Courtesy of Alois Anwander, Heinrich Harrer and Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C., April 1991.
Courtesy of Alois Anwander, Heinrich Harrer and Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C., April 1991.

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.

In his 1989 biography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama called Harrer the first “inji,” or Westerner, that he would know as a friend. “Heinrich Harrer turned out to be a delightful person with blond hair such as I had never seen before. I nicknamed him ‘Gopa‘ meaning ‘yellow head’ ….he spoke excellent colloquial Tibetan and had a wonderful sense of humor, although he was also full of respect and courtesy. As I began to get to know him better, he dropped the formality and became very forthright, except when my officials were present. I greatly valued this quality.”

Of his assignment as “tutor” to the Incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion Harrer wrote, “My life in Lhasa had now begun a new phase. My existence had an aim. I no longer felt unsatisfied or incomplete. “

“Many people say I was the tutor of His Holiness,” Harrer now says, “but I wouldn’t say this myself. We were just friends and he was interested to hear from me and I had a chance, for the first time in my life, to use my training as a teacher of geography. And we made drawings and photos and pictures.”

The thirty-seven-year-old iron-willed “professor” made an unusual companion for the fifteen-year-old ruler, who was held so sacred by his subjects that they would not look directly at his face. “In his first years as Dalai Lama, he was raised by monks who had never left Tibet,” Harrer says. “They taught him religion, meditation and whatever was important to the Tibetan government. And suddenly comes Heinrich and explains to him other things like how the earth is round. How to shake hands. I was a small link between his medieval world and his future life in the West.”

The two learned English together listening to BBC broadcasts, experimented with photography and built a film cinema where the Dalai Lama ran a projector showing films from the Indian Embassy archives. Harrer remembers the boy’s fascination with a documentary on General MacArthur, as well as the moment when they first heard together the lines from the Laurence Olivier performance of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

“I tried to tell him, now you are living here a happy life, but it will not always be easy to be king,” Harrer says today after more than 1.6 million Tibetans have died under Chinese occupation, and over 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed. “And no one, absolutely no one, has experienced as he has how uneasy it is to wear a crown.”

The monastic leadership of the old Lhasa theocracy was suspicious of a foreigner meeting alone with their young ruler. Harrer had, fortunately, already won their respect and permission to remain in Lhasa, despite a ban on foreigners, because he and traveling companion, Peter Aufschnaiter, had arrived by a Himalayan route no Tibetan would ever dare in winter. The enterprising escapees survived 40° below temperatures, making fires out of yak dung and sleeping huddled together on the frozen ground. Only by sharing body heat did the two men remain alive.

Harrer explains, “We didn’t have boots like we had in Europe. So your feet got blue and brownish and they got frozen. And in the evening we massaged our feet and sometimes, not often, said tomorrow we will give up. But the next day without a word we’d go on.”

Harrer’s arm still bears a deep scar where a Tibetan mastiff savagely sunk its teeth. Revealing the steely confidence that ensured his survival, he describes how the dog first ripped his shirt to shreds. With his blood flying through the air, Harrer suffocated the writhing animal with his free arm as awed Tibetans watched the unthinkable killing of a “sentient being.”

“I have always been a seeker and there is a certain ambition I have had to have. But there is a healthy way of being ambitious, otherwise I wouldn’t have endured all the hardships. I was a seeker right from the beginning.” Despite his seeking, Harrer never embraced the Buddhist religion and he resists questioners who push him to analyze his adventures or his inner motivations. “I just do things without explanation, without motivation. At the root of human beings there is a longing to find new things and we search for something without needing to know it. Many people say to me ‘you discovered yourself’. I don’t know whether I discovered myself when I climbed a difficult mountain and my clothes were soaking and freezing. I tried to survive, without any need for philosophical explanations.”

Harrer was born in the village of Knappenberg in 1902, in the same bed where his mother and grandmother were born. In a Catholic region of serious meat eaters, he was raised as a vegetarian by a Seventh Day Adventist mother, and Lutheran father. The young Heinrich spent school months in Graz and summers in his native mountainous village, and developed an early passion for sports, despite his parents’ disapproval of what they considered a waste of time.

Courtesy of National Geographic, Harrer and guide in Tibet.
Courtesy of National Geographic, Harrer and guide in Tibet.

As a child, he devoured adventure books and later learned to read maps and mountains while studying geography and glacierology at the University of Graz. The budding athlete often brought home laurel wreaths won in foot races. His mother, unimpressed, used the leaves to season her stews. The future Olympic skier taught himself winter sports on homemade skis.

Harrer achieved world recognition as a member of the first team to climb the treacherous North Wall of the Eiger in the Swiss alps in the summer of 1938. A photograph of the event shows the bareheaded unprotected climber, unconcernedly eating bread baked by his mother, swinging on a rope along the sheer rockface.

As World War II began, Harrer was returning from a German expedition, led by Aufschnaiter, to scout Kashmir’s unclimbed peak of Nanga Parbat. The British government interred all German, Austrian and Italian nationals in prisoner-of-war camps in colonial India. Harrer escaped five times before successfully crossing the Tibet border in the spring of 1944 with Aufschnaiter. The two evaded efforts by regional Tibetan officials to force them back to India and attempts on their lives by robbers. The gregarious, practical Harrer and the reserved, studious Aufschnaiter finally arrived in Lhasa the following January, penniless and in rags.

During their years in Lhasa, the two fugitives collaborated to design the first sewer system and map out the first city plan. Harrer built a tennis court using cow dung and gave Tibetans their first tennis lessons. He introduced ice skating and made over 3,000 photographs, including the last photograph of the Dalai Lama in a free Tibet.

In return, Harrer says he gained entrance to a world liberated from time. “The Tibetans had no concept of wasting time and they gained a lot living beyond minutes and seconds, and kilometers. They had time for prayers, for pilgrimages, for visiting with one another and were never rushed. Now, for me in Europe under the stress of deadlines, I sometimes find it terrible after living in Tibet.”

The exiled Dalai Lama and Harrer have continued their friendship throughout the last four decades. Harrer’s photographs from a trip last December to Dharamsala show the private Dalai Lama repairing watches in his own workshop and walking in his garden wearing an amusing knit beret. One photo shows the two men strolling down a garden path deep in conversation, with their arms around each other.

“Here is a human being, here is no living god. You know, he is so secure within himself that he doesn’t need a throne. For him there is no difference between men and women, he treats all equally and is freed of attachment to both. Maybe this creates his tolerance. He is definitely balanced. He is a man, he’s tolerant, he’s a monk, he’s a ruler. Whatever he is, he is complete. This is his charisma.”

Each reunion, Harrer says, revives the now familiar anticipation he experienced in his first audience with the boy at the Nobulingkha summer palace. “Each time I meet him, my heart is pounding. I told him in our last visit, when I see you even now, my heart is pounding just as it did the first day I met you in the Norbulingka.”

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