Summary and book reviews of Escape from the Land of Snows by Stephan Talty

Escape from the Land of Snows

The Young Dalai Lama's Harrowing Flight to Freedom and the Making of a Spiritual Hero

By Stephan Talty

Escape from the Land of Snows
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2011,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2011,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

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 escapeat 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.

Excerpt
Escape from the Land of Snows

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 ...

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Central to the story is Tibet's religious foundation and the Dalai Lama's unique status and profound connection to his people: "Buddhism was much more than a state religion: it was the sole reason for Tibet's existence." The narrative becomes more detailed, suspenseful and upsetting as Talty describes the days prior to the Dalai Lama's frightening escape during the 1959 uprising against Chinese occupation forces. If this history lacks anything it is photographs, but Escape from the Land of Snows is inspiring and an important read, and it may move many to act on behalf of the people he was forced to leave behind.   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers, Flyboys, and The Imperial Cruise
It was perhaps history's most momentous escape: the Dalai Lama fleeing over the roof of the world from Mao's advancing troops. I loved losing myself in Escape from the Land of Snows and you will too.

Author Blurb Greg Mortensen, author of Three Cups of Tea and the Stones Into Schools
This wonderfully rich narrative should be required reading for anyone who cares about Tibet, the Dalai Lama, or the power of spiritual integrity.

Library Journal

Well worth reading, especially for those interested in 20th-century political and religious history or Asian history and society. Recommended.

Publishers Weekly

From these multiple voices the author has woven a vivid picture of a dangerous journey and a country in crisis.

Kirkus Reviews

Riveting, informed...A great read for Tibetophiles old and new.

The Washington Post - Jeffery Paine

Talty has actually written three books in one: a biography of the young Dalai Lama up to his 24th year (1959), a history of recent Tibet and a hair-raising tale of daring and escape. The last of these makes Talty's story come aliveā€”and made the Dalai Lama the man he is today.

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Beyond the Book

The Norbulingka and Potala Palaces
Until he was forced into exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama lived and studied in two magnificent palaces in Lhasa that housed the historical and religious treasures of his nation.

Norbulingka
The buildings and gardens of the Norbulingka (the Summer Palace) cover over 89 acres and were at the heart of the 1959 uprising described in Talty's book. Thousands of Tibetans gathered there and risked their lives to protect the Dalai Lama from the PLA (People's Liberation Army) whom they feared would abduct or kill him. "They believed if he was captured, the dharma would be irreparably harmed. Death was a small price to pay if they stopped that from happening," reports Talty in The Huffington Post. The ...

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