Calling the Earth to Witness the Truth in Tibet
Story by Patti Lefkos, photos by Barry Hodgins



A writer looks back on her visit to Tibet more than a decade ago, with her guide calmly enduring the Chinese suppression that has only gotten worse in the years since.


Ganden Monastery Tibet

The dampness of the patchy grass seeped through the thin fabric of my trekking pants. As the sun dimmed to a pale persimmon behind the snow-dusted mountains of the Tibetan plateau our young guide, Wangdue, recounted a horrific tale.

The tents of our group of twelve travelers rested in view of Parayang village, a five-day drive west of Lhasa, the ancient capital city of the Chinese-occupied Tibet Autonomous Region. A pack of mangy mastiffs roamed the perimeter of our campsite, scrounging for bits of energy bars and leftover breakfast pancakes. Curious children had wandered from the village, giggles almost inaudible in the thin 4,000-meter air. They hovered shyly on the perimeter of the deserted field, crouching behind dark hillocks of grazing yaks. It seemed a safe place to talk.

We had been traveling together for two weeks. Wangdue, a young Tibetan, was beginning to trust me enough to share some of the details of his life. Legs crossed, he faced me, eyes full of compassion. His right hand, palm down, rested on his right knee. His left, palm up, lay on his left leg. Unconsciously or not, he had chosen one of Buddha's positions, one I later learned was named Bhumisparasa: "Calling the Earth to Witness the Truth." His expression encompassed a wisdom that belied his youth. A composed narrator, he never conveyed anger toward the Chinese people. His gentleness calmed me.

Parayang Camp Tibet

Sixteen months before, in the midst of a Tibetan demonstration in Lhasa he had noticed a young girl, aged about 11, walking through the crowd of protesters, wearing her school uniform. He described how red ribbons held her long brunette hair in shiny pigtails, above a crisply ironed white blouse, red tie and turquoise pinafore. "She was holding her mother's hand," he said. "I heard a bang." For a moment he hung his head quietly, brown almond shaped eyes momentarily clenched as if in pain, as if remembering the scene. "I saw the blood spread across her forehead." Within arm's reach of her when the shot was fired he watched in horror as her fragile body crumpled to the pavement. "It was a peaceful demonstration," he said. "When the shot was fired, everything changed."

Tibet Transformed in The Barkhor

Hundreds of banner-waving Tibetan citizens and monks from the nearby Drepung monastery had gathered to observe the annual Tibet Uprising Day. March 14, 2008 commemorated the 1959 protest against the presence of the People's Republic of China. What began as a series of peaceful protests rapidly degenerated into the region's largest protest in two decades. 

He looked up to see a young Chinese soldier standing, staring down at them from the roof of a building beside the square, his rifle still pointed in his direction. "People started yelling and throwing things. The Chinese soldiers got mad. My heart was pounding. I ran to hide."

Mayhem reigned in The Barkhor, the main square of Lhasa, capital city of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The bazaar, the size of a football field, spreads in front of the sixth century Jokhang Monastery, considered the most sacred temple in Tibet. Rows of makeshift wooden booths defined the square's outer perimeter.

When I was there more than a decade ago, usually jovial Tibetan merchants laughed with tourists, passed calculators hand to hand, haggling over prices for prayer flags, Tibetan silver bracelets, and faux turquoise rings. During daylight hours, spumes of juniper smoke hovered above white onion-shaped incense burners, pungent clouds of offerings to the gods almost obscuring the throngs of Tibetan Buddhist devotees. Many were pilgrims who had journeyed on foot or horseback over rugged mountain trails for days or weeks to reach Lhasa. 

Barkhor Tibet

From my first visit the serenity had captivated me. Tibetan Buddhists on their daily meditative walk, circled the temple block in the traditional clockwise direction. Murmurs of the Buddhist prayer Om Mani Padme Hum, "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotu," the only sound.

After the riot, plumes of rancid, gray smoke from burning, overturned cars hovered in the laneways, overpowering the usual tranquility-inducing aroma of juniper of the now deserted square. The clamor of stones hurled by angry rioters reverberated through the narrow canyons of corrugated tin Chinese storefronts behind rows of vendor stalls, obliterating the customary meditative hum.

