Nine Months in Tibet
Rupert Wolfe Murray
Scotland Street Press, £12.99
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Review by Nick Major
IN 1986 Rupert Wolfe Murray walked across the Himalayan border between Nepal and Tibet. Upon reaching his new home he asked himself, “was I the worst prepared traveller to have reached Tibet?” Most readers will have realised how ill-equipped Wolfe Murray was about 50 pages before he does. When his epiphany dawns he only hopes he is on the road to the capital, Lhasa. Luckily, he is, but he doesn’t have any warm clothes or a sleeping bag. He has to beg a local tribesman to sell him “a scrap of plastic” as a coat. A few pages and a few miles on, after Wolfe Murray has spent the night in the back of a truck, a fellow hitchhiker points to the horizon: “that’s Mount Everest over there”.
One of the beautiful paradoxes of Nine Months in Tibet is that being such an amateur and reckless traveller makes Wolfe Murray an exemplary one. His combination of derring-do and naivety produce some unusually funny scenarios. After travelling on horseback across a desolate plateau in Eastern Tibet with a sultry German called Bettina Hertzog he finds himself stranded in a small village, under house arrest by the Chinese military, and with dwindling funds. Nevertheless, that is no reason to stop having a good time. The next day, however, Chinese guards order him to sell his horse, and find his way back to Lhasa. He manages, through luck and by dint of being a foreigner, to deceive the police, keep his horse and make it back to the capital without being shot.
Wolfe Murray’s luck is the reward for his determination. But it is also the prize for not succumbing to the comforts of tourism. Everybody tells him it’s impossible to find a job in Tibet, but he hustles endlessly and finds work where this is none. Reading this engrossing memoir, I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s philosophy of travel. Wolfe Murray’s writing style is more casual, but both writers share a sense that the best way to absorb a country’s character is to talk to the common folk. “Unlike many travellers I don’t like to research a country before visiting it. If you arrive somewhere in a state of ignorance then everything is waiting to be discovered. And I would rather find out what’s worth visiting from local people than guidebooks.”
Wolfe Murray is great at walking in to a place – a teahouse, a temple, a nomad’s hut – and striking up a conversation. At one point he is homeless and jobless. Then he meets Ayesha, a dealer in carpets and antiques. Ayesha has a sister called Joga who lives in a shack. Inside there is a “mud floor, two small benches and a dresser… she pointed to the narrow bench that we were sitting on and said that would be my bed. I was delighted. Even though the place was a dive – even my Tibetan friends said so when I invited them over – and the smell from the sewer was appalling at times, I was so glad to get in with a Tibetan family that I would have put up with anything.” Wolfe Murray gleefully endures more. Joga’s hut is full of burly locals who drink a white liquor called ‘chang’ and sit on his bench, giving it a fresh lick of grease every night.
In the mid-1980s Tibet had only just been opened up to tourists after decades of being kept off limits by Communist China. Maps, however, were still “considered classified military information”. This suits Wolfe Murray. He revels in getting lost. One day, he stumbles upon a mural defaced during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He decides he has a few hours to spare and sets about restoring it. But as well as being a thrilling memoir of youth and adventure, Wolfe Murray’s story documents Tibet at a turning point in its history. In 1987 Tibetan monks staged the first protest against the Chinese since the 1960s. He is caught up in the ensuing turmoil and chucked out of the country for supposedly taking part in subversive activities. He is devastated, but his departure is filled with as much audacity and adventurous spirit as his arrival was, nine months previous.