The Tibet-Sinkiang Border
33.40 North, 87.20 West
2PM, April 29, 1950
The first gunshot was as loud inside the yak-wool tent as it
was outside on the Tibetan Plateau. Frank Bessac spilled his
wooden cup of salt and butter tea as he raced over to peer out
of the tent flap. The two young Tibetan women busy serving tea
only moments before, crowded up behind him and looked over his
shoulder towards his camp.
A hundred yards away a knot of horses and men circled
Bessac’s canvas tent. Puffs of smoke raced off on the wind as
several shooters on their horses lowered their rifles. A dozen
short-legged Tibetan ponies pranced around on the treeless
plain, silhouetted against the vast sky. One horseman climbed
off his horse and advanced on the tent shouting with his gun
drawn. In the distance, Bessac could see two horsemen
approaching his tent from behind. The expedition was surrounded,
and apparently everyone was in the tent as someone shouted back
at the Tibetans.
Bessac cursed softly to himself.
“Damn! Travel for eight months and the first Tibetans we see
Bessac turned back to his hosts and tried his Mongolian and
Chinese on the two Tibetan girls for the fifth time. In their
fright, they clung to one another, but looked at him just as
blankly as they had before. The old man, who had slowly warmed
to him as tea was made and served, now got up off his carpet by
the dung fueled fire and walked to the tent door.
Without any ceremony, the old man started to push him out of the
tent. Bessac grabbed the wool robe of the Tibetan, and tried to
pull him towards his own tent, pleading. The old man quickly
brushed off Bessac's hands, but he paused and listened, as
Bessac shouted desperately in English.
“Look, you're Tibetan. You could talk to them. We’re
Americans. We’re going to Lhasa! Meet the Dalai Lama. The
Government knows we are coming. Dalai Lama. Lhasa!”
When Bessac finished pleading, the eyes of the old man and
the two shaken girls behind him, remained flat, seemingly devoid
of any understanding. They could not understand him in English,
Chinese, or Mongolian, and now clearly they were not even going
to let him back inside their tent.
At sixteen thousand feet on the treeless Changthang Plateau,
Bessac had only two options. Their tent or his. There was not
even a rock to hide behind. The Tibetans were the first humans
the expedition had met in two months. When Bessac turned back
towards his camp and the swirling horses and men surrounding it,
the rest of his party began to emerge from the canvas tent.
At a hundred yards, it was impossible to tell who was holding
up the white flag. Doug Mackiernan and the three Russians were
all dressed, like Bessac, in crudely sewn Kazak sheep skin
robes. It was obvious to Frank that these were his friends, and
not another party of Tibetans or Kazak, only because they had
trekked together for so long.
When he saw them walk out of the tent, Frank started running
back. He grabbed his glasses, trying to keep them on his head as
he ran, because without them he would be blind. The Tibetans
gathered in front of the tent with their raised guns. Three men
were in front, with the feeble looking white flag advancing
towards the guns. Behind them, someone crouched back, as if not
sure he should advance unarmed on the Tibetans.
The Tibetans were startled. Perhaps by the flag or the fact
that the foreigners walked confidently towards them, though they
did not have any weapons in their hands. Some of the Tibetans
remained mounted, their horses shifting under them. Others stood
on the ground. Yet they all kept their guns keenly focused on
Bessac’s friends. Suddenly, one of the Tibetans in the front
rank of gunmen stepped back, and Bessac stopped running.
“Don’t shoot," Bessac said softly.
The Tibetan, who had retreated a step, fired first. A puff of
white smoke rose into the wind. Then almost at once, all the
other Tibetans fired, and a wave of smoke rose above their
heads. The sound of the volley reached Bessac as he started
running again towards his friends.
When the guns fired, the man who had held back dropped low
and began to dodge between the bullets. Bessac’s heart leapt as
he saw him make for the tent. Was it Mackiernan?
At the same moment, the other three men moved in an entirely
different way. They twisted in mid-air, the way bodies do when
bullets hit them. And then they went down so hard, and at such
Running as fast as he could at sixteen thousand feet, Bessac
shouted in English.
“Don’t shoot. Dalai Lama! Dalai Lama! Lhasa!”
Frank was now close enough to see the amazement on the
Tibetans faces. As they turned around and saw him running
towards them, they began to fire at him. The earth six feet to
his left burst in a small fountain of dust. Another blast of
dust flared three feet to his right.
