Earlier this month, the New York Times published an essay by Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) titled Tibet Is Burning. It was a pared-down version of the following translation that I did. Dr. Xu is the founder of Gongmeng (公盟), or Open Constitution Initiative, a NGO based in Beijing that provides legal assistance to the disempowered and politically persecuted. For much of the year, his freedom of movement was limited because the Chinese government is vigilant about his push for civil actions such as equal education rights movement. He visited Ngaba in October during a short period of freedom. –Yaxue
After spending the night in Chogtse Laird’s Castle (卓克基土司官寨) township, I took a cab in the early morning to Barkam (马尔康), the capital of Ngaba, or Aba, Prefecture (阿坝). Along G317, the main thoroughfare across town, stood brand new buildings with Tibetan-themed windows. But that was about the only thing Tibetan about them: the interior and the speed with which they had been erected were the same as elsewhere in China. You could see such new towns in almost every Tibetan area, likely a new round of development after the March 14th unrest in 2008.
In Barkam, I got on a bus to Zamthang (壤塘). I was going there to look for the home of a young man named Nangdrol (朗卓).
Almost all of the passengers were Tibetans. Half of them wore ethnic clothes, others dressed just like me, and a girl in jeans told me she was a nurse in Barkam. A crowd of two dozen or so from Qinghai was on their way to worship Chenrezig (观音), goddess of compassion.
Ngaba, along with Golok in Qinghai (青海果洛) and southern Gansu province (甘肃南部), are traditionally the Amdo Tibetan region. I first visited the plateau 21 years ago with college friends from Lanzhou University. In Labrang Monastery in Xiahe (夏河拉卜楞寺), we met a young lama with a Chinese name Chen Lai. “Our tulku suffers great pain and humiliation,” he told us. Back then it at least looked peaceful, but now, sad news keeps arriving.
The bus passed by large, roadside billboards for China Unicom. A robed, dark skinned young man smiled to me after talking on his cellphone. From his scruffy look, I could tell he came from a herding community. He reminded me of my stop in Ngaba in 1990s on an aborted journey to Tibet. Having crossed the Erlang Mountains, the great pastureland suddenly came into sight, a sea of flowers, colors and fragrances. Beyond, a rich brown, not green, extended all the way to the horizons. Fortunately for us, the bus broke down midway, and the enthralled passengers dashed to the meadow under the curious watch of fat moles on the roadside. That was the Ngaba I remembered, and for me, that was the eternal Ngaba.
The young lama next to me was from a monastery in Hongyuan County. He had accompanied his mother to Barkam for treatment, and, taking the opportunity, he was visiting Chenrezig too. He invited me to visit his monastery. Passing by a checkpoint where a red banner read, “Stability Maintenance Calls for Fast Response to Emergencies,” the young lama said he hated the sight of armed soldiers as he struck a gun-toting pose.
Zamthang is a county in Ngaba prefecture with a population of over 30,000 Tibetans in 6,000 square kilometers of meadows and gorges. The county seat resembled a small township in interior China where the government building commanded the view and small eateries and shops lined the two streets. The biggest monastery, situated in Barma township (中壤塘乡), was about 50 kilometers to the east in a basin.
Because of a road closure due to construction, I didn’t leave for Barma until seven o’clock in the evening in a brand new Chang’an economy car on which I had hitched a ride earlier. The driver, also the owner, a 24-year-old young man named Sonam, had just bought the car days ago in Chengdu. We had agreed on a charge of 100 yuan for my ride.
I was Sonam’s third passenger, the other two being two young Tibetans going to Nanmuda township (南木达乡). Are you Buddhist followers? I asked them. They were. One of them took out a pendulum portrait of the Dalai Lama from his chest and asked if I knew who he was. He is our true Holiness, he said.
Have you…… heard about the…… self-immolations? Like, burning oneself? I finally breached the topic.
We know, they said.
A mix of snow and rain had begun to fall. Hail beat against the windows.
Pardon me, but do you hate the Hans? Do you? I asked them because Nangdrol used the word “Han devils” in his death note before he set himself on fire here in Barma.
Do you happen to know Nangdrol? He’s a 18-year-old young man who self-immolated. I want to visit his parents…..I am so sorry.
Surprised, my fellow travelers became friendly. They said they had been to the site as many Tibetans had. People set up white tents at the intersection where he had self-immolated. Many, many Tibetans, hundreds and thousands of them, came. He is our hero.
Thank you for trusting me. Thank you.
It was completely dark when we arrived in Barma township. At a lamppost, Sonam got off to ask a middle-aged man for directions. The latter waved his hand to signal no. So did the next few people Sonam asked. At an intersection, he asked two men on motorcycles, and the three seemed to break into an argument. A lama came to the window to examine me. “Sorry,” Sonam returned, “they scolded me for taking you here.”
A minivan approached us. Two men jumped out of it and upbraided Sonam indignantly. Fear and hostility shrouded the place like night. In silence, we left Barma township.
“We are Tibetans,” Sonam started all of a sudden. “We are Buddhists, but we can’t go to Lhasa.”
