The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong

The Untold Story of My Struggle for Tibet


By Gyalo Thondup

By Anne F Thurston

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Shortly before midnight on March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama, without his glasses and dressed as an ordinary Tibetan solider, slipped out of his summer residence with only four aides at his side. At that moment, he became the symbolic head of the Tibetan government in exile, and Gyalo Thondup, the only one of the Dalai Lama’s brothers not to don the robes of a Buddhist monk, became the fulcrum for the independence movement.

The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong tells the extraordinary story of the Dalai Lama’s family, the exile of the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism from Tibet, and the enduring political crisis that has seen remote and bleakly beautiful Tibet all but disappear as an independent nation-state.

For the last sixty years, Gyalo Thondup has been at the at the heart of the epic struggle to protect and advance Tibet in the face of unreliable allies, overwhelming odds, and devious rivals, playing an utterly determined and unique role in a Cold War high-altitude superpower rivalry. Here, for the first time, he reveals how he found himself whisked between Chiang Kai-shek, Zhou Enlai, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the CIA, as he tried to secure, on behalf of his brother, the future of Tibet.


Gyalo Thondup (left) and his brother the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, 2011 in Kalimpong

Copyright © 2015 by Gyalo Thondup and Anne F. Thurston.

Photos, unless otherwise noted, used by permission of

Gyalo Thondup and Tanpa Thondup.

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Book Design by Cynthia Young

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Rgya-lo-don-grub, Lha-sras, 1928–

The noodle maker of Kalimpong : the Dalai Lama's brother and his struggle for Tibet / Gyalo Thondup, elder brother of the 14th Dalai Lama and Anne F. Thurston, coauthor of The Private Life of Chairman Mao.—First edition.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-61039-290-7 (ebook)

1. Rgya-lo-don-grub, Lha-sras, 1928– 2. Politicians—China—Tibet—Biography. 3. Bstan-'dzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV, 1935—Family. 4. Central Tibetan Administration-in-Exile (India)—Officials and employees—Biography. 5. Tibet Autonomous Region (China)—Politics and government. 6. Tibet Autonomous Region (China)—Biography. 7. Tibetans—India—Biography. 8. Kalimpong (India)—Biography. I. Thurston, Anne F. II. Title. III. Title: Dalai Lama's brother and his struggle for Tibet.

DS785.R44 2015





10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

For the people of Tibet,

to those who have fought for our freedom,

and in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the cause.

Map of Tibet

Table of Contents

Map of Tibet



1. Taktser Village and Kumbum Monastery

2. My Family

3. The Search Team Arrives

4. My Brother Is Recognized as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

5. The Dalai Lama's New Life

6. My Family's New Life

7. My Life Changes

8. My Student Days in Nanjing

9. Stranded in India

10. Becoming an Intermediary

11. The Chinese Invade

12. The Long Journey Home

13. Home Again

14. Escape from Tibet

15. Beginning Life in India

16. The Dalai Lama Visits China

17. The Dalai Lama Visits India

18. The CIA Offers to Help

19. The Dalai Lama's Escape

20. From Mussoorie to Dharamsala

21. Mustang

22. Settling Down in India

23. The War between China and India

24. The CIA Stops Its Support

25. A New Life in Hong Kong

26. My Return to China

27. The Tenth Panchen Lama

28. Meeting Deng Xiaoping

29. Return to Tibet

30. Our Negotiations Fail

31. Another Opportunity Lost

32. Opportunity Lost Again

33. Return to Tibet

34. Watching the World from Kalimpong

Afterword: Anne F. Thurston


Selected Bibliography




Writing The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama and his brother Gyalo Thondup could scarcely be more different. But the ties that bind them are unbreakable. They are two sides of the same struggle for the survival of Tibet. In the politics of modern Tibet, only the Dalai Lama himself has been more important than Gyalo Thondup.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and of Buddhist believers everywhere. He has won the respect, admiration, and even adulation of a worldwide audience. "My message is always the same," writes the Dalai Lama, "to cultivate and practice love, tenderness, compassion and tolerance."

Gyalo Thondup sees himself as an obedient, selfless, and loyal servant to the Dalai Lama and Tibet. But his work has been conducted in secret, out of the limelight, in the nitty-gritty of international politics and the violence of a clandestine war of resistance.

