The Flight of a Karmapa

Mar 1, 2000

Category: Urgyen Trinley Dorje

Susanna Cheung and Prakash Khanal trace the boy lama's escape route through the Himalayas (Susanna Cheung, a fellow with the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong, has reported on the Kosovo conflict and East Timor crisis. Kathmandu-based writer Prakash Khanal covers Himalayan environmental issues and is former editor with RONAST, The Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.)

Lumbini, Nepal - The Dalai Lama was reportedly taken by complete surprise when his protégé, a 14-year-old Tibetan boy known as the 17th Karmapa, appeared at a hotel in Dharamsala on Jan. 5. The international news media, quoting sources in the Karmapa's 4D entourage and in the Tibetan Exile Government, reported that the boy lama had escaped on C) foot to India all the way from the Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa, a veritable Tibetan odyssey reenacting the Dalai Lama's three-week passage to exile in 1959.

News agencies including AFP, AP and Reuters accepted without challenge the account of the boy lama, named Urgyen Trinley Dorje, who claimed have walked a distance of 900 miles in eight days over the Himalayas. But a modem miracle it would have been for anyone to have walked an average of 112 miles per day, not counting the twists and turns of the mountain roads.

Our two-person news team - a veteran Nepali environmental reporter and a Hong Kong-based journalist - retraced the Tsurphu Karmapa's route through Nepal during a two-week investiuation in January. We discovered that the dramatic escape was not just a teenager's solo adventure but engineered in a meticulous clockwork plan. The Tsurphu Karmapa's rapid 0 progress through Nepal's rugged terrain was made possible by a helicopter operator with reputed links with U.S. intelligence services and by an extensive network of the Tibetan Exile Government.

The Karmapa's initial accounts were so contrary to geographic reality that Time magazine, The New York Times and Time Warner's Asiaweek eventually revised their stories, admitting the Tibetan boy had escaped through Nepal on horseback and train or airplane. But our findings in Nepal show that even these more recent reports turned out to have contained serious errors.

According to most Western news accounts, on the night of December 28, the Karmapa made his dash from Tsurphu monastery, the traditional headquarters of the Kagyupa (Black Hat) sect, in a limousine with his sister, who is a nun, and five other monks. But this media account is inaccurate, according to a well-informed Nepali businessman in the Mustang region and monks with the Kagyupa (Black Hat) sect. For one thing, the Tsurphu Karmapa's sister had entered Nepal at least three weeks earlier and was already in India.

Himalayan Intrigues

On late Tuesday night, Dec. 28, the Tibetan teenager departed the Tsurphu monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapa, spiritual leader of the Black Hat sect, located near Lhasa. He could not have climbed out of his bedroom window, as reported in some accounts, since it is on the sixth floor. It was safer to walk out a door. The adventurous teenager rode in one of two Toyota Landcruisers driven by a young monk. Another monk drove the second vehicle, brought as a back-up in case of mechanical troubles.

It took the trio three days to cover the 300 miles to their border exit point, normally less than a day's drive. Why did they linger inside Tibet for so long after the Chinese realized they were missing ? In the course of three days, the Tibetan trio made two attempts to exit Tibet in widely separated areas.

In a letter left to Chinese leaders, the Tsurphu Karmapa said that he was going to retrieve ritual treasures from Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, the seat-in-exile of the late 16th Karmapa. Since the early 1990s, the Kagyupa sect has been deeply divided by a succession dispute between the Tsurphu Karmapa, who is backed by the Dalai Lama and Beijing, and a rival candidate backed by the Shamarpa, the order's second-ranking leader. The contender who succeeds in winning the replica of the order's mystic black crown would gain the upper hand. The Dalai Lama joined the sectarian fray because the Kagyupa school is the dominant religious group among the 400,000 residents of Sikkim, an Indian state on the Tibet border. China and Taiwan also share an interest in Sikkim, because neither recognize India's annexation of the former Buddhist kingdom in 1975.

