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January 31, 2000

Buddhist's Escape From Tibet, by Car, Horse and Plane


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    By BARBARA CROSSETTE

    The young Buddhist leader who fled from his monastery in Chinese-controlled Tibet last month was driven by monks to a rugged border area with Nepal and then rode unnoticed on horseback before flying on to India, according to accounts of his flight only now emerging from Buddhists in Nepal, India and the West.

    The 14-year-old monk -- Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu order, one of Tibetan Buddhism's four main schools -- has not spoken of his journey publicly for fear of endangering more people at his Tibetan base, the Tsurphu monastery, north of Lhasa, Tibetan exiles say.

    Those who tracked the Karmapa's journey through Nepal said that to avoid attention he never had more than half a dozen people around him.

    Much of his path through Nepal crossed the former Buddhist kingdom of Mustang, a territory almost entirely isolated from the world until the last decade, when limited numbers of trekkers and adventure tourists began to be admitted. But Tibetan Buddhist monks and some traders have always crisscrossed the border between Mustang and Tibet.

    The Karmapa is now in seclusion at a monastery in north India, near the headquarters of the Dalai Lama, the leader of another sect, the Gelugpa, but a figure recognized by almost all Tibetan Buddhists as the political as well as religious head of the Tibetan exile movement and the Tibetan people in general.

    The Karmapa is the only major Tibetan lama recognized as a reincarnation of his lineage by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, and his flight from Tibet was considered a blow to the Chinese.

    Buddhists in India say that Indian intelligence agents have interviewed the Karmapa at length, while a Chinese intelligence team has been quizzing people in Nepal. China's relations with Nepal have long been a concern to India, and both China and India are anxious to know if the other was in any way implicated in the escape, Tibetan exiles say. There are questions about how the Karmapa was able to evade Indian immigration controls when he flew in from the Nepali resort town of Pokhara.

    The Tibetan Information Network in London said that recent reports from Tibet indicate that at least two monks at Tsurphu monastery have been detained since the Karmapa's departure. Tibetans in Nepal said that two police officers assigned to monitor the monastery were also arrested. The Karmapa's Kagyu order has the largest following in the West, where Buddhists have donated large sums of money to restore Tsurphu and other Kagyu monasteries. The 16th Karmapa accompanied the Dalai Lama into exile from Tibet in 1959 and died in Chicago in 1981.

    The dramatic story of the Karmpapa's flight that exiles have now pieced together, supported by Tibetans in Nepal, begins at Tsurphu on Dec. 28. The Karmapa is reported to have left the monastery in a car with two other monks, both experienced drivers. For two days, they apparently drove more or less nonstop to the Nepali border in the Mustang region, where they switched to horses. There are no roads in Mustang.

    It is not clear where the group actually crossed the border into Nepal on Dec. 30, because Tibetans say that the Chinese had fortified police checkpoints between Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and Dram, the only legal crossing point into Nepal in the Mustang area, and the party must have taken an evasive route known to Tibetans.

    From the border, through the old royal Mustang capital of Lo Manthang, the Karmapa's group, by then numbering six people, rode on horseback to the nearest airport, possibly at Jomsen, which connects to Pokhara, in a Himalayan valley about 125 miles west of Katmandu, Nepal's capital. By some accounts, they rode directly to Pokhara, but trekkers familiar with the area question whether that much territory could have been covered on horseback between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2.

    The Karmapa and a few followers apparently avoided Katmandu by taking a flight from Pokhara to an airport in northern India on Jan. 3, and then either flew or drove to New Delhi -- accounts diverge on this point. All agree, however, that the Karmapa left New Delhi by taxi on the evening of Jan. 4 and arrived unannounced at the Dalai Lama's headquarters at Dharmsala early on Jan. 5.



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