Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra continues: Tension in Kodari
Kodari Elevation: 2250 meters; 7,382 feet.
Our initial plan was to have a quick lunch in Kodari, perform exit visa procedures, and cross over the Friendship bridge into China-occupied Tibet. But instead, we found ourselves gobbling lunch to a backdrop of a frenzied stone-throwing mob and the staccato of automatic weapons. Read more details in previous post here.
We had uber-confident ‘armchair experts’ in our group, who provided continuous analyses. One opined that police would not fire on unarmed protesters, “they are firing in the air.” We learn’t later that the mob was engaging the military, not the local police. Another divined, “they are firing rubber bullets.” Yeah!
Yielding to my cousin’s protests, I hid my camera in my backpack and scrambled to the door for a close-up of military tactics. As the military advanced, they pulled down a couple of civilians standing in a truck and kicked and beat them ragged. The frenzied mob was hurling rocks. A few rocks came our way and shattered the glass front, littering the restaurant floor with glass shards. We all shrieked and scrambled for safety. I grabbed my backpack and dashed to the back room, where most of the others waited. A few more projectiles shattered whatever remained of the entire glass front.
As we had dashed in, so did our team of Sherpas. The military apparently thought that mob-members were seeking refuge in the restaurant and charged in after them. With heavy boots one kicked the swing door, breaking the last of the glass panels and thundered in. On seeing the puzzled looks of desi-tourists and quiet sherpas, he fired into the floor, looked around and stomped out! Whoa!
The owner promptly pulled the shutters. As the military pushed the mob back past our restaurant, we got a reprieve from the stones and bullets.
In the back room our party singing bhajans, taking our minds off the tenuous situation outside. The back room was a porch overlooking a canyon. Deep in the canyon below, the river Kosi rumbled and frothed over gigantic boulders.
Above, the seemingly peaceful Tibetan side teased us.
During this entire episode, the family owning the restaurant had not panicked, but instead kept us all calm (and away from windows). Their bucolic village was torn apart by mobs and military. Their restaurant, representing their entire life-savings, was littered with shattered glass and nervously pacing tourists. Coolly, mother, father, teenage daughter and a few helpers, started to pickup the glass and rock debris. We all laughed as the daughter showed us some of the rocks that had come through. The dry nervous laughter masked the fragility of our experiences.
Early in the evening, the shutters were rolled up to an eerie calm outside. AK-47 toting military controlled the streets and a forced peace had descended on the village.
Inside, the owners made chai and passed around biscuit packets. Our tour organizers along with local help made sleeping arrangements in the rooms above the restaurant. My cousins and I, got a small room in the adjoining guest house. Even stepping next door – across a threshold of a shared wall – felt dangerous. Next door too was a tiny restaurant/home with rental rooms. With nothing to do, we just sat around, chatted and caught up on life.
When traveling, I am accused of over-packing. In my backpack houlder bag, I carried an extra set of clothes, kit with toiletries and candy bars. With our luggage trapped somewhere behind the mob-line, I was likely the only guy with a toothbrush, and a set of pajamas. *hee hee* After decades of not needing my ‘spare set,’ it took a mob action in Kodari to validate my packing habits.
Dinner was in the restaurant/family room where all the owner’s family gathered as well. The only TV had continuous news of the standoff between the mob and the military. From the News we gathered that two agitators had died and many more injured. The situation was now apparently ‘under control.’ I just prayed for calm.
After a restless night, I was up at sunrise. I noticed the owner stepping out of his room, still rubbing his eyes and yawning. I asked him for some tea and he quickly got to making chiya (tea with ginger) and coffee for us all.
Out on the streets, all was quiet. We were encouraged, the military had withdrawn from the town. I scrambled up to the terrace to catch the sun glistening on the town. On the left are the buildings in Kodari and the immigration office is the last one. The Friendship Bridge connects to China-occupied Tibet on the right. The village on the hill in the background is the Tibetan town of Zhang-Mu. While we show our passports and go through the border here, it is at Zhang-Mu that our passports are inspected more carefully. Interestingly, China is not authorized by the UN to issue visas on our passports. Thus we apply for and receive separate ‘travel permits,’ which we surrender, and our passports don’t have any evidence of us entering China-occupied Tibet; only us exiting Kodari at the border. Ironically, it was in Kodari, part of the democratic Nepal that we had the most difficulty, while the sun shone golden on the authoritarian regime in Zhang-Mu. Whoever said life is fair!
After a quick breakfast we heard the border was now open and we could leave. … if we could get around the tire burning crowd!
Apparently, our tour organizers had made a deal with the local mafia, as well as the local immigration and military bosses. Our passports were taken ahead to prepare for a quick exit. When all negotiations were completed, we were asked to proceed quickly.
We marched single file. First through the quickly gathering mob, which quietly gave us passage. Then past more burning tires. Then the barren area beyond which the military in riot gear held their line. As we approached, we all held our breaths, the riot team parted and we were allowed to pass through. Phew.
I sighed relief as we reached the bridge. After a cursory examination of our passports, Chinese authorities quickly let us through. On the Tibetan side, everyone in our group had a wide smile on their faces. We had passed the first adventure. We mounted the waiting Toyota Landcruisers and the drivers took us up the mountains to Zhang-Mu for further passport checks and onwards to the Tibetan village of Nyalama.
During travels it’s near impossible to predict what will happen. The important lesson I learnt was to remain calm, smile, and … always pack an extra toothbrush and set of pajamas in your shoulder bag.
After departing Kodari, we quickly forgot about the incident – till our return journey. The locals mentioned that the rioting continued for a few days, as fifteen more bodies of locals surfaced downriver. *shudder*