His instincts, drilled into him at the Outfit’s camp on
Catalina Island, took over—Bessac found himself kissing the
earth behind a tiny hillock that he had not even known was
there. A bullet kicked up the dirt just above his hat. He
waited, listening for the next bullet. The sweat that had broken
out all over his body turned cold as he lay there. A minute
passed, where he could only hear the wind.
He raised his head just enough so that his eyeglasses peeked
over the earth at the gunmen. One of them pointed at Bessac, and
then began to draw circles around his own eyes. Again, he
pointed at Bessac and shouted at his friends. Seeing this,
Bessac realized that he was the only person in his party wearing
glasses and wondered what that meant to the Tibetans.
Shouting erupted among the Tibetans. Bessac listened,
watched, and then stood up. No one pointed a gun at him. He held
his ground and removed his glasses to wipe off the dirt,
pondering his next move. The Tibetans watched intently as he
cleaned his glasses. When he started walking slowly towards
them, they were still watching him with their guns lowered.
At twenty yards, Bessac again started shouting in English,
then Chinese, and then Mongolian, repeatedly.
“Lhasa! Dalai Lama! Lhasa!”
At five yards, the Tibetans raised their guns again. Frank
stopped walking, locked his eyes on them, and continued his
mantra, softly now.
“Dalai Lama. Lhasa.”
The doubt in the eyes of the Tibetans grew, and they looked
back and forth at one another, the barrels of their guns sinking
ever closer towards the earth. Then the man who had retreated
and fired first, raised his gun and shook it at Frank as he
shouted, “Kowtow! Kowtow!”
He pointed his gun at the earth and shook it again as he
yelled once more, “Kowtow!”
A Chinese phrase that Frank knew well. Bow down. Get on your
knees. Submit to me. Show me your subservience.
Frank didn’t think; he spoke, in English, not loudly at
first, but his voice rose louder into the wind as his anger
“I damn well won’t kowtow to you. You come up here shooting
people, people invited by the Dalai Lama to come to Lhasa—and
you want me to kowtow? I will not kowtow. No god-dammed kowtow!
You are going to kowtow to me when the Dalai Lama finds out what
you have done! Americans don’t kowtow to anybody!”
The Tibetans watched blankly as Frank spoke. When he took off
his glasses and waved them at the Tibetans, emphasizing his
refusal to kowtow, some of the men smiled.
The grim-faced leader did not smile but only stared sternly
at Bessac. When his men laughed, he leveled his gun barrel at
Bessac, now at point blank range. One of the laughing Tibetans
behind the leader jerked his head up quickly to catch Bessac’s
eye. He then cocked his head towards the ground, and raised a
free hand as if firing his gun.
Bessac saw the mimed gestures. He could see the look of
almost mock concern on the one Tibetan’s face as he again
violently cocked his head towards the ground.
‘What the hell’ he thought to himself as he let his pride go
and sank to his knees.
A ripple of words erupted from the head
Tibetan, his gun dropping back down towards the earth.
“La, la, la. Nyingje.”
The Tibetan who had mimed for him, slung his rifle over his
shoulder, stepped out of the group and walked towards Bessac,
pulling a goat hair rope out of his robe. Bessac kept his eyes
locked on the ground and did not move. The mime pulled Bessac’s
hands behind his back and bound them. Frank glanced up and saw
the rest of the Tibetans rush over to the expedition’s camel
loads that sat outside the tent on the ground. Then the man who
had bound his hands, took off Bessac’s glasses, and his world
three feet away immediately turned to a gray blur.
He listened to the Tibetans as they cracked open the crate with
the machine guns. He could hear their startled shouts of
surprise and glee when they found the gold bars. He heard the
clicking of a Geiger counter as it was flicked on and off, and
then what sounded like a rock smashing into Mackiernan’s
machine. Bessac only hoped they would not play with the
Those were all smaller, distant things. Most of his attention
was focused on a human foot, which lay quite near him in the
dirt. It belonged to one of his friends. A crudely sewn
sheepskin covered the leg. Five feet away, the face that
belonged to the foot was a complete blur. As his world shrank,
he knew he should try to get closer so he could see the face and
check if he was alive. Instead, he looked at the foot and the
robe and remembered when the Kazak sold them the sheepskins. He
thought about how they measured one another and cut the skins.
He remembered sitting in the Kazak yurt turning the fleece in
and the leather out, stitching up the robes as the snow fell
“Warm enough to get you to Tibet, doesn’t matter what they
look like. And I guess the Tibetans won’t be expecting diplomats
Who said that? Who was that lying in front of him, in such an
odd and uncomfortable position, lying so still?
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© 2003 Thomas Laird |