Lost Horizons

Kundun

a film directed by Martin Scorsese

Seven Years in Tibet

a film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Tibet has always cast a dangerously strong spell upon visitors from abroad. When the first major European expedition marched on Lhasa in 1904, led by Colonel Younghusband at the behest of his old friend Lord Curzon, it ended up slaughtering in just four minutes, near the village of Guru, almost seven hundred bewildered Tibetans, who had been protected mostly by paper charms bearing the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s seal. A few days later, at Red I dol Gorge, the British killed nearly two hundred more, their own casualties amounting to just three wounded.

Yet when Younghusband arrived in Lhasa, he found a Tibetan regent in power who “more nearly approached Kipling’s lama in Kim than any other Tibetan I had met,” and, on his final night in the “Forbidden City,” having concluded a typically ambiguous Anglo-Tibetan agreement (unsigned by the Chinese), he rode off into the mountains to take one final look at the scene. Suddenly, the career officer reported, he felt an unusual exhilaration that “thrilled through me with overpowering intensity. Never again could I think evil, or ever be at enmity with any man. All nature and all humanity were bathed in a rosy glowing radiancy.” Returning to London as a popular hero (while the treaty was systematically watered down), he retired from the service that had brought him a knighthood, and founded a World Congress of Faiths, a rosy, glowing brotherhood aimed at uniting the major religions of the world.

Eighty years later, Paul Theroux, hardly a sentimental traveler, after four hundred pages of recording his difficulties and disappointments while traveling through mainland China, grows misty and almost worshipful as soon as he sets foot in Tibet. “The Tibetans are indestructible,” he writes in Riding the Iron Rooster with a hopefulness that seems not his own, and Lhasa is “a bright little war-torn town full of jolly monks and friendly pilgrims.” After noting that an early European explorer burst into tears at the sight of a nearby mountain, Theroux concludes, “The setting is more than touching—it is a bewitchment…. Who wouldn’t burst into tears?” His story and his book end with a prayer addressed to the mountains, in the hope that he may return.

The net result of decades of such accounts, however fitful—and largely because they are fitful—is that we have condemned Tibet, from afar, to the status of a Lost Horizon, a semi-fictive sanctuary from the world that we can visit in imagination or (as in Younghusband’s case) use for our own strategic interests. Tibet became the place where the visitor can transcend the pressures of Realpolitik, and not worry about worldly concerns (because, in the popular fairy tale, it is the place that has no concerns about the world). This lies at the heart, no doubt, of what Melvyn C. Goldstein, in his rigorously unsentimental account of Sino-Tibetan history, calls “the bad friend syndrome,” whereby, for centuries, outsiders have marveled at a region that seems out of …

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