Of the five male siblings who lived to adulthood, Gyalo Thondup alone did not become a monk. Instead, from the time the family moved to Lhasa in 1939, just after his brother Lhamo Thondup had been annointed the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, he was groomed to serve his brother on matters of state. Reting Regent, who had been chosen to serve as head of state until the young Dalai Lama reached majority, considered relations with China to be of such immense importance and Tibetans' knowledge of their giant neighbor so weak that Gyalo Thondup was sent to study in China. President Chiang Kai-shek was to become his sponsor.

When Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party lost the long civil war to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, China's long latent threat to Tibet quickly turned real. The Tibetan government was forced under duress to sign the Seventeen Point Agreement ceding sovereignty to the recently established government of mainland China. As parts of Tibet rose up in resistance against their new rulers, Gyalo Thondup, then in exile in India, became the secret interlocutor between the CIA and the underground freedom movement in Tibet. His efforts helped keep the resistance movement alive. When the Dalai Lama was forced to flee his homeland in March 1959, Gyalo Thondup was at the border just inside India to greet him, having obtained from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru a grant of political asylum for his brother and everyone who had accompanied him in flight.

With the Dalai Lama safely in India, Gyalo Thondup became a leading figure within the new Tibetan government-in-exile, serving as the major spokesman for Tibet to the Indian government and most of the outside world, including the United States and the United Nations. A rarity among Tibetans, Gyalo Thondup is fluent in Tibetan, Chinese, and English, allowing him to communicate directly with many of the world's most powerful leaders. In 1979, after the death of Mao Zedong and the ascension to power of Deng Xiaoping, it was to Gyalo Thondup that the new Chinese leader turned to re-establish contact with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in exile. For more than two decades, Gyalo Thondup shuttled between India and China trying without success to negotiate an agreement that would allow the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland.

For years, people close to Gyalo Thondup have encouraged him to write his memoirs, and for years he has promised that he would. Representatives of the Chinese Communist government even offered to send him to an island resort with a team of journalists to help put the story together. Gyalo Thondup called upon his friend Elsie Walker instead, hoping she could find someone, an American perhaps, to help him write.

Elsie Walker's friendship with the Dalai Lama traces back for decades, and so, too, does her friendship with several members of his family, including Gyalo Thondup. Elsie had been instrumental in arranging the Dalai Lama's first meeting with an American president, her cousin George H. W. Bush, and later made the introductions that led to the ongoing friendship between His Holiness and the second President Bush. She had worked inside Tibet for years, cooperating with local officials on grassroots development projects. Elsie turned to me in the hope that I might help. She had read The Private Life of Chairman Mao that I wrote with Mao's longtime personal physician, Li Zhisui, and knew that I had experience interviewing.

When Elsie Walker broached the possibility of my working with Gyalo Thondup, I was fascinated. But I demurred. I was too busy. I was not a Tibet specialist. I am a student of modern and contemporary China. Elsie saw my China background as a plus. China looms so large in the life of contemporary Tibet that understanding what is happening in Tibet requires an understanding of China, too.

We found another China specialist, a young journalist who had once been a student of mine, to write the memoirs. But when the possibility of retaliation from the Chinese government proved too daunting, he had to pull out of the project. By then, even after 35 years of visiting China, living there for a number of them, being devoted to understanding China and promoting better cooperation between our two countries, and writing several books, the Chinese government had refused my request for a visa. China had been my life's work and my passion, and suddenly I was no longer allowed to go. But I could not stop writing. Gyalo Thondup gave me a new story to tell.

I have a longtime interest in Tibet. My files date from 1984 and the New York Times book review of John Avedon's In Exile from the Land of Snows. Avedon's book was my first serious introduction to Tibet and left a powerful impression. A visit to Tibet in 1985, just as it was opening to foreigners, further piqued my interest.

In the fall of 1987, I was living in Beijing, working with an organization that arranged academic study tours to China and Tibet, when riots broke out in Lhasa. We had a group of some 30 people in Lhasa at the time. I still have my notes, handwritten in pencil on yellow lined paper, of my telephone conversations with the group leader there, describing what was happening on the streets—the small protest that began on September 27 when several monks from the Drepung monastery were arrested after carrying the banned Tibetan flag and shouting slogans in support of the Dalai Lama and the independence of Tibet, and the much larger demonstration with many more arrests that took place on October 1, when the crowd set fire to the police station in order to allow the prisoners to escape. Soon someone sent me John Ackerly's photograph of one of the monks who had led his escape, the badly burned right arm held high, his hand in a fist, his left arm draped in a traditional white khata scarf.1 The reports of the protests that I had received in near real time in Beijing complemented others I read later, including the congressional testimony of Indiana University professor Elliot Sperling2 and reports by Robbie Barnett, who was making his first visit to Tibet when the riots began.3 Barnett went on to become a professor at Columbia University and one of the country's leading specialists on contemporary Tibet.

