Gyalo Thondup, older brother of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, erstwhile CIA collaborator, and longtime exile-government liaison to China, wrote The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong (with coauthor Anne Thurston) in 2015. An autobiographical account of Tibet’s ongoing struggle for independence, Noodle Maker primarily centers on the author’s political life, from 1945-1999, but also provides insight into the Dalai Lama’s childhood, education, and early crises. Now retired from official government duties, Gyalo Thondup lives in Kalimpong, India, where he remains hopeful that he—along with all exiled Tibetans—will one day return to a free Tibet.
The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong opens with a very brief account of Tibet’s complicated historical relationships with a number of foreign suzerains, and firmly asserts the primary theme of the book: Tibet has never been a part of China.
Gyalo Thondup was born in Takster, roughly 25 miles from Kumbum Monastery in Amdo, in 1928. Nine years later, his younger brother, Lhamo Thondup, was identified as the fourteenth incarnation of the Dalai Lama, although he was not officially recognized until 1939. Following a three-month journey from Amdo to Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama was enthroned in 1940, Gyalo Thondup began his formal education in a traditional Tibetan school—an institution he describes as backwards and draconian. In 1945, on the advice of the regent (the fifth Reting Rinpoche), Gyalo Thondup departed Lhasa for Nanjing, China, to pursue a more modern course of study and—more importantly for his future endeavours—to learn the Chinese language. But this new educational undertaking was cut short by escalating violence between the Chinese communists and nationalists, and Gyalo Thondup fled China—with his Chinese newlywed—in early 1949.
During his time in Nanjing, both Gyalo Thondup’s father and the Reting Regent had died, and Gyalo Thondup believed their deaths to be the result of foul play. Fearing that he too would be murdered upon returning to Lhasa, Gyalo Thondup’s flight from China took him instead through Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Unites States—ultimately ending in Darjeeling, India. Following the Chinese communist invasion of Tibet in 1950, Gyalo Thondup returned briefly to Lhasa, hoping to aid the young Dalai Lama by brokering gradual, Tibetan-controlled land reform with the Chinese. But quickly frustrated by what he believed to be rampant corruption and increasing Chinese occupation of the city, Gyalo Thondup fled Lhasa within the year, returning to India to begin soliciting foreign support for Tibetan independence.
In 1954, Gyalo Thondup began facilitating the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s support for an armed Tibetan resistance movement. Tibetans were trained at CIA facilities, airdropped into southern Tibet, and supplied with American arms and other assets, but the assistance was paltry, and the author notes that it did very little to aid the out-manned and out-gunned Tibetans. The CIA’s failure to provide meaningful support to the thousands of Tibetans engaged in a violent struggle for their freedom is a source of profound bitterness for the author. In the final chapter of Noodle Maker, Gyalo Thondup states that his collaboration with the CIA remains the greatest regret of his life.
Following the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959, and the establishment of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Gyalo Thondup began serving his brother’s government as head of security and foreign affairs. In 1960, he traveled to New York City to plead the Tibetan case for independence before the United Nations General Assembly, but the issue was tabled—according to the author—due to escalating Cold War tensions following the U-2 incident earlier that year. Throughout the 1960s, Gyalo Thondup attempted to garner international political support for Tibetan Independence, but to no avail. By 1969, even the United States had ended all official—and clandestine—support for Tibet.
In early 1979, Gyalo Thondup was invited to Beijing to meet with the new PRC leader, Deng Xiaoping. The author describes this first meeting as congenial and productive, but after five years as Tibet’s liaison to China, and numerous failed attempts to negotiate the Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa, an exhausted and demoralized Gyalo Thondup resigned. Three years later, shortly after the death of his wife, he was implored to return to service when the Dalai Lama announced his Five Point Peace Plan, which called for a ‘middle path’ for Tibet and China.
From 1987-1995, Gyalo Thondup was involved in several further attempts to facilitate reconciliation between Tibet and China, but he contends that Chinese paranoia, coupled with Tibetan diplomatic failures, scuttled every opportunity. In 1999, he permanently retired from official government service and moved to Kalimpong, India to oversee operations at a noodle factory he had purchased in the late 1970s. In the final chapter of Noodle Maker, Gyalo Thondup reasserts that Tibet has never been a part of China, and expresses his belief that Tibet will, once again, be internationally recognized as an independent nation.