I’m pretty sure this isn’t on any of your bucket lists but you might as well list it and run it right up to the top ten. Before you die, all of you should experience Tibetan Uprising Day in Dharamsala. It's one of the most exciting, inspirational and visually stunning events I’ve ever attended.
On the eve of the 51st annual Uprising Day, I got a call from Phil Void, the founder of the The Dharma Bums (not the Portland outfit), a rotating group of musicians who since 1985 have appeared at numerous Tibet support rallies. Phil’s claim to fame is writing the song ‘Rangzen’ which is a big hit throughout Tibetan exile community. He was asked by the Students for a Free Tibet to sing to the thousands of Tibetans marching from the Main Temple in McLeod Ganj, to a street rally in Lower Dharamsala, more than four miles away.
Phil is a good friend of my brother Dan so he called to tell me of a gathering of SFT supporters at the Hotel Tibet, my home for three months in 2000. Even though I stayed at the Hotel Tibet, I was so obsessed with writing a book about my life in high diving and traveling in a wheelchair, that I never stepped foot in the hotel bar. I didn’t even know the place existed until Dan told me nearly seven years later. I went by the door every day, but I thought it was a banquet room.
Phil greeted me and handed me four Dharma Bums CD’s to put on the 90.4 Tashi Delek FM play list. With the exception of some of my tunes I mistakenly put on the air, The Dharma Bums are the only non-Tibetan act that gets air time on the station. We’d love to play non-Tibetan music, but we don’t have the money to buy the music licenses. We’ve got over 1000 tunes, all of them by Tibetan artists.
The normally reserved Tibetans were in full party mode at the Hotel Tibet slugging drinks and telling stories about their travels in the states. It’s surprising how many Tibetans have made it to America for school or visiting relatives. It’s difficult for them to travel because they can’t get Indian or Chinese passports. They have to get special permission to leave India then endure a complicated visa process for each country.
It was a much later night than I anticipated and the roll back to Bhagsu along the pitch black ridge was more harrowing than I’d predicted when I left the hotel. It’s been too cold to go out at night, so it was the first time I’d rolled the Bhagsu Road in the dark. I really miss my head lamp!
I woke up early and light headed from the effort at the Hotel Tibet. I tossed on my ’90.4 Tashi Delek FM’ polo shirt and busted up the Bhagsu road hill, sweating a bit more than usual. The Uprising Day festivities started at 8:30 and I was running late so I blew off my original plan of stopping at one of the chai stands for a quick omelet. The streets of McLeod were empty until I reached the Temple Road. As I wheelied down the steep incline, the crowd grew until fifty yards from the temple there was no room to move. The face-painted, flag-waiving Tibetans were chanting slogans and screaming with their fists in the air. The flag-selling business along the side of the road was hotter than the T-shirt business at the World Cup. That's probably because at $4 a shirt, they were a bit more affordable than the $30 variety at the World Cup.
The main entrance to the Main Temple takes one up 20 stairs, so I rolled to the vehicle entrance on the far side of the complex. I started pushing up an impossibly steep incline and was immediately joined by a security guard who pushed me to the entrance on the main level. Before I was allowed in they asked me if I had a cell phone or a camera. Of course I had both, but I wasn’t aware they weren’t allowed. I had to check them in at the gate which really sucked because it was the most colorful crowd I’d seen since the Dead shows of the mid-80’s. I asked the guard why these items weren’t allowed and all he said was, “Security.” That made absolutely no sense because they allowed me to keep a step-down power converter and a portable sound mixer that I brought along to get fixed in Lower Dharamsala. The power convert and sound board didn't look that much different from a bomb. So the bomb was OK, but cell phones and cameras were off-limits.
The security guard parked me in the back near the Dalai Lama’s private residence. Not two minutes later, His Holiness strolled out of his compound accompanied by the Kalon Tripa, the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile and four armed Indian police guards. As they walked up the center aisle to the stage, Tibetan security followed them with ropes to keep the crowd back. Luckily I got right up next to the rope and followed them until I was about 20 yards from the action. After His Holiness’s group, a marching band from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts paraded down the aisle stopping at the base of the stage. The band consisted of a drum corps, a dozen bag-pipers and ten flautists. When I closed my eyes it sounded just like a college football halftime. They played the Tibetan national anthem then went quiet as the Tibetans sang a seven-minute long prayer.
