Tibetan exile moves to Breckenridge
November 11, 2008
BRECKENRIDGE ” A man who lived three years in a cave, escaped China on foot and nearly passed out in the trunk of a taxi now practices Tibetan massage therapy in Breckenridge.
Wangkho Cheme, 29, was born in the Amdo region in eastern Tibet ” birthplace of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Cheme became a monk at 5.
The Chinese government forbids teachings of Tibetan history and culture, but Cheme’s desire to learn drove him to pursue Tibetan traditions and ultimately escape the country.
He and his wife, Julie Anya Friedman, moved to Breckenridge last week. Cheme soon will be offering Tibetan Ocean Massage at Sol Impressions.
At about 13, Cheme left his family to study meditation, massage and Yoga in a mountain cave. He said the area was totally isolated from society, “like a hermit area.”
Cheme speaks English, but with heavy accent. He smiles frequently and is excited to be in America. His wife sometimes helps translate what he’s saying.
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He first experienced political freedom, saw his home country’s flag and met the Dalai Lama in 1999, after a 26-day journey through mountains, avoiding Chinese officials.
The group of about six people met in Lhasa. The escapees ” fearful of spies who would turn them in for a reward ” didn’t trust each other. They mostly didn’t talk.
Cheme said the path was dangerous, as Chinese are often shot for trying to leave. The group carried white, plastic bags for hiding in snow when they heard helicopters.
“That’s the way we keep alive in snow,” he said. “Lots of Tibetans lose toes or hand or nose (to frostbite).”
Not all the 26 days were spent traveling.
“Some days, we’d hide like two or three days in the snow,” Cheme said, adding that they mostly walked at night.
“We didn’t have enough food or warm clothes,” he said. “We ran out of food and ate snow.”
The group remained cautious after first arriving in Nepal, Cheme said, because sometimes the Nepalese police work for China, returning exiles.
When the group boarded a taxi for the refugee reception in Katmandu, there wasn’t enough room for Cheme. He had to ride in the trunk, where he dealt with motion sickness, carbon-dioxide fumes and terrible bumps from the bad road.
“I thought: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose my life in the trunk,'” he said. “And then I punched the trunk.”
When they arrived at the refugee reception, the group members hadn’t the energy to talk.
“Everybody became like a worm,” Cheme said, explaining they were too tired even to move.
When he saw
his home country’s flag and pictures of the Dalai Lama, Cheme’s conditioned fear was still very present.
“I was like, are you sure you can do that?” he said, adding that it takes time to grow accustomed to freedom.
Every refugee had an opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama, Cheme said, and when the moment came, most of his fellow refugees were crying.
“He’s like my mom, like everybody feel that,” he said.
He said that when the Tibetan spiritual leader spoke, everyone thought he was looking at their face at the same time.
Cheme lived in Shimla, India, living as a monk and studying Tibetan astrology under Sherab Nyima, a renowned Tibetan scholar. There, Cheme learned to write in about four alphabets and how to use black astrology ” which pertains to humans and past lives.
But in 2003, Cheme decided he was ready to explore life outside of that of a monk. He opened the Traditional Tibetan Ocean Massage Center in Dharamsala, India, where he practiced and taught the massage techniques he’d been using since a young teenager.
His customers hailed from Switzerland, Germany, Russia and the rest of Europe. He even taught a few University of Denver students.
When some astrology customers invited Cheme to dinner in 2006, he met a woman sitting at a nearby table. He and Julie ” who was teaching English to monks ” were married two weeks later.
The business in Dharamsala remains in operation, as are branches in Goa and Ladakh, India.
Cheme’s credentials include certification in Tibetan massage from Nangten Menland Buddhist Medical Center in Manali, India, and certification in traditional Thai Yoga massage at the Sunshine School in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
In July, Cheme received yoga teacher training from Vijay of Universal Yoga in Dharamsala.
It took eight months for Cheme to get a visa to the United States. Julie, who is eight months pregnant, was eager to return from India before their child is born.
They plan someday to visit Cheme’s family in Tibet, but it can be difficult for refugees. To see his mother again is Cheme’s top priority.
“I really hope to see her before she pass away,” he said. “It’s very, very important.”
Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.