KATHMANDU, NEPAL — Kalsang Chung was 11 years old when his father, a Tibetan farmer, told him to put on the warmest clothes he had and prepare himself for a tough trek.
"We are going to Nepal, where we will live safely and happily as refugees," Mr. Chung's father said.
It was 1959, the year Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, left Tibet, repudiating the "17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet," which allowed Chinese troops to enter Tibet and China's government to handle Tibet's external affairs. The Chung family and their entire neighborhood left a northern Tibetan village carrying virtually nothing.
"We carried no luggage so that Chinese police wouldn't grow suspicious. Despite all precautions, 60 people of our group were arrested at the border," says Chung, now 58, a registered Tibetan refugee in Nepal, and director of the Tibetan Reception Center. Among those arrested were Chung's mother and two elder sisters.
"Only 11 of us, including my father and elder brother, managed to escape," Chung reminisced in his office, where the walls are full of beautifully framed pictures of the Dalai Lama.
The bitterness of losing fellow travelers and family members gnawing at their hearts, the 11 continued their arduous journey through the snowy trails for 16 days before they arrived at Namche, a tourist village along the gateway to Mount Everest.
"Like every Tibetan trying to escape to Nepal, we traveled at night and hid during daytime. It was freezing cold. We had neither extra clothes to keep us warm nor mattresses to sleep on. We slept on little grassy patches along the snowy landscape," Chung said. Like others, the group didn't travel on the main trail as that would mean further risk of being spotted by Chinese police.
After arriving in Nepal, Chung's father left his two boys at a refugee camp and returned to Tibet to rescue his wife and daughters. Fortunately, in another attempt, the family members managed to reunite in Nepal.
"We were lucky. Living at the refugee camp, I got primary education at a nearby school and started working for the welfare of fellow refugees," Chung says.
In 1989, Nepal stopped granting refugee status to Tibetans. According to Nepal's official statistics, some 14,000 Tibetans are living in Nepal as registered refugees.