About 5000 people filled the Temple plaza. Half were TCV students and the rest were a mixture of Tibetan exiles and a scattering of Injies. Oddly enough, I didn't see one Indian. Seated next to His Holiness were members of the Tibetan Parliament and visiting dignitaries from Japan and Taiwan. The Kalon Tripa gave the first address followed by the Speaker of the Parliament. All the speeches were in Tibetan leaving us Injies in the dark. But with a long hike on the docket, the crowd wasn’t in a sitting mood so they murmured loudly through both talks.
When it was time for the Dalai Lama to speak, the crowd quieted. His Uprising Day statement was also in Tibetan, but workers from the Temple ran up to each Injie and and handed them a copy of the remarks in English. I’ve seen the Dalai Lama speak a dozen times, but I’ve never heard him read a prepared statement before. In the past it’s always been him talking from his heart. But this was a carefully crafted speech reiterating the ‘Middle Way’ proposal he’s presented to the Chinese government over the past few years. After his prepared talk, he closed his notes then spoke to the crowd for just as long. I have no idea what he said, but I was told he asked the crowd to not make a nuisance of themselves as they marched down the Library Road. He is always careful to remind the Tibetans they are visitors – even if it's been 51 years.
His Holiness finished then walked down the main aisle (passed by me two-feet away!) followed by dignitaries and the TIPA band. Once he left, local leaders took over the microphone and began the chants I would hear loudly for the next three hours:
As the crowd raised their banners and got ready for their four-mile march to Lower Dharamsala, I went to the security office and recovered my camera. I have no idea why I couldn’t bring in a camera when there were 50 press photographers and the event was covered on live television. Next time I go to an event at the temple I’m going to ask the radio station to get me a press pass. Not only will I get pics, I’ll get a front row seat.
The crowd had been restless during the speeches and began to build to a full rowdy pitch. The students rallied under their banners while Tibetans of all ages walked out of the temple waiving flags and screaming as loud as kids half their age. I rolled out with the crowd and had to constantly stop people from grabbing the handles on my chair. This happens every time I’m in a crowd in Asia. People want to help, but they don’t watch where they’re going and they can push me into a pot hole – which means I end up on the ground or in a ditch. I have to be polite, but after ten or twenty times it gets old.
For those of you who have followed this blog you’ve heard me speak in fearful and reverent words about the great Library Road connecting McLeod Ganj to Lower Dharamsala. It is the steepest, curviest road in all of civilization. Fortunately over the past decade it’s been paved and is now very well maintained. But that actually makes it faster. The road drops 5000 feet in only three kilometers. At several points along the route it drops at greater than 20%. Although much shorter than the climb up l’Alpe D’Huez, the angle of decent makes that look like a rolling hill in Iowa.
As the crowd made its assault on the Library Road, I leaned back in a wheelie and slowly dropped the first insane section. I put myself in the middle of a group of school kids and chanted along with them while I kept my eyes glued to the 500-foot cliff on my right. The Library Road is not only steep and winding, it’s is also very narrow. At many points the two-way road is less than 10-feet wide. If this march were in any other country, the cops would shut the road down and divert traffic. But this is India where chaos makes more sense than order. Along with the mile-long line of 5000 screaming Tibetans was a full compliment of two-way traffic. At places where the road bottlenecks for one-way traffic (usually because the outside lane has been washed down the cliff) cars and motorcycles were lined up for hundreds of yards.
While I was flying by the traffic in the midst of the chanting, Technicolor protesters, I noticed one of my Indian neighbors from Bhagsu sitting in a taxi. I pulled up next to her and asked her what she was thinking. She said she forgot it was Uprising Day and just wanted to go to Kotwali Bazaar to do some shopping. She’d been in traffic for more than an hour at that point. I told her I felt sorry for her, but I also left her far back in my rear-view mirror.
