In the first part of a two-part series 'Around Kumbun', Tenzig Sonam, a Tibetan poet and film-maker currently living in New York, goes inside a country he calls his home but does not recognize.
The two Chinese ladies sharing our compartment have been chatting ceaselessly for hours now, their conversation fuelled by an unending supply of roasted melon seeds. Earlier, in an unexpected gesture of friendliness -- unexpected because we had been travelling together for almost eighteen hours and they had not once acknowledged our presence -- they had brusquely offered us a handful of melon seeds and then, just as rapidly, retreated behind the curtain of their conversation. My wife, Ritu, and I have been in China for only three days but already we are accustomed to the indifference with which the Chinese seem to treat foreigners.
But Chinese attitudes to outsiders is the last thing on my mind as the train nears our destination, Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province. Ever since we entered China I have been in a state of permanent tension, strung equally between apprehension and excitement. I am a Tibetan in exile, born and brought up in India. All my life I have thought of Tibet as my homeland and China as the country that deprived me of it. I can scarcely believe that I am finally here, deep inside enemy territory, approaching my father's native land. Not far from Xining is Kumbum Monastery, one of Tibet's great religious institutions and the defining landmark of the region where my father was born. Kumbum is at the edge of Amdo, one of Tibet's three traditional provinces. Since the Communist Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949, most of this region has been incorporated into Qinghai Province.
Low, dun-coloured hills, eroded and fragile, stretch out on either side of the train. We have been travelling due west ever since we passed the old Silk Road outpost of Lanzhou a few hours ago. The Gobi Desert lies to the north and in the south the Tibetan plateau begins its gradual rise; we can just about glimpse the faint adumbration of its mountains, ethereal above the undulating horizon. We pass villages -- clusters of flat-roofed adobe dwellings -- and farmland scratched out of the side of barren declivities. Factories appear, their chimneys seeping black smoke, then blocks of white-tiled apartment buildings and colonies of mud huts next to the tracks, slum-like yet surprisingly clean. There is none of the chaotic jumble of humanity and poverty that litters the approaches to large railway stations in India. I was brought up to think of Xining as a part of Tibet, but there is nothing remotely Tibetan about this modern Chinese city that we are entering.
...My parents had left Tibet prior to the failed Lhasa uprising of March 1959 and the consequent escape of the Dalai Lama to India. In the early 1960s Darjeeling was full of Tibetan refugees and our house was a transit camp for numerous relatives and friends who had recently fled their homes. To my child's eye their torn clothing, their haggard and tense faces, and above all their ripe, unwashed body odours were all evidence of the horrors they had just left behind. Our unexpected guests were mostly my mother's acquaintances from Central Tibet, but every now and again we had visitors who were from the Kumbum region. These men were special; they spoke a strangely accented Tibetan but, even more mysteriously, amongst themselves and with my father, they spoke in the Xining dialect of Chinese which none of us could understand. They also shared with my father a love of noodles which they prepared in a variety of different ways, a culinary distinction that set apart our household from all other Tibetans.
Sometimes they would joke with me. 'And where are you from?'
I would reply, 'From Amdo!'
I would then triumphantly declaim, childishly proud of my improbable provenance: 'I am from Amdo Kumbum!'
...The curved roofs of the monastery appear like a mirage, the first manifestation of Tibetan culture. I think of the black-and-white photograph of my childhood, but my memory bears no resemblance to this freshly renovated complex that we are entering. I notice immediately that the hills behind the monastery that were so prominently barren in that picture have become farmland. We drive past the famous row of eight stupas that guard its entrance. They seem marooned in the middle of a large, newly-paved plaza. The monastery looks freshly scrubbed, the main road is paved and clean. We pass a brand new public toilet. Coloured light bulbs are strung along the outlines of the temples like decorations in an amusement arcade. Everywhere, there are signs of construction or renovation; but some vital component seems to be missing, and then it hits me -- there are hardly any monks visible. Every now and again I glimpse them, in twos and threes, wraithlike in their robes, disappearing around corners, melting away into shadows and alleyways. I immediately think of the Tibetan refugee monasteries in India, not half as big or imposing as Kumbum yet alive with activity, filled with the din and clatter of religious endeavour, their atmosphere charged with a spiritual resonance.
