By Lobsang Wangyal
SPANGMIK (Ladakh), India, 10 July 2014
It’s about five hours journey by car on bumpy and sometimes perilous roads, but a visit to Ladakh would not be complete without a circuit of the holy and picturesque Pangong Lake.
Pangong Lake is situated at more than 4,000 metres above sea level. It is 134 kilometres long and extends from India into Tibet. About 60% of the length of the lake lies in Tibet.
From where all the cars stop at Pangong Lake, a 20-minute drive further up brings one to a small village on the edge of the lake called Spangmik, in Changtang of the nomadic region of Ladakh.
Once there, any visitor would be tempted to stay for a few days. Travelling with a group during a day off for devotees during the Kalchakra initiation by the Dalai Lama, a halt for the night was a natural decision by all the members of the group.
To our surprise and delight, we found 69-year-old Tibetan Tsering Dondup running a home stay there. We gladly took three of the four rooms he had. Later, we realised that we were lucky to get those rooms, as there was a sudden rush of more people from the Kalachakra to Pangong Lake.
Dinner was our first priority after checking in. We were all happy to have the pak (dough made from barley powder with butter, dried cheese and a pinch of sugar), dried yak meat, potatoes cooked with greens, and black tea. That was the greatest dinner we had all had in a long time.
Dondup’s camp name is “Tibetan Home Stay”: A perfect expression of Tibetan hospitality, accessibility, and sense of humour.
Spangmik, 80 kilometres from the Tibetan border (now known as “India-China border”), has nine families. Dondup is the only Tibetan. His Tibetan identity is as strong as any other Tibetan and his hopes for a free Tibet are similarly high. He was born in Nangchen in the Kham province of Tibet. He came to India in 1959 after the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
Dondup has been living with his wife on about an acre of land in Spangmik for 25 years. He has served in the SFF (Special Frontier Force), the Tibetan wing in the Indian army, for 27 years.
He led a nomadic life herding a few hundred goats and sheep after he retired from SFF. After his age became an obstacle to going after the animals, he started the Tibetan Home Stay in 2008. However, he still has 14 cows, giving him more than enough dairy products for his family. The remainder of the dairy products he exchanges with other villagers for fodder for the cows.
His business with the four rooms during the season from June to September brings him enough to live for the rest of the year and also to travel for pilgrimage. In the winter he dedicates most of his time to dharma.
Taking advantage of his hospitality business, he speaks to tourists and spreads awareness about the cause for a free Tibet.
In addition to the typical Tibetan environment in his home, he has many Free Tibet stickers and slogans on his walls. The most prominent of them all is his own painted “Free Holy Tibet” on the wall of his modest dining hall.
“There are travellers from all over the world. I speak to them and explain about the Tibetan cause,” says Dondup.
The Tibetan Welfare Officer for Ladakhin Choglamsar calls him a “one-man army.”
The tourists like and appreciate his efforts for freedom in Tibet. “Some even cry as we bid farewell”, says Dondup.
Dondup believes that Tibet will be free in his lifetime. “We will return to our homeland one day. I don’t doubt that.”
“There is a special status for Jammu and Kashmir in India, called Article 370. Maybe Tibet could have something similar within China.”
An avid watcher of world news on many channels, including Japan’s NHK, a French, and a Russian channel, he says he fully supports the Dalai Lama’s overture of the “Middle-way” approach to resolve the Tibetan issue.
Dondup had sent his wife to attend the Kalachakra initiation. He first met her in the late 80s and wedded her on 10 December 1989, the day when the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize. The couple are without any children now, having lost two who died when they were young.
“It’s my karma, or maybe I have a mission,” Dondup says about his life in Spangmik and his Ladakhi wife.
Our experiences at Tibetan Home Stay will remain in our memories for a long time.