In 1949, the government of Tibet gave permission to Lowell Thomas, the broadcaster who made Lawrence of Arabia famous, and his son, the author of this book, to travel to Lhasa.
Lhasa, the holiest city in all of Tibet, was off-limits to foreigners, with a few notable exceptions. Travelers to that holy city only made it after repeated attempts. They took on disguises to travel (Alexandra David-Neel), or they used force (Sir Francis Younghusband), but few, if any, were invited.
Thomas, Jr. (hereby known as Thomas) does an excellent job summarizing the stories of past explorers who set out to that golden-roofed city. This book makes an excellent beginner text for anyone wanting to learn more about Tibet-as-seen-by-Westerners.
This book serves an equal-hand of portraying the “feudal” Tibet that China likes to propagate, and the simple, religious land so sought after by Westerners. It makes one believe that if China had kept to itself, Tibet would have developed on its own, perhaps more slowly but in a more beneficial way to both to its people and its land.
Thomas took the first color picture of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, as well as the first moving-picture, and my copy of the book (the first edition) has over 100 photographs, mostly in black and white, but a few pages of color.
The photos are stunning, for two reasons: they show what the Tibetan people have managed to save, and that which they lost. The photos of Tibetan women in 1949 (including photos of Rinchen Dolma Taring, who later escaped to India with her husband Jigme, and started the Tibetan Homes Foundation) almost look like they could have been taken today, in McLeod Ganj–the chuba is still worn by Tibetan women on a daily basis. There are photos of people giving offerings, of artists painting thangkas, of prayer wheels and monks. The Tibetans have managed to save these aspects of its culture, at least in exile, while much of the physical aspect of Tibet has been lost.
Lhasa is now a sinicized-city, with flashy neon signs, tall buildings, and brothels disguised as tea-shops. The Potala cannot be seen like it could be in 1949, and I’d wager a bet that many of the country-side photos in this book have been turned into towns, the barley replaced with wheat, the land replaced by the troublesome “sky train” that connects Beijing to Lhasa.
Thomas portrays the Tibetans as a stressed-out people, afraid of reaching out to the outside world yet recognizing the need. Indeed, the book ends with a letter from the Tibetan government, given to President Truman.
Well, actually, the physical book itself ends with an appendix on what to take with you, should you ever travel to Tibet. Note: please bring 16 mm films, like Tarzan or Marx Brothers film. No violence, human or animal, please. His Holiness appreciates it.
And if you’re wondering what to give His Holiness the Dalai Lama personally, this is what the Thomases gave him:
a tiger skull from Bangkok, set in silver and gold
a folding travel alarm clock
a plastic raincoat
a bag of coins in a khata (white scarf; expected gift)
a Hawaiian shirt
This book was fantastic, in part to Thomas’ style of writing, which was “hip-1950s.” He was 25 when he traveled with his father, so his writing style is very relatable, even to a modern audience.
Lowell Thomas, Jr., the author, is retired, living in Alaska. I’m interested in asking him if he feels the same as he did in 1950:
“I am being asked repeatedly why our country does not lend Tibet a hand. My father and I have discussed the Tibetan problem with our government heads. This seems to be the answer. If the United States offers any kind of military assistance to Tibet, our country must assume the responsibility of maintaining Tibetan independence. But if the Chinese Reds called our bluff, how could we move an army over the Himalayas? How could we supply it? In the final analysis the United States is not the nation to undertake that task. Furthermore, our government thinks that the Chinese are not likely to attempt an armed invasion of Tibet as long as the Western Powers make no move to draw Tibet into their camp.”
How wrong we were.
It’s been over 50 years, and still, the reply comes: “But we can’t get into a war with China!” We did, temporarily, train Tibetans to fight the Chinese (in an operation known as “Shadow Circus”), but we dropped the program in 1969. The issue now is, who is willing to stand up to China, let alone whose army has the capability of fighting the Chinese in Tibet?
One answer is the Middle Way, autonomy, if that’s your thing.
But if the United States, a country that prides itself on freedom and being a leading example for the rest of the world in many areas, isn’t going to stand up for freedom and human rights in Tibet, then who will?