A Tibetan Road Trip

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to organise this trip.

After all I first heard about Tibet via the Lobsang Rampa books I read when I was a teenager. The Third Eye, Doctor From Lhasa, Living With The Lama, to name just a few — I devoured most of them hoping that one day I too would trek the great steppes of this then little known exotic land. I didn’t know the year I was born the Chinese would make its claims on Tibet (known in Chinese history books as the Peaceful Liberation of Chamdo). And I also didn’t know that Lobsang Rampa was a plumber from Plympton, Devon, called Cyril Henry Hoskin who had never been out of the UK until he fled to Canada after being exposed as a fraud.

When confronted, Hoskin claimed that while in a concussed state after falling out of a tree, the spirit of the monk Lobsang Rampa had asked permission to inhabit his body and he agreed. He took Rampa’s name and wrote what he believed to be true accounts of life in Tibet and while scholars were doubtful of their authenticity, his books remained on the bestseller list for years.

I found all this out from my first real Tibetan friend Tenzing Tsewang, who had a number of his books and was a great collector of Tibetan kitsch. Tsewang lived a couple of streets away from me and when I first met him was a factory worker. Later he became a well known musician performing around Australia and internationally. I always thought it was incredible that a person who grew up in a nomad tent on the Tibetan steppes would end up living in inner city Newtown (Sydney, Australia). And that I would be the one to introduce him to his Tibetan master, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. While I longed to hear the stories of his youth Tsewang preferred to live in the present and wasn’t ready to talk about his past until years later when we worked together on a play about his journey out of Tibet.

Poster by Tina Palladinetti

Called Hanging Onto The Tail Of A Goat, it was directed by Brian Joyce and produced by Sabina Lauber, Tsewang’s then partner of ten years, who had also produced his music CD’s. We spent a few weeks getting Tsewang to re-enact all the stories he could remember from childhood to adult years while I took reams of notes and filled up numerous cassette tapes which I took away for the writing process.

Each day at my desk felt like travelling to Tibet, as I stepped into the young Tsewang’s voice while he played with his goats, ran about naked and went everywhere with his popola (grandfather), with whom at the age of four, he and other family members fled to Nepal. Thinking they would be gone for just a few months, his parents stayed behind to look after the animals. He didn’t see them again for another 30 years.

Tsewang’s family group took more than a year to traverse the rugged Himalayan ranges meeting up with other groups including a famous Dzogchen Lama who gave teachings as they travelled and threw the mo to divine directions when they were lost. Once the lama predicted ‘a being’ would come to show them the way, and soon enough a wild yak appeared just above the grass line. They followed the yak for days on end and got through, making it across a very difficult pass where they had only minutes to cross before a fatal blizzard set in. As they crossed they saw the frozen bodies of others who had not been so lucky — ‘a man sitting down with his pack on his back and a frozen horse standing like an ice sculpture.’

They arrived in Nepal where many of their party died from bad water and heat exhaustion and Tsewang was left in the care of a family while his popola went off to find other relatives who had escaped before them. Young Tsewang didn’t see him or his uncles and aunts for another few years until after being transferred to a school for refugee children, he was reunited with them in Dharamsala.

At the age of 12 his popola decided Tsewang should enter the Dalai Lama’s Namgyal Monastery and there he spent his teenage years being groomed as the chanting master (second in line to the Abbot). This was despite the fact that Tsewang was cheeky and mischievous with a high pitched raucous laugh that could be heard from the top floor of the monastery. He was beaten for that laugh many times.

Tenzing Tsewang playing himself as a monk

But by his early 20’s he realised he wanted to live a normal life. He wanted ‘to know what woman feels like and watch Bollywood movies every day’, but not wanting to upset anyone, most of all his popola, he tried pretending to be sick for a year. When his teacher asked him to do a special ceremony to the protectors (because he seemed to have many obstacles), Tsewang prayed alongside his teacher for the opposite — ‘please you know what I want, my teacher doesn’t know, so please give me everything he doesn’t want for me.’

Finally after talking to his uncle he found out all he had to do was write a letter of explanation to His Holiness and soon he was free to live ‘the platform heel, blue jean, Hotel California life’ that was waiting for him. Within a year he had met his future wife and migrated to Australia.

Sadly Tsewang passed away in Canada almost ten years ago but his mischievous spirit and his wonderful music live on. In June on my first ever Tibet journey, I will be carrying his spirit with me too, lighting butter lamps for him as I go, and remembering how bright the day was when his smile lit up the room.

Tsewang’s CD Gawala — So Happy, with Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, is available here.

Taste of Tibet June 7–18, is a twelve day creative tour of Nepal and Tibet for writers and artists. Still room to join! Contact Jan for more info.

Our tour begins in Nepal combining the essential sights of Kathmandu & the mountain town of Dhulikhel (renowned for its Himalayan views) with an extended tour of Tibet, flying in and out of Lhasa and arriving back into Nepal. Taking our inspiration from the monasteries, stupas, palaces and markets of ancient towns and villages, we immerse ourselves in the spiritual culture of these lands. Observing the old, the new, and the changes modern life has brought to the people of Tibet, we gather snippets, jottings, sketches, and photos of our travels for our creative journal. Steeping ourselves in its history, meeting its people and travelling through the Tibetan landscape, we find ways to bring this stimulus into our creative work. Daily workshops and exercises set up a framework for collecting creative material and provide the opportunity to share and receive feedback on your work. The creative conversation continues from the beginning of our tour to the end and beyond with a great group lining up including another friend of Tenzing Tsewang, author Walter Mason (Destination Saigon, Destination Cambodia).