Wangdue lay trembling in a dead-end alley two streets off the Barkhor like a wild argali mountain sheep confined in a nomad's tiny corral. "I couldn't stop shivering," he said, as much from the fear of discovery by Chinese soldiers as from the frigid dampness of the dirt and flagstones jagged under the hard edge of his hip. A parentless 17-year old, living within Lhasa with his older brother, he cowered for five hours alone in that unforgiving darkness, his thin shirt and tattered jeans insufficient to warm his diminutive frame. Under his NYPD ball cap scrunched his scruffy brunette Mohawk wannabe haircut. "I was stiff. I was cold and hungry but I was afraid to move to go home."

The Struggles and Faith of Wangdue

He had told me he was 23. Most times during the trip he appeared more like 18, a typical teenager. His tattered jeans and faux leather jacket were reminiscent of James Dean. I once glimpsed him striding away from our guesthouse toward a dusty village main street. Unaware anyone was watching, he strolled with a hip-swinging swagger reminiscent of John Travolta's strut in the ‘80s classic dance musical "Stayin' Alive."

Tibetan guide Wangdue with hikers

"I thought the soldiers would find me in the alley and think I was involved in starting the riots. When I couldn't hear any more noise, I hurried home through a route only Tibetans know. I stayed home for a few days, with my brother. We were too scared to go out."

He leaned in, his forehead almost touching mine, his voice almost a whisper. "I already have a record. A couple of times I tried to take a walk," he said, referring to his attempts two years before to escape his country over a high mountain pass into Nepal. "We didn't make it. My friend died. A Chinese soldier shot him in the stomach."

"What happened to you?" I asked.

"Soldiers took my jacket, shoes and cell phone. I was in jail for two weeks."

Head still down, he continued. "Some of us were tortured with an electric stick they use for cattle."

"Can't you just get a passport?" I asked, ignorant of the issues involved in what we consider such a simple transaction.

"It is hard. The police have records. I need to give high Chinese officials extra money," he said, his matter of fact tone non-judgmental. For a $20-a-day guide it seemed an impossible dream.

Born the second son in a strong Buddhist nomad family in Amdo province in Eastern Tibet, his life changed drastically at an early age. "When I was five and my brother seven, our mother died. My father married again. His new wife didn't want us. My father sent us to live in a monastery with my mother's brother." The boys lived in the monastery, tended sheep, learned to read and write Tibetan and studied Buddhist scriptures. They ultimately decided against becoming monks, and their uncle sent them to Xining to study English to prepare for work outside the monastery. 

I first met Wangdue at the Lhasa Gonggar airport. He had been hired through a Canadian tour company so was assigned to meet us. 

Llasa, Tibet

Ever since James Hilton's Lost Horizon was required reading in Miss Golden's grade 10 English class at my Toronto suburb high school, the mystery of Asia had captured my imagination. I had devoured every morsel of information I could find about Tibet. I yearned to discover the serenity exemplified in the transparent, openhearted countenance of the real Dalai Lama. Fearful of the Chinese occupation of Lhasa and knowing it was illegal to utter the words Dalai Lama, I was apprehensive about what lay ahead in my long anticipated Shangri-La. But then we met Wangdue, a teen Tibetan attired in black jeans faded to grey, a threadbare black T-shirt, and black and white Puma runners we later learned he shared with his brother. That day was his turn to wear them.

"Tashi Delek," he said. "Welcome to Tibet," as he gently draped white kata scarves around our necks. Pemba, the driver, heaved our packs into an ancient tin cracker box of a van. We rattled off. 

Tibetan guideOverwhelmed and slightly giddy from the sudden gain in altitude, I lost all caution during the hour-long drive into the city of Lhasa. I peppered him like an investigative journalist, with questions about politics, religion and the plight of Tibetans. Left arm stretched back over the front seat, he turned to face me, his gaze direct and open. "Ask me anything you want," he said, and during our time together I often did. Somehow I knew I could trust him.

