The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

An Insider’s Story: Traveling with the Dalai Lama and His Entourage

by Rinchen Sadutshang
March 9, 2016
Wed, 03/09/2016 - 10:00 -- Rinchen Sadutshang

Chapter 23: To China with the Dalai Lama and His Entourage

More than two years had passed now since the Chinese entered Lhasa. In China they were making preparations for the National People’s Congress to frame a new constitution, which was to allot ten seats for Tibet. The Chinese extended an invitation to His Holiness to visit China and attend the National People’s Congress in the fall of 1954. After some careful consideration the invitation was accepted. His Holiness, being fully aware of the existing problems between the Tibetan people and the Chinese occupiers, thought that this visit would give him an opportunity to speak directly to the top Chinese leaders to resolve these issues. However, the Tibetan public was deeply disturbed because they thought that if His Holiness went to China, he might never be allowed to return to Tibet. They pleaded with him not to travel to China. His Holiness promised to return within a year, and since this assurance came from him directly, the fears of the Tibetans were somewhat allayed.

The entourage accompanying His Holiness to China numbered 156, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his two tutors Yongzin Ling Rinpoche and Yongzin Trijang Rinpoche, two cabinet ministers, a large number of government officials of various ranks, heads of the various religious sects, abbots of all the large monasteries, and a few artists as well. Apart from a special group of monk officials attending to His Holiness’s personal needs, including that of his kitchen, there were two other committees. One committee was responsible for all matters of transportation and the other for organizing camping arrangements. I was assigned to the latter, a committee of eight officials presided over by Dzasak Kundeling.

For the first sixteen days we had to travel on horseback and camp outdoors in tents when we rested. Thereafter we reached a motorable road built by the Chinese, and from then on Chinese military vehicles were available for the onward journey. Camping sites for each day had been determined in advance, and all concerned Tibetan district heads had already received instructions for arranging transport of animals, fodder, tables, mattresses, carpets, firewood, and cooking utensils. Our camping arrangement committee also had the responsibility of transporting special tents and equipment for His Holiness’s personal use, items that were assigned to us by the government’s tent department. We had to see to it that everything was arranged and ready several hours in advance of His Holiness’s arrival. Since such advance preparations had to be made, we were divided into two groups. The first group traveled a day in advance and arranged the distribution of tables, mattresses, firewood, and such for each official member of the delegation. This group put name tags on the items they had made ready, so that there was no confusion on taking possession of these once the entourage arrived. The second group, to which I belonged, had to travel very early so that it reached the following day’s campsite by late afternoon. This way, all preparations could be made ready by the next morning. His Holiness’s kitchen staff also had the same alternate arrangement, and so we traveled together. As soon as we arrived, our foremost task was to select the best and most appropriate site for His Holiness’s personal tent, making sure all the equipment was in place so that everything was ready the following morning. The Chinese insisted on taking full responsibility for His Holiness’s personal security. A couple of Chinese security personnel would always arrive an hour or two in advance of His Holiness and check all that we had arranged, pulling everything apart and thus making us rearrange the entire setup. This of course was much to our annoyance!

His Holiness’s historic journey to China began one fine, bright morning on July 11, 1954. His first stop was Ganden Monastery, which was one of the three largest of the Geluk lineage. Ganden was located on Mount Wangkur, about forty-five kilometers southeast of Lhasa. For the next three days His Holiness, accompanied by his tutors, traveled by car, as there was a fairly decent and level road. The rest of the delegation traveled on horseback, and it took them four days to reach Kongpo Gyamda, the last stop on the motorable road. I was given the privilege of driving the 1931 Ford convertible assigned to the two tutors. This car was of special significance because it was the first imported motor vehicle in Tibet and had been used by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. The present Dalai Lama traveled in a newer car, a 1947 Austin. At the end of the motorable road I joined my original assignment and traveled on horseback for the next ten days. We passed through Kongpo, where the land was low lying and forested, enjoying plenty of rain. We encountered quite a few landslides, especially where the Chinese were constructing roads. Once we had to cross a spot where a landslide had recently taken place, wading through thick mud and loose stones. A few minutes later we heard rumbling and clatter and looked back to find stones falling down the hill at that very spot! This close call compelled us to stop until it was safe to proceed, around a half hour later.

