Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sky Train

Once again, I must admit my ignorance. Like many others, I associated Tibet with China without thinking too much about it. I was aware of Tibet's recent struggles, but as soon as I began reading Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History, I realized how little I knew about the modern history of Tibet.

Briefly, the Communist Party of China gained control of central and western Tibet after a military victory at Chamdo in 1950. Many Tibetans have been killed and imprisoned since then, and thousands have left the country to live in India and elsewhere. Today, the Communist Party of China rules occupied Tibet under Chinese President Hu Jintao. However, Tibetans both inside Tibet and in exile, recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, based in Dharamsala, India as their legitimate government. March 10, 2009 marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important dates in Tibetan history, the National Uprising of 1959, when Tibetans demonstrated against Chinese rule and the Dalai Lama was forced to escape into exile (and has lived there ever since).

This new book, by activist, artist, and author Canyon Sam, presents a striking portrait of Tibet, rugged and remote and spiritual, through the true stories of four Tibetan women: an educator, a freedom fighter, a gulag survivor, and a child bride. Canyon Sam is a third-generation Chinese American from San Francisco. Originally she had planned to spend a year in China, but instead traveled to and fell in love with Tibet in 1986. As a Chinese American, Canyon Sam felt a sense of guilt over how the Chinese treated Tibetans, but she realized that the Chinese Communist Party and rulers (who are not elected), not the Chinese people collectively, are responsible. During her stay in Tibet, she interviewed many Tibetan women about their lives. In 2007, she revisited the women who had been a part of her oral history project, and the result is this book. She whittled down the manuscript to the stories of four courageous and resilient women, Choekyi Namseling, Rinchen Dolma Taring, Sonam Choedron, and Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar, who give a more personal, hidden account of Tibet's history, and the author also discusses the changes brought by the controversial new railroad which links Beijing-to-Lhasa, the sky train.

As one of the first to read and review Sky Train, I am grateful. I learned a great deal about a part of the world I was quite unfamiliar with. It was difficult for me to read parts of this book--the years of torture and harsh treatment received in prison are especially awful--but the spirit and strength and humor of these women is inspiring. This is an illuminating book about Tibet's people and history, and it highlights the remarkable strength of Tibetan women.
"Though Chinese forces had obliterated almost all the monasteries, seized the land, killed a part of the population, banned Buddhism, and run tens of thousands out of the country, including their leader, the Chinese were never able to destroy the spiritual faith and values Tibetans held inside."
~Sky Train, Canyon Sam

Special thanks to Canyon Sam and Rachael Levay for sending me this book.


  1. I know just about nothing about this part of the world. Have you read Sky Burial? That one's also about Tibet and it was really interesting!

  2. Amanda, I haven't read Sky Burial. I will Google it!

  3. Thanks for sharing this book with us-it sounds very worth reading-

  4. You've made me want to get the book and read it. I like reading about resilient people who hold on to faith and customs against tremendous odds.

  5. This sounds wonderful. I'd love to delve into the modern history of Tibet, as heart-breaking as it is.

  6. Now that is synchronicity; I was given a thorough lecture on Tibet by my College Student (who is interested in Asian history) over the weekend. I will keep an eye out for this book. Thank you!

  7. Tibet is a place I know nothing about. This sounds like a great book Suko. Your review was great; thanks

  8. A book about Tibet that is on my shelf is The Cave of The Yellow Dog (whose movie I watched earlier this year). It covers the everyday life of nomads in Tibet. I'm normally less interested in book that is dense with politics..

  9. Well there were real demonstrations by Tibetians in India this year as well.. It is very cruel what China Govt did to Dalai Lama and his followers. It was all over the news here... they were beaten up.. MONKS .. can u believe it!

    Now China has started walking in towards India... it seems that they have "conquered" 2.5 sq. mts [ i m not sure] area in Jammu and Kashmir! They support Pakistan, sending them all the latest war things... I have no clue, where this is headed :(

    And now, poor Tibet keeps suffering. Where I live we have a small place that has LOT of Tibetans... and their Monastery.. we call it Mysore's Tibet :) It is a b'ful place... someday I will post pics of it.. we have been there!

    But it is true, that i have read NOTHING on Tibet and this one I need to get.

