Palchen Wangyal was born in Kham Dege, Jodha, eastern Tibet and later escaped from Tibet to India in 1999. Photo: Dawa/TPI

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Dharamshala, India — An exclusive interview with Palchen Wangyal, a Tibetan living in India. His journey to India as a young child and the courage he had to uphold while losing his younger brother in the snow-mountain at the Rongshar Township of, Dhingri County, central Tibet. His flight sheds insight into the struggle of many Tibetans escaping from the Chinese rule.

The pain and traumas that linger in the hearts of those who made their way into India. The separation and longing for those left beyond the snow-capped mountains. The obstacles in exile while trying to build a second home far away from home and families.

Tibet Post International reporter (TPIR): Can you share a little about your life when you were in Tibet?

Palchen Wanggyal (PW): I am Palchen Wangyal. I was born in Kham Dege, Jodha, eastern Tibet, which is now considered as a part of Tibet autonomous region. My birth year was 1985. Both my father and mother were born in Kham. My family moved to Lhasa when I was around two years old. My father got a government job when we settled in Lhasa. His work was related to electricity. He was placed in Yangpachen. My mother was a housewife looking after us five siblings (one daughter and four sons). I and my twin brother were the eldest children.

Because of our parents, we were able to join the Chinese established schools from primary to secondary schools in Lhasa. I was schooled and lived in Lhasa till 1999. When I was around seven or eight, my father passed away. He broke his foot after falling down while working at the utility pole which later became swollen. Father had been to different hospitals but due to lack of proper medication, we lost him. My mother became the sole caretaker for our siblings. It was difficult for mom alone to look after us five siblings especially when we were living so far away from our birthplace and most of our relatives being still back in Kham. But my mother still worked hard and enabling us to go to primary and secondary schools in Lhasa until we come to India in 1999.

TPIR: What were your initial aims for coming to India?

PW: In the beginning, I was too young to understand the reasons and aims for coming. But one of my paternal uncles used to travel to India as a merchant in the 1980s. Later he was arrested by Nepali policemen and imprisoned for a while. He wasn’t able to return back to Tibet due to a lack of official documents. He went to India and stayed at Bir settlement in Himachal Pradesh. Eventually, he contacted us and suggested sending us to India to study under the grace of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He sent the message with some pictures of Tibetan Children’s Village Schools and him through one of our town men who was returning from India.

My mother decided to send the four of us to India keeping the youngest child with her. But my youngest brother put a fight with her and cried until she agreed to send him with us eventually. We could attend schools in Tibet administered by the Chinese communist party. But we were taught in Chinese and mandatory to learn the Chinese culture. We were not able to learn our own Tibetan culture, language, and religion. My mother thought learning Chinese alone will only shape us into Chinese man rather than a Tibetan with its unique tradition and characteristics. So for this very reason, our mother sent us to India.

TPIR: What were the difficulties you faced while traveling to India?

PW: In the beginning, my mother tried to find some guide to take us to India. She found out that the man who carried our uncle’s message to us was getting paid to send people to India secretly and was about to return. Mother decided to send us with him. She prepared us for the journey with thick clothes to beat the cold and enough food supply to last the trip. We were to start our journey toward India in the winter between November and December of 1999. Winter was the only option for us because in summer the patrolling Chinese armies were stricter.

It was the 25th time that our guide was traveling to India. Our actual journey started on the 15th or 16th of October. We traveled from Lhasa to Shigatse (one of the large cities in Central Tibet) by a truck with a bit of fare. On the mountain beyond Tashilungpo Monastery, we journeyed by foot until we reach Nepal. There were around 36 people in the group including the guide. There were around seven people who were elders and the rest of the members were children aged from seven to twelve. Their parents were sending them to study in India. We crossed the snow mountains in the Rongshar areas.

We walked for 15 days from Shigatse and reached Nyalam (Central Tibet) where we were arrested before we could reach Sakya (Central Tibet) and sent back to Shigatse. The guide took us through another longer path to start our journey again. We traveled for 45 days until we arrive in Nepal. Within 45 days, more than 30 of us were fine when we finally made it to Nepal. There were two monks from the Drepung monastery who got separated from the group and we lost track of them.

My youngest sibling who was around eight became seriously sick in the snow and died. Because the guide estimated our journey to last 18 days at most, the rations we took with us were only enough for that time. Since we were caught and returned back which acted an obstacle for us and so the food supply wasn’t sufficient.

