Mcleod Gange, India - When the Dalai Lama picked this town for his residence in exile, his loyal followers lucked out on the soccer stadium. It lacks lush professional turf; this field is just a couple of hundred metres of sharp rocks and scorched earth. But the huge stone bleachers hugging the surrounding mountainside look like someone whisked the Coliseum out of Rome and wedged it between two cliffs.
We've gathered at the Tibetan Children's Village soccer pitch not for some gladiator match, but to watch the Gyalyum Chemo Memorial Gold Cup Football Tournament 2005.
Buddhist monks, Tibetans, foreign backpackers and Indians have been bused in from all over the Subcontinent. More would have come, but the Chinese army refused to let in fans from Tibet. We all hunker down to see the cream of the Tibetan refugee crop compete for the much sought-after Golden Cup.
But I'm not really here for the game. I came to see a fight.
The night before, I was hanging out on my veranda 100 metres above McLeod Gange, looking down at the pretty lights and listening to the drunken whooping of Tibetan youth jacked up by the visiting heavy metal garage bands from India grinding out Tibetan covers of headbanging tunes by AC/DC, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and especially Bon Jovi.
Every night the Tibetans wreak drunken havoc on the otherwise peaceful spiritual centre where the revered Dalai Lama holds his birthday celebrations. I turned to my neighbour, Tatsuya, a Japanese foreign student doing his doctorate on Tibetan culture. "The monks are out partying like crazy again!" I joked.
Tatsuya just nodded. "Some of them probably are," he said politely.
"Shouldn't they be meditating or something?"
"Yes, maybe they should," Tatsuya said. "But these monks are different. These would be the new Tibetans. They have only just arrived in India. Some of them become monks because they cannot find work. But they are not so much true monks, you understand?
"Old Tibetans can get very angry," Tatsuya continued. "Even Dalai Lama says maybe there are too many monks now. He says we should concentrate on quality over quantity. Sometimes old Tibetans and new Tibetans even fight."
"It's true," Tatsuya said. "Tomorrow they play soccer."
So here we all are, mingling in this burning blue-and-golden Himalayan afternoon, 1,780 metres above sea level, waiting for the fireworks to start.
They do, literally, as soon as the match begins. Fans take aim at the pitch and let fly with homemade rockets.
The game itself gets underway without a hitch. Both sides exchange Tibetan prayer scarves.
We expatriates have hunkered down in a section of 40 screaming monks, all rooting for the Dhondupling Football Club of Clement Town. In this match they're the good guys and the favourites of the old Tibetans. The other team, Bir/Chauntra United, new Tibetans who have immigrated from Kham, China, are without a doubt the bad guys.
The major scandal of the tournament has seen the Bir fans managing to send the heavily favoured Darjeeling team packing before they even played. The team were out peacefully having their tea and supper in a restaurant when a mob of Bir supporters charged in and explained politely that if the Darjeeling team happened to win the upcoming match, the players would be heading home with their facial features rearranged, or so the story goes.
Then, in a Bir/Chauntra United match with the hometown team, the hooligans began throwing rocks, threatening hometown fans with knives and eventually instigating a fight that stumbled out onto the pitch.
So far today, the only intruders have been an errant dog and a cow that ambled slowly across the entire pitch. The outbreak of peace may have something to do with the dozens of armed Indian police officers patrolling the field, or maybe with the public tongue-lashings given by a few important monks about bad behaviour.
Clement Town scores first. The Bir goalie has misjudged a field-length kick, running out to meet the ball only to see it bounce over him and into the net. Two minutes later, Clement Town scores again with a low shot to the right post. After each goal the monks supporting Clement Town celebrate wildly. They yell, whoop and frolic in the shower of Tibetan confetti - scraps of paper with lions and other symbols printed on them - that rains down after each goal.
The gun-toting police glare. The minority Bir fans seem grim but controlled. Then two players collide on the field. The Bir player remains crumpled in the dust. The Tibetan monks join in raucous cheering, backslapping and high-fiving. Our shock doubles when the Bir player woozily sways to his feet and, instead of polite clapping, we and the monks start viciously booing!
A French girl who's taken a break from the Sorbonne and "French rationality" and has come to McLeod Gange to be amongst the enlightened practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism is somewhat confused and upset by these fanatic monks in imitation Rolexes and backwards basketball caps cheering at the sight of human suffering.
Soon, Clement Town adds two more markers. With the game out of reach, I strike up a conversation with a small Tibetan man to my left.
"Pretty exciting," I said convivially.
"Oh, yes, yes - very exciting, hah hah!" he replies.
"Clement Town's doing well. I wonder why the Bir fans haven't started any trouble. They're losing pretty badly," I muse.
"The spies are gone," he hisses. "Yes, Chinese spies - they infiltrate Bir supporters to cause trouble. Oh, yes, it is very true. You think Tibetans would fight like that between each other?"
I turn back to watch the game. The final whistle shrills: Clement Town 6, Bir 0.
The Clement fans rush the field, monks included, screaming in jubilation, and then undertake the universal responsibilities of a winning team. They hoist their coach onto their shoulder, spray water on each other in lieu of champagne and pose for an endless round of photographs.
The fans decamp for butter tea and dumplings. I stay. While portly VIPs present the glittering Golden Trophy, what Tatsuya predicted begins to materialize: up in the stone bleachers, two groups of girls face off, screaming into one another's faces, their arms waving wildly. A limb windmills into solid flesh. The rumble is on, and even monks hitch up their robes and plunge into the screaming melee.
Only when the police brutally strike one of the girls in the head, her face exploding in blood, does the crowd separate. The injured girl looks like she's been dipped in red dye from the waist up. The mob follows the police and their prisoners to the paddy wagons, the red robes of the monks making the scene look like the parting of the Red Sea. All thoughts of soccer have been abandoned. Through the dust and jeering, screaming and pushing, the paddy wagons inch forward as spectators walk away from the battleground under banners calling for Fair Play and Tibetan Freedom.