Valley News – One Life: Kesang Tashi; “He wanted to keep the tradition alive”

HANOVER – For plain knowledge, Kesang Tashi was simply a trader who sold imported rugs – expensive rugs, in addition – for a number of years in a store on Hanover’s main street and more recently in his gallery in Hanover. Pompanoosuc Mills in Thetford.

But family and friends knew there was much more to the “Tibet Mountain Boy,” as Tashi himself described. The obstacles he overcame, the people he helped, and the details of the journey to Hanover, 7,500 miles from his homeland, is a story worth telling.

Born in “Land of Snows”, Tashi was the eldest son of a large family of merchants. The family business – a trading house – played a vital role in the “Tea Horse Caravan,” a 1,400 mile mountain trek with pack mules that for centuries connected Tibet and China. Tibetan horses, known for their stamina and speed, were sold for bricks of Chinese tea.

Tashi was still a boy when the Communist Party took power in China. In 1950, the Chinese sent thousands of soldiers to Tibet, forcibly taking its isolated Buddhist neighbor south.

Within years, the Chinese had “introduced policies that put my family in serious danger,” Tashi wrote on his blog last September. “My father’s only sin had been the dream of offering his young family a life free from political persecution and a decent education for their future.

When Tashi was 10 years old, “in the twilight of the night,” he wrote, “my father plotted our escape route via the tea horse caravan.”

Mule drivers, or “mountain sailors,” as they were called, guided Tashi’s family over 600 miles of mountainous terrain from eastern Tibet to northern India. The caravan of 120 mules carried “heaps of precious valuables and brick tea which supported much of Tibetan life,” wrote Tashi, a devout Buddhist.

After the family was relocated, Tashi’s parents enrolled him in a British-style boarding school in Kalimpong, India, where he learned English. (Everyone who knew Tashi called him by his second name.) After graduating, Tashi worked as a translator for the Tibetan government-in-exile based in northern India.

Around this time, he met a graduate from Dartmouth, who was working for an American nonprofit organization in that part of the world. The former student told him about a new scholarship program aimed at attracting foreign students to Hanover.

Benefiting from a scholarship funded by the class of 1956, Tashi became the first Tibetan to attend Dartmouth.

When he arrived in the United States, “he didn’t know anything about this country,” said Kathy Harvard, a longtime friend and vice president of marketing and sales at InnerAsia, which does much of its business. in line.

But after the camping trip for the new students from Dartmouth, “Tashi immediately felt at home because of the mountains,” said his future wife, Tsedan. And although his English was “impeccable,” said anthropology professor Hoyt Alverson, Tashi still had reason to doubt his decision to leave India.

Tashi hadn’t been in Dartmouth for a long time when he heard that his father was dead. Although he could not be a part of the daily life of his younger siblings, Tashi made sure that they had the same educational opportunities as he did. Five siblings attended American colleges, including his brother Tsering who followed him to Dartmouth.

Another brother, Kesang Tseten, graduated from Amherst College. (In Tibetan culture, it’s not uncommon for siblings to share first names and have different first names.) In a tribute video he made, Tseten, now a filmmaker living in Switzerland, said his brother had become a “type of father to us”. . He opened up the perspective of America to us.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1970, Tashi obtained an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Buddhist Studies from the University of Wisconsin. From there, he began a career in international banking in New York. But he was a social entrepreneur at heart.

During a visit to Tibet in the early 1980s, Tashi stopped by a craft market where carpets were sold. He was appalled at their poor quality.

For centuries, Tibetan weavers and master dyers have created some of the world’s finest handmade rugs from sheep wool raised in the cold climates of the “roof of the world”.

After the Chinese invasion in 1950, however, many weavers fled the country. Political unrest has made it difficult for Tibetans to “continue to practice their craft or train the next generation of weavers,” said Harvard, who has a master’s degree in Tibetan studies and worked for the United Nations in neighboring Nepal.

“Tashi not only wanted to create beautiful rugs, but also to keep the tradition alive,” Harvard said. “He has dedicated himself to revitalizing and developing Tibet’s centuries-old weaving tradition. ”

To this end, Tashi has established a weaving center in the capital, Lhasa, which continues to provide interesting jobs to Tibetans.

Recruiting carpet makers was only part of the challenge. Since the 1950s, Tibet has been ruled as an autonomous region of China. More than half of the 13 million people living in Tibet are Chinese.

“It was very difficult for a Tibetan with an American passport to do business in China, but he was successful,” said Sienna Craig, anthropology professor at Dartmouth who has researched and traveled the Himalayas for nearly 30 years old.

This helped him to be fluent in Chinese and four other languages. Her ability to “speak directly to people in their own language has helped build bridges,” said Craig, who met Tashi at a public talk she gave in 2005 in an interview for a post. professor at Dartmouth.

Tashi made several business trips a year to Tibet. On a trip in 1992, he sat alone in a hotel restaurant when a stranger approached. Since there were no tables available in the small dining room, she asked if it would be okay for her to join him.

“Of course,” Tashi replied.

This is how Tashi and Tsedan met. Tsedan, who is also Tibetan, was moved by the fact that after living abroad since childhood, Tashi has remained attached to his homeland.

“All his life he wanted to do something for Tibetans,” said Tsedan, a doctoral biotechnology researcher. “It was his mission.

An instant friendship turned into a long distance relationship. Four years later, they got married.

In the early 2000s, while living in New York City with a young daughter, Pema, and son, Tenzin, the couple made a “quality of life move” to Hanover.

Tashi opened his shop downtown and joined the Rotary club. In 2011, Craig told him about a Tibetan student who had recently arrived in Dartmouth.

Tshomokyi (his full name in Tibetan culture) hadn’t been in Dartmouth for a long time before Tashi started inviting him to his family on weekends for Tibetan meals.

Whether it was choosing a big business or starting a small business in her Tibetan village, which she did after graduating from Dartmouth in 2015, “I have always turned to Tashi for advice. she wrote for a Zoom memorial service hosted by Tashi’s family and friends. July.

To make sure Tshomokyi could pass the “swimming test” required by the college in physical education class to graduate, “he kindly helped organize a swimming lesson for me,” she said. .

Tsedan getting a new job in the Boston area, she and Tashi moved to Wakefield, Massachusetts, in 2020. Tashi continued to lead InnerAsia in Thetford.

Last fall, Tashi was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died on May 18.

A week before his death at 77, Tashi posted a story about his grandfather on his blog. In the 1920s, Tashi’s grandfather had persuaded his business rivals who “normally could hardly be in the same room together” to put aside their differences to open a tea factory. It became the first Tibetan-owned tea factory in China.

“Deep down, Tashi was Tibetan,” Craig said. “He saw the beauty and the value of his culture. He would never want to forget where he came from.

Jim Kenyon can be contacted at [email protected]