    I remembered something from A Thousand Splendid Suns, I read... it seems before Islam came Afghanistan, the most prevalent religion there was Buddhism, and there were 2 real big Buddha Statues there.. which were later destroyed by Taliban **sigh**

  10. I haven't read much about Tibet, but I've been reading quite a bit about Chinese Americans lately. "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," being a fictional narrative and "The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life," by Amy Tan, a memoir. Both have been highly enjoyable.

    Thanks for reviewing "Sky Train." I know that I can always go to your blog for great reading ideas.

  11. Mel, thanks for stopping by. I was a bit reluctant to have this "count" towards the China Challenge, but now think it's related in an important way.

    Warren, you've described (native) Tibetans very well.

    Laughing Stars, this is an eye-opening book.

    Diane, thank you!

    ds, that is synchronicity!

    Mee, The Cave of the Yellow Dog sounds intriguing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Veens, I'm so glad you added your thoughts to this post. Please post some pictures of Mysore's Tibet when you get a chance.

    Christie, thanks for your comments. I've read other books by Amy Tan. She's wonderful.

  12. Fascinating review. Makes me wanna go get it!

  13. Sounds like a good book to read. I've always known Tibet as separate from China, but for what reason, I don't know. I remember my dad had a really huge map of the world in his office, and he used to tell me stories about different countries, or just tell me the names of the many countries I've never heard of. He used to tell me that Tibet was part of China. But that just never did it for me.

    Tibet is magical and fascinating for me. Perhaps I should really try to read up on it, instead of just relying on my feelings alone, because essentially, I know nothing about the country.

    **PS: Sorry for going off at a tangent...=p

  14. Kim, thanks for your comment!

    Michelle, your comments are related to the post and quite welcomed. Tibet, to me, seems magical and spiritual, a truly special place.

    Thanks to all for your comments. More are welcomed.

  15. Tibet is a fascinating country with a deep history and a complicated relationship with China. I appreciate the author's effort to spread the word about Tibet's struggles.

  16. This does sound like an interesting read! And its wonderful that you got to learn a bit about Tibet.
    Great review :)

  17. Hazra and Naida, I did learn about the relationship between Tibet and China. I appreciate your comments.

    More comments welcomed as always.

  18. This book sounds wonderful. I so admire women who persevere through difficulties like that.

  19. I don't know much about Tibet, so this book sounds interesting to me on multiple levels. Great review, I am going to be keeping my eye out for this book and will let you know what I think of it. It sounds very inspiring.

  20. Bermudaonion, these women really did endure a great deal.

    Zibilee, thanks for your comment.

    Please feel free to add your comments to this post.

  21. This sounds like a great, informative read. Thanks for pointing this book out - I'm adding it to my TBR list!

  22. I discovered your review while searching for reviews on this book, incidentally. It's wonderful to read a review from someone who isn't so connected to the Tibet cause, and to hear that you enjoyed the book.

    One book I can recommend that is similar is Rinchen Lhamo's "We Tibetans," written in the early 1900's. She married a British officer, and her book is about her life in Kham, an eastern province of Tibet. She shares the humor of some of the women in Sky Train, and also portrays Tibet pre-Chinese invasion.

    If you're interested in reading a review of the book from a Tibet activist, my review is here:

  23. returninghomefromexile, thanks for stopping by. Your review is excellent.

  24. From D. Zheng:

    Before you even finish the first page, you will fully grasp this author's message. The book's absolute anti-China bent makes it an all-too-predictable activist piece. The so-called personal account is filtered through an "observer" with an eager political agenda. The book may be gratifying to some readers who have already made up their mind and picked a certain side on the "Tibet issue", but it is nothing more than a propaganda piece cloaked in some flowery language. Above all, Ms. Sam's first book fails to stimulate a reader's intellect to critically explore the "Tibet issue". The banality of "Sky Train" is as evident as its author's activist political stance.

  25. D. Zheng, thank you for taking the time to post your comment.

    I do not think, though, that this is a predictable book of political propaganda. Canyon Sam, the author, is herself a third-generation Chinese American. She intended to spend more time in China in 1986, but instead (for various reasons) spent time in Tibet. She began a project of recording the oral histories of the Tibetan women featured in this book; their simple and humble lifestyle touched her, and gradually, over the course of many years, became actively engaged in the support for Tibetan independence.

    It is my personal wish, like that of the Dalai Llama, that a greater understanding and respect between the Tibetan and Chinese people is possible in the near future; sensitivity to both the Tibetans and the Chinese is essential.


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