When the travel bug first hit I took odd jobs all over the world to keep myself in plane tickets. Among these I worked as a guide in the jungles of Costa Rica, ranger in the Alaskan bush, and researcher in the Peruvian Amazon – I even earned a degree in Ecotourism and Adventure Travel along the way. Exploring and guiding have always been passions of mine, and on this Tibetan adventure I have met a man who takes guiding to the next level, making it an art. His name is Druja, the father of dragons. The reason he's so adroit? Well, it's a pretty good story...
A cantankerous young man, Druja and his two friends decided at age 12 that the simple nomadic lifestyle of their parents couldn’t contain them. They resolved to run away to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to try their hands at the city life. The journey from their native Amdo near the Chinese border wasn’t a simple hike, it took months of sneaking onto backs of trucks to inch their way ever closer to the city. Feeling very accomplished by arriving in Lhasa, the trio were strutting through the markets when their parents, anticipating the young men’s plan, walked up behind them and grabbed them by the ears. After what I can only imagine was the tongue lashing of a lifetime, the parents gave the children a small amount of money to get a meal before they would all return to Amdo. Being the rotten pre-teens they were, however, the boys turned this pocket money into bus fare as far out of Lhasa as they could get – Shigatse. Here they found work with the help of a Tibetan restaurateur who took them in and did the unthinkable, helped them escape Tibet.
The man knew of a Tibetan refugee camp across the border in India where the boys would be safe from the continued unrest from the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Knowing these boys only a short while, he paid a group of monks the equivalent of $100 per boy to guide them to safety. The months long journey would span the Himalayas, hiking only at night, across the Nepalese border, then up and across to India. The boys had only samba to eat which is a simple bread made of roasted barley flour, mixed with yak butter and water, then rolled into pellets. The expedition would claim fingers and toes from both of Druja’s friends due to the extreme cold of the high mountains.
In India the boys had a decision to make: what were they going to do with their lives? The refugee camp offered several options, they could train as mechanics, carpet weavers, or go into the monastery to be educated as Buddhist monks. Druja chose the latter even though as a nomad he had absolutely no knowledge of Buddhism – the first time he met the Dalai Lama, Druja didn’t even know who he was!
For seven years Druja would stay in Darum Sala, India learning about the roots of Buddhism in the Ban religion and training as a monk of the Yellow Sect. He would learn several dialects of Hindi, several more dialects of Tibetan, as well as English, and Nepali. Druja came to understand the cultural revolution of Tibet and what happened to his fellow monks during the takeover of Chairman Mao Tse Tung (over one million peaceful citizens were slaughtered for maintaining their religion).
At the age of 19, Druja decided it was time to make the trek back to his family and set off for home. Near Friendship Bridge at the Tibetan border he sat in the window of a restaurant where he could look out over a glacial river at his homeland, now displaying the distinct five star flag of China – his heart sank. Home was so near, a hundred meters away, but might as well be on another planet. The border was heavily guarded by Chinese troops who were diligently checking every line of travelers’ documents. Being so young when he left, Druja had no papers, nor could he get a passport as Tibetans are not allowed to leave their country by decree of the Chinese government. Druja knew it would take extreme measures to get across the border, and when the opportunity arose, he leapt.
A covered truck filled with Danish mountain climbers was approaching the bridge. Druja somehow snuck on board and hid behind as many of the brawny westerners as he could. I’m not sure if the men knowingly helped Druja, or if he was able to simply go undetected, but what happened next saved him from certain imprisonment or worse. The truck was stopped by armed patrolmen who were shouting into the truck for identification. Some men showed their papers, but when the guards tried to ply their authority and pull the men off the back of the truck they were rebuffed. The shear size difference between the climbers and their would be captors made the Chinese back down. The Danes literally intimidated their way across the border against men holding automatic weapons.
Druja had passed his first trial, but was now alone and on foot in the Tibetan Highlands with hundreds of miles to go. Soon enough another control point came between him and his forward progress and again he would have to find a bold way through the guards. This was a foot pass, no vehicles could cross, and travelers were being checked individually. Figuring anyone at the front or back of the line would face extra scrutiny, Druja cut his way into the middle of the pack. The guards stopped him, demanded his papers, and Druja reached into his pockets to see if he could find anything to help him through the situation. He produced from his breast pocket his school ID from the monastery. The card had his photo which helped, but also had in very plain English “in the name of his holiness the Dalai Lama” a phrase that could land one in prison under the Chinese regime.
The official analyzed the card. Druja prayed.
The prayers worked. The guard handed the card back to Druja, waved him through, and went on to check the next traveler. In what could only be described as a minor miracle, this particular guard had never learned English and couldn’t tell Druja’s monastic ID from a legitimate travel permit! In the next village, Druja found an underground forger who could set him up with papers that would get him through the rest of the checkpoints and back to the Amdo region.
After months of hardship trekking across the country, then tracking down his nomadic parents, Druja laid eyes on his mother for the first time in over seven years. Without saying a word, he approached her until she looked up at him. She asked if she had seen him before, he looked familiar. Druja told her who he was and she wept inconsolably.
Within a year Druja was married to a girl of his parents’ choosing. A year later he was a father. But Druja could never fully assimilate back into his old life and before long took off to continue traveling. His bride’s parents wouldn’t agree to leaving the community and broke off the marriage, once again leaving Druja on his own. In his time back in Tibet he would learn Mandarin, allowing him to travel in Chinese controlled areas including China proper (for which he does not need a passport). In the years to come he joined G Adventures and now lives very well guiding travelers across borders, through control points, and giving them a deeper understanding of this amazing country and its Buddhist culture, religion, and history.