Tibet - Introduction

by Heinrich Harrer
Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian now in his tenth decade, has had a life for the history books. He was an Olympic skiing champion, a first-class mountaineer who on the first successful ascent of the "unclimbable" North Face of the Eiger (which he recounted in his unforgettable book, White Spider), got caught up in World War II and was interned by the British in India, fled to Tibet where he became tutor to the teenage Dalai Lama, about which you can read in these pages, wrote Seven Years in Tibet based on his extraordinary time there, fled with the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, returned to Tibet many years later, a journey he recounted in Return to Tibet, and now lives at home in a village in Austria.

Literature about Tibet is flooding the book market, I can't cope or read it all. It is therefore a welcome task for me to write the introduction for Travelers' Tales Tibet, which respects the cause of Tibet and is accepted by the Tibetans themselves.

When I try to write about my second homeland, the reader will understand that I am not always objective, that in my memory all unpleasant encounters are forgotten and I remember only the compassionate habits of my ever-ebullient friends. I never succeeded in depicting the vast landscape—its colors were always more beautiful than I could possibly describe. When God created our world, he gave preference to the country beyond the horizon. The Tibetans respected and thanked the Divine for this generous gift by being the greatest conservationists of nature.

Every human builds his successes upon the shoulders of others, and I am no different. In Lhasa one of my great mentors was Trijang Rinpoche, by far the most learned Tibetan and teacher of the Dalai Lama. He took me under his umbrella, as the Tibetans say, and approved of my seeing the Dalai Lama in Norbulingka. With Gyayum Chenmo, the great mother of His Holiness, I had a kind of conspiracy. As loving mother for her holy son she was often outspoken and realized, or even foresaw, that hearing of the Western World might be useful to the young Dalai Lama.

When Peter Aufschnaiter and I gradually advanced deeper into the "forbidden country," we encountered a thousand-year-old culture. In Tsaparang, the ancient city of the old kingdom of Guge, we admired Tibetan art in its highest completion. And also in Kyirong, where virtually milk and honey were flowing and the most popular Yogi Milarepa was born, who wrote poems and songs about gods and nature a thousand years ago.

The merry Tibetans, devoted to their Buddhist religion, worked hard on the barley fields, which were cultivated even above 4,000 meters. On the way to Lhasa, it was already the second winter, we often heard them saying "Nying je"—meaning, they felt compassion and sympathy for our poor outfit in temperatures of minus 40 degrees. It was touching when crossing the 6,000-meter-high Pass Guringla, a nomad gave us some precious dried apricot from Gilgit, where we had been eight years earlier on the Nanga Parbat expedition. Lhasa hoards many memories, one of which I will narrate because it shows how informal and leisurely Tibetans behave.

I was just drawing on a map when my faithful servant Nyima breathlessly announced that a group of Kutras (noblemen) was approaching my house near the holy river Kyichu. They were my best friends Wangdü, Wangchuk, and Lobsang Samten, the elder brother of the Dalai Lama. Nyima was handed the trunk of a sheep of which the mutton had the much appreciated sor-nyi, two-finger-thick fat. Nyima immediately prepared Tibetan tea, which is very often falsely described, because not even in mysterious Tibet do oxen give milk. (The females are called dri and the castrated bull is the yak, the ox. Most writing about Tibet, however, uses the generic yak, so we better just say "yak," which has become the synonym for bull, ox, and dri.) My friends sat down, turned the radio on, and searched for their house on the map, which was lying on the drawing table.

After some time Nyima came with the steaming pot, the smell of mutton-fat and yak dung fire filled the room. Everybody took a piece of meat with his fingers, dunked it in a sauce of hot peppers, and rather noisily the meal began. My memory is so vivid that my mouth waters when I describe it. The horses were not forgotten and got a sack full of peas, and the servants got a share of boiled mutton. After strong burps, tea was served, which came from Darjeeling, once Tibetan territory with the beautiful name Dorjeling—"Thunderboltgarden." After some time Wangchuk, as the oldest, said, "We enjoyed the meal and tea, we thank you very much, but now we request permission to go." This expression I also use jokingly at home in Austria after an invitation. It is a sensible expression which relieves the host as well as the guest. The horses were saddled, Nyima stood with his family in front of the kitchen, and devotedly accepted the generous tip with both hands.

I have many more anecdotes to describe the open and merry character of Tibetans, and it still can be experienced today. This unforgotten time is not gone forever, because one of their great virtues is the concept of time, the strength to wait, wait until they are free again.

And until then, you the traveler or reader can learn much more about this extraordinary land and people in Travelers' Tales Tibet.

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