On the evening of March 17, 1959, as the people of Tibet braced for a violent power grab by Chinese occupiers—one that would forever wipe out any vestige of national sovereignty—the twenty-four-year-old Dalai Lama, Tibet’s political and spiritual leader, contemplated the impossible. The task before him was immense: to slip past a cordon of crack Chinese troops ringing his summer palace and, with an escort of 300, journey across the highest terrain in the world and over treacherous Himalayan passes to freedom—one step ahead of pursuing Chinese soldiers.
Mao Zedung, China’s ruthless Communist dictator, had pinned his hopes for total Tibetan submission on controlling the impressionable Dalai Lama. So beloved was the young ruler—so identified with his country’s essence—that for him to escape might mean perpetual resistance from a population unwilling to tolerate an increasingly brutal occupation. The Dalai Lama’s minders sent word to the Tibetan rebels and CIA-trained guerrillas who waited on the route: His Holiness must escape—at all costs.
In many ways, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was unprepared for the epic journey awaiting him. Twenty-two years earlier, government search parties, guided by prophecies and omens, had arrived at the boy’s humble peasant home and subjected the two-year-old to a series of tests. After being declared the reincarnation of Tibet’s previous ruler, the boy was brought to Lhasa to learn the secrets of Buddhism and the ways of ultimate power. Forced in the ensuing two decades to cope with aching loneliness and often stifling ritual—and compelled to suppress his mischievous personality—Gyatso eventually proved himself a capable leader. But no previous Dalai Lama had ever taken on a million Communist Chinese soldiers bent on stamping out Tibetan freedom.
To keep his country’s dream of independence alive by means of a government in exile, the young ruler would not only have to brave battalions of enemy soldiers and the whiteout conditions waiting on the slopes of the Himalayas’ highest peaks, he’d have to overcome a different type of blindness: the naïveté intrinsic to his sheltered palace life and his position as leader of a people who considered violence deeply taboo.
His mind made up, the young Dalai Lama set off on his audacious journey to India while behind him a Chinese army rolled over Lhasa, its advance hunter patrols in fierce pursuit of the man they most coveted. The 14th’s escape was an act of daring and defiance that represented Tibet’s last hope, and so the world watched, transfixed, as the gentle monk’s journey unfolded.
Emotionally powerful and irresistibly page-turning, Escape from the Land of Snows is simultaneously a portrait of the inhabitants of a spiritual nation forced to take up arms in defense of their ideals, and the saga of an initially childlike ruler who at first wore his monk’s robes uncomfortably but was ultimately transformed by his escape into the towering figure the world knows today—a charismatic champion of free thinking and universal compassion.
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Eric Swanson on Escape from the Land of Snows
Eric Swanson is co-author of the New York Times bestselling The Joy of Living and Joyful Wisdom.
Stephan Talty’s Escape from the Land of Snows gripped me from its opening image-–that of a lonely, frightened twenty-three year-old man pacing the gilded cage of a palace garden outside Lhasa--through its final, haunting scenes, which show the Tibetan capital fifty years after the uprising that compelled the young Dalai Lama to escape his homeland in the face of a brutal crackdown by Chinese government forces. This meticulously researched book weaves together strands from a wide array of sources to provide an extraordinarily vivid and compelling picture of a labyrinth of events-–from CIA schemes, to assassination attempts, to kidnapping plots, to the callous and calculating debates of Cold War politics, to shattering betrayals of Tibetan government figures–-swirling around a young man confronting a destiny for which no amount of spiritual or political training could prepare him.
While the outlines of the story are generally known, what fascinated me most was the immediacy that Talty brings to the telling. I felt I was right there, watching the emotional and spiritual transformation of a child plucked from obscurity to become an international icon. Who knew that the Dalai Lama had an early reputation for being headstrong and hot-tempered? That the “palace” where he lived during his early years was cold, drafty, and rat-infested? That discipline was enforced on him, not by a threat to his physical person, but by beatings his younger brother would receive? (The image of a whip hanging on a wall in his room is just one of many haunting details that stayed with me long past the final chapter, a vivid reminder that at an age when most of us are learning rudimentary social skills along with our ABC’s, the Dalai Lama was impressed with the real-life understanding that his least word or action would have consequences for other people). His innocence during his first meeting with Mao-–his willingness to believe the best about people-–is heart-wrenching, as are the excruciating betrayals and the heroic, against-all-odds choices of the bands of supporters and resistance fighters who lead him ultimately to understand that the only way to save his people is to leave them. The agony behind the Dalai Lama’s choice is palpable, unfolding moment by moment against a background of rumors, mysterious oracular pronouncements, and frustrated attempts to communicate with rebel forces and foreign governments.
On every page I could feel the tension rising as the citizens of the capital, alarmed by rumors that the Dalai Lama may shortly be killed or kidnapped, flood the streets to protect him against the mounting threat of increasingly violent Chinese armed forces. I found myself holding my breath as hurried plans to escape in disguise, by night, were stitched together and carried out-–a gamble so desperate it could seem like something out of a spy novel, except that Talty never lets us forget for a moment that every moment was terrifyingly real. Nor does the tension let up during the account of the Dalai Lama’s perilous trek across the highest mountains of the world, pursued by troops and plagued by hunger, freezing temperatures, disease, and an uncertain reception at the end of the journey. Yet it is during this epic flight that the transformation of the young Dalai Lama’s character-–through stages of exhilaration, fear, anger, despair, and finally, exhausted yet triumphant relief-–feels most intensely personal. Escape from the Land of Snows is biography at its best: suspenseful, revealing, and profoundly humane.About the Author:
STEPHAN TALTY is a widely published journalist who has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Men’s Journal, Time Out New York, Details, and many other publications. He is the author of the bestselling Empire of Blue Water, The Illustrious Dead, and Mulatto America.
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