Reflections, Travel

Lessons By A Tibetan Refugee Who Crossed The Himalayas Illegally

“Right now, can you make an unconditional relationship with yourself? Just at the height you are, the weight you are, the intelligence that you have, and your current burden of pain? Can you enter into an unconditional relationship with that?” –

Pema Chodron, Comfortable With Uncertainty

Last December, I experienced Tibet’s heaviest snow in the past decade while en route to Lhasa from Shigatse. Locals expected the temperature to be “-5 degrees” at most, only to be hit by the reality of a bitter -22 drop during one night near Everest’s 5000m altitude base camp. It was so cold that the hotel’s pipes froze and turned our toilet bowl water into a solid cube. “You can do it! Others in Oymyakon, Russia, live with -55!” I screamed internally.

Yet, it was hard to voice my discomfort within four walls when I saw superhuman sherpas and pilgrims walk with bare hands while I had three gloves on. “Mind be strong. Just take off jacket and socks, lie down under blanket. For one minute, don’t move, relax. You will be warm,” advised Namgyal, our guide. But, of course, we still slept with four blankets, gloves and three layers of clothes that night.

In the high mountains, ‘mind over matter’ isn’t a quote in a cursive font to stick on your wallpaper—it’s a matter of survival. Not only do you have to battle the cold, but also the lack of oxygen. At 5000m altitude, oxygen supply is cut by almost half.

Many monks practice Tummo (a Tibetan word for inner fire), a breathing exercise that is a part of tantric meditation cycles for generating heat. You might have heard of Wim Hof (‘The Iceman’), a Dutch athlete known for his ability to withstand extreme cold by adopting such techniques.

But how do ordinary villagers thrive in such conditions with limited resources? What can human beings achieve beyond our perceived limitations? These were questions I had while watching pilgrims spinning prayer wheels and chanting mantras in unison. To answer my question, Namgyal explained, “Tibetans are born with slightly bigger lungs. Some people think we will run faster in low-altitude countries, when it’s in fact the opposite. We get low-altitude sickness and can die from too much oxygen!”

As a religious man in his 40s and former monk, Namgyal believes he has seen both sides of Tibet: the commercial boomtown of China and the spiritual roof of Buddhism. Full of passion and positivity, he was always eager to share his insights through our conversations at Namdrok Lake and tea houses. But, little did I expect to learn he was once a child refugee.

From our conversations, I have transcribed his words that follow.

Refugee Stories Recounted by Namgyal

My mum died when I was 13. She had a broken heart after my eldest brother died in the war. As a poor kid, I crossed the Himalayan mountains to India illegally and spent seven years there to find work. In a refugee camp, I looked at stars and asked, “Why is my life like this?” I was angry inside and fought a lot. I learnt Hindi and smoked cigarettes at 9.

Mount Everest, from where I stood after answering nature’s call in what Namgyal described as a “natural toilet”.

It’s a long story, it’s painful. I came back to Tibet and became a freelance guide 12 years ago. My first tour group was from US. I learnt English from tourists. My English then was so bad but they gave me thumbs up, maybe because I speak with passion or I smile. Eventually, I got better and didn’t have to read as much from my notes. But I still cannot write a proper letter; I only went to school for four years.

One time, I saw an Indian-Australian guest die in front of me on Mount Kailash. We tried CPR for an hour. I carried him down on my back for four hours and drove 900 kilometres to file his death certificate. I couldn’t eat. I had to guard the body from wild dogs.

I also had a guest who told my driver to turn around so I could pick up an empty drink can I threw out the window, and that lesson taught me how to be a better person.

A Changing Tibet

At such high altitude, Tibetans eat yak meat but many are vegetarian. In winter, animals get so weak they die. Before they die, we pray and kill them. We think all lives are the same so we try to kill big animals and keep their meat for one year. We never eat dogs, we believe they will turn human in their next life. Rich people these days eat everything including rabbits.

The world now is different, even in Tibet. People want low quality, fast money. People like shiny things, too. Not all monks are religious; to them it’s a 9-to-6 job. But there is always good and bad. What we need is a leader of peace. We think, it doesn’t matter who the next Dalai Lama is; a smile is a leader’s greatest weapon today.

Some old Tibetans cry when I help them cross the road because few years ago we had no cars. As a young boy, I could play on the road with my friends. And if a car went by, we would go, “Wow!” We would observe the car and discuss its brand. But now, there are so many cars.

Luckily, I’m in a good place. My wife was also a guide and we have two daughters. When I first met her in the same company we worked in, I knew she was better than me. She was real tough and could guide tourists up the mountains. Yet, I would often go to her and offer my help until she realised, “Ahhh, this guy is trying to court me.”

Unfortunately, she got much weaker when she was pregnant and I was afraid her vegetarian diet was not sufficient. So, one night, I made soup for her and added in a bit of meat. When she found out, she got so angry and chased me around the table!

Few years ago, we started a tour company together but it’s hard because you need to have a business partner in mainland China. We are going on a family pilgrimage when I don’t work in winter till May.

When I die, I told my wife I want my body to be fed to vultures. Buddhists believe in rebirth. We are souls, we change bodies.

Namgyal tried to share as much as he could during our short trip to Tibet. At the airport, I asked him, “What would you want others to know?” He replied, “A friend in US helped me to do a simple website. I’m not very good with these things and sometimes they take it down because of regulations here. But I promise you, I will guide any of your friends here with my entire heart.”

I had many questions left unasked, even on WeChat. Perhaps, I wanted to return to Tibet for leisure and unforced conversations. The journalist in me has always been taught to probe further, but the diary scribbler in me prefers to live in the moment, more so at a place where I’ve seen the sun rise from the other side of Earth.

Words and pictures by Chevonne (cover picture of Namgyal).
Reach Namgyal via

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