We came by begging on the road and got abundant food in certain Tibetan villages. Some villagers were afraid due to political reasons and didn’t care much about us. Finally, we reached Rongshala, it was the 1st or 2nd of December. If there hadn’t been snow on Rongshala we could have crossed it within one or two hours, but with the heavy snow on the mountain, it took us three days to cross it completely.

There wasn’t much snow at the foot of the Rongshala but by midday, the snow engulfed our knees. At the middle of the mountain, the snow became thicker and almost half our bodies were covered. We needed to use our hands to dig our feet back out when we took steps through the snow. It was extremely hard to walk since we had been walking in the snow from morning until evening and most members of the group were children. There was an old man around the age of 87 and he was very tired. All children were panting from the long walk on the snow. When the food ran out there was a hunger within the group. We were so exhausted that we fell asleep standing with half of our bodies still stuck deep in the snow.

At the beginning of the day, my youngest brother was fine. He was excited to cross and even tried to go in front. Slowly he got tired and hungry from the endless walk on the snow and couldn’t walk at all. I carried him on my back while holding my younger sister on one hand and the second younger brother on the other. My twin brother carried the things we had. When morning came, the snow reached around our waist. My eight-year-old brother couldn’t breathe well but kept calling me, again and again, to tell me that he was hungry and thirsty. There was nothing I could do because we had no proper food left with us except some dry instance noodles (waiwai) and a bit of tsampa which were completely covered by snow and couldn’t be found near.

We were left in the snow for three consecutive days. My right hand was frostbitten while my left hand was holding my younger brother. Some of the elders were from Kham and they had long waist holders for Chupa, traditional Tibetan clothing. They used the cloth-belts to pull us from the deep snow and we slowly moved through. The two monks from Drepung who were walking in the front of the group fell down in a large crevasse and we were unable to find them even after searching for a long time. The guide told us that if we were to stay back too long the Chinese armies might find us. So we had left without finding them or their bodies.

At that time my younger brother was almost out of breath. I thought that when we crossed the mountain and got some food, he would be fine. After crossing over the mountain for three days, we came across a plain with forest. We rested there to feed the children and my little brother was shivering from the cold. So we covered him with thick clothes, a Chinese blanket and a quilt to warm his body.

I left my other younger siblings to look after him and went into the forest to look for food. There was only a little bit of tsampa left and I hoped that I might find some fruits in the forest. But there was nothing and no houses to be seen.

When I returned, I put a pot on the fire and boiled some snow in it. I put the bit of the tsampa in it. I plucked some tree leaves which people consider nutritious and added it to the pot. I thought it would help him feel better and went to give him the tsampa porridge.

He was lying, unmoving and was unable to talk. We tried everything to make him breathe but he wasn’t moving at all. I thought he might have lost his consciousness. The elder monk with us knew something about medicine and he checked his veins. He said it was hopeless and that he was already dead. I couldn’t do anything except to hold his body closer with tears in my eyes. My two younger brothers came and embraced the body with me. My younger sister was so shocked that she fainted. The elder monk helped and put some medicine in her mouth to save her. We were able to save her but there was nothing we could do for our youngest sibling. We could only hold his body and cry our hearts out. We couldn’t stay too long there since we still had to cross the border and climb another mountain, which wasn’t covered by snow.

We couldn’t carry his dead body to India. So we carried his body back to the area with three feet tall snow and buried him there. We prayed for him and left his body behind. I still had to think about my other three siblings I had with me. At that point, I couldn’t move my right hand at all. My twin brother and I carried everything we had left on our back since the two other siblings couldn’t carry anything. After many days we arrived at the border and reached Nepal.

TPIR: Can you please brief us about your life after coming to India?

PW: Upon reaching the Nepali border, there was a steel bridge which jingled when walked on. After completely crossing this bridge we were supposed to reach Nepal. The guide said it wasn’t safe for us to cross the bridge during the day because of policemen guiding it. So we hid throughout the day.

There were many Nepali people and merchants who saw us. We gave some cigarettes and gifts in order for them not to report us. Still, I think they did report us in the end as when we reached the middle of the bridge around 2 am, we were surrounded by Nepali policemen. There was no way we could flee from the scene because we were surrounded from either side too.

Beforehand, the elders of the group instructed two tall young men from Kham to flee and our carry important belongings if we were caught by the policemen. They didn’t tell us children about the plan in detail but we were to leave our money and other important things with them.

