Murder in the High Himalaya

Loyalty, Tragedy, and Escape from Tibet


By Jonathan Green

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On September 30, 2006 gunfire echoed through the thin air near Advance Base Camp on Cho Oyu Mountain. Frequented by thousands of climbers each year, Cho Oyu lies nineteen miles east of Mt. Everest on the border between Tibet and Nepal. To the elite mountaineering community, it offers a straightforward summit — a warm-up climb to her formidable sister. To Tibetans, Cho Oyu promises a gateway to freedom through a secret glacial path: the Nangpa La.

Murder in the High Himalaya is the unforgettable account of the brutal killing of Kelsang Namtso — a seventeen-year-old Tibetan nun fleeing to India — by Chinese border guards. Witnessed by dozens of Western climbers, Kelsang’s death sparked an international debate over China’s savage oppression of Tibet. Adventure reporter Jonathan Green has gained rare entrance into this shadow-land at the rooftop of the world. In his affecting portrait of modern Tibet, Green raises enduring questions about morality and the lengths we go to achieve freedom.


This book is dedicated to my parents, Anthony and Sarah Green. They taught me the importance of justice and truth, no matter the cost.
And Keisha. Love of my life, my strength and my foundation.

Writing about Tibet offers myriad problems for any reporter. The truth and those prepared to speak it are dismayingly hard to discover. Misrepresentation, conspiracies of silence, and the hijacking of the truth for political and personal agendas are certain obstacles for anyone engaging in serious investigation into modern-day Tibet.
Because the consequences can be severe for any Tibetan caught speaking out about his or her country—certainly for any Tibetan lending information to an investigative reporter like myself—I have made every effort to protect the identities of the individuals in this book. I have changed the names of all of the individuals within the book who remain in Tibet, and I have obscured details when I felt it was necessary to do so in order to protect the rights and privacy of characters whose lives have been affected by the events on the Nangpa La.
The details of the escape were constructed from scores of interviews with escapees, other witnesses, transcripts supplied by the International Campaign for Tibet, and first-hand reporting in the Himalaya. In some cases, reporting action or dialogue, I have relied on single-source accounts.

