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  Call of home  

Tibetan Xiagorkenzhulyexebaldan spent 35 years abroad before returning home in 1994. Sitting in his two-bedroom apartment in Lhasa, the 72-year-old appears healthy and is voluble. His earlobes are bigger than average - a sign of good fortune for Tibetans. He agrees. "My life now is pleasant and relaxed." But it was not always like this. At the age of 7, he became a Living Buddha in Drepung Monastery of western Lhasa. With access to a good education, the future looked promising.

Xiagorkenzhulyexebaldan holds his prayer wheel and joins the prayer crowds in Lhasa going around Potala Palace. Wang Jing / China Daily

That ended in 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama and his supporters carried out an armed rebellion in the region.

The same year, the rebellion was foiled by the central government, and Dalai Lama fled to India and created the self-declared "Tibetan government-in-exile".

"Going with the flow, I also left Lhasa for India," he says.

The 20-year-old spent the next seven years in India, making money by writing astronomy books, based on knowledge he had acquired back in Lhasa.

"I spoke only the Tibetan language at that time. Life was not easy. I had to stay in places where Tibetans gathered," he recalls.

In 1967, he found himself qualified for a Red Cross program that allowed Tibetans-in-exile to migrate to Switzerland. After applying, he moved to Switzerland the same year.

The program helped him with accommodation and a job. He started working at a paper mill in the city of Wil.

In 1970, the 31-year-old got married in Switzerland to another Tibetan native.

For the next few years, he worked on the production line of an electronics company, as well as a nurse in a local hospital.

"It's normal for young people to try and make a life in the outside world. But when you turn 50, you keep thinking of going back home," he says.

The father of two says he always kept an eye on China's situation.

Not only did he watch news about the nation on TV, but also subscribed to China Pictorial, to keep abreast of what was going on in the country.

"I remember that in Deng Xiaoping's era, Chinese leaders visited foreign countries more frequently," he says, adding he followed closely Deng's visit to the United States in 1979.

"I paid special attention to the delegation members' clothes and bags. I could tell how China had changed from these details," he says.

In 1984, in the aftermath of reform and opening-up, Xiagorkenzhulyexebaldan visited his hometown.

"I could tell, during that visit, how my hometown had changed. My relatives and friends back there were doing well. Many of them were working in collectively-owned companies."

The visit lasted 25 days and he returned to Switzerland. It was not until 10 years later, when the then vice-chairman of the Tibet autonomous region Dorje Tsering visited Switzerland that he decided to return home for good.

The reason he decided to come back was he felt that "both people's living conditions and the level of freedom had improved significantly compared to the 1960s and 70s".

In May 1994, he re-settled in Lhasa. Two years later, his wife joined him. His two daughters and three grandchildren stayed in Switzerland.

Xiagorkenzhulyexebaldan's wife died in 2002.

He remains a devout Buddhist. One of the bedrooms in his apartment has been converted into a prayer room. Every morning, he holds his prayer wheel and joins the prayer crowds in Lhasa, to go around the city's landmark, the Potala Palace.

Buchung, director of the Reception Committee for Returning Tibetans, says the number of Tibetans returning to visit has been rising in recent years.

"We see about 2,000 people coming back to visit each year," he says.

By Wang Yan

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