Published: May 2008

My Life in Forbidden Lhasa

Potala Lhasa

Escaping from internment in India to the sacred capital of Tibet, an Austrian became the Dalai Lama's trusted tutor

(Originally published in the July 1955 National Geographic)

By Heinrich Harrer
Photograph by Heinrich Harrer

The rocky trail led into the broad valley of the Kyi River. Exhausted, our shoes in tatters and our feet bleeding and blistered, we rounded a little hill. Before us lay the Potala, winter palace of Tibet's Dalai Lama, its golden roofs ablaze in the January sun.

Lhasa was only eight miles away!

I felt a sudden compulsion to sink to my knees and offer a prayer of thanksgiving, even as did the Buddhist pilgrims who were our companions. It seemed impossible that we had reached safety, that our agony of cold and hunger and danger lay behind us. We had walked more than 1,500 miles across the most forbidding terrain in the world and had climbed 62 mountain passes, some as high as 20,000 feet.

It is just as well, I have since felt, that no man can foretell the future. What would Peter Aufschnaiter and I have thought, when we left our native Austria in 1939 as members of the German Nanga Parbat Expedition, had we known we faced long imprisonment and a desperate escape into Tibet, where we were to roam fabled Lhasa with a color camera?

War had trapped our expedition in Karachi. Enemy aliens, we were interned in a British prisoner-of-war camp in India. We mountaineers decided to attempt an escape over the towering Himalayas.

I drew maps, studied Tibetan, hoarded money and medicines and other essentials.

After several abortive breaks we reached freedom. Our comrades, appalled by the hardships, turned back, but Aufschnaiter and I had struggled and bluffed our way across Tibet's desolate Chang Tang, a wasteland that even the natives shun in winter (pages 6 and 10). We had subsisted on raw yak meat and yak-butter tea and dried meal. And now at last, after 21 months of wandering in which we had almost given up hope, the golden roofs of the Potala were in sight.

Even now our troubles were not at an end. We were trespassers in Tibet, unwelcome foreigners in a land where every man is forbidden to assist a traveler who lacks written authority to pass. Our clothes were in rags, our appearance unkempt and forbidding. We had no baggage animals and no money to hire them. Surely the gates of the holy city would be closed to us.

We decided on one last desperate gamble. At Shingdongka, the last village between us and Lhasa, we searched out the binpo, or local official. With as much authority as one can command in filthy sheepskins, we introduced ourselves as the advance guard of an important foreign emissary and demanded pack animals and an escort to Lhasa.

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