According to senior Kagyupa leaders, the monks of Tsurphu monastery in Tibet had proposed a Sikkim journey to Beijing officials, who were receptive to the idea. In November, the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi sent an official to Rumtek monastery for exploratory talks with monks allied with Tai Situ Rinpoche. The pro-Situ faction in Sikkim were so confident of Chinese approval that they cleared ground for a helipad for his expected arrival by helicopter from India.

On the Indian side, one Cabinet member promised Tai Situ Rinpoche that safe passage would be arranged for the Tibetan boy from the Nepali border to Sikkim. The senior Kagyupa monks add that Taiwanese Buddhists also had a hand in the intrigue through their massive financial support for Situ Rinpoche.

The crossing through Nepal, which borders Tibet and Sikkim, did not pose a great difficulty. In some estimates, some 20,000 Tibetan emigrants slip through the porous borders of Nepal every year. For still murky reasons, something went badly awry at the Nepal border, and the three young monks abandoned their plans to journey to Sikkim.

Plan A Goes Away

Instead of safe passage, snares and traps were waiting for them. In November, India's state security service got wind of the plot to install the boy in Rumtek monastery. New Delhi planted secret agents along its "northern comers" to intercept the Tsurphu Karmapa, whose presence in Sikkim would agitate a restive independence movement. If there was a secrecy lapse, the fault probably lies with the Tai Situ camp, which had been leaking like a sieve. As early as summer, their supporters in Scotland had received hints of an escape plan. As for the Chinese authorities, they apparently did not anticipate such a bold, unapproved gambit by the Tibetan teenager. Without Beijing's supervision, a whole plan could backfire. "Sikkim is vital link in the strategy of hard-liners in the Tibetan Exile Government to establish bases along the Himalayans to put pressure on China," a senior Kagyupa monk disclosed.

checkpoint in Kodari, northeast of Kathmandu. By then, however, the Tsurphu Karmapa's vehicles were speeding west along the trans-Tibet highway. Plan A, the journey to Sikkim, was blown, so the three young monks opted for Plan B, a less-traveled path through the mountain fastness of legendary Mustang. If caught on the way to Sikkim, the youths risked only a light reprimand, since Beijing was in agreement with the journey though not its premature timing. But an escape attempt into Mustang carried grim consequences since the trail pointed to a different direction - toward the headquarters of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.

Some monks believe the Sikkim venture might have been a ploy to deceive the Tsurphu monks into accepting his escape bid and that the actual goal of the planners was Dharamsala. "After Tai Situ Rinpoche was banned by the Indian government and later kept out of Lhasa by China, his influence was greatly diminished," said a high-ranking Nyingma school lama in Kathmandu. "The escape of the Karmapa to India may have been Situ Rinpoche's way of showing muscle to both countries."

High-speed Chase

Somewhere along the way, the Tibetan youths rested several hours and made a telephone call to their contact in Nepal to set the Mustang plan into motion. After driving about 240 miles westward to Sansang, they turned onto a southeastly spur road and crossed the upper reaches of the Bramhaputra River. At that point, on New Year's Eve, they were spotted. A high-speed chase ensued, and police cars gained ground on the Landcruisers on the approach to the northwest Nepali border. Near the end of the road, the Tibetan drivers veered off the pavement, leaving the Toyotas for the Chinese police to destroy. Narrowly escaping their pursuers, the three young monks ran into the darkness and silence of the unmarked border. As revelers around the world rang in a new millennium, the boy who would be Karmapa was out of Tibet.

The trio had encountered no border guards on either side of the Nepali border. Ethnic Tibetan traders based on the Mustang side, who frequently drive mule teams to and from Tibet, explained to us that the Mustang boundary "is simply an open border. We can walk across easily bypassing the immigration and police checkpoint." They added that Mustang is also a favorite escape route for Tibetan refugees fleeing to India via Nepal.

Right inside the Nepali boundary, along the bank of the Mustang Khola river, the Tsurphu Karmapa was received by local oruides who had brought eight ponies for the journey across the northem half of Mustang, where there are no roads for motor vehicles. The young Tibetan and his escorts mounted the ponies and rode southward at an average altitude of 3,500 to 4,000 meters. Mustang, the old Kingdom of Lo, is part of the Tibetan plateau and like much of Tibet has an and and treeless lunar landscape. The pony caravan pushed ahead for two days nonstop in subzero temperatures. By morning, the Tibetan party was on the trail to Jomsom, the Mustang state capital, which is connected by a paved road to Pokhara and then India.

