprisingly, a new, safer road was being constructed between Shyabru and Tibet, and was just a kilometre from completion. The Tibet side runs directly through Kushok’s Happy Valley, so China hopes to make this border crossing the second largest trade port in Tibet and to open Kyirong to tourism. The “hidden” valley won’t remain a secret for long.)
Kushok thumbed his beads and prayed as we drove up a near-suicidal mountain road above Shyabru. He had traversed these hills by foot as a child, but riding in a jam-packed vehicle over an unstable road was another story. His eyes at times were held tightly shut and his lips parted for whispered prayers for safety. At the midway point we took a rest. Kushok looked out at Langtang and his eyes followed the valley that would take us to Kyirong, if only we had permits.
We were so close, and yet Kushok was trapped by an invisible net, held back from his only surviving aunt and the very place he had entered this world. And yet he remained calm as he gazed toward the towering Langtang, a final, physical obstacle between him and home. Kushok is accustomed to disappointment, to denial; any emotions remained hidden behind time-softened anger and careful Buddhist practice. Yet every fibre of my being wanted to start walking, to take him toward Kyirong. But soldiers would undoubtedly arrest us.
So instead we kept driving skywards and picnicked at the holy lake. The monastics began chanting and hanging prayer flags, and for a moment I walked away from them, from their tones resonating on the stone and grass, to look at Langtang.
I thought about Kushok’s aunt, who had been denied a permit and was trapped in Tibet. Such a short but impenetrable distance separated her from her nephew. “My aunty crying and crying,” Kushok told me, explaining her response after learning her permit had been denied. “But what we can do? Nothing.” I imagined her on the other side, wanting to see her nephew one last time before she passed away. And I hoped that one day, Kushok could return to his homeland in freedom.
A crow barked out a throaty note and startled me back to the moment, and I returned for a picnic in the sun with my teacher. With my friend, Kushok.