Reprinted from Grand Rapids Press

Escape from Tibet: Tibetan college student recalls his 1986 Escape

Local college student and former Tibetan recalls harrowing escape toward freedom

Grand Rapids Press Sunday, February 4, 2001 By Pat Shellenbarger

Freedom lay beyond the bridge. Yet attempting to cross it would be dangerous. From his hiding place, Tenzin Bhagen-tsang could see a man, presumably a guard, on the bridge and at the near end what appeared to be a guard shack. He looked down at the river and considered wading it but decided that would be too dangerous.

But Tenzin and his two younger cousins had come too far, climbed too many mountains to turn back now.

Tenzin was in Tibet, the land of his birth occupied by the communist Chinese since 1950. His father, a resistance leader, was executed years before. His brothers and sisters were beaten and scorned, his mother was forced to build roads for the communists. Tenzin had never known any life but under communism. His father, the Chinese told him, was a bad man, and, because he was his father's son, Tenzin was regarded with suspicion. "Son of wolf," they called him.

Yet, as he grew older, Tenzin heard the whispered stories of his father and realized he was not a bad man, but a hero -- a martyr to the cause of Tibetan independence. Deep in the son's soul stirred a desire for freedom and the ability to tell the world about his people.

Somewhere beyond the bridge were Nepal and India and the opportunity to get the education he so intensely desired. He and his cousins would cross that bridge, Tenzin decided, regardless of the risk.

Another World

Tenzin Bhagen-tsang walked out of Au Sable Hall at Grand Valley State University in Allendale one recent afternoon and headed for his dorm room across the campus. The brisk January air reminded him of home, though, if he were in the tiny Himalayan village where he was born and raised, the view would be of glaciers and snow-capped mountains.

It has been 14 years since he escaped Tibet, four years since he came to this country, five months since he enrolled at GVSU and a few weeks since he became a United States citizen. He is happy for the freedom and for the education he finally is receiving, but he misses his home.

"I'm still Tibetan," he said. "I'll always be Tibetan."

On a shelf above his desk, he has assembled a shrine, including a Tibetan flag and a photo of the Dalai Lama. In Tibet, he could be arrested for displaying them.

He made a cup of tea and sat on the bed in his tiny room to talk of the journey that brought him halfway around the world.

He was born in 1964, 14 years after the Chinese occupation began and Tibetan freedom ended. Before the invasion, his family was well-off and lived in a large house. His grandfather was a chieftain revered by the people in the Kham province of Tibet. They were semi-nomadic farmers who every summer took their yaks farther up the mountains to graze.

When the soldiers came in 1950, they ransacked homes, took away statues of Buddha and other deities and threw them in the river, burned religious texts, closed monasteries, confiscated all private property and forced the Tibetans to work for the government. They cut down the forests, mined the minerals, slaughtered the wild animals -- all sacred to the Buddhists.

By the time Tenzin was born, the soldiers had taken his family's home, so they lived in a two-room, dirt-floored building that once sheltered farm animals. When he was 4 or 5 years old, the soldiers took away his mother, Tenzin Chudon, and forced her to help build roads.

"When she came back, my grandmother told me it was my mother," Tenzin said. "She asked me to come to her, and I was really shy. I didn't recognizer her."

"Finally, I went to her, and she hugged, me and she cried."

Tenzin's father, Gyalten Yarphel, would have inherited the title of chieftain, had the Chinese not invaded. Indeed, some called him chieftain even after the soldiers came. Tenzin, one of eight children, has no first-hand memory of his father. By the time the boy was born, his father was hiding in the mountains and leading the resistance.

One morning when he was small, Tenzin walked outside and saw Chinese soldiers surrounding his house. A few chased one of his older sisters into a field below the house, caught her and began beating her with their gun butts.

"Please don't beat me," she pleaded. "I don't know, I don't know."

"A confusion fogged my head and a pain rose from deep in my chest," Tenzin recalled in an essay he wrote last fall for an English class. "I started thinking, I guess she is also a bad person, because she was being beaten by the Chinese soldiers."

The soldiers, he later learned, were searching for his father, who the boy had been brainwashed to believe was a bad man because he did not love the Chinese motherland and was a follower of the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sometime later, a woman whispered something in his mother's ear, and his mother began crying. She went to his older brothers and sisters who were thrashing barley nearby and told them their father was dead, and they fell to the ground in tears.

