Book Reviews

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Peter Aufschnaiter’s Eight Years in Tibet

Martin Brauen

2002 208 pp., 70 b & w plates, 67 color plates, 9 maps. 24.5 x 17.5 cm. Hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-012-5 $50.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-012-4

Peter Aufschnaiter’s Eight Years in Tibet

Book review by Ed Peters

(The South China Morning Post, Sunday 8 February 20004)

It’s impossible to read Peter Aufschnaiter’s Eight Years In Tibet without a sense of envy. Here’s a man who had followed his heart, scorning convention to live the way he wanted in the places he loved with little thought of material gain.
   Fate played a hand, of course. The second world war interrupted an expedition that the expert Tyrolean alpinist Aufschnaiter was leading on behalf of the German Himalayan Foundation, and he was interned by the British at Debra Dun in northern India. He spent the next four years learning Tibetan. After escaping, he made his way to Tibet, which he had decided was his spiritual home. Another conflict would drive Aufschnaiter out of Tibet, but it was the place that had the most influence on him and served as the lodestar of his adult life.
   After an exhausting trek that brought him to the gates of Lhasa half starved and exhausted, Aufschnaiter—an agricultural chemist by trade—plunged into helping develop the country as best he could. Granted a small stipend by the government, he advised on how to improve seed stocks, supervised the construction of Tibet’s first irrigation canal, started archaeological digs and devised ways to improve Lhasa’s tiny electric power station. He also drew up a plan of the town, which the publisher—Hong Kong’s Orchid Press—has reproduced as a perfect and fascinating facsimile.
   It goes without saying that Aufschnaiter—who was said to radiate calmness—loved Tibet and its people, and they returned his affections. He got on well with all levels of society, from the Dalai Lama down, and enjoyed the company of a large circle of acquaintances.
   It’s tempting to equate the Tibet of half a century ago with Shangri-La, but it provided a medieval existence and many of its inhabitants were little better than serfs. To a lesser man than Aufschnaiter, living there would have been extremely uncomfortable but he was devoted to his work, adored the scenery and revelled in the untainted aspects of Tibetan society.
   However, the late 1940s were a turbulent time on the “Roof of the World”. Political machinations erupted into violence at times. In 1950, when the Chinese government occupied Tibet, Aufschnalter left Lhasa on a tour of the country that took him further south. By January 1952, he had settled once again in the Himalayas, but this time in Kathmandu, Nepal. Later, he moved to India, and only managed to return to Tibet for a brief visit many years later.
   Towards the end of his life Aufschnaiter suffered worsening ill health—a legacy of roughing it for decades—and died in 1973 at Innsbruck, Austria. Asked about his fondest memories before he died, Aufschnaiter said they were of “walking alone among the hilly expanses of Tibet”. Although hardly an epitaph, Aufschnalter’s words summed up a fulfilling life steered on a course of his own choosing.
   Special praise is due to both editor and publisher of this seminal biography. Martin Brauen painstakingly pieced together a narrative from what in places was only a rough draft, and gathered numerous photographs to augment Aufschnaiter’s. The demand for books like this must be specialised at best, and that Orchid devotes itself to publishing them is a singular benefit to the reading world.

[Read a review from The Swiss-Nepalese Society] [More Orchid Press Reviews]