‘Passport,’ he barked. ‘Sit,’ he pointed.
The blood was pounding in my ears. My heart was doing somersaults and my mouth was dry. I sat. My head was starting to ache. Had I taken my Diamox last night? I was panicked, I could not remember. I was so thirsty and desperately need water. Dehydration at this altitude is dangerous. He was Han, and he looked as if he had a limited capacity to understand my mangled mandarin. The question that was battering my poor brain was, is it a good idea to let him know I could understand the basics of what was being said or should I simply sit schtum and stick to English? I was sure my limited Nepalese or Tibetan would not cut it here. Why the hell do we always learn swear words before we grasp the mechanics of another language? My ruminations were abruptly ended as he pounded his fist on the table.
Now I was frightened.
He was small and slight and his cold eyes were expressionless, there was no warmth in them at all and he wore those quintessential, round, rimless glasses. His black hair was slicked back, like a bad 1960’s Brylcreem commercial. His hand was laid flat on the table in front of me, it was grimy with dirt encrusted fingernails, ragged and uneven, bitten to the quicks. My eyes flickered to his face, he had the high tell-tale colour, the rosy red cheeks that are a sure sign of high altitude living. Spittle decorated the corners of his mouth and he stank of cheap, Double Happiness, cigarettes. His uniform was rumpled and stained and looked as fatigued as I was feeling.
In that split second, I felt compassion for this poor creature, who probably had no more desire to be in my company, in this place than I had to be in his.
I heard a scrabbling sound behind me and cautiously glanced behind me. For the first time, I noticed the child in an ill-fitting uniform, many sizes too large for his small frame, with the sleeves and trousers, rolled up exposing his limbs. A rusty Type 81 Assault rifle was slung over his shoulder; its weight dragged him to one side. He was lounging against the wall with a wry grin on his face. One look told me he was more dangerous than the man in front of me.
That primal part of my brain that governs survival kicked in and as flight was impossible and physically fighting was not an option. I had to pull myself together to get out of here in one piece, undamaged.
Taking refuge, my mind sought escape and flicked back to that sunny Saturday morning in May, marching down Collins Street with the others. Striding out across the tram lines wearing my blue chuba, the one with the cream silk blouse with the traditional long sleeves and my colourful woven apron, wearing this is similar to wearing a western wedding ring. We were all carrying placards with the words Rangzen, China Hands off Tibet or Free Tibet emblazoned on them.
How special and superior I felt to those Saturday morning shoppers who were taking time out to watch us from the safety of the crowded footpath. We all knew we were being photographed by ASIO. The Chinese tourists taking happy snaps were not tourists at all, but members of the Embassy staff. We knew them from previous demonstrations it was as if we were partners in some macabre dance routine as we wove around one another each pretending not to know what was happening. In my blissful state of ignorance never did I once believed those photos would come to cause me harm. How stupid I had been !
A sharp, painful jab to my ribs swiftly returned me to that dark, dank, cold room peopled by my jailers, thousands of miles from Melbourne. The man-child had shoved the butt of the assault rifle into my ribs to get my attention and he smiled spitefully as he watched the tears seep from my eyes. I had been forcibly returned to the present reality.
I realised that grimy nails were directing quick staccato questions at me. I struggled to understand to a cacophony of Mandarin and mangled English. I shook my head to clear the mental fugue that was threatening to take hold and decided to attempt one phrase in mandarin,
‘ Wǒ bù míngbái nǐ xiǎng yào shénme,’ or ‘I don’t understand what you want.’ He laughed and said ‘you understand me perfectly,’ but this time in English, he spoke English! My mind was in overdrive, he spoke English, is this good or bad?
‘Why am I being detained?’ I asked opening my hands in the universal gesture of peace.
‘Splitist,’ he spat at me and slammed the photos on the table front in from of me.
My eyes rested on the serene features of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. I felt my heart grab in my chest and my insides wobbled like a poorly set bowl of aeroplane jelly.
