Wednesday, June 07, 2006

From Tibet: A Fortune

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Lobsang Choephel looked out the glass windows of the shop on Broadway,
out at the cars whizzing down the avenue, at the pedestrians walking by in their summer clothes, and
he thought about how lucky he was to be standing there.

“Fortunate,” he said, looking at Tenzin Norgay, a friend who he has known since childhood.
“We are very fortunate to have made it here.”

When the two men open the doors of their Himalayan boutique for business today, it will mark their first anniversary on Broadway in a journey that has taken thousands of miles and a couple of decades to get here.

Choephel grew up in the eastern Tibetan city of Amdo. Norgay lived a few hundred miles away in Lhasa. Each was granted with the good fortune at a young age to successfully escape. Choephel was 11 years old at the time; Norgay was 8.

“My father was going into exile and took me with him,” Choephel recalled. “We spent seven days crossing the Himalayas. During the daylight, we would hide under trees so no one would see us. After dark, at midnight we would begin to walk. I was fortunate that I made it OK. So many didn’t make it and many who did you would see they lost an arm or a leg in the Himalayas because of the cold.”

He found refuge in Dharmasala, a city in northern India, where he went to school and first met Norgay, who had also fled with his father, riding along Tibet’s back roads in the back of a truck dressed like Nepalese in case the vehicle was searched. Each has bloodlines that run deep in the ancient city that has been occupied by the Chinese.

“My grandfather died in Tibet in 1959,” said Norgay. That came a decade after the Chinese invasion of his country, when it is estimated that more than 100,000 Tibetans fled along with the Dalai Lama for their survival. “He was one of the bodyguards for the Dalai Lama. He stayed behind to fight the Chinese when he was killed,” he said.

“I still have part of my family in Tibet, two brothers and one sister. But we cannot go back to see them,” said Choephel, inside the Broadway boutique they call Mila-Cave, where a photograph of the Dalai Lama hangs on the wall behind him.

“I also had a brother who was a monk. He kept a picture of the Dalai Lama up. They told him: ‘Take it down. This picture is not allowed.’ He kept the picture and they killed him,” Choephel said. “They slit his throat and after 1½ hours, he died.”

Tibet is in danger of its culture becoming extinct, both say. Their language — derived from ancient scripts thousands of years old — is being replaced with the Chinese language in schools, and any religious freedom that has been granted is nothing more than a smokescreen, Choephel said.

“The Chinese still control by force. This is the way it has been since Tibet first became occupied,” he said. “The army said ‘We’re here to help. We’ll be going back after one year.’ This was back during our parents’ time. But they didn’t go back and 6,000 monasteries were turned to rubble. Statues were melted and turned into bullets and millions of people were killed,” Choephel said. “Every family in Tibet lost at least one person.”

“Today my biggest fear is that the only thing people will see is what the government says they are allowed to see. The education system in Tibet is terrible. There is no BBC, no CNN. It is not allowed,” Choephel said.

“The Dalai Lama is also not allowed, so the children might never know him. There is no good leader to advise them. They are burning the books and trying to rewrite the history to say that Tibet is not a country, that it is a part of China,” he said.

For them, they were fortunate to escape, they say. Fortune seems to partner alongside them.

“This we started and we had no money,” said Norgay, who first came here as part of a Resettlement Project that he says offered an opportunity to Tibetan and Indian refugees to start a new life. He studied at SUNY Albany and was joined by Choephel, who came here in 2002.

“We wanted to start something, so we opened this store.All we had was a business loan and so many good friends who helped us,” said Norgay about their modest beginnings of sell ing goods on consignment. In one year, it has grown to stock a variety of authentic goods that come from Tibet, Nepal, India and Bhutan.

Today, they have survived their first year.

“We would travel around and look at places in the area and what we found in Saratoga was a very nice city. A safe place. A place where the people looked like they were open-minded. So we settled on this place," Choephel said. “To all the people, everybody here, something we honestly feel is to say to them, thank you. Thank you so much.”

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian, June 4, 2006