Returning To Tibet

I’ve finished Return To Tibet , Heinrich Harrer’s second book on his time in Tibet. Written in the early eighties, soon after the border was reopened for the first time since the Cultural Revolution (1960s), this book is a completely different animal to his first volume, Seven Years in Tibet .

For a start this not a story – more of an account – and it only spans but a couple of weeks. By far the most significant change though is how much more political this is than Seven Years.

Harrer clearly was disgusted by many of the changes since the time he spent there, and although the physical destruction of the country’s heritage clearly appals him, I also found his negative attitude towards the Tibetans who collaborated with the Chinese revealing. In the first book there is little in the way of a personal revelation – much of what he says is very matter of fact – but here we learn his opinions on the Tibetans in general. If you can believe anything of the film in relation to his personal behaviour, it is clear why he now expresses his admiration for the Khampas (out-of-city warrior tribes) and belittles those who co-operated with the Chinese invaders in order to save themselves.

I wasn’t so sure of the book format this time – many of the chapters are of unequal length and at times Harrer repeats himself, but by the final sections I definitely was reaping the benefit of his insights. The more I have read, the more I have found his story ingratiating. With it being nearly 25 years since this second book was written, it is interesting to now compare my own experiences with his.

This book is not to be tackled without first reading Seven Years, and doesn’t quite grip you in the same way, at least initially and certainly if you are more interested in a good story than reminiscing on the past, the airing of personal regrets (if circumstances had been different) and conversations with Buddhist lamas on the level of oppression suffered by their countryfolk.

Overall I enjoyed it, although not as much as the first book. It had that same appeal of the ‘Seven Up’ television series – with a genuinely worthwhile gap left between instalments (unlike the distance between Charlotte Church’s two autobiographies).

Harrer died in January last year, which is a shame as there are many questions that seem unanswered and especially in relation to the differences between the books and the 1997 film portrayal. I don’t have anything concrete to back this up with, but after reading this second book I get the impression Harrer probably wasn’t too dissimilar from his portrayal on the screen.

His full autobiography is due out this year, so I’m hoping to get my hands on a copy. In the meanwhile, I’m going to have to locate some other reading material…