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Chanting in the rain

Rain in Xiahe threatens the game
Rain in Xiahe threatens to drown our plans

The second of our games in Xiahe was played against the Tibetan Middle School team. It seemed touch-and-go whether it would take place, as the first rain that we had seen since Kazakhstan came pouring out of the sky and on to the pitch. Undeterred, the school team turned out in force to face the tourists, now bolstered by Rob’s arrival from London and Tim’s reappearance from Jiayuguan.

We had no idea what to expect from Gonpo’s advert.

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At first we thought that we would be playing a combined monks-and-others team as we had the previous day, but politics intervened…

At the Tibetan middle school, where we hope to play with some monks, but find that there are problems with that.

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When we arrived at the venue, we discovered a crowd of monks waiting for us at the entrance to the pitch. As we chatted to them I thought I was chatting with the opposition, but it soon became clear that they were not here to play but to watch us play the school team (none of whom were monks) all of whom were wearing Bayern Munich shirts.

The opposition
The opposition

The young monks seemed genuinely sad that they would not be involved, and I wondered why they had been able to play the day before at the Chinese school, but were unable to play here. It was a surreal scene playing against the Bayern-clad school team with an audience of purple-clad monks in an increasingly heavy downpour.

Monks love the ball
Monks love the ball

The school pitch was, like many of the previous pitches that we have played on in eastern China, lacking a single blade of grass. Instead, it consisted chiefly of sandy soil which clogged together in the rain leaving a tacky top layer which slid against a dry base. The tourist team was severely hampered by their lack of studs, but nonetheless triumphed 4-2 against the tentative Tibetans. However, as a consequence, I had to retire with a back injury sustained while trying to reach a long ball five minutes before the final whistle.

During the game, Rob had decided to step back from the action and record video of the match. While he was filming (with his own personal umbrella crew) he learnt that about two years ago, in response to increasing interest among the monks in football, the Chinese authorities had declared that they would be punished with beatings if they were caught playing the game. J_____ S_____, one of the young monks, had taken it upon himself to referee the match, but Rob’s discovery (if true) explained why none of the other monks felt able to take part in any other capacity.

The ref makes his presence known
J_____, I hope this doesn’t get you into trouble

Suddenly I realised how political football could be, and how what we (and they) were doing was, in a sense, subversive. The game that was planned for the following day was in direct defiance of the Chinese authorities – it was a direct expression of the monks commitment to freedom of action and freedom of thought. The monks felt that they had to comply with the wishes of their elders – who were presumably only trying to appease the Chinese and avoid conflict – and they did this by abstaining from playing. This game served only to highlight the issue in my mind.

An audience member braves the weather
The loneliness of the long-distance monk

But what remained etched in my consciousness at the end of game was my memory of the previous day’s captain, a gentle monk with a passion for the game (and whose name I have, to my shame, forgotten) and the story of his best friend.

When I visited his quarters, he had shown me a photo album packed full of photos of himself and his friends playing football, and as we skipped our way through the photos, I mentioned that, ten years ago, I had visited Dharamsala in India and had met the Dalai Lama at his home in exile. He glanced at me with a distant look in his eye, and turning to a particular photo of himself and a friend of his, pointed at his friend, put an outstretched forefinger to his head and said “Chinese” and “bang”.

His best friend and footballing companion, it seemed, had been trying to get to Dharamsala to see his spiritual leader, when he had been shot dead by the Chinese. I understood again (as I had done with the Kashgar team) how contemptuously China treats its minorities, but this time the stakes were life and death. I also knew that his and J_____’s commitment to playing football – despite the consequences – was as nothing compared to the responsibility they live with every day of their monastic lives.

All I have to offer is my deepest respect to every one of the Tibetan footballers we met, you showed us such kindness and such a passion for the beautiful game. Gwajinche, my friends.

Written by on Wednesday, May 22nd, 2002

4 comments on this post

  1. Chris, what a trip. this is the first thing I’ve seen as not on line yet. Did’nt realise you were going right out there- even from here (work 21:53, no windows) I feel like I’ve tasted a miniscule piece of what and where you are- some how it just comes across. Keep it up, I’m jealous and will definitely keep watching. Stan

  2. Tim: …as she goes?

    Stan: You’re not kidding… it’s been a hell of a trip. Right now I’m in Beijing, and have just bought train tickets to the ferry port from which we leave for Korea… hopefully. When we were in Xian, we were told that we could not enter Korea via the ferry port, because of stricter security for the World Cup, so we’ve been frantically ringing the British Embassies here and in Seoul to see if the rumours are true. The FCO website has no mention of such restrictions, so we’re going to go for it anyway and see what happens. Meanwhile, we’ll visit the Korean Embassy here in Beijing later today, and present ourselves to whoever’ll listen to us, and see if they can give us some reassurance or even special dispensation of sorts.

    Fingers crossed…

  3. Hi chris, I chatted to you on the roof of Taras guesthouse the day you arrived in Xiahe about some of the issues you mentioned there and I wanted to say that you have done a class job, simply written and still very upsetting..Makes it even more disgraceful that China has got a sporting event like the Olympics..Cheers.

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