Evasive maneuvers

Instead of going to Jomsom, however, the pony caravan turned abruptly eastward onto a trailhead below Muhila Peak, northwest of the monastery in Muktinath. The way led up Thorang La pass, a grueling climb in arctic temperatures, even if there was less snow on the ground than in average winters. At the 5,416-meter-high summit of Thorang La, the Tsurphu Karmapa's party rode past a cairn of stones and a line of prayer flags flapping in the icy wind. On the perilous descent down the steep eastern siope, the track became too narrow for the sure-footed ponies to carry their riders. At nightfall, the Tibetans dismounted and led their ponies forward along the angled slope of the defile. They reached two mountain lodges that cater to trekkers in the spring and autumn seasons, but the buildings were closed for the winter.

Why didn't his party take the easier route through Jomsom, as was erroneously reported by The New York Times ?

The Tsurphu Karmapa took this evasive maneuver because Jomson is the location of the Nepali Government Headquarters in Mustang, where the Nepali police were waiting to apprehend them for deportation to Tibet.

The Nepali government keeps a sharp eye on Jomsom, the strategic road junction in Mustang Jomsom served as the main base for CIA-armed Tibetan Khampa guerrillas from the 1950s until the mid-1970s. When President Richard Nixon withdrew support for the Tibetan guerrillas after his 1973 visit to China, the Royal Nepal Army fought pitched battles with the Tibetan guerrillas, who had been robbing the villagers and raping the local women in Mustang. Since then, there has been a superficially friendly yet uneasy relationship between the Nepali authorities and Tibetan exiles. The area is so politically sensitive that foreign tour groups must apply far in advance for permission to enter Mustang and pay a fee of USS700 for each trekker.


After Thorang La pass, the Tsurphu Karmapa's party descended toward villacres terraced into mountain slopes, where the local people eke out an existence by herding Dal sheep and yaks. Beyond this sparsely inhabited strip lies awesome Annapurna, at 8,091 meters the secondhighest peak in the Himalayas. Why were the Tibetans moving toward such an impassable barrier of glaciers and snowy crags ? How did the teenage lama succeed in crossing the vast Annapurna Range ?

The Tsurphu Karmapa's entourage reached the village of Manang Pedi, altitude 3,535 meters, at late night on January 2. The Buddhist village is a stronghold of the Nyingma (Red Hat) sect. Less than an hour down the trail, in the village of Braga, is a 900-year-old Kagyupa sect monastery, where the Tsurphu Karmapa's entourage could have easily found shelter from the extreme cold. The guides claimed that they were allowed no time for rest, although their timeline suggests an unexplained-for gap in the early hours of January 3.

Long after sunrise, at about 11a.m., the Tibetans and their guides spotted a snowflake fluttering against of the rock face of Annapurna. A helicopter, painted blue and alpine white, was approaching from the southeast in a wide arc around sacred Fishtail Peak.

It was the first of two such flights, each a roundtrip of about an hour. Perhaps the Ecuriel high-altitude helicopter touched down on the frozen lake near Manang Pedi, or on the rocky field below the Braga monastery or maybe further along at the tiny airstrip in Ongre. The pony guides did not disclose the exact rendezvous point, only saying it was in the creneral Manang Pedi area, just outside the boundaries of forbidding Mustang.

A small reception party clambered out of the helicopter to greet the Tsurphu Karmapa. The teenager's traveling companions informed the local pony guides that they were flying to Kathmandu. In fact, this news reached Kathmandu, where local journalists searched in vain for the Tibetan teenager on Jan. 3. If the Tsurphu Karmapa still harbored hopes of transiting to Sikkim via the Nepali capital, he was overruled by his handlers. Or maybe Kathmandu was a fake destination, one of many deceptions to throw the Nepali police and the press off the trail. With its human cargo safety aboard, the helicopter blades whirled like a prayer wheel, levitating the Tsurphu Karmapa toward the Annapurna range and the actual destination, Pokhara.