...We are staying within the monastery complex at the residence of Zorgey Rinpoche, one of Kumbum Monastery's high lamas who is closely connected to my family; the previous incarnation and the founder of the lineage was my great uncle. The present Zorgey Rinpoche is now in his seventies and has lived in exile for the past four decades, the last thirty years in America. Following a family tradition, Nima is the Rinpoche's steward and represents his interests at the monastery.
All tourists pay an entrance fee to visit the monastery but pilgrims are exempt. Thanks to our guide, an old monk who works with Nima, we fall into the latter category. We go from shrine to shrine, making our offerings, joining the pilgrims who are mostly nomads, traditionally dressed and speaking the Amdo dialect. Photographs of the Dalai Lama and the late Panchen Lama are prominently displayed in all the chapels, a reminder of the extent of the Dalai Lama's influence inside Tibet. Three of my first cousins sit with us, steadily downing alcohol. Nima interprets; Dhundup is the only one who remembers my father: 'Your father used to come home from school and he would play the flute. We were only children then but we loved him so much. Oh, I have so much to talk to you about, if only I could speak Tibetan!'
'Is she Tibetan?' asks one of my cousins, pointing at Ritu.
'No', I say, 'she is Indian.'
'Is she a Tibetan born in India?'
'No, she's a real Indian.' I ask Nima: 'Have they seen Indians before?'
'Only on television,' he replies.
'He is Tibetan but he looks like an Indian,’ says another of my cousins, pointing at me.
'I guess I've lived so long in India that I've become an Indian myself'! I reply to their merriment. But, in fact, the irony is that in exile I have had the freedom to develop and express my identity as a Tibetan more completely than my relatives have and, unlike them, I was brought up with strong nationalistic aspirations. Here, Tibetans have been a minority for so long that for them to even consider the notion of a separate and independent Tibet is unimaginable.
The morning advances. My father becomes the focus of our conversation. To my cousins, he is the last surviving member of their parents' generation and, as such, the patriarch in absentia. They ask me to convince him to return; they want him to live out his final years in his family home among his many relatives. I promise to convey their message, but deep down I know that my father will never come back. He has spent most of his life actively working for the cause of Tibet's independence. For him to return would be an admission of failure, a negation of his entire life's work.
The talk, the alcohol and the rush of memories make Dhondup melancholic and he unexpectedly breaks down and sobs like a child, hugging me, speaking to me in Xining Chinese, shaking his head and groaning as if racked by some deep, searing pain. I cradle him and try to comfort him, confused, the alcohol gone to my head as well -- these unfamiliar surroundings, this stranger in my arms with whom I have nothing in common and yet who is bound to me by ties that are more deep-rooted than shared memories or experience.
After a while, we visit the very spot where my father was born; the original house was broken up and shared among three of my cousins.
'These are the beams from the old house', Dhondup says. 'And that tree was there when your father was a child -- take a picture of that, he'll remember it -- and that's the spot where he used to sit and read his books or play the flute.' My cousin has recovered from his momentary breakdown and he is now even more drunk, staggering, grinning broadly, doing an impromptu jig and saying to me, 'This is one of the happiest days of my life because you have come back to your native land and we have finally met.'
The sun is setting. The surrounding hillsides have taken on a warm, golden, almost liquid sheen, and their rows of haystacks stand out, stark and surreal, like a de Chirico painting.
My relatives, like most Tibetans in the Kumbum region, are literally clinging on to the last shreds of their cultural identity. They still have Tibetan names and are officially registered as ethnic Tibetans, a minority status that allow them certain privileges and, most importantly, they still maintain their faith in the Tibetan Buddhism -- the proximity of Kumbum Monastery continues to exert a strong influence on their lives. But in every other respect, they have become indistinguishable from their Chinese neighbours. Until the onset of the Cultural Revolution, their women folk could always be recognised by their Tibetan dress without which they never ventured outside, but the madness of the intervening years wiped out that one surviving display of ethnic separateness.
The loss of language and traditions is the first step in the dissolution of cultural identity. Here among my relatives, in this far corner of Tibet, that process seems almost complete.