Heinrich Harrer And Sir Basil Gould: Walking On Knives In Lhasa
Heinrich Harrer photo; published in National Geographic
In 1946, Austrian mountaineer, explorer, champion skiier and author Heinrich Harrer first laid eyes on Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. On the run from a World War II British prison camp, he endured a harrowing journey over sixty one mountain passes in twenty one months before arriving in the city of gold. A 2006 article in The Economist published shortly after his death in 2006 explained that Harrer "had travelled by yak and on foot; he was now verminous and starving, in rags of sheepskin, crippled with sciatica from sleeping on frozen ground, and without a rupee to his name. But gold shone ahead of him."
Taking refuge in the city usually strictly off limits to foreign visitors, Harrer made fast friends with none other than the Dalai Lama and in a few short months, became his photographer and teacher. Early in his stay, he built a skating rink on a frozen second of the Kyi River below the Potala Palace and reportedly introduced the art of "walking on knives" - ice skating - to the Lhasan people. The 2006 Economist article explains "the Dalai Lama, who could not see the rink through his telescope, sent a request for a cine-film of the skaters. Then he asked for a cinema. Mr Harrer built him one, running the projector off an old Jeep engine, and discovered at his first proper audience with the living Buddha that the boy had already dismantled and re-assembled it, all by himself."
A 1955 National Geographic article by Harrer "Escaping from internment in India to the sacred capital of Tibet, an Austrian became the Dalai Lama's trusted tutor" provided more information about Harrer's reported introduction of skating to the Tibetan people. The article explains that Harrer organized skating parties with the Lhasan people after finding several pairs of ice skates left in the city by British diplomats and that the reason the Dalai Lama, who lived much of his life in isolation from the Lhasan people, could not see the skating parties on the Kyi because his view was obstructed by Chagpori Hill, which is pictured in Harrer's photo. The skaters pictured are Wangdula, a monk officer and close friend of Harrer, a member of India's mission in Lhasa and Lobsand Samten, the Dalai Lama's own brother.
Harrer achieved greatness in his long life (he lived to be ninety three) and was part of the four man team that made the very first ascent of the North Face of Switzerland's Eiger mountain and the author of "Seven Years In Tibet", the 1952 book about his experiences in Tibet that was later turned into a popular film starring Brad Pitt. Despite his remarkable achievements and experiences, he was indeed a Schutzstaffel sargeant and a member of the Nazi Party, which he later described as an error he made in his youth when he had not yet learned to think for himself. After seven years in Tibet (you know, like in the book), Harrer mountaineered in Alaska and the Andes, won two Austrian national golf titles and even explored the Amazon River with King Leopold III of Belgium - yes, the same King Leopold III we talked about earlier in the story about in the story about Liselotte Landbeck. It all comes back to skating, doesn't it? Funny that.
Harrer's reported introduction of ice skating to the people of Tibet left a legacy that continues to this day in the Buddhist community. The video below shows monks and citizens alike ice skating around the statue of Guru Rinpoche on the lake outside the temple at Lerab Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre near Montpellier, France.
Here's where things get interesting. Let's back that train up a little. Heinrich Harrer arrived in Tibet in 1949, right? Remember those skates he found that were left in Lhasa by British diplomats that he reportedly used to teach the Tibetans how to ice skate? Well, they weren't just skates left behind in someone's luggage nor skates only used by those British diplomats. The BFI National Film Archive hosts three silent films shot by Sir Basil Gould. Gould took up post as the Political Officer of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet in 1935. In one of the videos of his diplomatic visits to the Tibetan city from 1936 to the early 1940's, we see... yes, you guessed it... children playing on the ice on their shoes and one of them flying by on what appear to be ice skates. It's right at the very end of the video for those of you in a hurry to read on, but take the time and watch! It's a cool video!
All of this poses an interesting question - if it wasn't Harrer who introduced the children of Lhasa to ice skating was it Gould or one of his contemporaries? It's quite the mystery and there's really a certain intrigue and charm to the whole idea of monks ice skating in Tibet, isn't there? One thing is for sure. As we see ice rinks popping up in some of the more unexpected areas of the world like Brazil and Argentina, India, the Middle East and several very warm weather parts of Africa, skating is becoming a more international sport by the day and the glide of an edge is proving to be a universal language that people from all corners of the the world can appreciate.
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