In the Bookshelf #3: 7 Years in Tibet


“We have a saying in Tibet: If a problem can be solved there is no use worrying about it. If it can’t be solved, worrying will do no good.” – Dalai Lama

When I think about an epic life, Heinrich Harrer comes immediately to my mind. He was on the climbing team that made the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger in 1938. The novelist Arthur J. Roth called it the “Wall of Death“.  Harrer went to India to attempt an ascent of Diamir Face of the Nanga Parbat. He was planning to conquer the Himalaya. His projects were halted when the Second World War erupted. He was arrested and put in British POW camp in India. He had to tried multiple attempt of escape before finally succeeding 1944. He has managed to reach Tibet by foot and cross the border. He will live in Tibet for 7 years until the Chinese invasion. Even more impressive, he will one of the few westerners to be accepted in the “foreign city” of Lhasa. He will meet the Dalai Lama and will become his tutor. After, his seven years in Tibet, Harrer will do many more adventures where he will climb several mountains in Alaska, Andes, Borneo, New Guinea and in Eastern Africa. He explored the Amazon with the former king of Belgium Leopold III. He’s the author of 40 documentaries and more than 20 books including The White Spider and today’s book Seven Years in Tibet. The book is mainly Harrer’s travel journal from is prison camp to his departure of Tibet in 1952. 

I think one of the main lesson I’ve learned from “Seven Years in Tibet” is to never quit. Harrer never accepted to stay in prison as POW. He didn’t want to lose years of his life in internment. He tried multiple attempts before succeeding. Most of us would have quit the first time. Reaching Tibet by foot from India is not easy deed and he managed to do it. In Tibet, he was sometime in really difficult condition, without food and sleeping outside. Tibet’s authorities didn’t want him in the country because he was strange. He tried every possible ways to stay in the country. He bought more and more time. He didn’t quit in his dream of reaching Lhasa even with minimal chance of getting inside the forbidden city. After Tibet, he will never quit his fight against the chinese invasion. I think we can learn a lot from that.

Seven Years in Tibet also teach us to be more open to other cultures and to be more curious about life. Harrer comes to Tibet as westerner. Tibet in 1945 was still in feudal system ruled by the Dalai Lama. Men, beasts and lands are property of him. Is power is strongly supported by a monastic order of monks. Buddhism is the main religion and it is deeply anchored in Tibet tradition. As he will see, it is forbidden to kill any living animals or humans. Even taking something that come from an animal like honey is against the law. People in Tibet express deep devotion. Religion occupies most of the life of the individual. Harrer will learn a whole other way of living. As he will say: “Tibet has not yet been infested by the worst disease of modern life, the everlasting rush.”  European haste has no place in Tibet. The book can make us understand the different tradeoffs of the modern culture. A new way of living, will mean the disappearance of an old way. A new technology will remove an older one. A new custom, will make an old one go. Harrer explained it well: “Here it is the yak’s pace that dictates the tempo of life, and so it has been for thousands of years. Would Tibet be happier for being transformed? Tibet will deeply change him.

He will be force to leave Tibet because of the invasion. Powerless and he will say: “I felt like a spectator at a play, who foresaw the tragic denouement and was saddened by the inevitable end, but had to sit out the last act“. But, he will never forget how lucky he was for those seven years. He lived something that couldn’t have happen elsewhere. He will feel homesick of Tibet even after is return in Austria. He will write “Seven Years in Tibet” in the hope of turning the eyes of the world to the fate of Tibet. Forty-four years later a movie will be made about this epic story.

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