The CIA’s First Atomic Spy
   and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa
   Grove Press
   Hardcover, 1st edition May 2002
   364 pages ISBN: 0802117147
   US$ 26

   Paperback: 384 pages
   Publisher: Grove Press; March 2003
   ISBN: 080213999X
   US$ 15

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 Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa



Chapter I


The Tibet-Sinkiang Border
33.40 North, 87.20 West
2PM, April 29, 1950

    The first gunshot was as loud inside the yak-wool tent as it was outside on the Tibetan Plateau. Frank Bessac spilled his wooden cup of salt and butter tea as he raced over to peer out of the tent flap. The two young Tibetan women busy serving tea only moments before, crowded up behind him and looked over his shoulder towards his camp.

    A hundred yards away a knot of horses and men circled Bessac’s canvas tent. Puffs of smoke raced off on the wind as several shooters on their horses lowered their rifles. A dozen short-legged Tibetan ponies pranced around on the treeless plain, silhouetted against the vast sky. One horseman climbed off his horse and advanced on the tent shouting with his gun drawn. In the distance, Bessac could see two horsemen approaching his tent from behind. The expedition was surrounded, and apparently everyone was in the tent as someone shouted back at the Tibetans.

    Bessac cursed softly to himself.

    “Damn! Travel for eight months and the first Tibetans we see start shooting.”

    Bessac turned back to his hosts and tried his Mongolian and Chinese on the two Tibetan girls for the fifth time. In their fright, they clung to one another, but looked at him just as blankly as they had before. The old man, who had slowly warmed to him as tea was made and served, now got up off his carpet by the dung fueled fire and walked to the tent door.
Without any ceremony, the old man started to push him out of the tent. Bessac grabbed the wool robe of the Tibetan, and tried to pull him towards his own tent, pleading. The old man quickly brushed off Bessac's hands, but he paused and listened, as Bessac shouted desperately in English.

    “Look, you're Tibetan. You could talk to them. We’re Americans. We’re going to Lhasa! Meet the Dalai Lama. The Government knows we are coming. Dalai Lama. Lhasa!”

    When Bessac finished pleading, the eyes of the old man and the two shaken girls behind him, remained flat, seemingly devoid of any understanding. They could not understand him in English, Chinese, or Mongolian, and now clearly they were not even going to let him back inside their tent.

    At sixteen thousand feet on the treeless Changthang Plateau, Bessac had only two options. Their tent or his. There was not even a rock to hide behind. The Tibetans were the first humans the expedition had met in two months. When Bessac turned back towards his camp and the swirling horses and men surrounding it, the rest of his party began to emerge from the canvas tent.

    At a hundred yards, it was impossible to tell who was holding up the white flag. Doug Mackiernan and the three Russians were all dressed, like Bessac, in crudely sewn Kazak sheep skin robes. It was obvious to Frank that these were his friends, and not another party of Tibetans or Kazak, only because they had trekked together for so long.

    When he saw them walk out of the tent, Frank started running back. He grabbed his glasses, trying to keep them on his head as he ran, because without them he would be blind. The Tibetans gathered in front of the tent with their raised guns. Three men were in front, with the feeble looking white flag advancing towards the guns. Behind them, someone crouched back, as if not sure he should advance unarmed on the Tibetans.

    The Tibetans were startled. Perhaps by the flag or the fact that the foreigners walked confidently towards them, though they did not have any weapons in their hands. Some of the Tibetans remained mounted, their horses shifting under them. Others stood on the ground. Yet they all kept their guns keenly focused on Bessac’s friends. Suddenly, one of the Tibetans in the front rank of gunmen stepped back, and Bessac stopped running.

    “Don’t shoot," Bessac said softly.

    The Tibetan, who had retreated a step, fired first. A puff of white smoke rose into the wind. Then almost at once, all the other Tibetans fired, and a wave of smoke rose above their heads. The sound of the volley reached Bessac as he started running again towards his friends.

    When the guns fired, the man who had held back dropped low and began to dodge between the bullets. Bessac’s heart leapt as he saw him make for the tent. Was it Mackiernan?

    At the same moment, the other three men moved in an entirely different way. They twisted in mid-air, the way bodies do when bullets hit them. And then they went down so hard, and at such unnatural angles.
Running as fast as he could at sixteen thousand feet, Bessac shouted in English.

    “Don’t shoot. Dalai Lama! Dalai Lama! Lhasa!”

    Frank was now close enough to see the amazement on the Tibetans faces. As they turned around and saw him running towards them, they began to fire at him. The earth six feet to his left burst in a small fountain of dust. Another blast of dust flared three feet to his right.