Missing Flight Records

In late January, our Nepali-Hong Kong investigative team traveled to the popular lakeside resort about a five-hour drive east of Kathmandu. On the southern side of the Annapurna range, Pokhara is dominated by the sight of sacred Machhapuchhre (Fishtail), a 6,993-meter snow-capped summit which many trekkers say is the world's most beautiful mountain. At Pokhara Airport, a control-tower officer showed us the helicopter flight records for January 3. A hand-written report showed that Fishtail Air was the only local service to dispatch helicopter flights on that day. The air-control officer explained, "There was no other helicopter flight recorded except for Fishtail company. On the 3rd of January, our record shows that Fishtail sent two helicopter flights out from this airport. They claimed that one flight was for sightseeing and the other for rescue purposes."

The first flight departed at about I I a.m. and returned to Pokhara Airport at noon; the second at 12:45 p.m. and returned an hour later.

A local travel agent explained that tourists usually take a tour-group helicopter, which is much cheaper than a private helicopter like the ones operated by Fishtail Air, which can cost as much as HKS12,000 (US $1,500) for a one-way one-hour trip for five people. In any case, the New Year period is an off-season for tourists, and Pokhara had few visitors then. Fishtail Air is an American-Nepali joint venture and the only air company in Nepal with foreign ownership. In an interview with Hong Kong's "Open Magazine," the editor of the Tibetan Bulletin, a publication of the Tibetan Exile Government in Dharamsala, admitted that Fishtail Air helicopters are frequently used to ferry Tibetan refugees from the Nepal-Tibet border. Under Nepali law, however, such people-smuggling activity is a criminal offense. In Kathmandu, an executive with a major Western aircraft company, who supplies private aircraft to airlines across the Asia-Pacific region, expressed surprise on hearing that the Tsurphu Karmapa had flown aboard a Fishtail Air helicopter.

The aircraft executive immediately blurted out: "Oh, does this mean that the CIA was involved in the Tibetan boy's escape?"

This same question was being asked across Nepal, a country that has seen more than its share of covert operations. The mystery was enhanced when we checked with Fishtail Air's head office in Kathmandu. The local staff told us that the flight record for January 3 was missing.. The staff showed us the records for the day before, the day after and every other day in the month. The flight record on the day of the Tsurphu Karmapa's flight were nowhere to be found.

All Western news accounts have failed to mention the role of Fishtail Air in this escapade. Barbara Crossette former New Delhi bureau chief of The New York Times, wrote that the Tsurphu Karmapa's party rode horses from the Tibet border to Pokhara. This would have taken four days and would have required a change of ponies. To account for the lost time and to explain how the Tibetan youth could have reached Dharamsala on Jan. 5, the Crossette report claimed that the Tsurphu Karmapa took an airplane from Pokhara to somewhere in India. This is patently impossible because Pokhara Airport is not allowed to handle international flights but only air traffic inside Nepal. Also, security inside India's airports was extremely tight because of the rising threat posed by Afghan drug traffickers and Kashmiri terrorists using Kathmandu's Tribhuwan International Airport as a transit point. Coincidentally, the American owner of Fishtail Air has had business links with the fugitive chief of India's "Muslim mafia, '' who is accused of killing 300 people in the bombing the Bombay Stock Exchange in 1993.

The Egghead Nun

The remainder of the Tsurphu Karmapa's journey through Nepal was by car not airplane. It is possible that he stopped at the Hotel Annapurna. The receptionist on duty on Jan. 3 said that no guests of that name had checked in. The hotel staff, however, said they could not rule out the possibility that the Tibetan might have visited the hotel director's private house, located in the hotel compound. The hotel director, a lama, was away in Dharamsala at the time of our visit. The Hotel Annapurna is owned by Dalai Lama's Tibetan Exile Government and managed by a lama who is a member of the exile government. Pokhara is also a major refugee center and information-gathering point for a British relief group that has supported the Dalai Lama since the Tibet armed uprising in 1959.

