20 Sep 2012 08:00
Nearly 14 000 feet above sea level, on the arid shores of Pangong “Tso” (lake), flies a lone Tibetan flag.
On occasion, travellers manage to make the 5-hour journey here from Leh during the short summer season, stopping at monasteries and roadside yurts along the way. And if they travel as far down the lakeside as possible - without stepping into Chinese territory - to the remote village of Spangmik, they will undoubtedly see it whipping about in the wind.
In democratic India, this flag's presence may seem benign - but on the opposite shore of Pangong Tso’s salty waters, lies Tibet; and just a few kilometers south of Spangmik, lies an army checkpost.
In such close proximity to Tibet, 68-year-old Tsering Dondup is literally flying the Tibetan flag in the face of China.
Pangong Lake sits on the Sino-India Line of Actual Control, with more than 60 per cent of its 134km length being under Chinese control.
Dondup, himself, first arrived in India in 1959 after his parents were killed in clashes with Chinese troops at the height Tibet’s occupation in the 1950s. Initially motivated to avenge the death of his parents, Dondup went on to join the Indian Army in Mussoorie, northern India, in 1968.
Fifteen years later, he met and fell in love with a young woman from Spangmik village. In 1989, they married.
He smacks his lips together and lets out a sigh, as he reflects on his relationship with his wife of 23 years. “My wife may be illiterate, but she loves me so deeply.”
Following his marriage, he became focused on creating a home - in plain sight of Tibet - with his new wife on the rocky banks of Pangong Tso.
But as a reminder of his past, Dondup flies a little piece of his history on the flagpole outside of his home, with the hope of one day returning to Tibet.
“I want to see the birds, the sheep, the horses. I want to see them again," he says. "Are they there, or not? I don’t know."