Living in 2012 is especially boring. Everything is defined and detailed. It seems as if there is nothing you can tell someone without them giving you that ‘been there, done that, so tell me something I haven’t heard/googled’ look.
Let us take ourselves back to 1939, at the start of the Second World War and make yourself a companion to Heinrich Harrer, a passionate mountain climber who managed to scale the Eiger North Face wall as well as participate in many skiing Championships.
As he travels on his mountain-climbing expedition, he finds himself in India, and it being a British protectorate at the time and with Britain and Germany being at war, he taken to a detention camp in Bombay. Never one to accept fate, he tries severally to escape and reading his attempts at that is horrifyingly fascinating. Finally he does manage to escape and head off to Tibet (Tibet held a fascination for him because it was the last “mystery” of the world for no outsiders were allowed inside).
He does walk for days on end and one must admire his courage and tenacity as he does all he can to avoid capture, whilst having no change of clothes or access to good food so that within no time he is all rags and thin to the bone but an expert at hiding and running. He crosses the Tsang Chok-La pass and begins walking through the Tibetan Kingdom. At this point of his tale, you really begin respecting his intellect and negotiating tactics, he tricks and deceives his way past doubting Tibetan officials and finds a way of gaining favours from them, and once, in a rather hair-raising section of the book, he out-swindles a bunch of robbers famed for killing, at their plan to rob and probably murder him.
He walks for over 70 days before he reaches Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and it is a marvel reading his description of his first sight of it. Things start becoming easy for him after he reaches Lhasa, and with his apt of making people endearing towards him, he makes friends and finds a family to host him.
By then he is fluent in Tibetan, and starts getting attention of the government due to his Western school training, and he is consulted on various matters where he contributes tremendously. He is made a salaried employee of the government and ultimately becomes a tutor of the Dalai Lama himself. The latter having spotted him with his telescope (the Dalai Lama was sequestered from contact with the local population and spent his time looking at people with his telescope).
Heinrich records a number of events in Tibetan life-their colourful ceremonies (complete with giant butter statues), love for jewellery and their general ease with life (describing them as a happy, carefree people).
The story darkens towards the end as he describes military intervention from China and how the Dalai Lama and the nobles of the city have to flee, and how that marks the beginning of the end of the charm of Tibet. This is a very controversial subject that has been attacked severally by the China with the result of Heinrich being banned from entering China, as well as Brad Pitt, the famous Hollywood actor who played Heinrich in the movie with the same name.
Heinrich died in 2006 at 93 years of age.
Let me warn you that this book will make you yearn for those adventurous days when men cared less about making money or making a good living but followed the longings of their hearts to discover and make sense of the world. I wish I could do that. I hope I get to do that.
This is how he describes his first sight of Lhasa:
“We turned a corner and saw, gleaming in the distance, the golden roofs of the Potala, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama and the most famous landmark of Lhasa. This moment compensated for so much. We felt inclined to go down on our knees like pilgrims and touch the ground with our foreheads.”
And this is how he would always feel about Tibet:
“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.”