Leaving Footprints for Tibet

Posted on September 28, 2007 by

Original story

Leaving ‘Footprints’ for Tibetan cause

The Prague Post[Thursday, September 27, 2007 18:40]
Dutch woman’s pilgrimage aims to draw public eye to Tibetan political situation

By Curtis M. Wong

Das stopped over for one night in Želiv, southeast Bohemia, where she attended mass.
Das stopped over for one night in Želiv, southeast Bohemia, where she attended mass.

Britt Das is in desperate need of a pedicure.

Sitting in an Old Town café, Das removes her sandals to display her cracked toenails, much like a soldier might present a battle wound to comrades.

“I’m really lucky that I don’t have a problem with my feet,” says Das, a Dutch sportswear designer. “They haven’t been looking so well, but they’re functioning fine. I walk about 35 kilometers a day, six days a week. It’s just not in my nature to stay put in one place for a long time.”

But Das, 38, won’t be heading to the salon anytime soon. It turns out she has much bigger plans for her time: On Aug. 8, she left her Amsterdam home to begin an epic, yearlong journey that she’s dubbed “Footprints for Freedom,” which will take her across 18 countries in Europe and Asia. She will travel the 10,000-kilometer (6,214-mile) excursion from Amsterdam to Lhasa, the traditional capital of Tibet, entirely on foot.

After arriving in north Bohemia Sept. 12, Das passed through countless towns including Litoměřice, Terezín and Prague, where The Prague Post caught up with her Sept. 16.

Since then, she visited Třešť, Jemnice and several other towns before crossing into Austria Sept. 23.

The “Footprints for Freedom” excursion is Das’ personal effort to raise awareness for peace, personal freedom and mutual respect for Tibet and its citizens.

“I didn’t really want to get involved in politics,” Das says. “But I knew that I really wanted to bring attention and awareness to the Tibetan cause, to show others that people there aren’t free. That’s why I decided to walk. It seemed to be a way for me to do something in a peaceful manner, in a way that Tibetan people would approve of.”

Tibet has been under Chinese military occupation since 1951. This has long been controversial, as the Chinese government and the Government of Tibet in Exile disagree over whether the political subordination is legitimate according to international law.

Tibetan government officials view Chinese rule as colonial, oppressive and in violation of citizens’ rights of self-rule. Currently, no country publicly accepts Tibet as an independent state, despite various instances of international officials petitioning to do so.

Personal mantra

A native of Terschelling in the Netherlands, Das first visited Tibet in 2005. Having traveled across neighboring India and Nepal, she made her way to the Himalayas, where she was introduced to a local monk, who gave her a special mantra-engraved rock as a gift.

She was so moved by the monk’s offering that she vowed to single-handedly make an impact by “leaving her footprints” across 18 different counties en route to Tibet.

“They don’t have [certain] rights and they can’t even travel within their own province. Everyone knows the Dalai Lama, but an entire country of people who can’t live by his principles exists,” she says. “I just got struck by the country’s people and how they approach their life under those circumstances.”

Although some friends were doubtful, Das credits her father, a former sailor, with being extremely supportive of her pilgrimage plans. Working from home, she mapped out her route, planning to camp or stay in local pensions and private homes along the way.

Although she will be equipped only with a day pack, Das will be accompanied by her friend Stephanie Morris, a 38-year-old Canadian who will drive a Land Rover along the route, providing supplies, clothing and food.

Prior to her departure from the Netherlands last month, Das had already received enthusiastic donations from individuals and companies alike. She hopes to raise a total of 100,000 euros ($140,000/2.8 million Kč) by the end of her journey. While some of the money will be used to finance her excursion, she plans to donate the remainder to Tibetan charities next year.

Das acknowledges some pre-existing safety concerns regarding Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, which she plans to reach by mid-2008. However, after having walked more than 1,000 kilometers from Amsterdam to Prague, she says it’s already been an inspirational and eye-opening experience.

“You meet a lot of people out there who are really caring and positive,” she says. “It’s really surprised me. There are many people who have a lot of integrity and are very interested in your story and the situation in Tibet. It really restores your faith in humanity.”

Curtis M. Wong can be reached at news@praguepost.com