Seven Years in Tibet/Return to Tibet
by Heinrich Harrer
“‘Shangri-La’ is a name from James Hilton’s famous novel Lost Horizon,” Heinrich Harrer wrote in his 1983 narrative, Return to Tibet. “I was hoping during my stay in Lhasa that something of that magic had survived in Tibet¼ There are so many miraculous things there, things that are true, and those who seek will find them. Lhasa, though, will never be the same again.”
Harrer was writing thirty years after the publication of Seven Years in Tibet, the tale of finding his own Shangri-La after escape from a World War II prison camp, only to be exiled from the country that had become his second home, a land he was not to return to until in1982, “after many years of efforts to obtain an entry permit (from Tibet’s Chinese occupiers), efforts time and again coming up against a ‘not yet’, I finally joined a tourist party as Tibet has recently been opened to a limited number of visitors each year.”
From a Chinese perspective, their efforts to keep Harrer from revising the land he had loved must have seemed justified. They could hardly expect him to write kindly about the changes decades of occupation had made to Tibet. Had a new generation of Chinese leaders forgotten his earlier book? Or did they hope his joy at being allowed back would soften his criticism?
Harrer was eager to see remembered landmarks and renew acquaintance with friends still living in Tibet. The landmarks he found all too often terribly changed¾ the ancient and enormous willow, known as “Buddha’s Hair”, outside the main temple of Lhasa, virtually uprooted; the medical school on top of Chagpori hill, once one of the principal sights of Lhasa, in ruins; Samye, Tibet’s oldest monastery, completely destroyed.
Some of Harrer’s friends had been children when he had last met them in their parents’ homes. There was the aptly-named Jigme (“fear naught”) Surkhang, son of Tibet’s former foreign minister, who approached Harrer on his first day back, saying, “‘Don’t you recognize me, Henrig?’” And when Harrer “stammered a little and remarked that, after all, thirty years and passed and he would have to help me a little,” reminded him that he had pulled the much younger Jigme out of the river when he had taken a dive that nearly drowned him.
Despite ruin and constant supervision by the guides assigned to Harrer by the Chinese, he found some things still unchanged. “I took photographs, recalled that, in 1952, when I got back to Europe with my few slides, no one would believe the colours¾ the film, everyone said, must be faulty and the colours were not true: no sky could be that blue, no water could sparkle that green. But now, thirty years later, we once more beheld these incredibly intense colours, that hard azure-blue, that eye-calming green of the grass on the very first day on the bank of the (river).”
At the time of his visit, Harrer still had hope that the Tibetans’ spiritual and secular leader, the Dalai Lama, would be able to return and that Tibetan would be able to regain its independence.
Harrer lived long enough to see the Chinese rename a city in their southwestern province of Yunnan “Shangri-La.” But nearly a decade after his death, the Dalai Lama’s room in the old Potala palace remains as he left it. And the hope of independence is still a dream.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a February of animal adventures with John Steinbeck’s Red Pony.)