    His instincts, drilled into him at the Outfit’s camp on Catalina Island, took over—Bessac found himself kissing the earth behind a tiny hillock that he had not even known was there. A bullet kicked up the dirt just above his hat. He waited, listening for the next bullet. The sweat that had broken out all over his body turned cold as he lay there. A minute passed, where he could only hear the wind.

    He raised his head just enough so that his eyeglasses peeked over the earth at the gunmen. One of them pointed at Bessac, and then began to draw circles around his own eyes. Again, he pointed at Bessac and shouted at his friends. Seeing this, Bessac realized that he was the only person in his party wearing glasses and wondered what that meant to the Tibetans.

    Shouting erupted among the Tibetans. Bessac listened, watched, and then stood up. No one pointed a gun at him. He held his ground and removed his glasses to wipe off the dirt, pondering his next move. The Tibetans watched intently as he cleaned his glasses. When he started walking slowly towards them, they were still watching him with their guns lowered.

    At twenty yards, Bessac again started shouting in English, then Chinese, and then Mongolian, repeatedly.

    “Lhasa! Dalai Lama! Lhasa!”

    At five yards, the Tibetans raised their guns again. Frank stopped walking, locked his eyes on them, and continued his mantra, softly now.
“Dalai Lama. Lhasa.”

    The doubt in the eyes of the Tibetans grew, and they looked back and forth at one another, the barrels of their guns sinking ever closer towards the earth. Then the man who had retreated and fired first, raised his gun and shook it at Frank as he shouted, “Kowtow! Kowtow!”

    He pointed his gun at the earth and shook it again as he yelled once more, “Kowtow!”

    A Chinese phrase that Frank knew well. Bow down. Get on your knees. Submit to me. Show me your subservience.

    Frank didn’t think; he spoke, in English, not loudly at first, but his voice rose louder into the wind as his anger increased.

    “I damn well won’t kowtow to you. You come up here shooting people, people invited by the Dalai Lama to come to Lhasa—and you want me to kowtow? I will not kowtow. No god-dammed kowtow! You are going to kowtow to me when the Dalai Lama finds out what you have done! Americans don’t kowtow to anybody!”

    The Tibetans watched blankly as Frank spoke. When he took off his glasses and waved them at the Tibetans, emphasizing his refusal to kowtow, some of the men smiled.

    The grim-faced leader did not smile but only stared sternly at Bessac. When his men laughed, he leveled his gun barrel at Bessac, now at point blank range. One of the laughing Tibetans behind the leader jerked his head up quickly to catch Bessac’s eye. He then cocked his head towards the ground, and raised a free hand as if firing his gun.

    Bessac saw the mimed gestures. He could see the look of almost mock concern on the one Tibetan’s face as he again violently cocked his head towards the ground.

    ‘What the hell’ he thought to himself as he let his pride go and sank to his knees.

    A ripple of words erupted from the head Tibetan, his gun dropping back down towards the earth.

    “La, la, la. Nyingje.”

    The Tibetan who had mimed for him, slung his rifle over his shoulder, stepped out of the group and walked towards Bessac, pulling a goat hair rope out of his robe. Bessac kept his eyes locked on the ground and did not move. The mime pulled Bessac’s hands behind his back and bound them. Frank glanced up and saw the rest of the Tibetans rush over to the expedition’s camel loads that sat outside the tent on the ground. Then the man who had bound his hands, took off Bessac’s glasses, and his world three feet away immediately turned to a gray blur.
He listened to the Tibetans as they cracked open the crate with the machine guns. He could hear their startled shouts of surprise and glee when they found the gold bars. He heard the clicking of a Geiger counter as it was flicked on and off, and then what sounded like a rock smashing into Mackiernan’s machine. Bessac only hoped they would not play with the grenades.

    Those were all smaller, distant things. Most of his attention was focused on a human foot, which lay quite near him in the dirt. It belonged to one of his friends. A crudely sewn sheepskin covered the leg. Five feet away, the face that belonged to the foot was a complete blur. As his world shrank, he knew he should try to get closer so he could see the face and check if he was alive. Instead, he looked at the foot and the robe and remembered when the Kazak sold them the sheepskins. He thought about how they measured one another and cut the skins. He remembered sitting in the Kazak yurt turning the fleece in and the leather out, stitching up the robes as the snow fell outside.

    “Warm enough to get you to Tibet, doesn’t matter what they look like. And I guess the Tibetans won’t be expecting diplomats in tuxedos.”
Who said that? Who was that lying in front of him, in such an odd and uncomfortable position, lying so still?


© 2003 Thomas Laird  |  Contact the author