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Guns, Monks and Magic: Tibet's Greatest Escape, Part 2

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You can read Part 1 of this post here.

In April 2010, I interviewed a Tibetan monk named Yidam Kyap as part of the Tibet Oral History Project that documents the life stories of Tibetan elders living in exile. The main aim of the project is to explore what life was like in Tibet for Tibetans from all walks of life before China's takeover in 1959.

Yidam was then 67 years of age and passed his days at an old age home run by Drepung Gomang Monastery, near the town of Mundgod in the South Indian state of Karnataka. He was extremely self-contained, but I noticed that he watched our camera crew setting up with a kind of charged anticipation. As we talked, it became clear that his was a very special story. Told from the perspective of a teenage monk, it is hugely cinematic, heart-breaking, and gripping -- and one that challenges any number of rather precious ideas about Tibet and its people.

Yidam Kyap was part of what was almost certainly the largest single group to escape into exile from the embattled eastern regions of Tibet in 1959. A ragtag civilian resistance unit of two hundred men, women, children, monks, yaks and horses, made the three thousand mile epic flight across the plateau to the Nepal border.

The group, from Zachukha and Tawu, was led by two extraordinary men; the courageous and brilliant strategist, Bachung Nyalo, and the patriotic monk-aristocrat, Gunda Tenzin. They had 33 encounters with the soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army in the year that it took them and survived them all, dodged spies and informants, and endured extreme food shortages and arctic climates with a combination of foresight, discipline and a dash of Buddhist wizardry. All but three made it out alive.

Here is PART TWO of his TWO-PART story.

The Tawu-Zachukha group couldn't risk going anywhere near Lhasa, which by winter of 1959 was under the tight grip of the Chinese military. China had successfully put down the people's rebellion there that spring and had more or less subdued the remaining pockets of resistance in the country. The two hundred strong caravan drew a cautiously wide anti-clockwise arc around the capital, heading north. They continued to follow the course of the south-flowing Drichu river, that would eventually take them west and disappear into its headwaters somewhere in the Changthang -- the desolate high altitude plateau populated only by the hardiest nomads and wildlife. After that, the plan was to head to Nepal and safety.

At one point the Drichu became shallow enough to ford on horseback. The group began to follow a narrow trail, with cliffs that rose steeply on one side. After a few hours, the leaders called the party to a halt, realizing that they had been following a path made by wild animals, not humans.

"Those with guns go back quickly," ordered the Zachukha leader, Buchung Nyalo. "If the Chinese are pursuing us, they will destroy us today." Sure enough, at the next bend in the trail, the scouts spotted Chinese cavalry off in the distance heading in their direction.

"Some of the men lay in wait while the rest of us crossed the river," recalls Yidam. "Just as we reached the far bank, we heard the sound of gunfire. A few of our men climbed a hilltop from where they could see the Chinese thasung." These were the soldiers who look after the horses for the cavalry. The Tibetans on the other side were firing at the Chinese who had headed up the animal trail on foot, while the Tibetans who had crossed over fired on the thasung. The horses panicked and bolted across the shallow water, where the plan redeemed itself as Yidam's group caught every one of them. Over one hundred horses in all.

"Oh my god!" exclaims Yidam, "the Chinese cavalry's horses were magnificent and their saddles excellent!" Not having enough horses for everyone had hampered their progress. Now they could travel much faster. Another boon was that the saddles were loaded with long sacks of butter, tsampa (roasted barley flour), boiled meat and sets of warm clothing.

A few days later, they reached the outskirts of the town of Nagchukha (Ch. Nagchu) and the edge of the Changthang -- the one-thousand-mile-wide plateau with an average altitude of 16,000 feet, and an extreme and unpredictable climate.

The leaders had formed a number of toptsang -- groups of five to ten people who cooked, ate and generally looked after one another like a family. By now they all had tents that they had plundered from the communes. Yidam and three other boys had been given the responsibility of grazing the horses of their toptsang. The unexpected boon from the Chinese cavalry on the Drichu plus the raids on the collectives* had raised their number of horses to almost three hundred. They had to be kept as tightly together as possible, so they would be ready to use in case of an attack. There was no need for roads in the Changthang, and the ground was patterned with the tire marks of vehicles.

Yidam had mentioned that the Tibetan group had faced 33 encounters with the Chinese during their escape. It was such an exact number, unlike the other casually round figures he'd given, that I suspected he could recall every one of them. One day, I thought, we should hear about them all, but our time was short. So I asked him about one encounter that particularly stuck in his memory. He didn't hesitate.