It is unlikely that the Tsurphu Karmapa could have passed unnoticed through Pokhara's exile community because his sister had visited the lakeside Lhasa Restaurant in mid-December. The restaurant owner said he remembers her as "unique, strange-looking woman" whose head is shaped like an egg. The oldest Tibetan restaurant in the area is run by a Tibetan family who had escaped from Tibet to India in 1959, a few months after the Dalai Lama's departure from Lhassa.

The owner Dhoudup Tsering said, "In mid-December, Tibetan nun came in to our restaurant with four other Tibetans. Among them was a lama dressed in simple maroon robes. Since I didn't recognize the nun, I paid no attention to them and went back to my shop next door. Then, one Tibetan told me that the nun he was accompanying was the Karmapa's sister." The Tibetan visitor was a professor with a German university. The restaurant owner asked the professor which claimant of the title " 17th Karmapa" was related to the nun : the boy lama in Tibet or the rival contender picked by the Shamarpa, the sect's second-ranking cleric in New Delhi? The professor answered that the nun was the sister of the Karmapa in Tibet. Throughout the two-hour luncheon, the Tibetan men held a relaxed conversation, but the nun had a serious expression and remained silent. One of the waiters said that the Tsurphu Karmapa's sister came to Pokhara with a traveling party of 18 other Tibetans. Tibetan residents said that the Tsurphu Karmapa has relatives in Pokhara and the appearance of his sister had stirred up excitement in the local Tibetan community. Exactly why the closest of his two siblings arrived three weeks before Tsurphu Karmapa's escape remains a mystery. Two points, however, seem certain : She did not escape with her brother as most media reported, and the news of her presence in Nepal must have reached Dharamsala. And by the time of the Tsurphu Karmapa's escape, the egghead nun had already been smuglled into India. If the Dalai Lama was "surprised" by the escapes from Tsurphu, then he must have been the last to know.

Smugglers and Siddhartha

From Pokhara, the Tsurphu Karmapa was taken for a five-hour drive along the southbound highway to Lumbini. Now a historic center surrounded by barren plains, Lumbini was long ago a lush garden where under a full moon Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Prince Siddhartha, the historical Buddha. In the darkness unmitigated by a sliver of lunar light, the Tibetan teenager missed the sight of King Asoka's pillar and the archaeological dig where the oldest statue of the Buddha was uncovered from the ruins of Mayadevi Temple.

The young Tibetan could easily remain incognito because a major international Buddhist conference was being held inside the new visitor center designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. Some 30,000 monks were visiting from Lhasa and other parts of Tibet. Unlike the Tsurphu Karmapa who was conveyed by helicopter and limousine, these penniless monks had to walk from Lhasa to the Nepal border and -ode public buses the rest of the way. "Can you imagine such a great number of monks going through the Himalayas ? The attention of the Chinese police was diverted. I think it was why the Tibetan Karmapa chose to escape at the end of December," said one East Asian monk in Lumbini.

Lumbini is also a favorite stopover for Tibetan migrants before they are led by Nepali people smugglers across the border into India. One Tibetan refugee returning for his relatives described the illegal border-crossing.

"The journey usually starts at midnight. It takes 15 minutes to reach a safe border point near Lumbini. We get off the bus, carrying our luggage. Escorted by Nepali people-smugglers, we walk across the border into India. On the Indian side, a bus is waiting to take us to New Delhi along small roads and then further up to Dharamsala," he said. "The whole trip takes about two days."

Professional smugglers took the Tsurphu Karmapa to the Indian side of the border, where a car was waiting to whisk him off to Gorakhpur and then New Delhi. The Tibetan teenager reached the Indian capital by noon, and an overnight train put him in Dharamsala by January 5 - for his appointment with the Dalai Lama and an adoring but gullible international media. With our long, exhausting journey at its end in Buddha's birthplace, we marveled at all the deceptions that litter the Tibetan teenager's crooked trail and the false reports repeated by the world's press. The tolling of bronze Buddhist bells resonated across the dusty plains of Lumbini, reminding us of the Buddha's Eightfold Path, which instructs his followers never to deceive others in this world of appearances and to always speak the truth.



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