Seven Years in Tibet
By Heinrich Harrer
While reading Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer's sublime work of travel literature, I was struck by a disturbing question. Has the epitaph for travel literature already been written?
For centuries, armchair travelers have marveled at the tales of adventurers who have traveled to distant lands. From the works of Marco Polo and Ibn al-Battuta to the invaluable works of Charles Darwin to the amazing stories of Thor Hyerdahl, travel writers have taken readers to places they could only imagine, told stories of exotic people and extraordinary cultures.
But with the relatively recent advent of cheap flights, social media, the Internet and, most devastatingly, globalization, is the era of travel... real exploratory travel... finished? Well, until the advent of interplanetary travel, I think it just might be.
Let introduce the book and then let me explain.
In Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer takes us inside one of the most insular cultures ever to exist on this planet. Not only was the Tibet that Harrer visited suspicious of outsiders, it had the luxury of being nestled on the other side of the almost impassable Himalayan mountain chain. When Harrer entered the country in the middle of the Second World War as an escaped POW he became one of only a handful of Europeans who had ever gained access to Tibet. Over his seven years in the country (just in case the title wasn't clear on that) he would meet less than a dozen other Europeans (conversely, I met over a dozen western expats on my first night in taiwan in 2002). There is literally no place on earth left that hasn't felt the impact of Western culture (aka globalization). In that sense, Harrer was given the rare opportunity to see one of the last nations on the planet completely untouched by the Western world prior to the Great Flattening.
The book itself is divided into four parts. The first part deals mainly with Harrer's time in a prison camp in India. As a German on British soil during the early days of World War II he was taken into custody. But he planned and executed his escape and crossed the border into Tibet with the intent of reaching the Japanese lines. The second part of the novel recounts the two years he spent trying to get a foothold in the notoriously insular nation. This part was most interesting to me because it was, by far the most harrowing portion of the book and recounted incidents that could only occur in the duty nowheres of Asia. The third part consists of his first years in Lhasa and the final part is essentially an early biography of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, their friendship and his ultimate flight from Tibet when the Chinese invaded in 1951.
This is travel writing in its purest form. Harrer has no Western crutch, no expat community that has paved the way for his arrival and provided for a nice cushy landing. This is the story of a man who made his way in a nation where he may have been the first of his kind (i.e. German) to ever live in Lhasa. Harrer saw a Tibet that few travelers had seen before and none will ever see again. He saw the pure, unadulterated culture prior to the onslaught of the Chinese invasion and the inevitable incursion of the modern world. And since 99% of the religious buildings in Tibet have been destroyed since the invasion and over 70% of the current population of Lhasa is non-Tibetan, Harrer's work is essentially a eulogy for an entire culture.
Now, I haven't been to Lhasa but I have done my fair bit of travel and, while I still love to do it, I have no misgivings about it. I'm never going to have a unique experience in any of the exotic locales I choose to visit (unless, of course i choose to visit a war zone, which of course I won't). No matter where I go, no matter how far off the beaten path I venture, I am treading on roads well worn by millions of people who have come before me. Every medium sized town in Vietnam and Sri Lanka has a Starbucks. There are fast food outlets in Rangoon and Nairobi. You can buy Bulgari watches at the airport in Ankara and Calcutta and I'm sure if you can't buy a McDonalds Happy Meal in the shadow of the Potala Palace, it's not long in coming.
This incursion has made the notion of travel problematic. If you can experience gourmet Indian cuisine in the comfort of your own home, view the cultural splendors of India from on the television and purchase authentic Indian handicrafts via the Internet why, exactly, would you pay vast quantities of money to fly half way around the globe only to find that Mumbai is a morass of the same 18 fast food chains, coffee shops and clothing outlets you just left? And unless you traveled for a very specific reason (i.e. mountain climbing, surfing, archaeological dig) there is never really much difference between Paris, Pretoria and Phnom Penh. Did you travel for the smell? Because that might be the only thing you couldn't have gotten back home.
With all due respect to Michael Palin, Bill Bryson and Neil Peart, who have written some fabulous travel literature in the past 20 years (focusing on travel with very distinct purposes, I might add), we will never again have a book that represents an introduction to a major nation, city or culture that The Travels of Marco Polo or Seven Years in Tibet was. At the time of publication, Tibet was perhaps the last great unexplored culture on the planet. It's a shame that Harrer's work coincided with its demise (and make no mistake, no amount of Beastie Boys concerts will ever resurrect the Tibetan Nation). The Epilogue to the edition I wrote is a thousand times more heart breaking than the book since Harrer' has had a half century to reflect on the events of his book and see it for what we all know it is, an epitaph.
In that respect, this book is also a cautionary tale for Taiwan, the country I live in (Ten Years in Taiwan?). Taiwan has been the focus of a relentless propaganda campaign since 1949 and while the situation with Tibet doesn't provide exact parallels, there are lessons to be taken for any Taiwanese who cares to listen. The recent self-immolations that have plagued the Tibetan capital represent a desperate endgame that has no happy ending. Is this Taiwan's future should China get the opportunity to act? Let's how for Taiwan (and my) sake we never find out.
Anyway, long story short, Seven Years in Tibet is deserving of the moniker classic travel literature and should be placed on the bookshelf with the other heavyweights in the genre. Perhaps (and lamentably so) at the far right.
(Note: I never saw the Brad Pitt movie)