I had ordered this much talked about book because I presumed it was related to the life of a westerner in the Himalayas and later in Tibet, which has always been the hub of Buddhism. I thought that the author had visited this place, was impressed by the lives of monks and turned into an ascetic himself.
To be very honest, I was disappointed to find none of it in the travel account of the author. And yet, I enjoyed the book. It was a fast paced book enumerating the difficulties faced by the author and his fellow inmates who escaped from a POW camp, reached Tibet and stayed there for few years.
The travel account starts while he was on an expedition to capture Nanga Parbat. He being an Austrian mountaineer, travelling in India when the second World War broke, was caught and detained as a POW in an army camp. He writes about his escape from the camp and later his difficult times in the unfamiliar and rough terrain of Himalayas while he was on the run. For days together he travelled during the night to evade capture. His adventurous streak did not let him give up in the face of adversities. Believe it or not, but it took him 20 months of arduous travel in the barren lands and mountains of Tibet to finally reach Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
The author gives a vivid account of life in Tibet. He was amongst one of the few westerners who were allowed to reside in Lhasa. During those days, the Tibetans did not appreciate the interferences of the outer world, be it in the form of technology or visitors, into their domain. Though the author and his friend Aufschnaiter did not get permissions to stay in Lhasa but they slowly won the hearts of Tibetans and eventually become an inseparable part of them.
The author has at leisure described the lives of monks, Regents, abbots and even the Dalai Lama. The decisions and life of people in Tibet are dominated by religion and the verdict of the Oracles. Though the Tibetans were accommodating to all other religions, none the less the supremacy of the Dalai Lama and Regents were maintained at all costs.
While in Lhasa, at one point the then 37 year old author had a strong association with the 14 year old 14th Dalai Lama which continued to grow even after he left Tibet. Heinrich, the author had the privilege to tutor the ‘God King’ in English, Maths and Geography. I wanted to know more about these meetings and their time together simply because I find Dalai Lama to be one of the most enigmatic persons in the world. The author claims that Dalai Lama was charismatic both as a person and as a literate monk even at the tender age of 14 years.
The author stayed in Lhasa for about 5 years after which he was forced to leave the country. The Red Army of China had invaded Tibet.
This travelogue has enriched me, given an insight into the lives of Tibetans and made me realise my folly – every book on Tibet or Himalayas is not related to monks and Buddhism!