Tibet is a land of timeless, infinite expanse. The "Roof of the World" soars from the Earth's crust some three miles above sea level. The highest region on the planet is a vast plateau, six times bigger than Western Europe. At such altitude, there is half as much oxygen in the air as there is at sea level. Tibetans call their home "The Land of Snows."
For centuries, Tibet was known as a forbidden, inaccessible, and secretive realm, sequestered from the world by its altitude and bordered by an often impassable mountain range, the mightiest in the world. To the west of Tibet is the scimitar slash of the Karakoram range of northern Kashmir, the high-altitude battleground between Pakistan and India. To the north are the Kunlun and Qilian ranges that separate the country from the desolate Gobi desert. To the south is the empyrean, glacier-draped Himalayan range.
The high plateau is often called the "Third Pole." With forty-six thousand glaciers, it contains the biggest ice fields outside of the Arctic and Antarctic. To the north is Chang Tang, a massive, impassable, and unpopulated salt and borax desert, which resembles a lunarscape. Forests of juniper, oak, ash, spruce, cypress, and jungles of rhododendron lie to the south. This vast wilderness is roamed by snow leopards and Tibetan Blue Bear in the mountains, by monkeys and red pandas in the valleys, and by wild antelope and kiang (wild asses) on the plains. The Tibetan antelope—chiru—roam the grasslands like African wildebeest. Overhead, giant Griffon Vultures and Golden Eagles soar.
Tibetans believe that their genesis took place when their land was once ruled by a peaceful, contemplative monkey. The monkey king lived in retreat in a cave but was lured by the mournful cries of a female ogre, who was vindictive and sexually insatiable. Seduced, he fathered six children with her; they became the first Tibetans.
For twenty-five thousand years, humans have lived on the high plateau.
Into the mid-twentieth century, Tibet remained an antiquated theocracy. Even by the 1950s, few Westerners had seen Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Life was harsh. Yet nomads, warrior chieftains, monks, and nuns in the vast disconnected land of Tibet were unified in their devotion to the Dalai Lama. Over centuries, in each reincarnation, his mission was to teach compassion. His name meant "Ocean of Wisdom." Tibetans called him "Precious Conqueror" or "Wish-Granting Jewel." Others simply called him Kundun—The Presence.
Today, the Dalai Lama lives in exile in India, and Tibet, his former home, is sometimes mythologized by Westerners as an enigmatic Shangri-La.
For Tibetans, whose homeland is now annexed to China, life is lived in a fiercely patrolled, highly secretive zone on the roof of the world where the Dalai Lama cannot set foot and where pledging allegiance to the spiritual leader of the country can result in a protracted jail term. Hundreds of Tibetan monks, nuns, and laypeople are serving prison terms for flying Tibetan flags, for daring to voice their desire for a free Tibet in public, or for supporting the Dalai Lama publicly or privately. In modern-day Tibet free speech is criminalized. Tibetans can be handed prison terms of fifteen years or more by Chinese Communist Party officials for broadcasting their views on websites or speaking out to foreigners about their country on the telephone or in e-mail. Just downloading songs about the Dalai Lama on the Internet can result in a jail term.
Despite exploding economic and military growth in China, the Communist Party fears separatism and revolt in Tibet—which forms one quarter of China's landmass—as it attempts to consolidate control and assimilate the country into China.
Today, Tibetan cities are being flooded with Han Chinese migrants who are rapidly outnumbering Tibetans, leaving them undereducated with ever-dwindling long-term opportunities. Lhasa, once the Forbidden City, is now fast becoming a booming Chinese capital city replete with karaoke bars, brothels, five-star hotels, and luxury car dealerships.
The Chinese call Tibet, Xizang, meaning Western Treasure House. The exploitation of the natural resources of Tibet is under way.1 Within the plateau lie 40 million tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead and zinc, and more than a billion tons of iron. (Tibetan copper alone amounts to one-third of China's reserves.) Mining revenue from Tibet will top $1.5 billion in the coming years.2
The once indomitable peaks of the Himalaya, which have long served to isolate Tibet from its neighbors, have meanwhile become the ultimate test for serious Western mountain climbers. Each year, increasing numbers seek glory and an escape from the drudgery of their lives, an answer to life's eternal riddle in the world's highest mountain range.
Roughly 2,500 Tibetans flee their country annually in a brutal journey over the Himalaya. Some are escaping for a new life in India. All want to meet their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
A Note On Geography
Tibet traditionally comprised three main regions: Amdo (northeastern Tibet), Kham (eastern Tibet), and U-Tsang (central and western Tibet). In 1965 the Chinese government established the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). It includes Tibet west of the Yangste River and part of Kham. The rest of Amdo and Kham were incorporated into Chinese provinces. These areas, where there is a dense Tibetan population, are designated as Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and Tibetan Autonomous Counties. Chinese authorities still regard most of Qinghai and parts of Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces as 'Tibetan.'
Kelsang Namtso photographed near her hometown of Driru. Date unknown.
Dolma at the Tibetan Children's Village School, Suja, Bir, India, March 2008
Luis Benitez in front of the Khumbu icefall, Mount Everest, 2003. PHOTO COURTESY OF DIDRIK JOHNCK.
Chinese PAP on Cho Oyu, September 2006, shortly after the murder of Kelsang Namtso.
Dolma and Jamyang at the Tibetan Children's School, Suja, Bir, India, 2008
Tibetan refugee safe house, Nepal December 2006
Sergiu Matei and the Dalai Lama, Warsaw, Poland, December 2008

