KUNDE, Nepal — As he slipped off a shoe to display a severely frostbitten foot, Pema Tsering acknowledged that he made a dire mistake at the beginning of an arduous trek over the Himalayas from Tibet to freedom in Nepal.
He forgot to bring plastic bags.
When he forded a stream with his younger brother early this year, he wasn't able to keep his feet dry in the icy water, and it seeped into his canvas shoes.
For several days and nights, his feet grew colder and colder. Tsering, 18, and his 15-year-old brother, Sonam Dhondup, couldn't stop for fear that Chinese border guards would arrest them — or worse.
"We didn't sleep on the Tibet side. We just kept walking and walking until we crossed the pass," Tsering recalled, adding that a Tibetan nun eventually saw him limping and sent him to a tiny hospital here.
The icy Nangpa pass is a well-worn route. Thousands of Tibetan Buddhists have crossed it in recent decades, part of an exodus of Tibetans escaping Chinese religious and political control. The pass is no ordinary mountain crossing. It's 18,700 feet high, higher than any peak in North America except Mount McKinley in Alaska and Mount Logan in Canada's Yukon.
The thin air, drifting snow and occasional gunfire from Chinese guards make the flight of Tibetans a remarkable — if little-documented — drama that unfolds behind the headline-making journeys of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan religious leader, who tours world capitals espousing nonviolence and advocating greater autonomy for Tibet.
Some 2,000 to 3,000 refugees trek across the Himalayas each year. They take no sleeping bags, no tents, no fluffy down jackets and no maps. The lucky ones have guides, and carry sheeting to use as tarps and plastic bags to wrap their feet. Most come in winter, when glacial crevasses freeze shut and Chinese border guards stick close to their heated outposts rather than roaming the frontier.
The steady trickle of refugees bedevils China's claim that all is well in Tibet.
Some Tibetans chafe that they can't pursue studies primarily in their own language, rather than Chinese. Many also revere the Dalai Lama, whom they consider a God-king, even though China considers him a "splittist" who wants to shear away Tibet from the motherland. China bans even his photograph.
Hoping to win over Tibetans, China has spent billions of dollars on roads, schools and new settlements for Tibetan herders to coax them from a nomadic lifestyle.
It also uses force, the locked and loaded version, deploying more armed guards along the Tibetan border to slow the stream of migrants in the run-up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.
"We've seen a real stepping up of security on the Chinese side," said Kate Saunders, the communications director for the International Campaign for Tibet, a human-rights advocacy and monitoring group with offices in Washington, Brussels, Belgium, and Berlin.
The Chinese treats certain parts of China with large minority populations, such as Tibet, as autonomous regions. Ethnic Tibetans also inhabit areas outside of what China calls Tibet, dwelling in portions of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
On a cold, misty day in Kunde — elevation 12,600 feet, a hamlet that's a strenuous two-day walk from the border with Tibet in eastern Nepal — a paramedic described the travails of crossing the mountains.
"Some are unlucky. They get caught in bad snowstorms," said Mingma Temba Sherpa, the chief health assistant at the Kunde Hospital, a small facility established by Sir Edmund Hillary, the famed 1953 conqueror of Mount Everest. "They get snow blindness . . . a few get frostbite or pneumonia or gastrointestinal problems."
When refugees arrive with frozen extremities, doctors can do little.
"The frostbite treatment is not to amputate right away. You wait for demarcation of dead tissue and live tissue. It can take up to a couple of months," Temba said.
Adding to their difficulties, the Tibetans can't carry a lot of supplies, food or warm clothing or they'll call attention to themselves in Tibet as they near the border.
"They have to pretend they are not on a long and dangerous journey," said Wangchuk Tsering, who was the Dalai Lama's personal representative in Nepal until 2005, when Katmandu shut his office under pressure from China.
"The only time they can walk is at night. During the daytime, they rest and walk only a little, behind boulders," Tsering said. "The higher they reach, the more the snow."
"The snow was knee-deep," recalled Tashi Dawa, 19, an ethnic Tibetan from Qinghai, north of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, who crossed over in early February.
