Confrontation at Checkpoint Xegar
Nimende huzhao!" demanded the Chinese guard at Xegar Checkpoint, a small army outpost. It was the last one before leaving Tibet. He peered menacingly at the driver of our weather-beaten minibus.Skip to next paragraph
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"He wants your passports," translated Lapa, our Tibetan guide. Mentally, we jumped to attention and, with misgivings, handed over the documents.
We were a diverse group of 11 strangers from five countries who had met in Katmandu and flown to Lhasa to begin our exploration of Tibet. All week long we had been captivated by the gentle monks, the ancient monasteries, and the turquoise mountain lakes. In the process, we had become friends.
The guard strode away from the bus, through a high gate emblazoned with red Chinese characters, and into a dusty courtyard. Lapa scurried after him. Another routine bureaucratic check, no doubt. We hoped this one would be quick like the other three.
But there was something ominous in the way the guard's superior - a rigid, strutting little commandant - peered out from under his military visor and waved his arms at Lapa. Was it conceivable that he would keep us here for questioning? This was, after all, the government of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the brutal repression of Tibet.
HALF an hour later, Lapa returned, extremely agitated. "They want to send us back to Lhasa," he announced, "but is not possible. Our group visa is good only for going one way."
"So what's the problem?" asked Arie, a middle-aged Israeli.
"Is Kristoff's passport," answered Lapa. "One of the numbers put on visa by Chinese Embassy is different from on passport. They say he cannot go through check- point." Kristoff was a quiet, likable young German.
Lapa walked back through the gate. He pleaded and cajoled, but the officer remained intransigent. It was sad to see such a gentle man subjected to this humiliating game of cat and mouse.
"The Chinese will not forgive my country for its recent proclamation about human rights in Tibet," Kristoff said. "I'm sure the embassy in Katmandu changed that passport number on purpose. But I will stay here. Please, you must go on."
"Never," said Arie, who had taken to walking back and forth outside the barbed wire, glowering at the commandant. "It's a disgrace! That man is a dictator. He's playing with us. How come we passed the other checkpoints without a problem? I want my passport, and I want my freedom. Now!" He pounded the air with his fists.
"Be still, Arie, or you'll get us all in trouble," said his wife, Anna. "You're not in Israel."
Two hours passed. The sun beat down.
I retreated to the bus and tried to read. But nothing could alleviate my fears. How long would this petty tyrant hold us? There wasn't a phone in sight, and I couldn't speak the language. During the week we'd experienced some uneasy moments: bouncing over washed-out roads and being whipped by rain and waterfalls in an open truck. But that was adventure. This was frightening. We were seeing another Tibet. The Tibet that was held hostage - like us.
Outside my window, Anna was engaged in intense conversation with June, a French teacher from California, who'd recently been in China. "I have an idea," Anna said, reentering the bus and gathering the women around her. "For three hours the men have been trying to settle this, and they're getting nowhere. Why not try a different approach: quiet, friendly persuasion? We'll walk through the gate and speak to the leader face to face. It just might work."