This core of the earth
This heart of the world
Fenced round by snow
The headland of all rivers
Where the mountains are high and the land is pure
A country so good
Where men are born as sages and heroes
And act according to good laws
A land of horses even more speedy
From a ninth-century document describing Tibet
The scouring winds howled in from the plateau. Just above the insistent moaning of the unstoppable gust through the cracks of the spruce door, she heard it again. A rapping and then, faintly, beyond the thick mud wall of the house, voices. Dolma Palkyi's eyes snapped open, and a familiar knotted sense of dread rose in her throat. At 10:30 p.m., an unannounced visit in Chinese-occupied Tibet meant trouble.
The one-room house was thick with the cloying smoke of a yak-dung fire. A single, guttering yak-butter candle lit the room. Eight-year-old Dolma, who had raven black hair and piercing almond eyes set above broad cheekbones, was lying motionless under a yak hide. Her mother, Nyima,a moved quickly in the darkness. The family was used to these intrusions. Sometimes the men from the Public Security Bureau (PSB) left the rural Tibetans alone. Other times, they summarily detained men, women, and children. Nyima slid out of bed and blew out the candle. The knocking on the door intensified. "Don't move," she told her daughter. "You're not to say anything if they ask you anything." Dolma's brother Rinzin, a gangly thirteen-year-old, was rousing himself. Nyima strode across the room to pick up her five-year-old daughter Kyizom. Quickly she turned to her children and said, "Remember, say nothing." Outside, snowstorms had buried the highland steppe under a meter of snow. In this exceptionally unforgiving winter, yaks, the mainstay of many Tibetan families, were freezing to death and dying by the hundreds.
Nyima struggled to lift the cumbersome wooden bar across the heavy, warped door. As the door slid open, a blast of minus-thirty-degree air roared into the room. Out of the darkness, three men in long, ill-fitting Chinese overcoats emerged. One mustached man, his hands deep in his pockets, scanned the room and grunted. The other two went to work, lifting pots by the fire, looking inside and underneath before dropping them, irritably, back in place.
"We've come to check to see if you are using an electric stove," lied the man with the moustache to Nyima. There was no electricity during the harsh winter in the tiny village of Juchen. The Nagchu River, a tributary of the mighty Salween, was a frozen highway of ice in the winter months. When the ice choked the river, the Chinese-built hydropower plants couldn't function, and electricity failed.
The men were poorly disguised PSB officials, secret police who arbitrarily snatched people out of their homes and off the streets for activities deemed "unpatriotic" to China and Mao Zedung's Communist legacy. Tonight, they were searching for pictures of the Dalai Lama. Just three years earlier, in 1995, possession of a picture of the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet had been made a crime that could easily be met with torture, grueling patriotic reeducation sessions, a prison sentence, or hard labor.
The three men clumped past the stove in heavy boots, peered behind it, and poked around a pile of smoldering yak dung. Nyima allowed herself only the quickest of glances at the fuel tray of the mud stove. A few hours before, she had stashed images of His Holiness within.
To Westerners, the Dalai Lama is the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize and spiritual head of one of the world's oldest religions. To Tibetans, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, is a god in human form. To the Chinese officials in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Dalai Lama is a "splittist"—public enemy number one. In the words of Zhang Qingli, head of the Communist Party in Tibet, he is "a wolf wrapped in monk's robes, a monster with a human face but the heart of a beast,"1 and an advocate of rape, murder and child cannibalism.2
Without a word spoken, the men rummaged around pulling the four small beds away from the wall, tearing off still-warm bedding. They lingered by the choesom, a beautiful filigreed altar in the corner of the room. Pictures of lamas were displayed, but none of His Holiness. With curt nods to Nyima, the PSB officials abandoned their search, leaving as gruffly as they'd come. They had failed in their mission to catch the family with forbidden pictures at an unguarded hour.