Years later, Tenzin learned that in 1969 his father was preparing to lead an insurrection against the Chinese. There were rumors the Americans would airdrop guns to the revolutionaries, but the soldiers found Tenzin's father hiding in the mountains, tied a rope around him, dragged him behind a horse and shot him in the head.

Tenzin's two oldest brothers, he was told, also were bad, because they participated in the resistance. Both were imprisoned and persecuted long after their release.

Nearly every day, the soldiers called the villagers together for a meeting -- a "struggle session," they called it -- and his second-oldest brother was forced to sit in the middle while the others ridiculed him. Many times, Tenzin saw the Chinese officials beating his brother, whom they designated a "black hat" -- an undesirable person.

By the time he was 9 or 10, Tenzin was forced to work on the common farm, carrying stones on his back up the mountain to build terraces on the hillside. Many days he was hungry, sometimes eating nothing more than boiled nettles.

When he was about 14, he wandered away from a road construction camp and into a village, looking for someone to give him butter or milk. He entered a house and saw an elderly peasant woman sitting near a stove. In his essay, he recalled their conversation.

"Who are you," she asked, and he told her his name.

"Where are you from?"

"I am from Gamda."

"Gamda! Which family do you belong to?"


The woman slowly rose and asked, "Are you the son of our chieftain?"

Yes, he answered, his father was the one who was executed.

"Sras-po," the woman said, addressing Tenzin with a title reserved for the sons of chieftains, "your father lost his life for his people. He was our hero. You must remember that there are lots of people who remember him. Someday, a day of happiness will come. Aged people as myself might be dead by then, but always remember that you will see it. So be strong, Sras-po. Be strong."

Tenzin left with a new pride in the knowledge that his father was not a bad man but a hero to the Tibetan people. His life was different from then on.

At 16, he was hired as a truck driver, a prestigious job he had long coveted because it gave him the freedom to travel throughout Tibet. He met educated people, including Tibetans who had attended Chinese schools. His own formal schooling had ended after a year and a half, and he envied their knowledge.

"They were more educated, but they knew less of Tibetan traditions and the Tibetan way of thinking than I did," he said.

"They knew about countries I never knew existed. I knew of America and India, and that was about it."

He met people from India who told him that the Tibetan government in exile, led by the Dalai Lama, operated a school in northern India.

The only way he could get an education, Tenzin decided, was by leaving Tibet. On trips to the border, he would look up into the mountains and plan his escape route into Nepal. He told almost no one of his plans, fearing some would betray him and that family members would discourage him.

In 1986, then in his early 20s, Tenzin decided it was time to go. He drove his truck to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where two boys, distant cousins, Tsultrim, 12, and Tsewang, 14, persuaded him to take them along. One morning in late November, the three took a bus to Shekatse, then hitchhiked to Dingri.

Along the way, they bypassed a Chinese army checkpoint. If anyone asked, they claimed they were on a pilgrimage to a Buddhist holy site in the mountains.

From Dingri, they rode a horse-drawn cart to a village higher in the mountains. Before dawn the next morning, they set out on foot, carrying their food, clothing and sleeping bags on their backs, walking up and across the Roof of the World. That night, under an umbrella of shimmering stars, they burrowed into the snow on a mountaintop and bedded down for the night.

The next morning, Tenzin saw Mount Everest rising into the clouds on his left and nothing but mountains as far as he could see in every direction. His cousins, apparently suffering altitude sickness, were barely able to walk, so they left the food they had been carrying and proceeded down the mountain.

Their journey continued, up and down mountains day after day, sleeping in caves and in the open, always fearing the soldiers would find them.

For hours, they walked along a narrow, rocky path skirting the edge of a mountain. To their right, the ground dropped off, hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet. Tenzin walked ahead, praying and stepping carefully to avoid loose rocks. He told his cousins to step exactly where he stepped.

Behind him, he heard a scream, looked back and saw that the older cousin, Tsewang, had fallen over the edge. Tenzin crept back, fearing the boy had plunged to his death, peered over the edge and saw Tsewang clinging to a bush, his feet on a narrow ledge.

"I told him, 'Don't move,'" he recalled. "I slowly, slowly stepped down and pulled him up."

Later, coming down a mountain they saw a gate at a checkpoint.

"We didn't know what else to do," Tenzin said, "so we prayed and prayed," fingering his prayer beads for guidance, "and we walked through. Nobody saw us."

