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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

On the roof of the world, enlightenment is found closer to home

February 19, 2008

Taipei Times, Taiwan
Feb 17, 2008

In 'Last Seen in Lhasa,' Claire Scobie chronicles her seven journeys
to Tibet, a fast-changing mythical world pregnant with contradiction
and paradox

LAST SEEN IN LHASA: The True Story of an Extraordinary Friendship in
Modern Tibet

By Claire Scobie

Books about Tibet form a genre all of their own. For 100 years
thousands of volumes have described the challenging terrain, the
esoteric monastic practices, and the exhilaration, mixed with
hardship, experienced by travelers. Since the flight of the Dalai Lama
to India in 1959 stories of the suffering inflicted by occupying
forces, and of the near-destruction of one of the world's most
distinctive and, until recently, untouched cultures, have been added.

But there's more to it than this. Tibet has long come to represent for
the West the antithesis of the rational, scientific, commercial
culture that is now spreading all over the planet. If this scientific
outlook brings with it its own woes, then Tibet is the place, many
feel, where a healing counter-balance can be found.

Claire Scobie was a writer working on the UK's Telegraph Magazine
when, in 1996, she had the chance to join a botanical expedition to
find a rare red lily, never before successfully naturalized in the
West. Another six trips to Tibet followed, the last in 2005. These had
a variety of journalistic motives - covertly filming prior to the 40th
anniversary of the 1959 Tibet Uprising, investigating the rise of
pornography and prostitution in Lhasa, and so on. She got to know
Tibet well, and even briefly acquired a Tibetan lover.

In the course of these trips she twice visited and made a circuit of
Mount Kailash, the first time in the company of a Tibetan nun called
Ani. In this book, earlier and subsequent meetings with Ani form the
thread that aspires to bind together what might otherwise have seemed
Scobie's unconnected and very different trips.

Last Seen in Lhasa by and large makes an attractive read. The author
has the ability to incorporate background information with a light
touch, and she certainly observes many aspects of Tibetan life, from
sky-burials (the chopping up of corpses and then leaving them to the
tender mercies of vultures) to the advent of smart beauty salons in

The friendship with Ani, however, does seem to have been introduced as
a somewhat artificial link to hold together what may have originated
as a series of re-worked travel articles, together with other
material. In theory each woman moves towards the other's world, Ani
acquiring a pair of glasses from a fashionable Chinese optician on the
one hand, Scobie experiencing a modicum of success with meditation
(though only in the final chapter, and not very convincingly at that)
on the other.

If books on Tibet can be divided into those describing physical treks
and those describing spiritual voyages of discovery, then this one
aims to combine the two types. Claire Scobie comes out as having
little aptitude for the latter, and the book is best viewed as a
generous and kindly rag-bag of Tibet lore and information, easy to
read, and not without its astute observations.

Nothing much is new. The depredations of the occupying Chinese forces,
the recent influx of Chinese settlers, the resulting depression of
many Tibetans, the arcane spiritual practices, the vast landscapes -
all these can be found more fully described elsewhere. But it's as a
general book, containing all of these things and more, and in
digestible portions, that this one scores relatively highly.

The most interesting chapters are the early ones. These describe
plant-hunting in the eastern Tibetan region of Pemako, close to the
border with India - and some of it still disputed territory between
the two Asian super-powers. The

terrain is so inhospitable that the area has been for centuries the
subject of Tibetan myths of a promised land, of hidden valleys where
the conditions for an ideal existence are secreted. All you need do is
find the secret entrance to these places and your soul's pilgrimage
will be at an end.

This is a scenario that's extraordinarily common in stories dealing
with magic and spiritual knowledge worldwide. It's there in the
wardrobe that leads into Narnia in C.S. Lewis' novels, platform nine
and three-quarters in the Harry Potter books, and the rabbit hole
which Alice falls into in Lewis Carroll's Victorian fantasies - and
this is only to consider English fiction. Think of Odysseus and Aeneas
visiting the underworld, Gilgamesh's underground journey, and Dante's
three-tiered visit to the Catholic version of an afterlife and you
begin to understand just how universal the human dream of escaping a
world that's ambiguous and temporary, and going to one where life's
absolutes can genuinely be encountered, actually is.

Is Tibet really like that? There seems little doubt that we all dream
of somewhere that's mythic and unchanging, an ideal place where we
"truly belong," and that Tibet fulfils that function for a large
number of disillusioned modern people. What they'll find there once
they arrive, especially today, is another matter. Claire Scobie found
piles of human excrement, plastic bags and discarded beer bottles
everywhere from Pemako to Mount Kailash, a place that's often
considered the sacred heart of an everywhere more-or-less sacred
landscape. And as for Lhasa, it's difficult to know what she really
thinks of somewhere with elevators, tourist admission fees to the most
famous sites, and Tibetan students waiting at the airport for flights
back to their universities in China.

Even the great mythic places are subject to change, in other words.
It's the human imagination that tends to return over and over again to
the same archetypes. This is what the Dalai Lama (who Claire Scobie
interviews) meant when he told her that the greatest searches are
within you, and many spiritual seekers might frankly be better advised
to stay happily at home.
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