Nyima moved to barricade the door. Snow had whistled in and settled on the kitchen table. Hurriedly, she crossed to the stove and pulled out three pictures of His Holiness. The pictures steamed; one was singed at the corner. In one, the Dalai Lama sat in the lotus position wearing a large yellow hat—resembling a saffron Mohawk hairstyle—denoting his allegiance to the Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. In another, the Dalai Lama floated above the Potala Palace, his former home in Lhasa. The third, a pendant that Nyima always wore tucked deep into her clothing and hidden out of sight, featured the Dalai Lama making a benediction. Nyima clutched the images to her chest, smiling with relief. Several hours earlier, a neighbor had alerted Nyima that an unmarked PSB car had been spotted heading to Juchen village. Many of the villagers had had just enough time to hide their pictures of His Holiness.
Nyima's children crowded around, hugging their mother tightly. Nyima soothed them with stories of what life was like before the drab, humorless Communists invaded on October 7, 1950, which was the start of a move to violently annex Tibet to the "Motherland."
To the Communists in their shapeless, frog-green uniforms who decried religion and lived according to a mass of party rules, the Tibetan monks and nuns in their swirling maroon robes who spent hours chanting Buddhist mantras were anathema. The Chinese scorned Tibetans as primitive barbarians and the religious elite as lazy. Around 15 percent of the population lived as monks and nuns, devoting their lives to meditation, retreat, and devotion to the Buddha. The Chinese regarded the religious community of Tibet as parasites kept fat by the hard work of the serfs who supported them. They were most disgusted by their unquestioning fealty to the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama, aged twenty-three, eventually fled his hallowed quarters in the Potala Palace after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. Disguised as a soldier, with seven hundred Khampa guerillas guarding him at the rear, he had successfully escaped to India. Since the Dalai Lama's departure, over 100,000 Tibetans had fled the country.
As the children huddled for warmth, Nyima recounted stories of their grandfather, a warlord chieftain. Dolma listened enraptured, as her mother told of the courtiers in brocade gowns and fur-lined hats who fussed around her grandfather when he visited Lhasa. He was wealthy and always bedecked in centuries-old gold jewelry, his face framed by rare turquoise earrings. Dolma nuzzled closer, comforted by the familiar earthy smell of her mother. Nyima's small hands were callused, and there were dark crescents of dirt under nails from laboring in the fields behind the family's home. But she had a regal aspect—sharp cheekbones and a defiant gaze that set her apart from other villagers.
Nyima told how the invading Chinese army had killed thousands in Kham, marching forward under fluttering blood-red Communist pennants. Nyima whispered, "The Tibetans who were killed came back to life; they became rolang [zombies], always roaming the land looking for people to eat." In a low whisper, Nyima continued, "But the Tibetans made doors with high sills and low beams. The rolang could not bend down, so they couldn't get in the houses." The three children turned to observe their own humble door. Indeed, it was small; adults had to stoop when they entered. Nyima went on, "They only jump; they don't walk." The wind continued to batter the door as it rattled against the lock. Nyima chuckled in the half-light. At last, Dolma felt safe. The memory of the uninvited men in their home receded. She felt her eyes grow heavy with sleep.
By the age of ten, when Dolma began to undertake chores outside the home, she was inseparable from her best friend and closest neighbor, Dolkar Tomso. Dolma's and Dolkar's houses faced each other across a patch of bumpy, undeveloped ground near a small pond. Together they headed each day to the little creek behind their houses to get water for their families. (In winter, they had to break the thick ice with an axe.) Dolkar was a capricious ball of energy. Whip-thin, with full crimson lips and large expressive brown eyes, she could also be painfully quiet and secretive. Above all, she was mulishly stubborn.
A year older than Dolkar, Dolma was the perfect foil to her friend's impulsive nature. Even when she walked, Dolma expressed an economy of movement. Her voice was soothing but firm. She was refined, and covered her mouth when she coughed. While other neighborhood children looked worn out from poor diets and heavy workloads, Dolma positively shone with good health and was carefully dressed in bright clothes that her mother made for her.