O.K now I am for it, I thought, and my eyes rested on His Holiness’s face and I thought of the other items, had they been found, had I placed others at risk?
How could I have been so arrogant to believe I would sail through the security checks without the proverbial hiccup? What had given me away? Was it facial recognition software? Had these photos come back to haunt me? I knew the possession of these photos alone was punishable by imprisonment, here in a place where the government sent bereaved families a bill for the bullets used at the execution of a family member.
I was unable to focus, my mind was slipping in and out of the reality of the cold room and I recognised the early signs of altitude sickness. I was terrified, would others would suffer because of my stupidity and waves of nausea were threatening to overpower me.
I knew from Henry’s experience two years earlier, I could expect no help from home and that my Australian passport afforded me no protection here. My head was splitting the pain was becoming unbearable.
A cold, clear calm was settling on me,
“Nǐ biǎo zi, nǐ de jìnǚ, yángguǐzi,’ you bitch, whore, foreign devil’, grimy fingers bellowed at me, in Mandarin and English. ‘Zhùyì! Nǐ shì shuí huìjiàn? Nǐ wèishéme zài zhèlǐ? Kǒngbù! pay attention! Who are you meeting? Why are you here? Terrorist!’
The words rushed out a jumble of Mandarin and English with the speed and power of a freight train hurtling along its tracks.
‘Nǐ huì gàosu wǒ,’ ‘You will tell me,’ he purred, ‘Zhōngyú’ eventually!
I repeated, ‘what have I done wrong?’
He made no response , I felt a stinging blow to the back of my head and time stopped. Normal no longer existed, it had been suspended.
I was back on the bus driving out of the army compound at Gonggar airport, one of the highest airports in the world under the shadow of Sagarmāthā (सगरमाथा). I had realised my dream, I was on my way to Lhasa and not unlike the nomadic Jews of the diaspora and in my mind I was silently chanting my mantra,
‘This year in Lhasa’.
As we prepared to drive the 62 kilometre rutted road to Lhasa the bus was full of laughter and chatter . We were all excited at the prospect of being in Lhasa and after 10 days in Kathmandu becoming acclimatised to the altitude I was surprised to hear our guide Tashi explain that if any of us felt a headache we were not to take any Panadol but to let her know. I was busy exploring the pressure cans of oxygen which were in the seat pocket when the bus came to a sudden halt.
A Chinese Peoples Army Officer in fatigues clambered onto the bus. Initially no one paid a great deal of attention but the silence settled and became threatening. All chatter and laughing ceased. He had an open notebook. His voice was no more than a whisper and he proceeded to read a list of names, I remember thinking this is a role call. Suddenly I heard my name and Pat’s as well as Margaret’s names with the accompanying direction to collect our personal belongings and stand beside the bus. Looking out the window I saw we had come to a stop beside some official looking huts, we remained inside the airport perimeter fence. There was no Tibetan writing on the huts only Chinese. The three of us looked at each other and then at our tour leader Tashi who quietly inclined her head.
We gathered our back packs and stepped out on to the tarmac into the bright sunshine and biting wind. I shivered not from the cold but from a sense of impending trouble. My backpack was roughly pulled from my hands and thrown on the ground to be joined by Pat and Margaret’s. I had given my camera case to Jenny before I left the bus, thank goodness I thought, as I saw Pat’s camera role out of it’s case and onto the ground.
‘Hey’ Pat yelled ‘that’s my camera’, the man looked at her, brought his foot down on the camera smashing it into pieces.
He laughed. Margaret grabbed Pat’s arm to stop her from moving. It was then we realised the bus was leaving and obviously we were being detained. I looked around, five soldiers with automatics stood surrounding us. Did we five older Australian women pose that much of a threat? If it were not so frightening it would have been laughable.
We soon realised this was no dream, no romantic adventure, but deadly serious. We were shepherded into the huts and separated, each placed in a separate room. I immediately thought of Henry and when he had been arrested in Amdo Province two years earlier. It had been months before we knew if he was even alive and then another six months before he was released and back home to Australia. He had been working for the WHO and supposedly had all the correct paper work and was still detained.