Jeremy Bernstein's 1987 New Yorker article best captured my own thoughts about Tibet at the time. "There is something profoundly moving about the Tibetan way of life," he wrote, "about its religious essence. One feels instinctively that if this civilization were crushed and replaced by something that was yet another imitation of ourselves the world would be poorer for it."4 I did not want to see Tibetan culture crushed or for the world to become poorer for it.

After my book Enemies of the People5 was published, several American specialists of Tibet encouraged me to undertake a similar endeavor with Tibetans. They promised to find interpreters and offered to help make the arrangements. Enemies was based largely on interviews with Chinese who had been victims of Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. I had cited Avedon's In Exile from the Land of Snows for its description of what he labeled the "cultural genocide" that had taken place in Tibet under Mao. The opportunity to expand my skills to include the story of Tibet was enticing. But the political situation did not permit it. Interviewing Tibetans in Tibet about what they may have suffered under Maoist rule was too politically sensitive.

My interest in Tibet was rekindled in the winter of 2002–2003 with my first visit to Qinghai. Qinghai was so distinctly different and the people so disarmingly outgoing that the place almost swept me off my feet. Qinghai includes a large part of the traditional Tibetan province of Amdo, and its population, particularly in more rural areas, is still largely Tibetan. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama and five of his siblings, including Gyalo Thondup, were born there. I began spending as much time as possible in Qinghai.

Gyalo Thondup and I spent many months together during the course of this project, briefly in Washington, DC, sometimes in Hong Kong, once in New Delhi, and mostly at his hilltop compound in Kalimpong, India, where he has lived in relative obscurity since 1999, running the noodle factory that he and his wife, Diki Dolkar, established nearly forty years ago. I had never been to India, and suddenly there I was with Elsie Walker, arriving exhausted at the New Delhi airport in the middle of the night, soon to be off to Kalimpong.

The heavily trafficked route from the Bagdogra airport to Kalimpong has become familiar, but the journey is always intense, a multi-sensory sociological smorgasbord of that part of West Bengal. The journey begins outside Siliguri on a hot, arid plain along a long, flat road lined with countless open-air stalls and jammed with cows, dogs, goats, carts, overfilled buses, motorcycles, bicycles, slow-­moving cars, and throngs of colorful humanity. "Honk horn" the sign on the rear of the larger vehicles reads, and the sound of honking is constant, exuberant and conversational rather than angry.

The air grows cooler as the road begins to climb, and we pass through a tropical jungle dotted by waterfalls, shrines to the Hindu goddess Kali, and more open-air roadside stalls, progressing upwards through an endless series of switchback curves where rockslides are frequent and the road is in a never-ending process of repair. The trip can take anywhere from two-and-a-half to five or more hours depending on the state of the roads. Monkeys gather in families along the street observing the traffic and alert to the likelihood of edible treats proffered by passing travelers.

The road from the Teesta River to the heart of Kalimpong is named according to the number of miles from the river, and this last part of the journey always seems the longest—a combination of anticipation and the numerous switchback curves that slow the climb to a crawl. The center of Kalimpong is at 10-Mile Road. The streets are hilly, narrow, full of potholes, and lined with listless sleeping dogs. The town is crowded with shoppers during the day, with the number of women who still dress in saris giving color to otherwise drab surroundings. The countless tiny open air shops are crammed to overflowing with almost every imaginable ­commodity—medicines (both Western and homeopathic), saris, blue jeans, t-shirts, electronics, pastries, Tibetan antiques, Lux soap, carpets, imported British biscuits, magazines and comic books, tailors, silversmiths and shops selling nothing but gold. Restaurants serve Chinese, Nepali, and Indian food as well as Italian pizza. There is even a Café de Paris, owned and run by a young Nepalese woman and her French husband. The wife speaks excellent English with a strong French accent, and the cheerful young waiter is deaf and mute. The couple met when they were both working with an NGO serving the handicapped.