Our hazardous journey ended seven days later at a place called Po Tamo, from where we could proceed by car. Here there was a large Chinese construction camp, and the Chinese gave His Holiness a warm welcome. However, we Tibetans were thoroughly shocked at the way they treated His Holiness, our ruler and spiritual leader, with familiarity and casualness, as if he were just an ordinary person. They shook hands with him and offered him Chinese tea in an ordinary enamel mug. What was worse, they didn’t even hesitate to smoke in his presence. This made me angry and sad. At the same time I also felt helpless, because I couldn’t do anything to stop it.

The Chinese had arranged army vehicles, Russian jeeps, and small World War II American trucks for our transport. Our journey began the next day with His Holiness, the two tutors, and high officials riding in jeeps. The rest of us had to ride in the trucks. On the second day we reached the town of Chamdo, the seat of the governor of eastern Tibet, where the Tibetans had formally surrendered to the People’s Liberation Army three years ago. It was decided that there would be a rest period of two days, which I welcomed gladly.

...The most significant visit [on this trip] was to the city of Shanghai. My fellow Tibetans were very impressed by the size of the city, especially of the tall buildings that went up as high as fifteen stories. In fact, we were taken to dinner at a large restaurant with a beautiful open terrace, on the fourteenth floor of a hotel called Hotel Gochi. Since I had been to Shanghai in 1946, soon after World War II, it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Neither did I see any distinct improvement in the city since then. In fact, with an overall appearance of neglect about it, it seemed to have deteriorated since I last saw it. On my earlier visit I remembered shopping at the well-known British department store Whiteway. I remembered being greeted by a tall turbaned Sikh doorman in a grand uniform. I also remembered that I had visited Xizhang-lu, or Tibet Road, right in the center of the city.

From Shanghai we were taken to Hangzhou, famous for its beauty and its silk factories. I had visited this city too in 1946 and recalled a pilgrimage to a few Buddhist monasteries on the hill. But this time we were not taken to any monasteries. Instead the Chinese took us to some homes for the elderly. In one of these we saw senior citizens enjoying themselves, playing mahjong, cards, and other games in a prettily decorated hall. After our visit there, one of our colleagues had to go back to retrieve something he’d left behind and was amazed to find the entire hall empty and deserted, the same hall that, until a short time ago, was lively and filled with happy old people! The whole thing had been staged for us; the Chinese clearly had no qualms about resorting to deceit. In the same manner, they continued to brief us and feed us propaganda, distorting all the facts, no doubt.

After a long and exhausting tour of many places, some of which were truly enjoyable, we returned to Beijing a few weeks before the Tibetan New Year in early 1955. It was decided that a customary New Year ceremony would be held at the Dalai Lama’s Beijing office, where already a special suite existed for His Holiness. There was also a hall that could be used for the ceremony. His Holiness moved into his suite at the Beijing office on New Year’s eve.

The New Year ceremony was conducted in its traditional manner, with all the Tibetan officials dressed in special robes. In keeping with tradition, new officials were inducted that day, two monks and one lay. In the evening the Dalai Lama hosted a dinner for the Chinese leaders at Renmin Daihuitang, the Great Hall of the People, inside the erstwhile Chinese emperor’s palace compound. I was among the officials assigned to make preparations for the dinner at seven in the evening. The Panchen Lama arrived early and exchanged greeting scarves with the Dalai Lama, and they touched their foreheads. The first Chinese leader to arrive was Zhu De, followed by Liu Shaoqi, a high-ranking CPC secretary. Then came Premier Zhou Enlai, followed soon afterward by Mao Zedong. We had arranged individual tables for the top leaders, each with a dega, which is a stack of Tibetan New Year pastries, droma dresil, and of course the indispensable butter tea. As soon as Mao arrived, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama received him at the door, and they exchanged scarves. When they were seated butter tea was served, followed by an offering of chema, which is roasted barley flour, or tsampa, mixed with butter and set firmly in an ornamental wooden container. The Dalai Lama explained to his guests that when chema is offered, auspicious words are uttered, and one throws some of this tsampa in the air. Then the guests were escorted to the dinner table. There were altogether two hundred people, which included about thirty Tibetan representatives to the National People’s Congress from various parts of Kham and Amdo, forty officials of the Tibetan government in Lhasa, and the Panchen Lama. The remaining guests were all Chinese officials.

This is an excerpt from A Life Unforeseen by Rinchen Sadutshang. Click here to get the book and keep reading.

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