Prison escapes, a forbidden city, treacherously high mountain peaks, ancient belief systems – forget Shantaram, Seven Years in Tibet is the best travel story I have ever read. But while I was impressed by what he saw and learned, it was how Henrich Herrer accomplished these things that stood out to me. The story highlights 4 essential pieces of travel advice that can help us not only travel responsibly, but also get the most out of our trips.
1. Be persistent
Harrer didn’t just go onto the internet, buy a packaged deal and hop on a plane to Tibet – he had to earn it. Harrer escaped a POW camp, climbed over 20,000 foot peaks, survived bandit attacks, outwitted local officials, and then won over a government that explicitly bans foreigners. As a result of his efforts, he was one of the first westerners allowed to stay in Tibet, he acquired a deeper knowledge of Tibet than any Westerner in history, and he had a personal relationship with the Dalai Lama.
A traveler doesn’t usually need to do any of the things Harrer did to have an amazing experience (and we of course don’t endorse breaking the law).
But Harrer’s persistence illustrates a very important point: if you want a great, unique experience it’s going to take determination.
It’s going to require saying no to places that your friends have visited and places that your guidebook says “can’t be missed.” It’s going to require going places without step-by-step instructions of how to get there. And it’s going to require getting outside of your comfort zone.
Harrer survived freezing cold nights at 17,000 feet on his way into Tibet; I think we can muster up the courage to jump on a local bus and see where it takes us or to turn left at the expat bar and head into the unknown. It’s always a risk – maybe it will be boring and there is a reason no one goes there – but if it is authentic experiences you are looking for, persistence in getting off the tourist trail can only lead to good things.
2. Be respectful
Harrer always took extra care in ensuring that he respected local customs (let’s leave aside the tricks he pulled to get into the country). When setting up his new house he said, “…I used particular care that everything was kept in good order and no national customs infringed or neglected,” (240). When he hosted his first Christmas party he was so concerned about committing a faux pas that he enlisted the help of his friend to double check everything that he did.
Harrer’s respectfulness played a key role in winning over the local population and helped him get permission to extend his stay in Lhasa.
Being respectful and learning about local customs is essential when traveling. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will actually work in your favour because locals will be more comfortable with you, more willing to spend time with you and more willing to show you around.
3. Fewer, deeper experiences
Harrer didn’t escape a POW camp and set out on a pan-Asia backpacking trip. Instead he went to one country, primarily one city, and stayed for seven years. In lieu of a multitude of experiences, he opted for one, deep experience. He chose to get to know one people and culture intimately instead of getting a sampling of several different countries.
While there is a time and a place for round the world surveys, fewer, deeper experiences will stay with you longer and ultimately be more meaningful.
Harrer’s story is an extreme case, but it illustrates how richly rewarded you will be for choosing fewer places over many. Harrer stayed put, immersed himself in local city life and was ultimately granted access to the Dalai Lama.
To bring this around to Reality Tours, if you thought spending 2.5 hours in Dharavi was interesting, imagine how much you would learn volunteering or working here for several months!
4. Learn the local language
Harrer learned fluent Tibetan. This was the key that helped him at each step of the way. He started speaking (or at least attempting to) from day 1 and by the time he reached the capital he was already fluent (although he spoke a rural dialect!). His knowledge of the local language allowed him to befriend nomads while on his way to the interior, helped him outwit officials telling him to turn back, and was important in convincing the officials in Lhasa to let him stay.
Learning the local language gives you access to an entire population that you wouldn’t normally get to speak with. Most importantly, this means that you can speak with people outside of the tourism industry. The best way to get to know a place is to talk to locals and speaking their language certainly helps.
On a practical level, even knowing a few words can help tremendously. Being able to say hello, use numbers in negotiation or ask for directions will open doors that you never knew existed.
Knowing a few words will separate you from the run of the mill tourist, reduce your likelihood of getting ripped off, and earn you more respect.
From Paris to rural India, locals appreciate the effort and understand the difference!
Language learning requires some effort but it’s more about attitude than anything else. And you need to start speaking from day one!
While there are plenty of things that Harrer could have done better, his epic travel tale illustrates some timeless travel wisdom and shows us how richly rewarded an independent, responsible traveler can be.
Have you read 7 years in Tibet? What was your biggest travel take-away from the book?
Side note: The film, in my opinion, is a terrible adaption that excludes or changes most of the things that I loved about the book. Most importantly, it changes a great travel role model to a terrible one.