Some days later, they came upon a narrow foot bridge suspended by chains over a river. Tenzin left his cousins in a cave and approached cautiously, hiding in the brush. It was then he saw a man on the bridge and a guardhouse. Later that night, Tenzin encountered a shepherd who agreed, for pay, to help them cross the bridge.

"He knew when the guards wouldn't be there," Tenzin said. "I had to trust him."

Hiding under the bridge, they watched a man cross with a flashlight and disappear, and then the shepherd said it was time to go. They climbed up the bank and onto the bridge, the shepherd in the lead followed by the two boys and Tenzin in the rear. With every step, the chains rattled, and Tenzin feared they would be discovered. He imagined the pain of bullets in his back.

On the other side, the shepherd motioned what direction the three should go, then disappeared into the darkness. Tenzin isn't sure but he believes at that moment they had entered Nepal, though the danger was not yet behind them.

A day or so later, a man in a uniform and carrying a gun -- presumably a Nepalese policeman -- confronted them on a path. He spoke an unfamiliar language, but his gestures were clear: If they didn't give him what he wanted, he would send them back to the Chinese side.

They gave him their money, sleeping bags, nearly everything and proceeded. Tenzin knew there was a Tibetan refugee center in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. When he would meet people along the path he would ask: "Kathmandu?" And they would point the way.

Eleven days after beginning their walk across the Himalayas, the three boarded a bus in a tiny village, paid the fare with some money Tenzin had hidden in his shoe and rode into Kathmandu.

As he registered at the refugee center, Tenzin noticed a picture on the wall and broke down in tears.

"That was because I was in an office. I was always scared to go into an office and of the officials," he said. "In Tibet you would only go to an office to experience bad things. Yet, there in that office, the Dalai Lama's picture was hanging. I felt I really had arrived at home. I think that is the first time I learned what freedom is."

Daring to dream

So Tenzin's dream had come true. He went to India where he saw the Dalai Lama, enrolled in the Tibetan school, rose most mornings by 4 to study and in 5 1/2 years received his high school diploma.

In 1994, he met Kara Frame, an American studying Buddhism in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. In 1995, they were married and the following year moved to the United States, settling in San Francisco.

While his wife studied animation, Tenzin worked in a pizza parlor, assembled computers, then got a job with the Milarepa Fund, a nonprofit organization founded by Adam Yauch, a member of the Beastie Boys rock band, to raise money for Tibetan exile groups.

By then, Tenzin had discovered an interesting thing about education: "After I got a high school degree, and knowing how little I knew, I really wanted to go on to study further."

But with his wife in school, he simply could not afford to attend college full-time. Last spring, he heard that a college called Grand Valley State University was offering scholarships for Tibetan refugees.

A few years earlier, GVSU President Arend Lubbers was moved to authorize two four-year scholarships after meeting Adhe Tapontsang, a Tibetan woman who had written a book about her persecution. Lubbers and faculty members Michael DeWilde and Christina Fong sorted through the applications and offered the first to Tenzin.

Last fall, he enrolled and is majoring in journalism. Someday, he hopes to work for a magazine writing stories about Tibet, human rights issues and environmentalism.

"We are here -- human beings -- not to survive, but to do things," he said. "And to do things, you have to have knowledge. For me, I'm really dedicated to telling stories about Tibet and what's happening to people there. On some level, I'm representing people who are voiceless in Tibet. I think journalism will help me be their voice. Now that I have this freedom of speech, I cannot waste it."

On Jan. 8, Tenzin, 36, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, and a week ago, his U.S. passport arrived.

And now, after all he's been through, after risking his life to escape Tibet, Tenzin Bhagen-tsang has one more dream: He wants to go home -- not to stay but to visit the family he hasn't seen in 14 years.

"I'm actually kind of nervous about that," said his wife, Kara, still living in California. "If I had the money, I would go with him, because I'm very concerned for his safety. I would be worried every single day."

"I have to understand where he's coming from. This is just so important to him. It's a risk he's willing to take, but it is a risk."

Tenzin hopes to leave this summer. He plans to apply for a visa from the Chinese government and, once there, ask permission to enter Tibet. He believes his U.S. citizenship will protect him.

"Officially, I was nobody," he said. "I was a citizen of nowhere. Now, if I go to Tibet, I'd be safer."

Since he left, he has received only two letters from his mother, now in her early 70s, both delivered by people coming out of Tibet.

"I really, really fear my mother will die before I see her," Tenzin said. "If that happens, I know I would be sad my whole life. I have to see my mother, no matter what happens, before she dies."