During our first two weeks together his answers, his peaceful presence, his way of being, informed my instruction. On our first outing together we had driven two hours east of Lhasa to Ganden Namgyeling monastery, one of three pre-eminent university monasteries of Tibet. In the rare air above the monastery, we shuffled tentatively along a rocky trail, the higher of the two koras, the traditional clockwise path around sacred sites. At one point Wangdue stopped abruptly. His hand grasped mine. "Look," he said, gazing upward. A whirlwind had captured a storm of small paper prayer flags from the ground and spun them overhead. Red, green, yellow, blue, white. Tiny paper squares imprinted with Sanskrit written Om signs, wind horses, messengers of peace. An expression of boyish wonder radiated from his eyes, allowing me a glimpse of the seven-year-old monk in training he once was.

The following day at Drepung, another of the great university monasteries, he had stooped under a case of ancient scriptures.  "To gain wisdom," he said, unselfconsciously unfurling for me another tenet of his Buddhist faith. His minimalistic comments carried substantial meaning.

Tibetan monasteryA few days later, in the dim, incense-filled cave deep inside the Chiu Monastery, perched like an aerie on a craggy cliff above sacred Western Tibet's Lake Manosarovar, he bowed in supplication, hands pressed together. I watched his flawless execution of a full body prostration, lying prone, his forehead pressed to the stamped dirt floor below the statue of Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in 822 AD. Wangdue, former novice monk and practicing Buddhist first, a guide second, rose and continued his historical explanations. In my effort to mirror his respectful manner, I learned to stand in stillness, never stepping forward until he turned to indicate his readiness to speak.

Finally, in the field at Parayang he divulged the fate of the innocent school girl who had been standing beside him at the demonstration.

A Mantra for Facing Adversity

I think of him often. A few years ago, one particular incident prompted me to remember his teaching. On a late December afternoon when I was returning from frantic last minute holiday purchases, heading up the dark winding road to my home at Silver Star Mountain Resort, I was blindsided by an unexpected blizzard. Snowflakes blasted my windshield, hypnotizing me as they reflectively frolicked in the glare of my headlights. Facing the beacons of oncoming cars as glaring as carnival searchlights, even the meditative melody of my Zen Garden iPod selection couldn't prevent me from holding my breath as an aggressive tailgater sitting tall in his jacked-up truck loomed closer.

Then I remembered Wangdue. I remembered Om Mani Padme Hum, the Buddhist mantra he taught me.  Breathe in, Om Mani, then out, Padme Hum. Breathe in, Om Mani, then out, Padme Hum. I settled into the rhythm of the mantra, flipped the truck driver the dark side of my mirror and drove on.

Tibet plateau

Wangdue is with me as we face the uncertain times of the horrifying pandemic raging around the globe. His presence reminds me to be patient, to respect social distancing in a grocery store lineup, and to thank all the front line workers providing essential services. Wangdue's posture that day near Parayang village reminds me how now, more than ever, we are all called to witness, each of us to do our part to honor each other and our place on this earth. From my position of privilege, in my mountain home, in Canada, I look out through a blizzard at the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering along the railings of the deck. Against the white of the snow-covered trees, I conjure Wangdue's bright smile, repeat the ancient mantra and remember to breathe.


Patti LefkosWhen not trekking or writing, Patti Shales Lefkos skis at her winter home base at SilverStar Mountain Resort, British Columbia. Her articles have appeared in Macleans, The Globe and Mail, The San Francisco Chronicle, Travelife.ca and Elevation Outdoors. Nepal One Day at a Time, her Himalayan adventure travel memoir with a humanitarian twist, was published in January 2020. Learn more about Patti, the book and her non-profit society at pattishaleslefkos.com.




Related Features:
Stranded on the Back Roads of Tibetan Sichuan - Marco Ferrarese
Nomads' Land - Michael Buckley
The Life of a Backpacker in Asia in the 1970s - Kevin Kelly
Giving Face in China - James Michael Dorsey


See other Asia travel stories from the archives


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