In December 2010 residents of Kalimpong, a town on the Indian border with Tibet, turned out en masse to welcome the Dalai Lama. It was only then they realized for the first time that the neighbor they knew as the noodle maker of Kalimpong was also the Dalai Lama's older brother. The Tibetan spiritual leader had come to visit the Gaden Tharpa Choeling monastery and join his brother for lunch in the family compound.
Gyalo Thondup has long lived out of the spotlight and hidden from view, but his whole life has been dedicated to the cause of his younger brother and Tibet. He served for decades as the Dalai Lama's special envoy, the trusted interlocutor between Tibet and foreign leaders from Chiang Kai-shek to Jawaharlal Nehru, Zhou Enlai to Deng Xiaoping. Traveling the globe and meeting behind closed doors, Thondup has been an important witness to some of the epochal events of the 20th century. No one has a better grasp of the ongoing great game as the divergent interests of China, India, Russia and the United States continue to play themselves out over the Tibetan plateau. Only the Dalai Lama himself has played a more important role in the political history of modern, tragedy-ridden Tibet. Indeed, the Dalai Lama's dramatic escape from Lhasa to exile in India would not have been possible without his brother's behind-the-scenes help.
Now, together with Anne F. Thurston, who co-wrote the international best seller The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Gyalo Thondup is finally telling his story.
The settings are exotic - the Tibetan province of Amdo where the two brothers spent their early childhood; Tibet's legendary capital of Lhasa; Nanjing, where Thondup received a Chinese education; Taiwan, where he fled when he could not return to Tibet; Calcutta, Delhi, and the Himalayan hill towns of India, where he finally made his home; Hong Kong, which served as his listening post for China, and the American Rockies, where he sent young Tibetan resistance fighters to be trained clandestinely by the CIA.
But Thondup's story does not reiterate the otherworldly, Shangri-La vision of the Land of Snows so often portrayed in the West. Instead, it is an intimate, personal look at the Dalai Lama and his immediate family and an inside view of vicious and sometimes deadly power struggles within the Potala Palace - that immensely imposing architectural wonder that looms over Lhasa and is home to both the spiritual and secular seats of Tibetan power.