In Juchen village, a hamlet in Tibet's Driru (Ch: Biru) County, seventy crudely constructed sandstone houses cling to the lower inclines of a mountain. At 14,000 feet above sea level, the village is barely visible from a vast panorama of plummeting gorges and rippling mountains. Forty towering peaks of the Yargong Snow Mountains surround Driru County. In winter, they are capped with blisteringly white snow. For a few short months in the spring and summer, the russet sandstone mountains are carpeted with thick alpine grass.
Juchen lies by a tributary of the mighty Salween, which provides Southeast Asia with fresh water. Tibetans call the Salween the "Nagchu" (Nag means black, chu means water or river); its inky hue derives from black metamorphic rocks near the industrial town of Nagchu. The water-shed of Asia, Tibet supplies water to hundreds of millions of the earth's population (in India and Southeast Asia). The headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, and Indus rivers all originate there. They snake over the great plains and grassland steppe through lush valleys as gentle, jade-colored streams before bursting through the Himalaya. Thousands of feet below, with a sound like a cataclysmic rolling thunder, the Salween forms massive, forested gorges thick with rhododendron.
Juchen is one of a nexus of villages that line the banks of the river. It is connected to the main country road leading to the larger town of Driru by an unassuming iron bridge. For any medical emergencies or even simple groceries, people have to head to Driru.
The mountains provided Dolma and Dolkar with a vast playground and an unrivalled refuge. When word arrived that a PSB search was imminent, Nyima loaded Dolma with images and recordings of the Dalai Lama to stash in a cave on Bungga Mountain. (Some families hid such contraband in the village; others placed it in weighted plastic bags that they dropped in the river for later retrieval.)
From the mouth of the musty cave, Dolma and Dolkar could see the Kongpo mountains to the south. The tallest mountain in the range, also called Kongpo, was the protector of Juchen and home of the fearsome female deity, Jomo Kongchoe. The girls prayed to her for their safety. But at heart, they felt safe here in the shelter of the massive mountains. This was their territory.
The Chinese security presence in Tibet was ubiquitous. A military headquarters with whitewashed walls and a corrugated steel roof lay to the southwest of Juchen. Dolma and Dolkar could see into the base when they climbed up the mountain to collect wild onions. Sometimes they saw soldiers running in formation along the roads, chanting in unison. The girls were used to being scrutinized. Everywhere they went, Dolma and Dolkar encountered Chinese roadblocks and checkpoints. Grim-faced officials asked innumerable questions, looking for any infraction of regulations. The two friends had learned early on to give a minimum amount of information.
Driru is the first region of Kham reached when heading northeast from Lhasa. Once run by warlords, Kham was historically a mountainous stronghold. To this day, Khampas are feared by Chinese and Tibetans alike.
After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, many Khampas, funded and trained by the American CIA, became a fearsome insurgent army, code-named Chushi-Gangdruk, the Four Rivers Six Ranges. They rode on horseback with muzzle-loaded flintlocks, mercilessly attacking Chinese convoys and bases. Dressed in sheepskin jackets and fox-fur hats, the Khampas were as rugged as the land they inhabited. The Chinese quickly learned not to tangle with them. While the Chinese brutally suppressed the rest of Tibet, they found the remote regions like Driru harder to control. The Khampas from Driru fought so famously hard against the Chinese that few men were left in the area. To the Khampas, the Chinese authorities were just interlopers in the great passage of history, and the land was too powerful to be owned by anyone.
The Red Guards destroyed 6,000 Buddhist monasteries in Tibet before and during the Cultural Revolution and forbade the building of stupas (sacred edifices containing Buddhist relics) and Buddhist monuments. But Juchen's determined villagers shipped in bricks surreptitiously from Lhasa. At night, they carried the heavy stones high up a mountain to the east to construct a stupa. A few weeks before its completion, Chinese officials discovered the two-story structure. Unable to get heavy machinery up the mountain to destroy it, the Chinese had no option but to let this black eye to their authority stand.