I knew. These days Tibetans have to obtain permission to go to Lhasa. Years ago in Golmud (格尔木), I had seen many of them on their prostrating pilgrimage to Lhasa, but not anymore. Since the self-immolation in Lhasa last year, they had not been able to go on pilgrimages.
I spent the night in Nanmuda, in a small lodging called “Pengzhou Hotel” run by a Chinese. It rained again. I tossed to and fro and had a high-altitude headache. I regretted having sent Sonam for directions—I should have faced those angry Tibetans myself.
The next day was a beautiful autumn day in the valley. The gilt roof of a magnificent temple pointed to a blue sky dappled with clouds, colorful sutra streamers fluttered above green meadows, and the air brought sutra chants from afar. I went back to Barma in a cab.
In Zamthang Monastery, crimson cloaked lamas were having their morning session in the main hall. I waited outside until a young lama—he couldn’t have been more than 20 years old—passed by to fetch water. He took me to the adjoining hall where a middle-aged lama sat cross-legged in a corner.
Do you have Nangdrol’s photo?
Sorry I don’t have it with me.
Then I can’t help you.
A teen lama offered that there was a Nangdrol among the second-grade Buddhism students, but asking several second-graders nearby, no one knew about any self-immolators.
Asking passersby, they didn’t know or merely shook their heads. An old Tibetan woman took me to the construction site next to the monastery where another monastery was being built to no avail.
In the elementary school near the monastery I asked an armed soldier guarding the gate where the secondary school was. Online reports said that Nangdrol was a student. The soldier suggested that I check out the nearby compound where a Chinese flag flew. Inside the school yard there were soldiers in fatigues.
“There is no secondary school here,” people told me.
The road back to Zamthang was open only for an hour from midday to one o’clock. I had to leave. Along a creek, a row of poplars basked in the golden sun, and a group of young lamas in crimson robes were holding a session. Reluctantly I climbed into a cab, trying to remember my last view of Barma. I had been to many places over the years but never felt so lost.
A mile or so down the road, we passed by a village on a slope. I stopped the driver and begged him to wait for me—for half an hour at most. In the little roadside shop, the owner hesitated to answer my inquiry. “I don’t want to leave like this,” I pleaded. Finally he told me that Nangdrol’s home was right behind the old school near his shop. Up on the slope, an old couple pointed to a house not far away. Over there, the old woman said, he was a good boy.
It was a small, mud-plastered house enclosed in mud-brick walls, similar to those found in the countryside of Gansu province. Near one side of the walls stood five tall sutra streamers, the tallest in the village.
The iron gate was locked. I prayed, my head dropping low. Nangdrol, I love you.
Perhaps his parents would emerge from behind the gate, and accept me on my knees. Perhaps they would drive me away angrily, like the old woman did by the celestial burial platform in Lhasa years ago. But I would not leave; I would take it and take everything. I would tell them I am sorry, and this is a place I have come many times……
A middle-aged woman and a boy passed by. She said she knew Nangdrol and he was the most handsome young man in Barma. His parents live in a faraway cattle farm, he also grew up there, and sometimes you could see him on his motorcycle. That day, he wore new clothes, freshly bathed, new from top to bottom, with a fresh haircut too. He wore a pair of glasses that day, asking people, “Am I handsome? Am I?” Then he came to the intersection. Then he……
I don’t hate Han Chinese, she said, we are a peace-loving people, and we would rather endure our pain.
He raised his hands over his head, the boy said, with palms pressed together, kneeling down. He did this six times.
He was only 18 years old. Around noon on February 19, 2012, Nangdrol set himself on fire at the intersection near the Zamthang Monastery. In a note left behind, he said, “Raise your unyielding head, for the dignity of Nangdrol. My loving parents, brothers and relatives, I am leaving this world. I am going to set myself on fire for the benefit all Tibetans……I pray the Tibetan people’s liberation from the Han Devils. Under the rule of the Han Devils there has been immense suffering, and it is unbearable. The Han Devils have invaded Tibet and seized Tibetans. It is impossible to live under their evil law, impossible to bear this torture that leaves no scars. The Han Devils, having no love and compassion, and they destroy Tibetan lives. I pray for the long life of (Gyalwa Tenzin Gyatso) his Holiness the Dalai Lama!”
Over the last three years, more than 70 Tibetan monks and laypersons self-immolated, more than 40 of them from Ngaba. Everywhere on this plateau, the scarless torture continues.
I don’t know how else to express my sorrow. I gave 500 yuan to the woman and asked her to give it to Nangdrol’s parents, letting them know that a Chinese had been here.
I am sorry, Nangdrol, we are mute as you and your fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom. I am sorry that we have too many inhibitions. The Hans are a cursed people, victims themselves, living in estrangement, infighting, hatred and destruction. Nangdrol, I love the cities and villages to the east as well as this beautiful plateau, your homeland. I hope that, when this land is free one day, your people will enjoy the cities, plains and coasts where I have lived. We share this land. It’s our shared home, our shared responsibility, and it will be our shared deliverance.