Tsering Dondup, 68, fled Tibet when he was just a young boy and hasn’t returned since – and yet he sees his country everyday when he steps out of his home on Pangong Tso, which occupies a section of the border between India and Tibet. It is obvious that his relationship with his birthplace is tenacious.
“In India, it is a democracy – we are living very peacefully and happy,” he says of the country which received him and more than 80 000 other Tibetans in 1959. “But I remember my country.”
A disputed area
Sitting at over 4200m above sea level, Pangong Tso is the world’s highest saltwater lake – but it also sits on the Sino-India Line of Actual Control. Only 5 kilometers in breadth (at its widest point) and with more than 60 per cent of its 134km length being under Chinese control, Pangong Tso has long been a disputed area that requires strict security measures. These include “Inner Line Permits” for visitors and restrictions against boating.
All in a day's work
By order of a regional Head Lama, Dondup was entrusted with the task of maintaining a local monastery. Twice a day, he makes the six-kilometer journey there over the hills behind his house, where he carries out Buddhist rituals, such as filling seven bowls of water as an offering and keeping butter lamps lit.
“He ordered, ‘You must maintain this,’” Dondup says of the Head Lama who assigned him this duty. “I will obey his order.”
The road to exile
Both of Dondup’s parents were killed in clashes with Chinese troops during the occupation of Tibet in the 1950s, and, shortly after their loss, he found himself among thousands of Tibetans who fled to India during the mass exile of 1959.
“I joined the army in 1968 because I wanted revenge,” he explains of his reasons for joining the Indian Army.
Moved by love
Dondup came to live in this extremely remote region of India in 1989, after he married a Ladakhi woman from Spangmik. At the time, the village was only a third of the size it is today - meaning that it was comprised of a mere three households. The now nine-households-big village includes the home that he shares with his wife of 23 years.
Home is where the heart is
The youngest of nine children and with no children of his own, Dondup's relationship with his wife is one that he cherishes greatly. “Love is blind,” he says, with a laugh. Indeed, love may be blind, but it was this woman's good looks that initially drew the young soldier's attention to her.
The two married on December 10, 1989 - a particularly auspicious day for Dondup, as Tibet's spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on that day.
An unwavering loyalty
Though Dondup has gone on to create his own small family in India, he is creative in expressing his allegiance to his former country – and to the cause for a free Tibet. Displayed atop clustered cupboards in the kitchen (and main living space) of his home, is a string of empty canisters, each painted with a bold yellow letter on its side. Lined up, they spell “FREE TIBET”.
“I want to see the birds, the sheep, the horses [of Tibet]. I want to see them again," he says. "Are they there, or not? I don’t know."
While Dondup’s desire to return to Tibet is strong and his nationalism clearly intact, he is also settled and content with the life that he has created in Spangmik village with his wife.
"Now absolutely I’m finishing my life,” he says. “I gave up my life [in Tibet]. I will stay here.”