The Communist Party closely monitored education in Tibet. Tibetan children were to be educated at a Chinese government-run school where they learned Chinese, English, and the "official" version of Tibetan history. In Juchen, a kind man with a walnut complexion had taught Tibetan. When they were eleven and twelve, Dolkar and Dolma briefly attended classes in a makeshift one-room school. But when the Chinese got wind of the operation, it was quickly shut down.
Most parents refused to send their children to the Chinese school. They worried that they would become corrupted by Communist dogma and end up as prostitutes serving the massive Chinese army in Tibet or that they would be lured away from helping at home to become store clerks. Nyima's refusal to allow Dolma to attend the school was more pragmatic. She worried about the food that was served at the school. All the children who went there came home with food poisoning.
By the time they were adolescents, both Dolma and Dolkar shouldered increasingly harder outdoor chores, beyond the cozy confines of their homes, like taking care of the families' yaks—leading them to pasture before breakfast and herding them back home at dark. During the day, the girls scavenged the mountainsides for firewood, which provided much needed income and fuel for their families.
Dolkar was impulsive. Once, heading home while slumped under the weight of a particularly heavy load of wood, Dolkar bound her bundle tightly, axe and all. Before Dolma could stop her, she impatiently kicked the bundle downhill. It bounced violently and flew open, sending its contents flying. A day's work had been lost. Worse, the axe was gone.
They knew that Dolkar's father, Tsedup, would be furious if his axe was lost. The girls spent three hours combing the mountainside before Dolma triumphantly raised the axe above her head. When they returned home late that night, Tsedup, a tall, mercurial man with little patience for foolishness, was incandescent with rage that a fire could not be lit and that potential income had been squandered due to Dolkar's fecklessness. Sometimes People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers from a nearby garrison aggressively demanded fuel for their fires from each household. Villagers without fuel to spare were beaten. Tsedup couldn't risk his supply of yak dung. That night the family shivered under their yak hides, struggling to stay warm.
In the normally hardscrabble life of Juchen, an economic boom was underway Previously dependent on subsistence farming and the few yuan they were able to get selling surplus crops, firewood, and yak products, Tibetans in Driru and the surrounding counties found themselves surrounded by an incredibly lucrative natural resource—caterpillar fungus, or yartsa gunbu,b which flourishes in high-altitude grasslands.
Yartsa gunbu had been popular in Asia since the fifteenth century, but in the past two decades, demand for the fungus had boomed. In the 1990s, three Chinese runners broke world records for their running times in the 1,500, 3,000, and 10,000 meter races, and they pointed to caterpillar fungus as their secret weapon. In preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese Olympic team ingested caterpillar fungus in massive quantities. With such voracious demand for the fungus in China, it was more valuable than gold (Tibetans refer to the fungus as "soft gold"). The price had increased 500 percent from 1997 to 2006. In Tibet, Chinese Muslim traders paid from $2,800 to $11,200 for one kilogram of dried yartsa, more than enough money for a Tibetan family to live on for a year.
The PSB restricted Tibetans from other areas from taking the soft gold out of Driru because it led to violence. The brother of Dolkar's friend Thinley Wangmo was sentenced to a year in prison after a vicious fight with Hui Muslim traders over mountain territory with a high yield of caterpillar fungus. In the summer months, Dolkar and Dolma headed into the mountains with their families to hunt for the fungus. To Nyima's chagrin, the girls would become lost in play, often missing the precious resource beneath their feet.


On Sale
Jun 1, 2010
Page Count
304 pages

Jonathan Green

About the Author

Award-winning journalist Jonathan Green has written for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire, GQ, the Financial Times Magazine, Men’s Health, and the Mail on Sunday, among others. Never shy of demanding assignments, he has reported in war-torn Sudan, the jungles of Borneo, and the ice fields of Alaska. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife.

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