Finding Tibet in Central Europe, Part I: Berlin

After action camp, I decided to travel for twelve days, making a boomerang trail around Central Europe. I never did the “backpacking around Europe” thing in college – I was more of the need-to-work-two-part-time-jobs-and-do-Tibet-activism-otherwise-crowd. But now I was ready to do some exploring on my own. Before leaving, I’d imagined spending long hours at cafes, gazing at buildings gilded, carved and ornamented beyond belief, and mostly being surrounded by a lot of Slavic or white people. What I didn’t imagine was that I would find my country, Tibet, again and again at every stop I made.

Berlin. My first stop. On my first night, I wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood where I was staying (as is my style when traveling because I can’t be bothered to plan anything) and about an hour into my walk, I stumbled upon a relatively low concrete wall. It was covered with murals and, beginning at the side of a bridge, carried on for a few hundred meters towards downtown. It was dusk and the sidewalk beside the wall was empty but for a Filipino family pointing excitedly at it.

Then it occurred to me, could this be the Berlin Wall? Had I actually just stumbled into the last long stretch of the famous wall dividing East and West Berlin, the noose the communist side had built around its people to prevent them from escaping for some 28 years before the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe collapsed? Over 5,000 people had attempted to escape into West Berlin. Hundreds had died around the wall where I stood.

But now, the wall looked powerless. It enclosed nothing and there was a large gap in it revealing the river on the ‘Western’ side, a grassy knoll and some outdoor pubs. I stepped passed the wall, marveling at how easy it was now, no barracks around it, no soldiers with rifles pointed at people. Millions of Germans had been divided from their fellow countrymen and women for decades by this piece of cement. And today, I could hop back and forth. I could do cartwheels even (if I were more agile)! Where the wall was sliced open, I could measure its depth. It was no wider than the span of my hand.

I tried to imagine how the people of Berlin must have felt from 1961 to 1989 (even as early at 1948 when the Soviets started to close East Berlin off), how it was for them to see the other side from their windows, to see the sky stretch across, to watch birds fly back and forth, perhaps resting on one tall tower on the other side and then landing on their own window sill.

Then my thoughts came back to Tibet. I thought about the Drapchi Nuns and so many millions of my countrymen and women, looking at the sky from their cell windows or their monasteries or resettlement camps or homes surrounded by Chinese army soldiers and guns, wondering when the walls would come down, when they could be as free as the winds that sweep across the plateau.

My companion in Berlin was David, a long-time Tibet activist (who protested in Tiananmen Square, Beijing during the 2008 Olympics), and over the course of the next few days, we had many conversations about Berlin and its meteoric rise after the end of the Soviet regime. All around us, Berlin was now run by a young cosmopolitan population (all of them seemed to be artists or fashion designers!). There were incredible museums, public squares with music and street performers, parks and government buildings equally open to the public, and no tanks or armies to be seen anywhere. Of course, there is still a great deal of inequality between East and West Berlin, and some sense of nostalgia in the former (known as ‘ostalgia’) for the socialist days, but there is also freedom now for people to choose how they run their government and their personal lives. It made us hopeful for Tibet.

Often when I talk to people who don’t know about the complexities of Tibet, they express skepticism or a sense of defeat about the situation. China is so powerful; they own the world! Do you really think Tibet will be free? etc. I can’t fault them for this; in our world, it’s easier to believe that things will continue as they are rather than change. But didn’t some of the Berliners of the last half of the century feel the wall would last forever? Didn’t people laugh at or repress those who worked to against the state’s restrictions on freedom?

Being in Berlin and talking to my friend made me realize that the seemingly intractable situation in Tibet isn’t unique to us, or even just developing countries. Germany, now one of the strongest economies in the world, was once occupied, divided at its core. The powers that be carved the country up (along with the rest of Europe), using it as a site for the proxy war between the US and USSR. It was only just 22 years ago that all that ended.

On my final day before leaving for Warsaw, we went to a flea market in a park. People had stalls selling their old clothes, books, door knobs, combs, records, toy boats and so on. I loved looking at all the things people collected and brought there to sell off. One booth was selling buttons and patches of German flags. “Junk” that was selected personally by someone, packed and laid out in the hope that someone else would value it as well. And amidst the German memorabilia, we noticed a stack of Tibetan flag patches. They had the words “Free Tibet” sewed on them too. No other countries, no other non-German thing in that box of patches. It was really amazing.

Then as we reached the end of the line, we saw a yellow van selling ornate umbrellas.

“Tsering, look here,” David then said from the door of the van.

I looked in and saw on the dashboard a small Tibetan flag, the only flag in the van. I realized then that there is a real connection between Berlin (of the past and the present) and my country. We not only share a history of occupation, we share a hope for Tibet.

Alright that’s it for this week; must go to bed now! Next week: Part II, Warsaw, Poland.

Until then, this is NYCYak signing off. Ghale peh!

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