My wife Heaven has worked with refugees for more than 20 years including young Tibetans living in the Himalayan state of Sikkim in North East India. She 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.
The idea for the Tibet hot air balloon arose during dinner in Wales with a group of young Tibetans who we were hosting during a visit to the UK which Heaven had organised. As the evening wore on we talked, laughed, reflected on our experiences and started to think about what else we might do together to raise awareness about the situation in Tibet.
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. 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. The young Tibetans had spent much of the week explaining the design of the Tibetan flag which symbolically represents all aspects of Tibet.
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!
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 and that in fact it was a welcomed opportunity to raise awareness especially given the Dalai Lama’s forthcoming 80th birthday celebrations and visit to the UK. 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. It was a long, slow and challenging process to get people to understand what we were trying to achieve, and why, but by the end of March we had received sufficient donations to enable the balloon to be put into production.
The Tibet hot air balloon was revealed to the world on July 11th 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 the Tibetan Buddhist names of Tashi (‘auspicious’) and Gyaltsen (‘victory banner’). She is now known affectionately 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. A special thanks to P1 Chris Freeman for his expertise and calmness under considerable pressure!
On 26th July 2015 Heaven flew Tashi on her maiden flight with 432 other balloons above the skies of Chambley, France at Lorraine Mondial Air Ballons. 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. Noting that the event is not political in nature, and acknowledging that the balloon is simply a representation of the Tibetan national flag and does not carry any derogatory slogan or political message, Philippe Buron-Pilatre insisted that Tashi was free 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 subsequently learned that this type of pressure from the Chinese is standard practice in response to any Tibetan-related activities that take place. This included the visit to Glastonbury by the Dalai Lama that took place earlier that month.
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. It was disappointing to be excluded from the night glows but Tashi was at least allowed to fly. The story attracted considerable press interest including a photograph on the front page of the Guardian newspaper.
The Tibetans who attended the event were truly overwhelmed to see the world’s largest Tibetan flag fly and it was noticeable on the final day that there were Tibetan flags around the arena. Many people that we spoke to had never previously considered attending the Fiesta despite living in Bristol for many years.
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 had 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. If you can support us or would like to be involved in any way please contact us via our website www.tibetballoon.org.uk where you can also find more about the story and travels of Tashi and the meanings built into the Flag. You can also follow us on Facebook www.facebook.com/tibetballoon.
The Tishi envelope is a lightweight Ultramagic M-77 coming in at 78kg matched up with a Tekno basket and burner making it easy to transport and handle. It was registered in June 2015 and registered as G-TBET. Thanks to Paul Dopson & Heaven Crawley for the pictures and article.