Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: Seven Years in Tibet ~ by Heinrich Harrer


seven years in tibet3

Seven Years in Tibet ~ by Heinrich Harrer (Translation by Robert Graves) – reviewed by John

A fascinating autobiographical account of Harrer’s time spent in Tibet and the forbidden city of Lhasa, during the reclusive country’s final years of independence.

Harrer was an Austrian mountain climber who was returning from a trip to the Himalayas when the Second World War broke out. He and his colleagues soon found themselves in a British prisoner-of-war camp in northern India. While conditions there were very reasonable, Harrer was determined to escape, and decided that the best route was to head north into Tibet (which was neutral) and then try to make his way via China or Burma to the Japanese lines.

After some false starts he and a colleague (Aufschnaiter) did manage to escape and made it to the Tibetan border, high in the mountains. At the time Tibet was a mysterious country which spurned attention from the rest of the world and did not welcome foreigners, but the two Austrians were hoping to rely on Tibet’s neutrality in the war as they tried to pass through heading to the east.

And so began a grueling two year trek travelling hundreds of miles through the Tibetan mountains heading for the forbidden city of Lhasa. Having no entry permit or official travel documents, they were always under threat of being kicked out of the country and had to rely on their guile and the kindness of strangers to help them progress. After many adventures they eventually made it to Lhasa, cold, bedraggled, hungry and penniless.

Despite their condition they were again able to rely on the Tibetan’s natural kindness and hospitality. Although always under threat of being expelled, they gradually were able to establish a network of friends and contacts, helped in part by the local’s curiosity about these strange westerners. Harrer and Aufschnaiter tried very hard to fit in, bending to the local customs and always striving to be helpful. They succeeded, to the extent that Harrer eventually became a kind of tutor and friend to the young Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader of the country. They stayed in Lhasa for five years, and left only when the country was invaded and overrun by the Chinese army, which ultimately led to the Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet.

The book is full of fascinating insights about this simple reclusive country, its Buddhist-dominated culture and its friendly people. In many ways Tibet was like a throw-back to several hundred years ago – it shunned virtually all technology, relied on the power of prayer and superstition, had a strong feudal foundation, believed in the God-like power of its young leader, and was almost totally cut off from the rest of the world. The country and its people charmed the two Austrians, and they in turn were able to help in many ways.

Sadly this simple society has been crushed and has been forced to change beyond all recognition. Ironically the very seclusion that Tibet yearned for turned out to be its worst enemy – when it needed help to ward off the impending threat from its large neighbor, it had no-one it could turn to for help. Not only is the book an interesting read, but it also serves as a valuable historical record of a culture which no longer exists and which remarkably few outsiders ever experienced. I’d rate the book 4 stars and thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about foreign cultures or who likes good travel-oriented biographies.

US|UK|Canada; originally published 1953; 368 pages; Tarcher (August 20, 2009)

Purchased at a local junk store this copy was pilfered by John from Shellie’s teetering TBR pile. As always John will be addressing any comments on this review, so please don’t forget to check the follow up box to get his response.

Have a great Thursday… and remember it’s just a short hop till Saturday and there's always a strong cup of English tea to get you through till then.


JoV said...

Oh I wanted to read this book too! and then watch the movie. So glad you read it and like this. I'll have to pop this in my wishlist or reserve list.

Thanks Shellie!

Unknown said...

JoV -
I hope you enjoy it as much as John did. I will get to it some day!

But I did get to read semi-vicariously through him though... he kept reading me little bits here and there.

Thanks for commenting hope your new job is going well.

Anonymous said...

Hello! Your post has reminded me that I've had Heinrich Harrer's "Return to Tibet" on my bookshelf for years but still haven't gotten to hit. You may have spurred me to action... :-)

I've had a beautiful picture of the Potala Palace as the wallpaper on my pc for a long time. Such an amazing structure!


John D said...

Hi Jay,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It would be interesting to read "Return to Tibet" to compare Harrer's "before" and "after" experienes of this wonderful country. You can only hope that some of its original charm and wonder remains.

The Palace is an amazing structure - though it was very striking to hear how the reality of the inside of the building differed from the external impression.

However much Tibet has changed, I'd still love to visit.


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