Fortunately, they both were able to escape when the policemen surrounded us on the bridge. Many of our important items were in their hands. A bulky amount of our Chinese Yuan which mother gave us was with our guide. Since I wasn’t too well aware of the plan I had on me a sufficient amount of eight to nine thousand Chinese Yuan to use on the road.

We were taken to an inner corridor which seemed to be a police station. Everyone’s possessions were checked and confiscated. Before my turn came, I tried to hide the Yuan. My younger sister had thick hair so I hid 3000 Yuan between her hairs. And hid another small amount into a handful of kneaded barley (Tibetan: pak) and asked her to eat it slowly. I stuck the remaining amount into a wine bottle lying beside us and thought I could take it later. But I forgot about it. The money in my younger sister’s hair was seized by the Nepali policemen but they didn’t find the amount in the kneaded barley. Some girls’ gold and silver ear-rings were taken away as well.

After seizing all our important belongings and whatever food we had, they were going to report us to the Chinese authorities. But after they took away all our possessions they let us go. We reunited with the two young men later on and continued our journey towards India.

There was another mountain we were to cross before we arrived at the Tibetan Reception Centre in Nepal. There was a gate which is guided by Nepali policemen on the mountain. We were told that we would be arrested by them if they discovered us. In the end they arrested us and imprisoned us for two to three days. They told us that they could send us back but we didn’t know where we would end up. We don’t know the Nepali language and most of the communications took place through actions and signs.

After three days, they brought a truck without any windows and all sides were covered. They intended to send us on that. Our guide believed that if we were sent in that dark truck we wouldn’t even know it if we ended up back with the Chinese police. So we refused to go inside and finally they brought another truck with windows. Since our guide knew the road which leads to the border as well as the Nepal city, we boarded it. While onboard, some of the young men pulled out their swords and were ready to fight with the policemen who were with us in case they took us back the roads through which we came. We thought that they would definitely report us to the Chinese authorities. There was nothing left for us to do other than to fight with the Nepali policemen. We were so scared but they ended up taking us to the road which was directed towards the Tibetan Reception Center.

There was a big army camp before reaching the reception center where we were jailed for three days. They wouldn’t let us go outside. They only let us go to the toilet and a compulsory exercise in the morning. We were extremely scared that they would end up reporting us to the Chinese authorities sooner or later.

There were Sherpas outside the camp who looked like Tibetans. During one of those morning exercises in the open area, our elders told us that two children needed to go near the police gate and find helpers from outside. Everyone else was pretending to do their exercises when they sent off two young children to the gate without the policemen’s notice.

I and another boy from Kham Gojo (a county in Chamdo prefecture) went near the gate. We called out to two young women who we thought were Tibetans and they came up to us. We asked them to contact the staff at the Tibetan Reception Centre for them to rescue us. The women assured us that they would convey our message to the center. However, they didn’t go to the Tibetan Reception Centre as it was quite far from where we were. Instead, they informed the United Nations’ Centre for the Welfare of Refugees about our situation.

After one hour, four staff from the United Nations, two police and two Tibetan staff appeared. They negotiated and asked the Nepali police to let us go but we couldn’t understand what they were saying. In the end, they allowed us to go after paying a huge amount of Nepali money for each of us. The Nepali police let us go and in other words, we were bought from them with cash.

We were sent to the Tibetan Reception Centre where we stayed for 15 days. For that whole time, I couldn’t use my right hand properly. After 15 days we were sent to India.

Initially, I was allocated to Suja School in Himachal Pradesh and my younger siblings to Tibetan Homes School, Mussoorie in Uttarakhand. We requested the staff to put us in one school as we would have been separated from each other. So we all were allowed to go to Mussoorie school together eventually.

In school, I had difficulty moving my right hand. I was able to dress my hand in medical centers through school at that time. But not having a proper knowledge about the treatment I still had difficulties with it today.

I studied at Mussoorie School until tenth grade. After taking my tenth-grade board exam, I joined Varanasi University in Uttar Pradesh. My other siblings were still studying at Mussoorie School. I studied for seven years in Varanasi before I finish my Acharya course (M.A). Later I worked as a teacher for six years at different monastic centres in India. I came to Sarah, College for Higher Tibetan Studies in Himachal Pradesh in July 2018 and will be finishing my teachers training course (TTC) soon.