Why were we being held? I had not meet Pat or Margaret before we all arrived in Kathmandu although I knew they both were active within the Australia Tibet Council in their own states. Was that was this was all about? Had our names been pulled from some list that had made its way in to the hands of the Chinese authorities in Lhasa or was it those protest photos that had tripped me up?
I was told to strip and place my clothes on a chair; I was thrown a grimy hospital type gown to cover myself. The touch of it on my skin gave me the creeps; I will swear I saw dots moving on the seam line. I began to have an inkling of what was happening. I was being intimidated and made to feel a loss of face by being forced to strip. Two can play at that game I thought, I am damned if I will cower in front of these guys. I have always been one to cut of my nose to spite my face. No easy road for me.
Slowly I opened my eyes and raised my head from the table. I smelt the metallic tang of blood and gingerly raised my hand to the back of my head. I could feel a damp, sticky patch. I looked at my hand it was red, this was my blood, no wonder my head ached. Bugger altitude sickness, I thought, and as wave after wave of nausea hit me I turned my head from the table and threw up all over the floor.
I looked at’ grimy fingers’ and repeated my earlier questions,
‘What do you want? Why are you treating me like this?’
He poked at the photos on the table, I was bemused that they were still there. I had no idea how much time had passed.
‘These’, he said in English, ‘these are yours?’ There was no point in lying.
‘Yes’ I responded wearily, ‘yes they are mine.’
‘Political propaganda is forbidden,’ he snatched the photos and ripped them up throwing the pieces on the ground.
I must have concussion, I thought as I found these actions to be so hilariously theatrical. He then began a tirade in English and Mandarin; I couldn’t follow any of it. I wanted to lay down and sleep. I couldn’t focus, my brain felt like it was wrapped in bubble wrap and someone was popping the bubbles. Was it altitude sickness or the bang on the head or a bit of both?
I felt a spurt of energy or was it anger? Again I lifted my head and as the nausea threatened, I swallowed and said,
‘I want to speak to a consular official.’
He laughed and the young man child in the corner snickered; ‘here you speak to no one unless I allow it.’
‘Fine it’s your funeral,’ I said, with a shade more bravado than I felt ‘ you will have to explain my corpse to someone at some stage, it’s up to you! If I die here from high altitude cerebral oedema, questions will be asked’. I wagged my fingers at him like a drunken sailor. ‘Look,’ I said waving my hands in front of his face, ‘my nail beds are blue and I would guess my lips are too, I have altitude sickness you idiot.’ I was never known for my tact.
He stood staring down at me. God I must look a mess a filthy lice ridden rag covering me, vomit all over the floor. The stench was appalling. Surprisingly I was beginning to feel relieved, obviously he had not found the money or the letters that I had hidden in my camera bag and he had nothing but the photos. The photos he had now destroyed.
Maybe there was a way out of this situation after all. Perhaps this man had overstepped his authority and the last thing he wanted was a dead westerner, and an older woman at that, on his hands.
I could hear a commotion through the door and thought I heard Tashi’s voice speaking a mix of rapid fire English and Mandarin with the odd Tibetan phrase thrown in for good measure. I have no idea of what was said or what pressure was brought to bear but some time later my clothes were handed back to me and I was allowed to dress and provided with an oxygen pillow before being bundled in to an ambulance and taken to Lhasa hospital.
Pat, Margaret and I were reunited at the hospital we found out we had been released due to the intercession of a Norwegian UN delegate staying at the Windhorse Hotel who happened to be an old friend of Tashi’s. It seems my hunch had been correct they had not wanted a dead westerner on their hands.
Two weeks later after being released from hospital and after completing the Kora around the Bakhor, I stood in front of the Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha in the Jokhang temple with my hands full of white Khata, or offering scarves and prostrating spoke the words
‘I take refuge in the Buddha…this year in Lhasa.’