Discovering the Escape Route

 Getting to the point where we had enough information to write a book on the escape was a ten year journey. Finding the route that Rinpoche and the refugees took was the key: when one saw the remarkable landscape they went through, the magnitude of what they’d accomplished inescapable.

From around 2005, I began to explore Eastern Tibet in Microsoft's 2004 Flight Simulator (FS) simulator. It wasn't straightforward. Landmarks were few and far between and, lacking a highly detailed map, it was never clear where things were. Without maps in real world flying, it's still possible to get where you're going by locating for airports and airstrips, along with their associated navigational beacons. But unlike, say, North America or Europe, where FS scenery can be compellingly realistic, FS largely ignores Tibet, which even now has little aviation.

Turning to whatever maps I could find—in atlases, on the web, from Dalhousie University's Asian Collection and a traditional Tibetan map Akong Tulku had annotated and sent to me from Samye Ling—the general area began to take shape. Throughout the journey of discovery, Rinpoche's map, hand-drawn from memory, proved remarkably helpful, and accurate—all that was really missing were the latitudes and longitudes. His text, too, was full of clear pointers to the way they went, and to what they saw and confronted.


Trungpa Rinpoche's hand-drawn map from Born in Tibet. © Diana J. Mukpo. Used by permission of Diana J. Mukpo and Shambhala Publications

From his crucial reference points, and the combination of maps, coordinates, etc., I found that I could get a basic sense of the terrain by overlaying it on the basic map function in the FS.

Flight Simulator map

Flight Simulator map

From this basic layout of the terrain, the shape and whereabouts of valleys, mountains and rivers, I had some sense of what was going on and could begin looking around.

Gradually the chief landmarks emerged. Clearly drawn in Rinpoche's map, the big loop the Brahmaputra made around Mount Namchag Barwa—overlooking the point at which they crossed the river—was one of the first and easiest to find. As I followed the river in the FS on a north-easterly heading, sure enough, there, unmistakably, was the towering, 25,000-foot peak Rinpoche had described.


From there, following the river valleys as best I could, I headed in a north-westerly direction, scanning the horizon for Nupkong La Mountain where Rinpoche had described it, at the most westerly point of their journey. At the head of the Alado Valley, through which the group had trekked, the peak loomed into view and, below it, the pass they'd traversed.

Nupkong La Pass

Nupkong La Pass

Cross-referencing with Rinpoche's map and text, and the other pile of references, further sections of the route clicked into place, including the Tsophu Valley the group had traveled along at the beginning of the most perilous part of the journey.

Tsophu Valley

Tsophu Valley

As things became more focused, as with the Himalayan terrain, the starving survivors had trekked over after crossing the Brahmaputra, the scenery images increasingly brought home the immensity of what they'd done.

Into India

Into India

The 7th Cavalry arrived in the guise of Google Earth. With its precise photographic detail, down to ground level, I could look around for smaller details of villages, dirt roads, trails and passes. It was exciting to survey the terrain much as early travelers would have, and then to make informed decisions about the likeliest path to take or where a pass would be, which might or might not be confirmed by what followed.

Google Earth image

Google Earth image

But I still couldn't quite place Drölma Lhakang – or whatever remained of the original monastery. From Rinpoche's map, atlases and a nearby airport, I had a rough idea of where it was, but it wasn't marked on any map, or in GE. Akong Rinpoche's map waslarge scale and there were several adjoining valleys along which to search.

Recalling that Surmang was located near a small tributary of what was to become the Mekong River, I found the delta—the one that figured so prominently in the Vietnam War—and traced the river northwards. With Rinpoche's map, atlases, trial and error and a chunk of intuition, I found a river junction with what looked like the ruins of a settlement or monastery, about where Drölma Lhakang should be. (NOTE: all these views/sites can be seen using the Google Earth download file here - now in much higher res, satellite imagery than when the route was being explored around 2006).

Drolma Lhakang

Drolma Lhakang

To its north was a high, snow-covered, mountain that could well have been Mount Kulha, where Rinpoche had lived and meditated before the escape. Moving up the valley, following his map and account, there, just to the west was a lake (black in GE's satellite's view, but probably a turquiose blue at ground level), surrounded by five peaks, the Bön tradition's Five Mothers.

Lake near Mount Kulha

Lake near Mount Kulha

Heading further up the valley, after a while, clearly viewable was the small road or track going westwards over the highlands. Here was the path the group had taken to the Shabye Bridge.

Highlands Path

Highlands Path

With Drölma Lhakang and the first leg of the journey established, the rest followed.

Although its main features are now in place, finding the route remains very much a work in progress. We will probably never know the location of the Valley of Mystery where Rinpoche hid before the escape—the Touch And Go video scenery is from the general area indicated on his map—or where the party was when they were lost. Still, many features are clear, and bring the story home:

"Rising almost perpendicularly to the east of our pass was Mount Namchag Barwa or 'The Blazing Mountain of Celestial Metal'; its crest glittered far above the clouds, for this mountain is over 25,000 feet high." -  Chogyam Trungpa, Born In Tibet, p. 236

(Article adapted from a 2009 piece originally appearing on The Chronicles of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche)