Home :: Escape To Freedom

Escape To Freedom

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2007

We should never forget the value and the importance of the freedoms we take for granted. I would like to offer you an example of how much freedom means to a person who has none. This is a true story, recounted to me by a young man who lives in T1b’t. (I am deliberately misspelling this word to circumvent the internet cen$orship machines of the country that conquered his homeland. You will see a few other misspellings in this article as well. I must protect myself as well as others - I would not like to be denied permission to travel to that country in the future) A few details of the man's current life have been changed in order to protect his anonymity, but I tried to recount his story as faithfully as possible from my scrawled notes.

In order to bring this story out of T1b’t, I had to promise the young man that I would rewrite my notes into a "safe format”. He was concerned that the notes could be dangerous, not only to him, but to me. In order to enter T1b’t I had to sign a paper swearing that I was not a journ@list. This story is one that would undoubtedly violate that rule. After the interview, I faithfully rewrote the whole thing into the form of a fairy tale, complete with "evil wizards", fanciful characters and Harry Potter references. I tore up most of my original notes before leaving to return to our hotel that night. Could you imagine having to do such a thing in this country? Let us all guard our freedoms carefully, so that that will never happen.


I met Red Bull in a restaurant/bar in Shig@tse. We had gone out for a late dinner. He and one other friend were sitting at the next table. We got to talking, and the conversation inevitably went to Himalayan Mountains, since we were on our way to Everest Basecamp. RB's friend volunteered the information that RB once made it over one of the high passes, when he was only twelve years old. RB's friend had had a beer, and we had bought him a second, so he was loosening up. RB himself was drinking only Red Bull (hence his RB nickname), and he was much more reluctant to trust us. We sensed a good story, so we urged him to talk. After a while, he began to relax. He looked around the place, and decided that the noisy T’jaineze group at the next table were too drunk, too loud, and too busy eating to take notice of us. I discreetly took out my notebook, hid it in a menu, and we talked late into the night.

It took great courage for him to tell me his story. Even though the events happened a long time ago, he still risked being jailed as a di$$ -ident. Anyone who fled to the West is considered a threat to the State. He will be a marked man for the rest of his life. He knew that even we foreigners could be recruited as government $pies. The government is well known for such tricks. They also hire "friendly T1b’tan monks" to catch di$$ =idents at the monasteries. Even the tourists are being watched, and some are even recruited as government agents. I took a risk talking to him, as well. His only defense was that, at the conclusion of our conversation, he could slip away into the darkness of a large neighborhood in T1b’t 's second largest city.

RB is only twenty seven years old. He is tall and rather thin, but his bones are well muscled, and he looks more like a kung fu fighter than a ex-monk. His face is very animated, and he is easily brought to laughter. When something amuses him, his whole face lights up. When he is thinking and remembering his past, his expression shifts. He looks older and more serious. Little lines track along the sides of his mouth, marking him with years of sorrow and painful memories. I liked him and trusted him straight away, and I was flattered and grateful that he felt the same towards us.

He was born in a tiny farming village in T1b’t. His parents were simple folk, making their living from subsistence agriculture. He had two brothers and three sisters. His oldest brother became a monk in a T1b’tan B*ddhist monastery. When he was only eleven or twelve years old, RB left the farm and went to live with his brother at the monastery. He ardently desired to become a monk like his brother, but the T’jaineze put severe restrictions on new recruits entering the monasteries, because monks and nuns were on the vanguard of pro* test against the regime. The T’jaineze allowed very few T1b’tans to join religious orders at that time. The waiting lists were very long, and RB was too impatient.