"That day we had an early breakfast and walked out with the horses. My colleagues were playing, wrestling and laughing as we went. I heard a sound like vrrrr vrrrr. I thought, "How strange! What could it be?" Then way off in the distance, three black objects appeared.

"I still wasn't sure what I was seeing. I just kept staring. But then I saw the shimmer of the sun reflecting on glass. Oh my god! They were three huge army trucks. Big enough to hold 50 soldiers each. Nobody else but us had seen them. Everyone was back at the camp drinking tea and relaxing."

Yidam Kyap and the two other boys ran back to the camp shouting at the top of their lungs, "The Chinese have come! The Chinese have come!" The men sprang into action and mounted their horses. Bachung Nyalo, one of the two main leaders, shouted out to them, "We have to shoot first before they reach us. If they get close to the camp, we're finished." He galloped ahead in the direction of the trucks, rifle clutched in his right hand.

Between the camp and the oncoming trucks, the men jumped off their horses and lay flat on the ground, guns at the ready. Bachung Nyalo gave the orders. "Don't shoot at the vehicles. Shoot at the tires." They did as instructed and their bullets ripped the tires apart. The Chinese army trucks came to a standstill.

"We were lucky that day," says Yidam.

It seems they were lucky almost every day. Thirty-three encounters with the iron fist of China's might, the People's Liberation Army -- robust in number, well-trained, well-supplied, equipped with the latest weaponry, and with a vast intelligence-gathering network at their disposal. The Tawu-Zachukha group should not have stood a chance. But what they lacked in numbers, supplies and arms, they made up for in discipline, courage, resourcefulness, and an unshakeable faith in the righteousness of their cause. The fact that they only lost three lives in the entire 12-month journey is undoubtedly largely due to the tactical skill and dedication of their two leaders, Bachung Nyalo and the monk Gunda Tenzin. But Yidam offers an additional, and less conventional reason -- the protective effect of a clay amulet that the Dalai Lama had distributed throughout Tibet just before his flight to India. Yidam swears that the their survival was partly due to its magical properties.

"If a shot was fired at you, the bullet fell into the amba [the pouch of their traditional dress] while the person remained unharmed. He would fall backwards from the impact but the bullet did not penetrate him."

Winter had now firmly set in, and the 15-year-old Yidam remembers celebrating Losar, Tibetan New Year, in the Changthang -- the only special thing they did that day was rest but for that alone it was memorable. They had run out of almost all their food supplies. There was some sparse grass for the horses but Yidam and his group were living entirely on meat from the animals they hunted. Temperatures sometimes dropped to as low as minus 45.

"When a horse's nose ran, its snot didn't even touch the ground. It froze into an icicle as it dripped. We had to break it off so it could eat."

So how had Yidam and his group managed to avoid freezing to death in these conditions? "We stopped the snow," he answers matter of factly.

"One of the lamas had this power -- the power to stop the sky. When it looked like it was going to snow, he would recite a ngag mantra numerous times onto a bamboo stick [he motions blowing air] and then did this with the stick [makes a rotating motion]. He stopped the snow for an entire season. Had it fallen, it would have been all over for us."

The group had originally intended to go to Mount Kailash, but some nomads informed them that this area was overrun with Chinese troops, so they changed their course and headed south to enter Nepal through Mustang. Before they reached the Nepalese border, the older men ritually broke their guns in front of the senior monks. It was a sign of the heavy karma they had accrued from killing, and a moment of atonement. The younger men hid their guns in bundles in the ground, planning to return to the fight one day.

The border guards searched them thoroughly and kept them there for one week under interrogation.

"They asked us, 'Why have you come?' We replied, 'We came because the Chinese made it impossible for us to stay.'" The Nepalese authorities must have suspected the truth, but as they couldn't find any weapons on them, they sanctioned their passage to India. Yidam, with his characteristic observation of detail, recalls that the cost of the airfare was only 28 Nepali rupees. But most of the group were too busy being terrified to appreciate the deal.

When the plane took off, "Some started throwing up, others sat covering their heads and could not even open their eyes."

They had endured extreme climate, hunger and fatigue, had fought battle after battle against a Goliath opponent and faced death on an almost daily basis for a year. But a one-hour plane ride -- their final step to freedom -- proved almost too much for them.

*When Yidam Kyap uses the word 'collective' or 'commune' he is most likely referring to property confiscated from those designated 'class enemies' during the 'democratic reform' period who were executed or imprisoned at this time. Communes as such were not formed for several more years, and they collectivized the remaining property of those who had not been imprisoned..

To learn more visit the Tibet Oral History Project.