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Walking into Exile: A Tale of Survival, Loss and Longing

Gyurmey Choden

Photo of Khangchendzonga

The image of the snow-capped Khangchendzonga reminds me of many things – love, repression, sickness and longing. I face these mountains, with my arm raised and a pinch of tsampa in my hands, praying to the gods and shouting “Lha Gyalo” while throwing the tsampa in the air. It is this same act that must have been performed by him, before he started his long journey, not knowing how it would end then.

When the Chinese soldiers occupied Tibet in 1959, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s journey into exile and freedom was followed by thousands of Tibetans. They undertook gruelling journeys across the mountains lasting several days to weeks. Typically these journeys included– travelling by night, carrying minimal quantities of food to avoid suspicion, not informing family in order for them to avoid persecution and the resolve to see the H.H 14th Dalai Lama on the other side of the mountains. Coincidentally, there were several Tibetans who chose to stay back in their homeland, hoping that H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama’s flight was only temporary and that help would arrive soon. However, Tibetans were soon severed from that hope of temporary Chinese occupancy and short-term exile.

The 14th Dalai Lama fleeing Tibet into exile in March, 1959. (Source photo:
The 14th Dalai Lama fleeing Tibet into exile in March, 1959. (Source photo:

In the many years that I have known Akku*, I have had the pleasure of sitting down with him, listening to his stories, over many cups of tea and bowls of tsampa. Akku did not talk much. The stories that he would tell were only told, it seems to me, out of necessity. He gave the impression of a man deeply affected by life; his actions full of conviction. His stories were either cut short or punctuated with sighs and occasional fits of anger, usually directed at the “lazy” young people. He wasn’t the ideal storyteller. But it was enough that his character spoke volumes; every wrinkle on his face, the familiar frown that immediately settled on his brow as he looked up, gazing into the distance as if he was constantly longing for something. Akku’s story is not just a story of my uncle, but his fragmented narrations and hardened character represent my memories of my ancestors and what they had to go through for me to be here.

Akku was from Gyantse, an elevated town located in the Nyang Chu Valley in South-western Tibet. Before the Chinese invasion, Akku and his family lived a comfortable life. He belonged to a middle-class family which owned cattle and some property. When the Chinese invaded Tibet, Akku wasn’t among the first thousands of Tibetans to flee. Instead, he lived under the Chinese occupation for several years, toiling under the harsh oppressors. Any form of defiance against the regime was met with brutal punishment, prison time or even death. Whenever Akku recounts the story of his life under Chinese rule, I am reminded of the prophecy of the 13th Dalai Lama.

Gyantse, a town in South-western Tibet.
Gyantse, a town in South-western Tibet.

Before he passed away, he had predicted the Chinese occupation and warned that if Tibetans did not act correctly, “we (Tibetans) will become like slaves to our conquerors, and will be made to wander helplessly like beggars. Everyone will be forced to live in misery, and the days and nights will pass slowly, and with great suffering and terror”. And it was so. Tibet’s culture and its inhabitants were persecuted.

Akku remembers his father being sent to prison for advocating against Chinese rule and refusing to carry out their orders. Meanwhile, the rest of the survivors of the Tibetan community were forced to work by the Chinese soldiers – growing food, or being subjected to oppressive construction work. Once, Akku’s mother was thrashed with a wooden stick for refusing to repeat the words favouring the Chinese– “Mao is great”, and “The Chinese have helped us”. She was only released when my Akku praised the Chinese rule. He once told me of a horrific story about the Chinese soldiers gunning down tied-up Tibetans, kneeling before a ditch, and their lifeless bodies falling into the ditch with one gunshot after the other.

On asking Akku to retrospect and to consider how he felt during those dark times, he always summed it up with the word “hopelessness”.

I felt that my will to live was broken. We were oppressed day and night. We were not allowed even a moment’s relief. I felt that I had to act and that if I stayed back in Tibet, it would lead me nowhere, even though it was home”.

Akku deeply wanted to practise Buddhism and felt that he must go to India so that he could learn and master Buddha’s teachings. So, one day, he decided to leave home. Akku had heard from his friend that a monk in the same locality was planning to leave for India too and so, Akku approached him secretly and they, together, set a date for their flight.

He did not mention his decision to his family and made sure not to raise any suspicion. It would be too great of a risk to let anyone know. He did not want to put himself and his family in danger. And so, on that fateful day, as planned, he set out with the monk. In order to avoid suspicion, one of them would walk a few miles ahead and then, the other would follow behind. That morning, Akku felt the hard ground on his feet and the cold air blew against his face. He carried just a bag over his shoulder, and the horizon of uncertainty stood before him. He tried to memorise the place, the feeling and the colours that surrounded him. His legs stood strong but hope dwindled weakly, like the faded leaves on a tree. I wonder if Akku knew then that the colourful lungtas waving him off from his home would ensure that the elements would guide him safely to his destination.