TPIR: Could you tell us a little bit about your situation regarding your current health and livelihood in India?

PW: When I was in Mussoorie, the school administration had nurtured us all very well but we couldn’t always wait for it to help us all the time. We don’t have any relatives in India and if my younger siblings don’t have new shoes and clothes for Losar (Tibetan New Year) sometimes I thought they would feel sad.

My paternal uncle who lived in Bir left for another country. He came to visit and took us all for Losar during the winter holidays. But soon he left due to personal reasons. So when the winter vacation came around. I usually left my younger siblings in school and asked my twin brother to look after them. I use to go to Bodh Gaya in Bihar in hopes of doing some small business. There used to be very good noodles available in Dehradun at that time. I would carry four to five sacks of noodles to Gaya. I borrowed some cash from our home foster father along with my own small amount of money to buy noodles. I bought the noodles from a Dehradun businessman. I sold noodles in Bihar with a little increase in the price.

If there was still time left after selling all the noodles, I would sell tea and laphin (A Tibetan delicacy). I baked and sold breads during Kargyur Molam teachings for three to four years during my secondary school years. I was able to gain some profit and used it to buy new clothes and shoes for my siblings during the Tibetan New Year.

The most difficult part was that I had problems with my right hand. It was fine at certain points in school but it was extremely hard when I changed place. Going to a new place was hard for me and for one whole year at Mussorie it has been very hard. There were good dressing facilities available at my school. I was fine for almost five years.

When I shifted to Varanasi, it was difficulty at first. Due to heat, it became unbearable for almost one year. I thought of leaving school at certain times. Sometimes my right hand is immovable and sometimes the pain became so severe that half of my body became numb. As a result of being left in the snow for a long time, the nerves in my hand were affected badly I guess. I experienced sharp pain in the head and the veins in my hand became very blue at times.

Once I started my second year in Varanasi, it became much better and I faced no difficulties. But last year when I first came to Sarah, College for Higher Tibetan studies, it was quite bad. I couldn’t fall asleep at night. I couldn’t have a wink of sleep from 11pm till 4 am in the morning either. I used to sit outside the corridor on a chair to stay awake because if I fell asleep it became more painful.

The pain was so extreme that I had to take two painkillers at a time in order to go to class and not miss it. But if it becomes too painful, I have left no choice but to ask leave from the teachers. I had been to many hospitals in Calcutta, Bihar and had taken Tibetan and Indian medicines equally but to no effect. The Calcutta ayurvedic medicine was little bit effective. But the pain in the hand was still there persistently.

TPIR: How were you able to manage the finances with all the medical expenses?

PW: The most difficult part was my medical bills. There was no one I could actually turn to for aid. I graduated from Varanasi in 2012. I taught for six years at different monastic centers after my graduation. During that time I was able to accumulate some amount of money which I used for my medical expenses.

Overall for one year since last year, I spent more than three hundred thousand Rupees on medical expenditures. I needed to get a vaccine in Chandigarh. It needed to be injected 16 times. Four vaccines each day for four days and 16 times in total. Each injection costs around 4,600 Rs, plus travel expenses and necessary requirements. It cost one million Rs each time.

I went there in November once last year and I visited Calcutta in summer. I went to Chandigarh this September. I asked for financial support around but there hadn’t been proper support yet. People said that they would try to find help by taking my email address and mobile number but to date, there hasn’t been a good result. I used to ask around people in Bir and town people who visited India from abroad. Other than that every penny was from my own pocket.

TPIR: Do you have any special message for the readers?

PW: Well, there are many who come from Tibet and faced difficulties like me. I am grateful for everything I have now because of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. We were able to study. But there are still many from Tibet who needed financial support for further education. I think it would be great to be able to help them. I have acquaintances that come from Tibet and going colleges. Sometimes they take gap years of one and two to earn enough college fees to continue their education. They work themselves to earn money for college. There are many like that.

I especially wish to return to Tibet one day. But this hope is rather far I think. I walked on foot to reached India once and if I were to walk again to reach Tibet. I think it could be hard. Therefore, it would be extremely helpful to help those in need while one can. Although there are many organizations which are helping but it would be much more useful to help them to the end. Even in my case, many organizations said to help but yet to reach out.

Former TPI journalist Dawa Phurbu recently conducted an interview with Palchen Wanggyal, in Dharamshala, India and TPI reporter Namgyal Dolma translated from Tibetan into English.