He told us that he soon realized that he had three choices in life. The first was to return to his village and become a farmer like his father. The second choice was to go to the T’jaineze schools, where he would learn how to become just like the T’jaineze. He would get an education, but it would be an education by rote. He would have to learn to read in T’jaineze (10,000 printed characters that would have to be memorized, one by one) He would not learn how to think for himself, and he would receive more education in T’jaineze prop*a=ganda than he would get in actual educational subjects. The cost of such an education wasn't worth it. The third choice was to wait until he could get into the monastery. This might take years and years. In the meantime, he was spending his time on the streets of the city. He was bored, and idle, and he was falling in with a bad crowd of street kids. He was unwilling to return to the farm, and unwilling to join his countrys' oppressors. He knew that his street punk friends were a danger all their own. And so, at twelve years old, RB made a momentous decision. He would reject all three of his choices. He went AWOL. He chose to escape to the West.

RB knew his family would never support his choice. He told no one of his plans. He stole 1,000 yuuan from his brother the monk, and ran away. This was a lot of money, at the time. It gave him enough bargaining power to get himself an older companion. He met a forty year old man who also wanted to escape. Together, they hired a "coyote" (in this case, a Nehpalize guide skilled in smuggling people) to take them over a pass near the right side of Mt. Everest, and into Nehpal. The pass was called Sharkhungbu. They knew that the passes wouldn't be watched in the wintertime, so they left in January.


It took a grueling 24 days for RB, his friend, and their hired guide to cross the high pass and walk to Kathmaandu. The guide took all of RB's money, leaving him penniless. They hitchhiked close to the border, and then began the ascent. They had no special mountaineering gear, no special clothes, no tent, and no food except tsamppa (which is a paste made of barley flour). They attempted this dangerous ascent wearing only old sneakers. RB took nothing with him to remind him of his family or his previous life. When they got into the high country, their guide drove them to walk 20-22 hours a day, because, if they slept too long, they would freeze to death. The air at high altitude was dangerously thin, even for T1b’tans, and they had to fight altitude sickness. The terrain was cruel as well. T1b’tan hills are made of very crumbly stone, so they had to cross many dangerous scree fields. Their feet sank deeply into these slanted banks of loose stone. Dust clouds choked their lungs. They risked avalanche constantly.

When they reached the high altitudes, they encountered deep snow. They were in the snow for four days. At times, it was up above their knees. The guide had to poke the ground ahead of them with a stick, checking for hidden crevasses. The three of them roped together for safety on the ice fields. They began to encounter frozen corpses. Many people had already attempted to escape during the first cruel days of occupation, and many never made it. Their bodies are still up there today, littering the hills. RB said he personally saw between ten and fifteen bodies up there. When he told me of it, his face sobered, and he paused, remembering. I was certain that he was still haunted with mental images of those dead faces.

They eventually ran out of fuel for their camp stove. They needed to melt snow for the water to make the Tsamppa, or they would have neither food nor water. They decided to burn the rubber soles off a pair of extra hiking boots. They slowly burned the rubber, and the boots created enough heat for them to survive.

RB began to have trouble with frostbite. At age twelve, he was not quite able to keep up. He was lucky -the older man took pity on him and carried him part of the way. When he was carried, the frostbite got worse. He soon realized that it was better to keep walking despite the pain. RB thought that he was going to die. His fear grew when they encountered two avalanches. The second one came down right above them. They ran for their lives…

At last they began the descent. They left the snow peaks and entered a great forest. One night, their camp was surrounded by wolves in the darkness. They flashed flashlights at them, and the wolves luckily shied away. As they descended, they began to spot Nehpalese villages scattered about, but RB and his friend were afraid to approach. They knew that the villages held many paid sp* ies and inform #ers who were paid by the T’jaineze. They didn't dare to risk being turned in.

Food became a huge issue. The Tsamppa had run out, and RB and his companion were starving. Their Nehpalese guide had his own food, but he refused to share. They finally got their hands on some potatoes. The potatoes got them down the mountains and they eventually made their way to Kathmaandu.

