Thursday, May 23, 2013

Peter Hopkirk's "Trespassers on the Roof of the World": Book Review

This lively book sums up primary accounts by those in the Great Game rather than expanding their substance. Hopkirk here aims for a popularization of previous Tibetan explorers. For instance, as I enjoyed "Kim" earlier this year on audiobook by Ralph Cosham accompanied by Edward Said's Penguin ed., I learned more about the real-life pundits who inspired Kipling's novel. I note the same author's later matching of fact to fiction in "Quest for Kim" as exemplifying more of this approach.

Overall, we get the score as hapless or determined, female and male, missionary or military gatecrashers fail to enter Lhasa. Eleven Europeans over the nineteenth century are repelled. The Nepalese close off their kingdom, as did Bhutan: that leaves a nation wanting to be left alone, which never asked for the interest shown given its strategic perch between empires and superpowers. The Russians, however encroaching in history, for Hopkirk will be relegated as tsarist-era sidekicks. Protagonists enter a three-way contest between Victorian, Chinese, and Tibetan contenders. He sympathetically takes the side of the Raj and the Crown, but as in the retelling of the 1904 Younghusband expedition turned invasion in the last decade of disputed Manchu suzerain status over a primitively armed and equipped remote realm where the Tsar crept closer and China started to lose its grip, the British advanced.

It wasn't easy. Weather, spies, betrayal, banditry, and the blunt difficulty for blue-eyed Westerners to pass muster let in first Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese Zen monk, at the dawn of the last century. He had it a tiny bit easier, being Asian. (See my Feb. 2011 review of Scott Berry's 1989 "A Stranger in Tibet" that takes you through the intrepid monk's Nepal-Tibet adventures.)

As Hopkirk shares his tales from what one traveller estimated a Forbidden City whose filth surpassed the rest of India or China (no small feat apparently), it's sobering. Henry Savage Landor in his tale (as with Alexandra David-Neel) might have "enhanced" torments or talents, but the raw and cruel nature of Tibetan treatment of those who dared to defy the lamas and lawmakers shows the side of Tibet glossed over by many then and now who laud its simpler times supposedly free of violence. The sad fate of Susie Rijnhart's baby son and devoted father will move you--not only people but nature could punish those who ventured into sub-zero altitudes three miles high.

The harrowing tortures inflicted on miscreants, and the deaths exacted upon any caught aiding and abetting foreign entrance into the Land of Snows make for graphic lessons that should disabuse New Age romanticists about the pre-modern Tibet being some pacifist Shangri-La. Everyone in Tibet feared assisting interlopers. This, naturally, spurred a few hardy or foolhardy adventurers.

After Hopkirk tells of earlier travelers who'd been pushed away, one finds by the end of the Victorian reign only the power of diplomacy backed by rifles, Gurkhas, British leadership, and machine gun assault at the forlorn locale of Guru in the Tibetan hinterland between Sikkim and Bhutan prevails over Tibetans. Hopkirk carefully phrases the retelling. He sides with the interpreter Frederick O'Connor and Francis Younghusband, who narrate how the firepower against those who blocked their way to Lhasa "had" to happen the way it did: given the Tibetan intransigence--"or rather the fanatical lamas who sent conscripted peasants against the invaders" (177).

He rapidly skims past an intriguing situation a few years later. The first approvals for expeditions to Everest had been given by a Dalai Lama eager to get weapons to continue the fight against the new Republic of China whose forces had been menacing the borders. It seems neither the Manchu nor the Nationalists let Tibet alone, and that the supposed peace during the period Tibet asserted post-1912 its independence against Peking was not accepted. The British, in this tumultuous period, seemed preferable to tsar or Soviet as diplomatic allies and military enablers. This episode doesn't get the explanation needed, but the mountaineering excites.

Hopkirk does not ignore the inequalities of Tibetan life before the Communist onslaught, but you cannot read the last chapters without acknowledging the scope of destruction. He wrote this in 1982 originally, when less was known about the truth of what happened in the dark decades after the 1950-1959 invasions and then during the thaws of sort post-Cultural Revolution. He correctly shows no Tibetan observer reports without bias, but one who finishes this account cannot but help siding with the current underdog, even if the author stands along with the British against other empires in his preceding chapters.

He opens as he concludes. "Even today, the package tourist is really a trespasser, for it is not the Tibetans but the Chinese who have invited him there." (4) He wonders how the Tibetans will endure the endless stream of visitors, a century after the first successful intrusion into Lhasa. All this "cheerful, patient and long-suffering people" had ever asked was "to be left alone." (266) (Amazon US 12-24-12)

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