One of my favourite books, also written also in the fifties, had the enigmatic sentence in it, spoken by a gloomy character who was bemoaning what the world was coming to, ‘And the Chinese are in Tibet’… I never really understood what that meant until reading this and also...See more
One of my favourite books, also written also in the fifties, had the enigmatic sentence in it, spoken by a gloomy character who was bemoaning what the world was coming to, ‘And the Chinese are in Tibet’… I never really understood what that meant until reading this and also watching the film. I didn’t want to read this, I felt it was history I couldn’t relate to, an area I was not especially interested in, and the writing style was different, diary-like, dry, leadenly slow at first. The hardback copy I bought had photos, one in colour, which helped, and once Harrer and Aufschnaiter had arrived at their dreamed of destination, after two years travelling to Lhasa, I felt more involved. I couldn’t see how their money lasted them two years; they must have started out weighed down with possessions and coin. I know other prisoners had contributed, but all the same, it seemed fantastical that they could survive on so little. The film was equally trying as Brad Pitt doggedly scrambled over ice and stones for the first third of it. The earlier scenes in the Indian concentration camps run by the British reminded me that my mother told me that we, the English, invented such holding camps, and used them as cruelly, if not in such a way as in Germany at that time. The film did the escape scenes with aplomb, the colour was added to the travel autobiography style of Harrer by introducing elements of The Great Escape; adding also the romance between Aufschaiter and the tailor lady from Calcutta, not in the book, nor their eventual marriage as filmed. Neither did Harrer apparently have a son Rolf as was shown in the movie. A son Peter is recorded in Wikipedia though. The best thing about the film was seeing the wondrous costumes of the Tibetans, the great riches of Tibet, the sweet smiling face of the Dalai Lama, and hearing the huge horns they blow in his honour. The banners, the animals, the fox fur hats, the various other headgear. The gardens, the peacocks… The careful noting of maps, habits and customs of the Tibet people by Harrer was a valuable resource. He filled exercise books with all these facts. Tibet’s previous days of greatness and the refusal to use the wheel. The social class, the position of women, the behaviour of the thousands of monks, not the religious as we know them, more like the Church before the reformation, bullies, advantage takers, too powerful men. What were thousands of them up to that Harrer called an indescribable scene of them squatting, busy doing something for which privacy is generally regarded as essential! The mah-jong epidemic, which the government had to step in and ban. Funny, too, to think of Bridge parties and tennis matches being the norm! Their diet of butter tea (60 -200 cups consumed in a day!) use of smelly butter lamps never to be allowed to go out in the monasteries, palaces and temples, the domestic details were fascinating. Harrer spoke of the ‘indescribable beauty’ of the Himalayas, and their allure to him as a champion climber, yet the Tibetans were afraid to veer off the Pilgrim paths. I was intrigued to read about the ‘British Legation’ who were in the Forbidden City before Harrer and had started a hospital, library, schools. That seemed strange to me because much is made throughout the story about Harrer and Aufschnaiten being the first Europeans to live in Lhasa. Five boys from Lhasa had gone to Rugby School. How did they fit in when they went home? I was shocked to read that life expectancy for Tibetans in the fifties was 30. Marriage at 16 was common. I know the winters were hard but the summers sounded like the Garden of Eden. The friendly, generous habits, like seeing people off along their route by going ahead of them and vice versa. The building skills involved in the sustaining of the palaces and rock forts. The gifts made to the Dalai Lama, horses kept fat and quiet in the stables, never ridden, the elephant… and an onager- a wild ass. The Treasure houses stuffed with centuries of gold and books, clothes and vessels…the burial rituals, being carried away by untouchables, then pulled apart and fed to the vultures on a hillside… The sand mandalas, the butter sculptures. So from 1944 – 1951 is covered by the book. Yet Harrer continued his friendship with the Dalai Lama, who we all know today as a genial smiling monk in exile from Tibet since the invasion in 1951 until Harrer''s death in 2006 at 92. Wonderful to know so much more now about Buddhism; the country on the roof of the world and a modest man who was brought up as a god, made friends with an Austrian and received a worldview from him that set him on the path of global travel and a mission for peace and kindness.