After an hour on the Library Road my hands (read: BRAKES) began to cramp up something fierce. I could no longer hold a wheelie so I had to go on four wheels and zig-zag back and forth hoping to make my turn before heading over the edge. Towards the bottom of the road the switch backs become even more severe. To put an image in your head as to how steep these turns are, imagine this: Delek Hospital is a four-story building. The road passes the front door then 60 yards later around the switch back it comes up to the wheelchair entrance – on the fourth floor.
At this point my decision to forego breakfast was wearing heavily on me as my arms and hands were ready to shut down. For the first time since leaving the Temple I could see Kotwali Bazaar and it didn’t feel like I was looking out of an airplane window. Mercifully after one final and incredibly severe turn, I came upon the final decent to Kotwali Bazaar and the beginning of a normal road. Of course right at the bottom of the Library Road lies my main nemesis of Indian roads: the vertical slated drainage grid. I was moving pretty well when I came up to it and had to rely on my hands for one last emergency stop, otherwise my wheels would end up stuck in the grate and possibly bent beyond repair. If my hands had brake fluid in them you would have smelled that stuff for miles cause I was down to empty. I stopped just before the grid, made a sharp left and crossed the grid horizontally.
Finally I was on a normal stretch of road. Actually it was better than normal. It dropped at about a 3% grade which meant I didn’t have to push, only steer. I found an electrical shop and dropped off the broken mixer and step-down converter lightening my load even more. The ride went from a horrifying survival exercise to a glorious effortless breeze. The march had now spread out over more than a mile but the voices, many now completely hoarse, were still blasting out the chants: “LONG LIVE THE DALAI LAMA!”
The march ended at the far end of Lower Dharamsala across the street from the main police station. Before going in, I rolled over to a nearby fruit stand and downed three bananas and a liter of water in less than two minutes. Next to the fruit stand was an India fast-food hut. If this was a crowd in a developed nation those places would be doing Black-Friday business. But even though there were 5000 people coming, there weren’t any lines. These folks just don’t have that kind of money. They pack a lunch.
The organizers created a stage under a covered roof above a mechanic shop. The street in front of the shop was closed off, but the main road right next to it was open to heavy traffic. As the thousands began to fill up the street, angry Indian drivers revved up their obnoxiously loud car horns to eleven. It was impossible to contain the crowd in the side street and I really don’t know how several people didn’t die.
As the school groups arrived each one of their leaders climbed up to the microphone and used whatever was left of their voices for one last scream. Standing next to them with video camera in hand was none other than Phil Void who was taking it all in while his axe was holstered in its case.
Two hours after the Dalai Lama spoke at the temple the festivities in Lower Dharamsala began. A few student leaders gave talks and this time one of them was actually done in English. Then it was time for Phil to pop open his case and pull out his axe. He got a polite reception then urged the throng to sing along with him. He handed out lyric sheets earlier, but most of the older Tibetans knew the song by heart.
He opened up his big voice, sang the fist verse then let into the anthemic chorus:
Each time the chorus came around the crowd screamed and waved Tibetan flags creating a home-made wind. A few dignitaries had the bad luck of speaking after Phil’s tune, but by this time the crowd was cooked and thinking of the long walk back.
As the throng broke, I went around to the back of the police station to try to find some isolation so I cold pee. I found the back entrance to the police station and heard an Indian man screaming to a gathering of ten people. When I got closer I saw they were carrying Chinese flags. These ten people were the Chinese anti-protest to Tibetan Uprising Day. Their tiny numbers compared to the thousands across the street only served to hammer home the Tibetan cause.
Once I’d done my duty, I began rolling back up the long incline towards Kotwali Bazaar. What was a leisurely roll on the downhill was a nasty climb on the upside. This time when a pair of monks grabbed my handles, I let them have at it. My arms and hands were cooked at this point so I ate my pride and just made sure I wasn’t getting pushed into road ruts. I thought I would have to wait for hours to get a cab back up, but again, there’s not a lot of cash in this crowd so I easily found one a kilometer away from the venue. Most of the marchers were going to walk all the way back up to McLeod. As I was heading back up the Library Road I was passing marchers who either got a late start, or stopped for lunch. They missed the main event, but they were going to keep marching and chanting until they made it down.
Six hours after I left Bhagsu, I was back in my room hungry and exhausted. I plopped down in my bed and took a nap with Rangzen and thousands of yellow, red and blue flags helping me to sleep.