From a quick glance, you might have been unsure if the boy standing in the crowd of onlookers was Chinese or Tibetan. You saw plenty of both in Ngaba, a small town on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. He wore tinted glasses and had a big puff of hair in a garish red hue, which must have come from a cheap drugstore dye. His face was obscured by a nubby black-and-white scarf tugged over his nose. The boy knew he looked peculiar, but he didn’t care. He had disguised himself so that people in town wouldn’t recognize him; until recently, he had been a Buddhist monk. The Chinese police considered monks to be troublemakers, so it was better to be mistaken for a punk rocker.
It was midafternoon on March 16th, 2011, a bright day on the cusp of spring. The town should have been bustling with people heading to the market to buy fresh vegetables for dinner, but the metal shutters of the storefronts had slammed closed. Like birds who fly away moments before an earthquake, the people living in Ngaba had sensed that trouble had arrived, and scattered quickly.
Not the boy, who was known as Dongtuk, a nickname that he’d been given when he was young and which means “wild baby yak.” Although he wasn’t particularly wild, he had an incorrigible streak of independence. He’d come into Ngaba to apply for a travel document that the Chinese government sometimes requires Tibetans to have in order to visit certain places. There was no public transportation from his village, so Dongtuk had caught a ride with a neighbor who operated an informal shared-taxi service.
With the roads clear, Dongtuk had expected that they would arrive by lunchtime. But, when they reached the edge of town, they encountered an unexpected checkpoint. Police waved the driver back. Dongtuk hopped out in front of Sinopec, the town’s only gas station, and proceeded on foot, veering off the main road into uncultivated fields and parking lots behind the storefronts. Other Tibetans who wanted to avoid the police were doing the same; as Dongtuk walked, he overheard snippets of conversation.
The story revealed itself slowly. Somebody had lit a fire. He’d lit himself on fire. He was a monk from Kirti monastery—Dongtuk’s monastery, and one of the largest in the area. Two years earlier, a monk at Kirti, holding a portrait of the Dalai Lama, had lit himself on fire, next to a police car, in the main street of Ngaba. He survived, and was later shown on state television with his scarred face and shrivelled legs poking out of a hospital gown. Dongtuk had thought such a thing would never happen again in Ngaba.
Dongtuk cut through an alley to get to the main market area, which was still cordoned off by the police. A gaggle of old women were standing along the sidewalk, dressed in the big cloaks that Tibetans call chuba, with fat beads around their necks. They were crying, praying, and screaming in equal measure, calling in one moment for compassion and in another for revenge against the Chinese.
“Om mani padme hum,” they chanted—the mantra that Tibetans use to invoke the bodhisattva of compassion, who is also Tibet’s patron saint.
“May dust fill their mouths”—one of the favorite local curses.
Dongtuk spotted a matchbox, its contents spilling onto the pavement. He reached down to grab the matches, wondering if they were the very ones used by the monk. Although details remained vague, he understood perfectly that the monk had burned himself as a message to the Chinese, who blocked the roads, required Tibetans to have permits wherever they travelled, and forbade them from displaying photos of the Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader. For the first time, Dongtuk contemplated his own life and wondered whether he, too, would be willing to die for Tibet
When you mention Tibet to many Americans, they conjure up images from coffee-table books of pilgrims prostrating at the famous monasteries of Lhasa, or of the snowy peaks of Mount Everest etched against cerulean-blue skies. Those images come out of central Tibet, which is designated by the Chinese government as the Tibet Autonomous Region. In fact, the Tibetan plateau is double that size, and the majority of Tibetans reside outside the autonomous district, mostly in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces.
Ngaba is in Sichuan, where the Tibetan plateau collides with modern China, and it is not as scenic as the Tibetan towns on the tourist trail. It mostly comprises a clutter of low-rise buildings laid out along both sides of a provincial highway, which is plied by pedicabs and the motorcycles favored by Tibetan nomads. Ngaba got its first traffic lights in 2012. Signs advertise the People’s Bank of China, China Mobile, and China Unicom, but the town isn’t large enough to support the chain stores. A few years back, local authorities ordered Tibetan-themed murals—endless knots, lotus blossoms, yaks, dharma wheels—painted above the storefronts, to deflect criticism from foreigners who had managed to sneak in that Tibetan towns were becoming too Chinese.
Nondescript though it is, Ngaba was churning out resistance to the Communist Party even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Ngaba was one of the first places where Tibetans and Chinese Communists encountered one another, during the Long March of the nineteen-thirties, when the Red Army detoured into the Tibetan plateau, confiscating food, homes, and monasteries. But it was a series of self-immolations, beginning in 2009, that catapulted Ngaba into international headlines. As of this writing, a hundred and fifty-six Tibetans have burned themselves in protest of Chinese rule; the most recent was in November. About a third of the self-immolations have taken place in Ngaba and the surrounding villages.
I was living in Beijing when the wave of self-immolations began, and, like many journalists there, I became obsessed with Ngaba. There was the undeniable challenge: Ngaba was simply one of the most difficult places in China for journalists to visit. Unlike with Lhasa and the other parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region, you were not required to obtain a special permit, but fortified checkpoints kept outsiders away. I was keen to know what it was that the Chinese government didn’t want us to see. And how had this little town become the engine of Tibetan resistance? Around the same time that I was reporting on the Tibetan unrest, I read Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Snow,” a fictionalized account of a Turkish city where a string of young women had killed themselves. Ngaba was the real thing.
Travelling discreetly, I made several trips into Ngaba. I also met many people from Ngaba living in Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and his exiled government. In Dharamsala, being from Ngabaa conferred a certain cachet: it meant that you almost certainly knew someone, if only a third cousin or a neighbor, who had self-immolated. But nobody knew more self-immolators than Dongtuk, which made him a minor celebrity in the exile community. I heard about him almost as soon as I arrived, in 2014, and asked a friend from Ngaba for an introduction. If anyone could explain what had driven so many Tibetans to self-immolation, perhaps it was him. We have stayed in touch since. Like many others, he felt ambivalent about the suicides, but recognized that they had been a tremendous loss of face for China. “It put pressure on the Chinese government. It got the world’s attention,” he said.