"It was not fresh snow. But it was deep and a little icy," added Drakpa, his companion, who like some Tibetans goes by only one name.
Refugees generally bring a little sugar, yak butter and "tsampa," or roasted barley. They mix the tsampa with water or snow to form a paste for sustenance. They bring only what fits in pouches or small backpacks. They leave behind personal documents.
China rarely gives passports to Tibetans, and it harasses anyone who's discovered to have traveled to see the Dalai Lama, who's in exile in India. Thus Tibetans who wish to travel do so without papers.
Tibetans cross illegally into Nepal at any of three points. In addition to the Nangpa Pass, the other points are far to the northwest, near Mount Kailash, a remote sacred Buddhist mountain, and at Kodari, where a Friendship Bridge links the two nations. The majority go across the pass, which is the closest point to Lhasa, Tibet's capital.
If all goes well, it takes a week upon getting off a bus in Tingri, a Tibetan town with public transportation where would-be refugees can arrive without calling attention to themselves, until they reach human habitation in Nepal. Another few days of hiking take them to a road where they can catch a bus to the U.N.-managed Tibetan Transit Reception Center in Katmandu, which offers shelter, food and medical care.
A virtual underground railway of monasteries and guesthouses scattered over the Khumbu Valley helps many of the Tibetans finish their journeys into Nepal.
At one guesthouse, in a village that's a 90-minute walk from here, the sympathetic owner described how the refugees huddle together at night for warmth as they camp in the open. Since he's breaking Nepalese law by taking in travelers without proper travel documents, he spoke to McClatchy on the condition that he not be identified.
"They sleep in Chinese garbage bags," he said, running to a closet and fetching a torn white plastic bag.
Occasionally, Chinese border guards use lethal force against the migrants.
Once in late 2006, a bedraggled and "very scared" group of several dozen Tibetans arrived, the guesthouse owner recalled.
"The group leader had a bullet hole in his pants," he said.
At least he was unscathed. Marksmen from the Chinese People's Armed Police shot dead a 17-year-old nun in the same group as the Tibetans trudged up the snowy pass.
The incident sparked an international furor. Foreign mountaineers at the base camp of Mount Cho Oyu — the sixth highest mountain in the world, at 26,906 feet — adjacent to the pass, captured the scene on video as the guards hoisted their rifles and aimed at the unarmed group of Tibetans walking single file toward the pass.
"They are shooting them like dogs!" Romanian mountaineer Sergiu Matei is heard saying on the videotape, taken the morning of Sept. 30, 2006.
While China initially said that the Tibetans had attacked the troops, it later defended its tactics as normal border management.
Once refugees reach Nepal, dangers change. Soldiers prey on them for money.
"They asked us to give them money. We told them we didn't have any money. Then they started searching us, even making us take off our shoes," said Jamyang Jinpa, a 23-year-old Tibetan who came earlier this month. "They found the money and took it."
Many of those who cross the mountains are teenagers and even children, sent by their parents for a Tibetan-language education at schools overseen by the Tibetan government in exile, headquartered at Dharamsala, a hill station in India.
"Everybody wants to see the Dalai Lama. Their first reason is to see His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and the second reason is to study something," said Kalsang Chung, the director of the Tibetan Transit Reception Center.
"There are so many schools in Tibet," Chung said, "but the education is not good. Behavior is not good. They have to study in Chinese (by middle school)."
Several times a year, the Dalai Lama receives the latest batch of new arrivals, giving them his blessings and urging them to study hard while in exile.
"He tells them, 'We have to be good people. We have to save our culture. We have to challenge the Chinese. . . . We cannot fight them without education,' " Chung said. " 'We cannot challenge the Chinese this way,' " Chung said, shaking his fist.
Tsering, the 18-year-old refugee with the frostbitten foot, has finished fighting against China. He's taken a room at the Tsamkhang Monastery in this hamlet, and he said he might remain here indefinitely.
"I never want to go back," he said.
ON THE WEB
Watch video of the Tibetan journey at Tibetan journey