In the summer of 1951, Heinrich Harrer began writing his classic Seven Years in Tibet in a hotel room in Kalimpong, India, only months after fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet. A newly independent India, fearing the Red Army now at its border, soon ordered Harrer home to Austria and a war-devastated Europe. In his native Alps, the renowned mountaineer completed his dramatic story: trapped by the outbreak of war while mountaineering in India, Harrer escapes a British prisoner-of-war camp, and survives a two-year flight through the Himalayas to Lhasa. There he becomes friend and teacher to the young Dalai Lama. Since its publication in 1953, Harrer’s story has unwittingly contributed to the myth of Tibet as an exotic and inaccessible Shangri-la.
Harrer’s book virtually introduced the Dalai Lama to Westerners and, in a tale stranger than fiction, revealed the culture and people of the remote kingdom. His portrait of the Dalai Lama presented an unspoiled, modest boy untroubled by the wealth and power at his disposal. “His manner of life was ascetic and lonely, and there were many days in which he fasted and kept silence,” Harrer wrote.
Almost forty years later on April 17, 1991, Harrer and his wife Carina would warmly greet the Dalai Lama backstage in Washington D.C.’s Lisner Auditorium. The old friends retired to the green room where roars of laughter spilled through the closed door. The day before, George Bush had become the first U.S. president to meet the exiled Tibetan leader. Later that evening the voice of His Holiness was broadcast into Tibet for the first time since his 1959 exile on the Voice of America Tibetan Service, launched in March under Congressional mandate.
The following day, the white-haired Harrer stood erect under the dome of the U.S. Capitol rotunda at the end of the Dalai Lama’s address to members of Congress, tears rolling down his immobile face. As the Tibetan leader left the platform that he had just shared with a bipartisan coalition of top Congressional leaders, the Dalai Lama grasped Harrer’s hands and said with emotion, “This is our best day since we left Lhasa.” Harrer would repeat in press interviews over the next days, “When we were in Lhasa, I was the teacher. But now he is my teacher and guru. From him, I learn patience and tolerance.”
Heinrich Harrer has lived, for the past 40 years, in Liechtenstein near the Swiss border. The retired mountaineer will celebrate his 79th birthday on July 6, a birthday coincidentally shared with the Dalai Lama, and celebrated by Tibetans as a holy day.
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