Seven Years in Tibet is travel pornography. Austrian Heinrich Harrer, fresh from the first-ever ascent of the deadly north face of the Eiger, is on a German climbing expedition to the Himalayas. The outbreak of the Second World War sees the climbers interned in a POW camp in British India. After several failed escape attempts, Harrer succeeds in getting away and crosses into forbidden Tibet.
I’ve gone weak at the knees just writing that – time for a stiff drink to steady the nerves.
After a 21-month trek through some of the most rugged terrain on earth, Harrer and fellow Austrian climber Peter Aufschnaiter, penniless and in rags, enter the city of Lhasa disguised as pilgrims. Harrer lives in this fabled city – long off-limits to foreigners – for nearly five years, assisting the government with various projects, a privileged witness to a lost world in its twilight years before the PRC invasion, and, as if that’s not enough, he becomes a tutor to the teenage Dalai Lama.
Excuse me while I lie down and put a wet towel over my forehead.
Published first in German in 1952, an English translation by Richard Graves, Seven Years in Tibet, was published in 1953 (and in America the following year by E.P. Dutton). It was an immediate international bestseller. Though deserving of its success, Harrer was fortunate in his timing. The West’s fascination with the Land of Snows was at one of its high points thanks to the Chinese takeover of Tibet, the abominable snowman phenomenon (sparked by Eric Shipton’s photographs of “yeti” footprints in 1951), and the race to conquer Mount Everest (finally achieved in 1953); and in the post-war years there was a hunger for exotic escapism, for which Tibet – ancient and forbidden, inaccessible, unknown, and above all mysterious – was the perfect destination.
The next high tide of interest in Tibet came in the 1990s; and once again Harrer’s account was a part of it, this time as a film starring Brad Pitt as the Austrian adventurer. Hollywood was going through a short-lived Tibet craze, or more accurately a Buddhist-chic fad. In 1994 there was Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, and then in 1997 two bigger productions: Martin Scorcese’s Kundun and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet.
For the filmmakers, Harrer’s book was missing narrative punch – it was too matter-of-fact and didn’t reveal enough of the man’s inner thoughts. They decided to add an emotional arc. The result, which was clumsily done, had him go on a spiritual journey from cold, self-obsessed bastard to – through his time in Tibet and contact with the Dalai Lama – a mellow, likeable poster-boy for humanity.
Criticism of Harrer’s book for its flatness of narrative and a lack of internal struggle, however, is unfair (he wasn’t a professional writer) and just plain wrong. Harrer was physically and mentally tough, a man of iron will, your worst nightmare high school P.E. teacher, and not some type of blubbering bedwetter given to excessive personal introspection. Yet Seven Years in Tibet is full of feeling – for the landscape, for the people, and of appreciation for the many kindnesses he received.
Of their impending arrival at Lhasa, Harrer writes:
“The name had always given us a thrill. On our painful marches and during icy nights, we had clung to it and drawn new strength from it. No pilgrim from the most distant province could ever have yearned for the Holy City more than we did.”
Harrer ends his book with:
“Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. 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 heart-felt 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.”
Harrer clearly loved Tibet and presents a romantic view, but not excessively so. He’s unsentimental in describing the backwardness of the feudal state, the superstition and corruption, the need for reform, and the medieval filth. We get accounts of Buddhist compassion where, for example, Tibetan labourers under Harrer’s charge are pained that their digging might cause the death of worms, but Harrer also provides examples of the cruelty that stems from religious beliefs. Harrer explains how boatmen were regarded as unclean second-class citizens because their boats were made from animal skins. One instance of their ill treatment stuck in his mind:
“One of the Dalai Lamas on his way to the monastery of Samye had crossed a pass over which the boatmen used to go on their way to the river. The pass became sanctified by the passage of the God-King and from that time onward no boatman was allowed to use it. With their boats on their backs they were obliged to climb over a much higher and more difficult pass with a corresponding waste of time and energy.”
The China-Tibet sovereignty issue, the Dalai Lama, and the mythologizing of Tibet have been much written about elsewhere, so I won’t provide any background here. There’s just one aspect of Harrer’s travels I’d like to clarify: the seemingly confusing chronology. He and Peter entered Lhasa in January 1946. The war, of course, had ended by then. They had already heard the news, making their original aim of pushing through to China and the Japanese lines pointless. Why did they carry on to Lhasa? Harrer explains:
“It was known to us that after the first world war the English had kept the P.O.W. camps going in India until two years after hostilities were over. We had clearly no wish to lose our freedom now and were determined to make another attempt to penetrate into Inner Tibet. The fascination of the country was growing on us and we were ready to stake everything to satisfy our ambition to know it better. Our knowledge of the language was now good and we had acquired a lot of experience. We were both mountaineers and here we had a unique opportunity of surveying the Himalayas and the nomad districts.”
Their fears of post-war interment were well founded. Many German POWs were kept on for several years as cheap labour (the final repatriation of German prisoners from the United Kingdom took place in November 1948). However, the internees from the Dehra Dun camp in northern India had a relatively quick return, arriving in Hamburg in January 1946. In a related note, two of the seven prisoners who were in Harrer’s breakout were unlucky in that regard. While five men headed north (three of them would turn back and be captured, leaving Heinrich and Peter), another two, pretending to be British officers, bluffed their way across India to the frontlines in Burma, where they were captured by the Japanese, who at first thought them spies. They were sent on to Tokyo as heroes. Before long, though, they were reinterred in Japan by the Americans, then once more after being sent back to Germany. Freedom came in early 1948, two years after their former prison mates.
Harrer left Tibet for Austria in November 1950. The success of his travelogue led to further travels and climbing expeditions around the world, which were recounted in numerous books and documentary films. He died in 2006 at the age of 93. Peter Aufschnaiter moved to Nepal, where he worked as an agricultural advisor. He died in 1973, aged 73.
At once exhilarating and depressing for the modern would-be explorer, Seven Years in Tibet is a lesson in humility for anyone imaging their epic Asian travels to be deserving of ink.