The "Free" T1b’t Em* b@ssy took them in. The T1b’tan refugee community really does take good care of its own people. RB was fed, clothed, and given enough money to go to India and get the education he had always dreamed of. When he got to Dh@rams@la, the D@lai L@* ma's Government in Exile paid for everything, and sent him to a good school. He was never asked to pay any of the money back. He told me that his experience in India really cemented his faith in Buddhism. While he was there, he went to several religious events and he saw the D.L. in person. (The D.L is considered a living example of Buddha for people of that faith.)

RB spent twelve years in India. He applied himself to the study of English, since his education would be conducted in that language. He studied hard in school, and he learned a lot. He was content as a student, but he found himself missing his family, especially during the school holidays. The other students would go home during the summer months, while he remained at the empty school, because he had nowhere else to go. He couldn't contact his family, because none of them had a phone number that he knew of. The little farm never had a mailing address.

Then, something happened that changed everything. Two of RB's aunts showed up in Dh@rams@la. They brought posters and old photos of him, and they posted them on bulletin boards at the reception center for T1b’tan refugees. Somebody there made the connection. RB was given his brother's phone number. Suddenly RB felt a very strong desire to reconnect with his family again, so he made the call.

His brother was thoroughly convinced that RB was dead. It took ten days of lengthy phone calls and shared memories to persuade him that RB was not an imposter. When his brother was finally convinced, he tried hard to persuade RB to return home. At first, RB was very reluctant, but the desire to be with his family was strong. He couldn't concentrate on his studies.

In the end, he quit school and got a job, and began to earn money for the return trip. He couldn't enter T1b’t legally, so he earned the money to hire another "coyote" to take him across. This time, the trip was far easier. There are not many people who choose to enter T1b*t illegally, so the T’jaine*ze are not as concerned about the border from that side. They used an area near a main highway, and the crossing took only eight hours at night.

RB spent four nights hiding in a border hotel, waiting for his brother to come and bring papers so that he could clear the nearby police checkpoint. They traveled to his brother's home, and spent a whole month getting to know each other. His brother was no longer a monk. He had been kicked out of his monastery for wearing a tiny pin of the original T1b’tan flag (pre T’jaineze invasion). The T’jaineze regard all symbols of the previous regime acts of rebellion. This tiny act of defiance cost RB's brother his religious life. He was banned from all monasteries, for life. He was devastated. (RB's brother was one of the lucky ones. In the beginning of the occupation, he would probably have been executed.)

It took a long time for RB’s brother to accept his fate, but he has learned to make the best of it. He now has a regular job, a wife, and children. Physically, he has a very good life. Mentally, it has been difficult.

When RB was ready, his brother took him to see his parents for the first time in twelve years. His parents were completely convinced that he was dead. They did not recognize their own son. They had to be introduced. Even with his brother's help, it took a long time to persuade them that he was their long lost son. When they finally began to believe it, it became a joyous and tearful reunion.

RB has successfully reintegrated back into T1b’tan society. He has a decent job, and he has his family back. But he still has no freedom. He is very careful to hide his past. He tells me that the T’jaineze have paid informers everywhere. His story is one that would land him in jail as a di$$ ident, if the T’jaineze were to find out about it. He told me, "I am a black man." When I asked him what he meant by that, he said that he meant that he is treated in the same way blacks were treated in America years ago. He is repressed and discriminated against. He will never have access to the same economic opportunities that the T’jaineze do, unless he were to go over to their side and assist them in exploiting his race and his native land. He also meant that he will have a black mark on his name forever. He has experienced Indian democracy and religious tolerance, therefore he is a dangerous criminal. When I asked him what the T’jaineze would do if they caught him, he said "They will jail me for sure, and put a virus in my brain or something."

RB is not completely content with his life. The close family ties that he has regained have kept him in T1b’t so far, but he is obviously uncertain about his future. When asked whether or not he was more pessimistic or more optimistic, he did say that he was more optimistic. Dave and I sincerely wish him our best. Perhaps he will help his folk by teaching English to others...

Thanks for reading!

Sincerely, Diana

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