We all know of Heinrich Harrer’s escape-to-refuge story, Seven Years in Tibet. It’s one of the West’s classic reads for the land beyond the Himalaya, turned into a famous movie. But do we know that it was his partner, Peter Aufschnaiter, who really made their escape through Tibet possible, and that he too wrote a book?
Only by the grace of inter-library loan could I track down a rare copy of Eight Years in Tibet. It’s arguably our most accurate general reading portrait of Tibet around the time of the Chinese takeover, and an interesting vista into the unusual man who found his destiny there.
Aufschnaiter was a climber, geographer and agricultural scientist from Kitzbühel. Biographies tell that he joined the Nazi party in 1933, but his life and words tell that his love was to work apart from politics and ego, and engage wild terrain and down-to-earth people. When he took expeditions to Kangchenjunga and Nanga Parbat in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s he started studying the geography, languages, and traditions of the Himalaya and Tibet. This fluency and the natural rapport he found with the Tibetans and the land is what carried him and Harrer across the Changtang in winter. So “without the use of any kind of trickery we…arrived, just like that, in the middle of the so-called ‘forbidden city’”–Lhasa.
Acutally they were half starved and in rags. This is typical of how Aufschnaiter mostly writes his adventures, ordeals, and amazing transformations of fate out of his book, and gets right to what he sees as the main point–observing and describing the land and people. Anyone who has visited the Tibetan hinterlands in recent times will recognize how the territories ring with high mountain light and the people are thoroughly charming. He also inserts some of the extensive and mutually admiring correspondence he shared with Sven Hedin, the previous generation’s most accomplished Tibet explorer.
Aufschnaiter does give us an insider’s summary of the politics in Tibet at the time, showing how the nation was indeed run in a feudal way. The regions of Ü and Tsang apparently were perennial rivals. In Lhasa the Reting Rinpoche regent and the office of the Dalai Lama were at a near civil war, and the regent himself came to pay the ultimate price. Two regions to the west went to battle over a sacred statue. And many a harmonious-looking village was actually a serfdom under a corrupt hierarchy reigning down from the Lhasa government through absentee nobles through hired managers. In Shekar (the district just north of Mt. Everest) taxation exacted to Lhasa amounted to 40,000 slaughtered sheep a year. Of course this was just the sort of thing feudal Europe did too. As today so then too it was practically a mystery how Tibetans could find their abundant smiles. Lest anyone take this as justification for the Chinese takeover, Aufschnaiter despaired to see the Chinese making claims on Tibet, and he shares an anecdote of a local Chinese trying to bully the truth. When he is commissioned to create a dam and irrigation system near Lhasa he unearths prehistoric artifacts and remains that are distinctly Tibetan, and—because this supports the notion that Tibetans have been in Tibet for millennia—a Chinese schoolteacher accuses him of being “an agent of the Americans or Indians.”
For most of the book we see Aufschnaiter taking up public work projects, mapping ranges, visiting outposts, and exploring personalities and places. Scholars of Everest will enjoy the research that he put into seeking the peak’s original name. We also see his special admiration for Milarepa, the 12th-century yogi whose story and poetry are celebrated foundations of Tibetan identity.
When Chinese troops marched toward Lhasa, Harrer fled south across the border, and Aufschnaiter went west, to map and explore in Tibet for another year. He makes it clear that that’s where he wished he could stay. Not until late in life did he write this memoir, and he died before he could finish. Thus Eight Years in Tibet was collected and published by his friend Paul Bauer and scholar Martin Brauen.