The idea for the Tibet hot air balloon was born in November 2014 over a plate of momos. My husband Paul and I were sat in a secluded Welsh farmhouse with five young Tibetans from Sikkim in northeast India who we had brought to the UK for an exchange project to raise awareness of the Tibetan issue. The project had taken a year to bring to fruition and after a week of school visits, university lectures and discussions with officials at the Welsh Assembly Government we were feeling exhausted and a little overwhelmed. It was time to head back to our shared home in the woods and cook together!
The Tibetan flag is banned in Tibet under Chinese rule and has become an enduring symbol of the Tibetan people’s struggle for freedom.
As the evening wore on we talked, laughed, reflected on our experiences and started to think about what else we might do together. All of us were struck by how little the people we met in Wales knew about Tibet but how much they related to the issues faced by the Tibetan people. Wales, like Tibet, has its own language, culture and flag. The Tibetan flag is banned in Tibet under Chinese rule and has become an enduring symbol of the Tibetan people’s struggle for freedom. The young Tibetans had spent much of the week explaining the design of the Tibetan flag which symbolically represents all aspects of Tibet. Many of those we spoke to were shocked to learn that the Tibetan people face brutal imprisonment for owning, waving or flying their national flag.
As well as being concerned about the situation of the Tibetan people, Paul and I are also hot air balloon pilots. We know from our own experience that the sight of a balloon in the sky turns heads and makes people stop whatever they are doing to watch and take photographs, many of which are then shared via social media.
As we talked about the issues we realised that a hot air balloon in the colours of the Tibetan flag would allow us to raise awareness in a unique and eye-catching way. It would bring the flag to a much broader range of people and could potentially provide a starting point for more detailed conversations about the future of Tibet.
And so the idea for the Tibet hot air balloon was born!
One week later the young Tibetans returned to India and we returned to our day jobs. The challenge now was how to turn our idea into reality and we didn’t really know where to begin. We needed to make sure that the idea would ‘fly’, in all senses of the word.
First, we contacted the Office of Tibet and the Tibetan Community in Britain to make sure that the idea of the Tibet balloon would not cause any offence to the Tibetan people or His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. We were assured that it would not. Then we spoke to one of the world’s largest balloon manufacturers to find out whether it would be possible to build a balloon based on the design of the Tibetan flag and how much the project would cost. A series of designs based on the Tibet flag were commissioned. The final design of the Tibet Balloon faithfully follows the symbolism of the flag in a three-dimensional form. In fact the Tibet Balloon actually carries two flags so that it can be seen from all angles.
The hardest part was raising the £25,000 needed to build the balloon. In January 2015 a Facebook page was established to generate interest in the project around the world. Over the months that followed we worked with Free Tibet and the International Tibet Network to make sure that as many people as possible knew about the project. By the end of March we had received sufficient donations to enable the balloon to be put into production.
Chinese officials claimed that it would undermine relations between France and China if the balloon was allowed to fly.
The Tibet hot air balloon was revealed to the world on 11th July 2015 in the gardens of the Buddhist Monastery of Garraf near Barcelona in northern Spain. The balloon was blessed by the Most Venerable Jamyang Tashi Dorje Rinpoche in front of a gathered crowd of monks, Buddhist practitioners, Tibetan supporters and the national media. During the blessing the Rinpoche gave the balloon a Tibetan Buddhist name, Tashi Gyaltsen, and she is now known as ‘Tashi’. It was a memorable and moving event, one which we will never forget. The space for the balloon was small and technically challenging but it was the way the wind dropped and total silence descended as the balloon was blessed that really took our breath away.
On 26th July 2015 Tashi joined 432 other balloons above the skies of France for her first ever free flight. We knew that the Tibet hot air balloon would attract interest. What we didn’t realise was that the Chinese authorities would try to prevent us from flying. When we returned to the launch field we learnt that officials from the Chinese consulate in Strasbourg had twice visited the organisers to protest against the appearance of the Tibet balloon claiming that it would undermine relations between France and China if the balloon was allowed to fly.
For the first time we started to understand what it must feel like to be Tibetan and to face intimidation by the Chinese authorities. In Europe we take freedom of expression for granted, we do not expect to be told that we cannot express our political identity or beliefs. This is not the case for the people of Tibet. We found the experience very difficult but having come this far we were determined to continue. We returned to the UK where we were joined by members of the Tibetan community in the UK for the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta which was attended by thousands of people. Again we learnt that Chinese officials had tried to prevent us from flying, this time in our own country! This time Tashi hit the headlines with a photograph on the front page of the Guardian newspaper.
Hundreds of thousands of people have now seen the Tibetan flag.
Our first year with Tashi has been a difficult but rewarding one. The Chinese authorities tried hard to prevent us from flying but in the end all they did was help us to achieve our original objective, namely to raise awareness of the situation in Tibet and the experiences of the Tibetan people. Hundreds of thousands of people have now seen the Tibetan flag and have a greater understanding of why it is so important to the Tibetan people. We have been deeply touched by those who have attended the events to which we have taken Tashi and supported us by waving flags and posting messages of support.
Of course this is the beginning of Tashi’s journey, not the end. There is still much work for her – and us – to do. We continue to seek funds to cover the costs of travel and accommodation so that we can take the Tibet hot air balloon to as many places as possible. And we would like Tibetan supporters around the world to contact us with their ideas about ways in which Tashi can be involved in their projects to raise awareness and funds for the people of Tibet. If you would like to be involved in any way please contact us via our website. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
About the author: Heaven Crawley has worked with refugees for the past 25 years. In 2010 she visited Sikkim for the first time and developed an interest in Tibet.