If any one should know Tibet, it is Patrick French. As a young man of 16, he had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama who visited the Christian monastery in Northern England where the author was studying. The Dalai Lama who was only 40, dark haired and uncelebrated at that time, made a huge impression on him and Tibet became the cause he became attached to, working as a political activist on behalf of its government in exile.
In 1999, French decided to go on a trip covering Tibet from west to east. THe purpose of this trip was to demythicise and deromanticise Tibet. He wanted to see it for what it really was and what he found may be disappointing to some because although it is every bit as scenic as we are led to believe, it is not the Shangri-la the Western world thinks it is. Also,although this a land adored for peaceful spirituality ("pacifist monks and nuns spending their days in learning, meditation and creativity..") it reveals a surprising early history of fierce war-making and its equally fierce monks aka. Dob-dobs.
"...Dob-dobs lived outside normal monastic rules, and were renowned for their aggressive behaviour. They exercised discipline in the monastaries and would paint rings of soot around their eyes, curl thier hair and smear it with butter. THey maintained order with the help of a curved blade and giant monastery keys, which were swirled like a martial arts flail...."
What makes this book so engaging is that Patrick French writes this as a part memoir, part history book, part travelogue, part narrative and part political analysis. As a historian he lays down a detailed and succint account of the Cultural Revolution in China and how it impacted Tibet, especially when the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet and take refuge in India. His headquarters in the Himalayas is known as the Dharmshala. The author also reminds readers that the Tibetan empire once stretched as far as Afghanistan and its soldiers laid siege to Samarkand. As Tibet's influence waned, its king was dragged in shame through the streets of Baghdad, like, French writes, 'a downed American pilot.'
And as a narrator he recounts conversations with rugged nomads, courageous young nuns, Tibetan Muslims, entrepreneurs, former (Tibetan) Red Guards, remnants of the old aristocracy and returned exiles. He also meets one of the last remaining Ragyabas, a group of Tibetans that we social outcasts. They did the jobs that no one else wanted to do, like depose of corpses that had met their deaths in unnatural ways and so on.
As a travel writer he paints us a picture of Tibet as a harsh, remote untouched land and nearly the most sparesly populated. A land of blue sheep ringed by snow peaks and impassable high-altitude deserts, dropping to fields of jasmine and turquoise lakes...quite seductive , I have to admit!
However, it's his political commentary and predictions that I found most interesting: He has little faith in Beijing ever allowing the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. Only a regime change in Beijing might make way for true autonomy. But, he laments, he doesn't see it coming any time soon. He opines that although the Dalai Lama has, in the past, let go of opporutnities to furthur Tibet's cause with Beijing, the cause will probably become totally irrelevant without his presence. As it is, Tibet's religious institutions have been damaged and its unique culture eroded. Also, India is under terrible pressure from Beijing to clamp down on the Tibetan exiles---it is only Indian cultural and religious reverence for the Dalai Lama which has so far stopped this from happening. When he dies, this protection will quickly disappear.
"...There’s an extraordinary aura and personal charisma about him. He uses his charm whilst reflecting on many serious questions. He knows how to relate to foreigners. In Dharamsala he is different, more like a father figure to his people. The Dalai Lama is hard to read: opaque, intuitive, wise, flippant, childlike, canny and disarming. After watching him for nearly 20 years I still felt some uncertainty about what motivated him, and what his real political strategy was for Tibet...."
In Patrick French's opinion, the only realistic hope for the future is for Tibetans to work within the Chinese system, to try to get as many of their countrymen as possible into good positions and wait for the day when there is reform in Beijing...
I consider this book a must-read for all those interested in Tibet, its history, land and people. With his competent research Patrick French has truly shed a magnificent light on this beleagured magic kingdom and I am grateful to him for doing so.