LP Review: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

800px-IMG_1972_SakyaSeven Years in Tibet is a superb read. The autobiographical work of Heinrich Harrer provides an honest, perceptive, and perhaps unique account of pre-occupation Tibet. Harrer’s adventure over seven years is an enthralling story, an intriguing insight into the cultural, geographical, political, social, and ecumenical life of Tibet and its people in the period immediately before the Chinese invasion. 

Captured in India

Harrer, along with his Alpinist companion Peter Aufschnaiter, travelled to what is now Pakistan to climb the Nanga Parbat, 9th highest mountain in the world, in 1939. Being Austrian and therefore a citizen of the German Reich at the beginning of the war, Harrer was interned in a POW camp in India along with the fellow Austrian Aufschnaiter. Harrer recounts their several failed escape attempts,  and eventually the successful attempt. Although Harrer was  a member of the Nazi party before the war, one cannot fault the desire to escape. He and Aufschneiter were not soldiers or government officials, but mountain climbers. Thinking of these great Alpinists (Harrer was one of the first to climb the north face of the Eiger in the Alps) penned into a camp on the hot northern plains of India, one feels inextricably inclined to support their desire to escape!

Journey to Lhasa

The successful escape was perhaps as extraordinary as any tale from the POW camps of Allied officers. Along with several other Germans, they escaped their internment camp disguised as Indian workers, and British officers. Most audacious of all, they simply walked out the main gate of the camp without uttering a word to anyone, or being challenged!

Once free, Harrer and Aufschnaiter set out on an extraordinary journey through Tibet to reach Lhasa.  The fact that Tibet was considered a closed country did not help their cause. At every settlement they were ordered to return to India, and eventually were forced to pass through the country using subterfuge and cunning. On the journey they encountered Mongol bandits, trudged through endless snow drifts, battled with threat of starvation, exhaustion and seclusion. The journey was quite clearly a brilliant feat of endurance and perseverance; they arrive in Lhasa nearly two years after their initial successful escape.

Tibet

Harrer evidently holds a deep affection for Tibet and its people, but does not resist from pointing out its flaws. What he provides to the reader is a fascinating insight into a Tibet, untainted by Chinese occupation. A peaceful, feudal country, the people seem at all times to be happy, well fed, intelligent, inquisitive, respectful, and generous.

Harrer and Aufschnaiter arrive in Lhasa with little more than the clothes on their backs (rags even). They beg their way into the hospitality of wealthy Tibetans, literally starving. By the time both were forced to leave Lhasa, 5 years later, they were both wealthy with their own property, had careers and a very respectable social standing. It is perhaps a mark of their modern European education, but also of their ingenuity. Aufschnaiter an agricultural engineer by education, sets about modernising Tibeten food production. Harrer eventually finds himself working as personal tutor to the Dalai Llama himself.

Chinese occupation

The book moves at a convivial pace for the first 4/5ths. Harrer recounts stories of his life in Tibet, the journey, the people etc. He affects a purely descriptive style that is refreshing in its honesty. A change occurs however in the final chapters of the book. The threat of Chinese invasion is present throughout, however only near the end is the reader revealed the great tragedy of this invasion. The Dalai Llama, mature for a boy his age, discusses with Harrer how to go about modernising Tibet. They draw up plans, begin to invite western experts, engineers, planners and the like to work in Tibet to begin the process.

With little warning, Communist China invades and these plans are laid to waste. Harrer is clearly distressed in his final pages as Tibet, a country with no real army crumbles in the face of the mechanised Chinese military.

 Reading this book 60 years after its publication, Harrer’s final words are the most devastating of all. He writes,

“I often think I can still hear the wild cries of geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear cold moonlight. My heartfelt wish is that this book may create some understanding for a people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world.”

60 years later, what is left of the Tibetan people and culture, I cannot say, as I have never visited. Tibet remains under the yoke of China, and this books serves as a sad memorial to the free and innocent Tibet.

Seven Years in Tibet has been reproduced in a film starring Brad Pitt. I recommend the movie, but read the book first!

Edmund Greaves is co-editor of The Libertarian Press. He also writes travel articles at the www.curiousenglishman.com

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