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Lost Lhasa: Heinrich Harrer's Tibet

Lost Lhasa: Heinrich Harrer’s Tibet. Heinrich Harrer. Abrams, New York, 1992. 200 pages, 200 black-and-white illustrations. $39.95.

Heinrich Harrer was an impatient young man. As he put it: “I was highly ambitious; I often thought that if you can be first, it doesn’t particularly matter what you are first at. In mountaineering, you have a lot of chances to be first—at least you did during the 1930s when I grew up.” Harrer’s ambition led him in 1937 to the north face of the Eiger where with Fritz Kasparek, Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vorg he climbed what was then thought impossible. Harrer’s ascent of the Eiger’s north face was at least in part motivated by an attempt to gain the recognition necessary to be invited on a Himalayan expedition. This goal was fulfilled when an invitation arrived to be a member of the German-and-Austrian reconnaissance of Nanga Parbat in 1939.

Harrer’s mountaineering ambitions were dramatically cut short when he was imprisoned in India by British forces with the outbreak of World War II. After several unsuccessful attempts, Harrer was able to escape and make his way to Tibet which, although it was neutral in World War II, was forbidden to foreigners. The outlying districts of Tibet effectively denied penetration by foreigners by simply refusing to supply the provisions which were necessary for travelers to survive. It was here that a Tibetan gave some advice which was to serve Harrer in good stead. His European haste and ambition simply had no place in Tibet. Harrer was told he must learn patience if he wished to arrive at his goal, the forbidden city of Lhasa.

Although it took two years during which he suffered extreme cold and near starvation on the high Tibetan plateau, Harrer and his companion, Peter Auf- schnaiter finally reached Lhasa. Ironically, they learned that the closer they came to the forbidden city, the less suspect they became. It was generally assumed that anyone who had make it that close to Lhasa had authority to be there. And rather than being immediately expelled, Harrer and Aufschnaiter were treated with great kindness. In Harrer’s words: “I would say that there is no other country in the world where two fugitives would be as welcomed as we were in Lhasa.” After the extreme deprivation of their travels, the two Austrians found a life of comfort with “no rush and no stress.” Eventually Harrer was befriended by the older brother of the Dalai Lama who was then a teenager. This led to Harrer becoming the tutor to the young ruler. Harrer’s tutelage of the Dalai Lama which he describes as being the best years of his life, was cut short by the Chinese communist invasion of Tibet. Both Harrer and the Dalai Lama were forced to flee.

Harrer’s classic adventure was the subject of his book Seven Years in Tibet, which was published in 1953. Harrer’s inspiration to write Lost Lhasa nearly four decades later, came after the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and declared 1991 to be “The Year of Tibet.” Lost Lhasa is Harrer’s response to the Dalai Lama’s effort to rouse the world’s attention to the Tibetan cause. Harrer selected 200 black-and-white photos from thousands of previously unpublished photographic negatives to give a view of the forbidden city before the invasion.

Lost Lhasa begins with a message from the Dalai Lama, an introduction by Galen Rowell and some concise introductory chapters. The body of the work is centered around thematic essays on Tibetan customs, personalities, projects, sports and festivals. In Lhasa, Harrer and his camera saw a theocracy where daily life was ordered by religious belief and there was a complete tolerance of other people and creeds. No one was made to lose “face” and aggressiveness was unknown. The photos and essays of Lost Lhasa are, in short, a remarkable glimpse of a now suppressed culture and people.

Harrer has dedicated Lost Lhasa to the “children of Tibet, with the hope that they never forget their origins.” One can only hope that the Tibetan children will have the staying power that Harrer learned from their countrymen—and that one day their patience will be rewarded.

Robert F. Rosebrough