Lungta, the Tibetan prayers flags against the skydrop
Lungta, the Tibetan prayers flags.

Akku and the monk covered most of their journey during the night, and slept during the day in order to avoid being discovered by the Chinese soldiers. On asking Akku about the other perils of his journey, he just waved his hand and jokingly dismissed me. “I am old now. I don’t remember most of what happened on the journey…”, he heaves a sigh and gets up to leave for lunch. I never got to know the details about the rest of his journey across the dangerous mountain peaks and passes. What got Akku through to the other side? The promise of freedom or the hope to live to see his parents again. Or, was it the determination to build something from the fragments that he carried as he walked on unending snow? I would never know.

After reaching India, Akku mentioned that he worked as a cook in a restaurant in order to sustain himself. He was taken in by an old couple, who ran the restaurant and had settled in Darjeeling a few years earlier. Even though an average cook, he learned to cook appetising dishes efficiently. Soon after, he took to a Tibetan camp school set up in Kalimpong and started learning English and Hindi. Akku proudly claims that even today, his English is “decent” enough.

Leaving home and settling in India has always left a feeling of conflict in Akku. When the mundane and the stillness of life surrounds him, he forgets that there is a home, nestled in the Himalayas, that calls out to him. In the same humdrum of everyday life, he lets out a prayer expressing gratitude. Gratitude that he feels for his life in India with freedom, while his family back home in Tibet might not be able to afford it. But he can’t help missing home and wondering what it could have been. His parents passed away long ago and only his siblings remain now, but they too disappear from his thoughts once in a while. In those moments when he misses home and his family, he curses the monotony of his life, the humdrum that makes him forget again.

The lines on Akku’s forehead catch my attention. They aren’t mute. They defiantly speak of the exiled roads that my ancestors travelled a thousand times, carving their own history and making peace with the shadows behind. They defiantly speak of the immovable faith that they carried, transforming themselves into it, one day at a time. They looked back in time and they realised that no one was there to care for them anymore in the distant land called India. Akku says that it is his karma and the karma of thousands of other Tibetans that die in a distant land. As Tibetans, we deeply believe in the concept of karma – that we are in fact in control of our own ultimate lives.

If there is one thing Akku regrets, it is the fact that he wasn’t able to look after his parents. He looks far off into the distance with an expression of, what appears to be, pain and sorrow for the first time. His parents passed away while Akku was in India. He couldn’t go back to meet them again in their lifetime and fulfil his duties as their only son. Akku wonders whether he will recognize his home and his siblings, if he were to ever go back. “A lot must have changed by now. I too have changed. Time stands supreme”, he continues, “What we can do is preserve our culture and our language and pass it on to the next generation so that Tibet lives on, the movement lives on, and the people live on”.

Tibetan people in exile have worked hard to keep their culture and tradition alive for the past six decades. The Tibetan government-in-exile, formally known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), has set up schools, and institutions such as TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts) in efforts to conserve the rich culture. For Tibetans, their existence itself becomes an act of resistance against the oppression and erasure of Tibetan identity within Tibet. The inhumane policies inside Tibet are centred on eradicating the Tibetan language, population, lifestyle, culture and history. Even now, Tibetans believe that one day, they will return to the land of the snow mountains, their home, their country Tibet.



*Name has been changed

  1. tsampa: roasted barley flour, a staple in the Tibetan culture. it is a symbol of nourishment and is used in religious ceremonies.

  2. lha gyalo: translates to “victory to the gods”: a Tibetan prayer recited at mountain passes, invoking good energy and victory of good over evil

  3. Khangchendzonga: third highest mountain in the world. A part of the Himalayan range, it lies on the border between Sikkim and Nepal

  4. The Dalai Lama: the religious and spiritual leader of the Tibetan community

  5. lungtas : Tibetan prayer flags; it is believed that the prayers written on the flags are carried by the wind into the extended space promoting peace and merit


1. Pommaret, F., Mellor, B., & Wilson, D. H. (2003). Tibet: turning the wheel of life. Thames and Hudson.

About the writer:

Gyurmey Choden is a literature student, who enjoys reading, writing and binge-watching movies. She is deeply interested in Japanese culture and the vast array of Japanese literature. Her past times include watching cat videos or videos of booktubers reviewing books!


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