The foreign spies who once gave the town its unseemly reputation have disappeared, and so have the colorful Tibetan traders with their dangling earrings, long swords, and yaks and mules loaded with salt and wool. Traces of history can be still found at the Himalayan Hotel, once the home of David Macdonald, a leading officer in the Younghusband expedition to Lhasa in 1904, who helped the Thirteenth Dalai Lama escape to India in advance of the Chinese army in 1910, and later served as a British trade official in Tibet for some twenty years. The hotel is still owned and run by David Macdonald's grandson and his wife Nilam (though now, regrettably, the property is up for sale), and has played host to some of the world's great explorers and Tibet­ophiles, including the indomitable French explorer Alexandra ­David-Néel, Prince Peter of Denmark and Greece, Heinrich Harrer of Seven Years in Tibet, British diplomat and scholar of Tibet Sir Charles Bell, and numerous teams of mountain climbers off to conquer Mount Everest. Richard Gere was a more recent guest, renting the entire eight-room main building. I stay in room number five where, I am assured, Richard Gere once slept. David, my Roman Catholic Nepali waiter, is proud of the picture of himself at age fifteen standing next to the Hollywood star who is also a long-time friend and disciple of the Dalai Lama. David hopes that his son, now the same age as he was when he met Richard Gere, can someday study in the United States.

The violence of Kalimpong's Gorkha rebellion, described so chillingly in Kiran Desai's acclaimed novel, The Inheritance of Loss, has subsided, but descendants of immigrants from Nepal continue to demand a separate state. In the summer of 2013, shortly before one of my planned visits to Kalimpong, the rebels organized a non-violent strike that closed shops and kept the entire population at home. Periodically, the strike was lifted to allow residents to stock up on provisions and for vehicles to move in and out. Gyalo Thondup escaped to New Delhi during one of those brief openings, and we met there instead.6


GYALO THONDUP'S COMPOUND is just up a hill off 8-Mile Road, two miles down from the center of town. The compound is enclosed by a coral colored stucco wall broken by two turquoise wooden gates, the first giving access to trucks coming in and out of the noodle factory, the other opening on to the living compound. A discrete plaque at the entrance identifies the place as Taktser House, named after the family's village in Amdo.

The gate to the living compound opens to a broad sweep of deep green lawn bordered ahead by tropical jungle and on either side by four substantial buildings, the most impressive of which is the three-level family home, which was constructed from a blueprint bought in San Francisco for one hundred dollars during Gyalo Thondup's first visit to the United States in 1951 and features numerous large plate glass windows looking out over the grounds. The four buildings are all made of the same coral colored stucco, dark corrugated iron roofs, and wooden windows and shutters trimmed in turquoise.

Down a hill from the main house, just at the edge of the jungle, is a small cemetery where the ashes of Gyalo Thondup's mother Diki Tsering, who died in 1981, his daughter Yangzom Doma, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1983, and his wife Diki Dolkar, who died 1986, are buried. A tall Tibetan prayer flag stands next to a white incense-burning stupa, much like the one on the family property in Taktser village, at one edge of the lawn. The stupa is lit on special occasions such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year. It is then, too, that a long rope with fluttering Tibetan prayer flags in blue, white, green, red, and yellow is hung across the lawn from the roof of the family home to the roof of the guest quarters. The stupa is also lit, together with butter lamps, in times of particular need such as when noodle sales are down, to convey prayers to the family's mountain god in Amdo. The mountain god's powers are believed to extend to persuading people as far away as West Bengal and Bhutan to purchase more noodles.

Within the compound, Gyalo Thondup has solved the perennial problems of electricity and water faced by most people in Kalimpong with a generator that assures electricity even during the daily outages and a 100,000 gallon water tank that sits underneath the noodle factory and cost more than the main house to build. Internet connections are less reliable than electricity, but the Changia brothers who run the busy computer shop in town (and also book airline tickets) are geniuses at finding ways to get online. Their grandfather arrived in Kalimpong in 1936 with only five rupees in his pocket. He rose from service as a porter to worker in a fabric merchant's shop, to owning a fabric shop himself. The fabric shop is still in business, and the computer shop, which opened in 2000, is one of the most successful in town. Everyone knows the Changias.


On Sale
Apr 14, 2015
Page Count
384 pages

Gyalo Thondup

About the Author

Gyalo Thondup, the older brother of the Dalai Lama, lives on a hilltop compound in Kalimpong, India, that also houses the noodle factory he set up with his late wife, Diki Dolkar (Zhu Dan).

Anne F. Thurston is a China specialist and senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. She was the coauthor for the international bestseller, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, and is the author of Enemies of the People and A Chinese Odyssey. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Learn more about this author