Friday, January 16, 2015

Adventure classics -- The high road to the holy city

Seven Years in Tibet

by Heinrich Harrer


Last Friday’s post in this January of true adventures left Austrian mountain climbers Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter fleeing through the Himalayas from a World War II internment camp in India.

Along the way, the war ended. So why didn’t they abandon their original escape plan and return? They had begun the escape with several companions, all of whom had given up, finding life as prisoners easier than struggling to freedom through the land of the world’s highest mountains.

They had already spent months in Tibet, sometimes struggling over icy mountain passes, sometimes luxuriating in nearly subtropical villages while evading the efforts of local officials to steer them into Nepal (where they feared being re-interned by the British despite the war's end). Along the way they had become fluent in Tibetan, learned the virtues (and sometimes vices) of yaks, developed a reputation as quasi-physicians¾ and succumbed to the siren lure of the greatest of Tibetan sites, the holy “forbidden city” of Lhasa.

“Our money would be enough to get us to Lhasa,” Harrer wrote in his 1953 adventure classic, Seven Years in Tibet. “We could not control our desire to go there and this new objective seemed to us worth any sacrifice¼ We were setting out into terra incognita, marked only by blank spaces on the maps, magnetized by the ambition of the explorer.”

After more than another year, taking circuitous routes to avoid bandits and bureaucrats, “we debouched into the plain of Lhasa. So near to Lhasa! 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 pilgrim¼ could ever have yearned for the Holy City more than we did.”

But was the Holy City yearning for them?

As travel writer Peter Fleming wrote in his introduction to the English translation of Harrer’s book, “The European traveler is accustomed to seeing Asia, or anyhow the backwoods of Asia, from¼ the high though not very reliable horse of privilege.”

Harrer and Aufschaiter, however, were seeing the country from far, far below, reaching Lhasa “penniless and in rags” and, as Harrer describes them, with “long, tangled, luxuriant beards” that often caused Tibetans to mistake them for members of the plundering Kazak tribes who had migrated into Tibet from Soviet Russia during the war.

Perhaps worse still, the Tibetan language the fugitives were so proud of, they found derided as “a country accent which amused the sophisticates of Lhasa.”

Despite all that, Lhasa took them in. They were probably as surprising to Lhasa as it was to them. They received clothes (theirs were in rags), shelter, and the courtesy of the city where they wandered like the country bumpkins they had become, marveling at “provision stores (that) contain, as well as local produce, American corned beef, Australian butter and English whiskey¼ one even finds the Elizabeth Arden specialties, and there is a keen demand for them.”

As a young athlete, Harrer had had his picture taken (to his later chagrin) with Adolf Hitler. He was to meet another famous ruler in Lhasa, one whose friendship would last until the end of his adventurous life. But that meeting was still to come.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a January of true adventures as Harrer encounters the youngster who will change his life forever.)

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