Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily clearing his throat to deposit a green gob of spit beside my left shoe, I wondered what it was about Tibet that has made so many intelligent people go wobbly. The landscape, with its jagged chocolate-colored mountain peaks, its glassy lakes and emerald rivers, is spectacular, to be sure. And some of the other passengers on my bus—a herdsman with finely worked silver daggers, a monk in burgundy robes and Nike shoes, country women with turquoise jewelry threaded through their hair—looked exotic enough. But there was nothing really to suggest that we were in a particularly spiritual place, where wise men knew the meaning of life, and incarnations of great lamas could fly.
But then, of course, it never was the actual place that fired the imagination of romantic seekers; it was the idea of Tibet, far away, impenetrable, isolated in the higher spheres of the earth. To see the real thing was to destroy the illusion. For the enchantment of Tibet lay in its remoteness. Indians and, later, Europeans, and even some Chinese, could project their spiritual fantasies onto a land they had never seen, and probably never would see. Those who felt discontented with their own complicated lives were consoled by the idea that in one isolated spot lived a people who still held the key to happiness, peace, and spiritual salvation, who had, as it were, by some miracle of nature, been spared the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
It was often the nature of nature itself that caught the fancy of “civilized” men and women. Orville Schell, in his book Virtual Tibet, mentions a genteel English lady in 1869 who fell in love with the majestic Himalayan mountains because “no solemn garden parties or funereal dinners, no weary conventionalities of society, follow us here.” Another British traveler, in 1903, compared one of the mountains to “a vast cathedral,” and when a French Orientalist, around that same time, emerged onto the Tibetan highlands, he felt as though he had risen “through layers of cloud, from hell to heaven, leaving behind and below me this scientifically technical world which has done so much to increase man’s misery.” Blake would have understood: here, in the thin mountain air, amid those icy peaks, was sweet Jerusalem at last.
But then, these early seekers never sat in a rickety bus, with vomiting Chinese hookers for company. Orville Schell, a seasoned traveler in China, probably has, and his book has the bracing air about it of disenchantment. The fact that he was a bit of a seeker once himself, mesmerized by the idea of Tibet, and of Communist China, makes him the perfect chronicler of such afflictions in others. In an earlier …