All the Tibetans wanted was to be left alone, to practice their ancient religion and live the feudal lives they had always lived. They were isolated, hemmed in by some of the world’s highest mountains, protected by tribes of bandits. It should have been easy for them to live in peace. But for more than a century and a half, the Western world has made it its business and its leisure, its fascination and its prize, to reach Tibet, the “roof of the world,” and Lhasa, the Forbidden City.
Peter Hopkirk’s fascinating book, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: the Secret Exploration of Tibet begins in 1865. He tells one vivid story after another, of the determined men and women who risked everything to explore this mysterious land. The travellers were from all different countries — Russia, India, Britain, France, Sweden, Canada, Holland, the US, and even Japan. They came from different directions and tried different routes to arrive at their goal: over impossibly high mountain passes, without oxygen; down the Tsangpo River; over freezing steppes from Russia. Some were missionaries. Others were spies who needed to know the Chinese or Tsarist Russian position in Tibet. Some were botanists or scientists or geologists, intent on finding the fabulous Tibetan Blue Poppy or discovering the fields of gold that were said to lie beneath Lhasa. Others simply wanted the prize of being the first Westerner to lay eyes on the treasures of the monasteries, temples, and shrines of this country that had been shrouded in secrecy for so long.
Nearly all of them failed. Some went openly, with or without passports, and were turned back by Tibetan authorities before they ever got to Lhasa — sometimes within a day’s march. Some of them went in disguise, and were discovered. Others encountered problems with illness, frostbite, lack of oxygen on the high plains, or marauding bandits who stole their property, animals, and food. Some lost their lives; one poor missionary couple lost their beloved baby, and buried him there, perhaps the only Western baby in Tibet.
Only when the British came in force, carrying artillery over the mountain passes, with a willingness to kill Tibetan troops (who were armed only with flintlock rifles), did Westerners finally reach Lhasa. In 1904, forty years after the first white people first began trying in earnest to reach the Forbidden City, Sir Francis Younghusband and his troops saw it at last.
This book was fascinating. I’ve now read three books by Peter Hopkirk (The Great Game and Foreign Devils on the Silk Road are the other two) and I’m convinced he can’t write a boring sentence. The stories of these mostly obscure and little-remembered explorers, along with their counterparts, the Tibetans who tried so hard to keep them from exploring, were riveting. Hopkirk describes the hardships of the explorers, and also the wonders of the country and of Lhasa itself: the golden Buddhas in the light of the butter-lamps, the fluttering prayer-flags, the sacred texts. The end of the book, with the atrocities committed by the Chinese in Tibet, was heartbreaking. Hopkirk says,
Perhaps, after more than a century of foreign intrusion, they have finally resigned themselves to this seemingly endless stream of uninvited guests. Even so, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for this gentle, cheerful and long-suffering people who only ever asked one thing of the outside world. And that was to be left alone.