First in Flight

A new account of the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet turns history into riveting adventure.

Escape from the Land of Snows     Photo: Patrick Swirc/Corbis Outline

YOU KNOW THE STORY: As the occupying Chinese army crushed Tibet's uprising in March 1959, the 23-year-old Dalai Lama slipped out of the country before Mao could have him arrested, trekking over mountains and crossing rivers to find sanctuary in India. There are plenty of Dalai Lama biographies out there—including two autobios by the holy man himself—but Stephan Talty turns the flight into the stuff of high adventure in Escape from the Land of Snows: The Young Dalai Lama's Harrowing Flight to Freedom and the Making of a Spiritual Hero (Crown, $26).

Talty, author of the bestselling pirate history Empire of Blue Water, recounts the Dalai Lama's early years as the precocious son of a horse-trading farmer; his discovery by monks seeking the 14th incarnation of the revered leader; and the naïveté of the young man, who was 15 when China invaded in 1950. Mao collectivized Tibet in the mid-fifties, leading to the 1959 uprising. As troops began storming the Norbulingka Palace, the Dalai Lama's aides disguised him in trousers and a coat and accompanied him and some 350 other refugees on the two-week winter trek over the Himalayas into India. "The party's eyebrows and mustaches froze and caked with ice; their hands and feet went numb with the first signs of frostbite," Talty writes. "As the trail dipped and rose thousands of feet in altitude, blizzards alternated with sandstorms, heavy rain, and then bright sunlight that blinded the travelers." It wasn't certain that India would allow the exiled leader in, but a 4 A.M. phone call between the CIA and then–prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's office secured passage across the border. The experience, the Dalai Lama maintained later, changed him from a child to a wise—and outspoken—leader. "I really feel if I remained ... on the throne, the Dalai Lama would be a more holy person," he said. "But he would have less chance for talk."

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