“A hair-raising tale of daring and escape.”—The Washington Post
In the early weeks of 1959, a bloody uprising gripped the streets of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa as ragtag Tibetan rebels faced off against their Communist Chinese occupiers. Realizing that the impending battle would result in a bloodbath and his own capture, the young Dalai Lama began planning an audacious escape to India, a two-week journey that would involve numerous near-death encounters, a dangerous mountain crossing, and evading thousands of Chinese soldiers who were intent on hunting him down. The journey would transform this naïve young man into one of the world’s greatest statesmen . . . and create an enduring beacon of hope for a nation.
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 a burgeoning leader who was ultimately transformed into the towering figure the world knows today—a charismatic champion of free thinking and universal compassion.
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Early one morning in March 1959, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama walked slowly along a gravel path that led away from his small home at the Norbulingka, his beloved summer palace. The air just after first light still carried a snap of cold that reached from the Himalayas, and the sun was only now beginning to warm the breeze. This was his favorite time to walk the grounds, after rising for prayers and breakfast at 5:00 a.m., when everything was still. Against a sky beginning to lighten, the leaves of the palace trees— poplar and willow, mostly— fairly pulsed green. It was the Dalai Lama’s lucky color.
He was deep in thought, and then deep in the effort to avoid thinking. When he lifted his head he could spot thrushes and willow warblers and even an English kingfisher as they swung through the branches and then out over the two thick walls that surrounded the palace’s 160 acres. The Norbulingka, three miles outside the capital city, Lhasa, was the place the Dalai Lama felt most at home.
As the Dalai Lama walked, he could hear the calls of his pet monkey, which was tethered to a stick in another part of the Jewel Park. If he was lucky, he would spot the musk deer that roamed the grounds, along with cranes, a Mongolian camel, and high- stepping peacocks. He could also hear the occasional burst of gunfire that echoed outside the walls. Out there, thousands of his fellow Tibetans were camped, guarding against what they thought were conspiracies to kill or abduct him. There were, the Dalai Lama was convinced, no conspiracies, but that didn’t change the power or the direction of the uprising that was gathering in the streets of Lhasa. The crowds would not let him leave, and their very presence was inciting the Chinese, who had occupied the country, or retaken it from a corrupt, intriguing elite, if you asked them, nine years earlier.
The past few days, since the uprising had begun, had run together in a “dizzying, frightening blur.” The Norbulingka couldn’t have appeared more serene as it took on its new greenery, but it seemed that the future of Tibet was spinning out of control just outside its walls. The Dalai Lama felt that he was caught “between two volcanoes.” But there were actually more than two sides; the Tibetans themselves were divided. As was his own mind, particularly on the question of what to do now: stay in Lhasa, or flee to a safe haven in the south, or even on to India itself?
As the thin monk, just twenty- three years old, usually luminous with energy, paced slowly along the path, he was successfully avoiding returning to his small whitewashed palace, especially the Audience Hall, where he held his meetings. (It was even furnished with chairs and tables instead of Tibetan cushions, as an optimistic nod to the foreign diplomats he’d hoped to welcome, but the Chinese allowed few visitors.) Bad news was all that arrived there these days. The Chinese official Tan Guansan, one of the leading officials on the influential Tibet Work Commission, had made a point of coming to see him over the past few months, and the confrontations had become increasingly ugly. And for months the Dalai Lama had been receiving messengers arriving from Lhasa and beyond with stories of Chinese atrocities against his people— beheadings, disembowelments, accounts of monasteries burned with monks inside them— that were so outlandishly brutal that he had to admit he himself didn’t believe them all. “They were almost beyond the capacity of my imagination,” the Dalai Lama remembered. It simply wasn’t possible for human beings to treat one another that way. Now new reports were coming in daily through the gates of the Norbulingka, watched not only by his bodyguards and Tibetan army troops but also by representatives of “the people’s committee,” a bewildering concept in Tibet, which had been ruled for centuries by aristocrats and abbots, under the authority of the Dalai Lama himself. These bulletins told him that the Chinese were bringing artillery and reinforcements into Lhasa and installing snipers on the rooftops of his restive city. He could sometimes feel the rumble of tanks’ diesel engines as the vehicles negotiated the narrow streets.
What he was trying to avoid thinking of as he walked was the dream he’d had last year. He’d seen massacres in his mind, Tibetan men, women, and children being shot and killed by Chinese troops and his lovely Norbulingka turned into a “killing ground.” This he kept to himself. (But some of his subjects would later report they had had the same dream at the very same time.) He knew that such scenes, if they were allowed to unfold in Lhasa, would be the prelude to something much larger. “I feared a massive, violent reprisal which could end up destroying the whole nation,” the
Dalai Lama said.
Lhasa (whose name means “place of the gods”) had first appeared to him as a city of wonders. Almost twenty years before, he’d entered the capital on a golden palanquin constructed of a curtained box set on poles carried by teams of young men, with massive crowds cheering his approach and bowing to him with the ceremonial katas, or white scarves, in their hands. “There was an unforgettable scent of wildflowers,” recalled the Dalai Lama. “I could hear [the people] crying, ‘The day of our happiness has come.’ ” But it hadn’t. In fact, during his reign, disaster had followed disaster. Men in the east of the country were now being “driven into barbarism,” forced to fight the Chinese and dying in the battles, ensuring themselves a rebirth as lower animals and demons. And Lhasa too was growing unstable.
The sun was climbing over the small mountains to the east. Soon he would have to return to the palace.
Perhaps what was most shocking about what had happened in the past few days was that the idea of escape wasn’t entirely repugnant to him. It would be devastating to his people, for whom he was Kundun, the Presence, the spirit of Tibet itself. It would be equally devastating for the nation, for the idea of an independent Tibet, and it cut at his heart to contemplate what it would mean for the future. But it wouldn’t necessarily be devastating to him. The notion of escape had always appealed to the Dalai Lama, ever since he was a boy in the Amdo hills, before the search party seeking the next incarnation of Chenrizi— the deity that manifested itself in each successive Dalai Lama— had knocked on his parents’ door. When he was only two, he would pack a small bag, tie it to a stick, and tell his mother he was leaving for Lhasa. He had always been an unusual boy, but those moments astonished her. And twenty years later, the idea of leaving still intrigued him. He knew that freedom of the kind he had tasted only briefly in his life was impossible in Tibet. Even without the occupation, Lhasa for a young Dalai Lama was often a dark and suffocating passageway.
He didn’t wish to leave, nor was it even clear that he could if he wanted to. Some 40,000 Chinese troops were stationed in and around Lhasa, and he’d have to be spirited past their patrols. And if he did flee, Tibet, in a way, vanished from Tibet. He was central to every Tibetan’s sense of his or her own life in a way that no other leader, not even Mao in China— Mao, who was finally revealing himself in these horrible days— could equal. He was the storehouse of the Buddhist Dharma, a subject that had once bored him profoundly but that now quickened his every thought. Was it possible that that too could disappear from his country, from the earth itself?
The Dalai Lama took the path that turned and wound back toward his home on the Norbulingka grounds. He could hear the crowds stirring outside. The chants would begin soon. He didn’t hurry.