Seven Days in Tibet

by Sanjena Sathian:

When Heinrich Harrer wrote his now famous travel memoir Seven Days in Tibet, he boasted often of being one of only a handful of Europeans to have penetrated the country so deeply. Half a century later, Harrier is certainly not the only European to make it into Tibet, but he may still be one of only a few foreigners to have gotten a glimpse of the real Tibet.

I spent seven days last week accompanied by a guide on an overland trek to Everest base camp from Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. I found myself a tourist again – a shock after being one of five foreigners in eastern Nepal a few short weeks ago. Italian trekkers, Spanish mountaineers, British expats living in Hong Kong; there were no shortage of foreigners to traipse through the country. Tibet had seemed closed-off and inaccessible to me in the preceding months, as I went through all the hurdles set up by the Chinese government to make getting a permit and a visa incredibly difficult. And yet there I was, amidst a cohort of travelers, and I couldn’t imagine the country as I had before, as the quiet, isolated kingdom, pining for its exiled leader. It seemed, instead, positively pristine. As I drove in from the airport along perfectly paved roads and beautiful bridges (both of which I’d also marveled at in Darjeeling), I thought I could be in Japan or Singapore. My initial sentiments were corroborated by my fellow travel companions, most of whom had been making their way around China before Tibet: they described Lhasa as a regular little Chinese city, though maybe a bit cleaner.

Lhasa bears the telltale signs of its Chinese occupiers, including monuments and flags celebrating a 60 year anniversary of the 'peaceful liberation'. (Sathian/TYG)

But Tibet, today so easily accessed with a little money for a permit and a guide (travelers must be with a guide at all times; solo tourists or trekkers are regarded with suspicion by the Chinese government and kept out), still remains paradoxically out of reach. I can’t, of course, rightly compare two months in Nepal to a week in Tibet – but I found myself seeing Tibet only through a Nepal-colored film, through my experiences from the past two months. Despite the trouble of getting anywhere in Nepal, if you’re willing to suffer a bumpy jeep ride or a vomit-stenched bus, you can find your way to a Nepal out of Kathmandu, away from the gaze of foreigners. As you gaze onto a quiet corner of the country, absorbing, it slowly seems to become yours, the way Harrer’s careful gaze made Tibet his own – and made his voice an important one to carry Tibet into the international arena (Brad Pitt helped with that a little, by playing Harrer in the film version of the memoir). And your gaze is returned with gentle curiosity and warm hospitality. Reading Harrer’s memoir as I followed the conveyor belt of tourists through Tibet, I felt his stories ring with familiarity: tales of finding shelter in villages, of kind, wrinkled faces of old women welcoming him into their homes with a cup of steaming tea. But they were singing to me of Nepal, of what seems now, absurdly and arrogantly, my corner of Nepal. His Tibet seemed so different from what I encountered: hotels serving yak pizza, their attempt at making westerners comfortable in their land, rather than the village homes who welcomed Harrer on their own terms; wrinkled, sun washed villagers grabbing my elbow to demand I take a photo of them, and then impishly putting their hand out for 5 yuan afterward – the same people who, fifty years ago, might have been Harrer’s hosts and friends.

Harrer lived illegally in Tibet for seven years (even in the 1940s and ‘50s, gaining a resident permit or even a short travel permit to Tibet was difficult; it’s not a new feature of the Chinese presence). But today seems an exaggerated parody of that. And Harrer knows it. He writes in his epilogue that “perhaps only 2% of the Lhasa I knew still stands. It has become a Chinese city.” And it has: Mandarin script looms large on billboards and shop signs, dwarfing the tiny Tibetan script; all along the way to Shigatse and to Everest Base Camp, I stopped at army post after army post, showing my passport to Chinese army officials, and the distinctive red of the Chinese flag waves high amidst colorful Buddhist prayer flags.

The now empty Potala Palace was once a grand home to the Dalai Lama. (Sathian/TYG)

Harrer was a foreigner welcomed into a mysterious, closed kingdom. I was a tourist in a Chinese land. And I had no more access to the truth of the land around me than most foreigners of Harrer’s day. I saw an empty Potala Palace; Harrer spent hours in conversation with a 14-year old Dalai Lama in those rooms. I saw the Tashilumpo monastery, the home of Pachen Lama, and joined throngs of Chinese tourists, whose guide would tell them plenty about this monk, but not the one whose face is banned throughout the country – the current, 14th Dalai Lama. I made my way through a haunted landscape.

All through the Tibetan countryside, where villages once were, there are now impeccably paved roads, built by the Chinese to carry visitors through the once-mysterious land and to their choice destination: a holy lake, Mt. Everest, Mt. Kailash, or anywhere else money can take you. (Sathian/TYG)

I pondered questions of access plenty in Nepal, but those musings took on a new form in the case of Tibet. It is a strange paradox of a land – which makes it all the more important to se it sooner rather than later, when 0% of Harrer’s Lhasa may remain. Despite my frustrations about finding the “real” Tibet, I couldn’t help but enjoy the comfort that China had brought to the country. Infrastructure, roads, some amount of wealth. The talk of the town is the bullet train China is spending millions of yuan on building through the country in the next 4 years. China has tamed the greatest mountains in the world, building a road to Everest Base Camp through the towering Himalayas, while Nepal struggles to build a road through even its gentlest rolling green hills.

This is a story we all know well from the outside; the 14th Dalai Lama has made Tibet a global issue on the world stage, and today the world’s understanding of the country is the highest it’s ever been. It may be closed-off and inaccessible from the inside, but somehow it is found on many tongues in many corners of the world, and globally, it is anything but unknown. Nepal and Tibet strike me as mirrors of one another’s accessibility woes. What wouldn’t Nepal give for its national plight to be as well known and bumper-stickered as Tibet’s, for the simple infrastructure and roads that Tibet enjoys. And yet, I cannot do today in Tibet what Harrer did, or what I have tried to do in small scale in Nepal – no foreigner has that ability any longer, to come to know this land so intimately that it seems their own. I’m not sure which is better. But both Nepal and Tibet are in trouble – and I can only hope that both places can have enough voices fighting for them, and telling the truest story possible to the rest of the world.

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