An Appreciation

The Tibetan approaching us on Lhasa's Barkhor Road was very rough, very large and very excited. He was wrapped in a grubby fur-lined plaid, which in spite of the chill displayed his tanned shoulder and torso for all to see, and presumably admire.

He was rushing towards us, arms splayed wide, roaring at the top of his voice: "Oh Khampa gyau, khampa gyau," which I learned later means: "Oh bearded Khampa."

Loading article content

Agog at the sight before him, the man embraced George Patterson like a long-lost brother. In a flash we were surrounded by dozens of these characters. Grim, blackened men, these Khampas of Tibet knelt in front of George and held his hands in delight and with enormous respect. Chinese police stared on, and did nothing. I realised I was travelling in the presence of an extraordinary man.

In appearance George resembled Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. His flowing mane of snowy hair, moustache and beard made him instantly, if erroneously, recognisable.

To the Khampas, who had difficulty growing beards, his resplendent hair was his most defining feature. He spoke with a couthy Scots accent that belied an adventurous life. His eyes sparkled even when serious, and he was rarely short of a chortle or two in the face of life's awkward moments.

I was developing the script for Seven Years in Tibet and needed personal insight into that country's mysterious ways. Together George and I travelled back as tourists to the roof of the world, the forbidden land he had escaped from so many years before.

In 1947 George had been dispatched as a Christian missionary to Kham, the wilderness that lay on Tibet's eastern flank on the border with China. Over many years he lived and rode with the Khampa tribesmen, learned their language and culture. He gained their trust and ultimately their respect while pressing upon them, not entirely successfully, the Christian message.

As cross-border attacks on Kham by Chinese militia increased, George realised their significance ahead of time. He took it upon himself to trek across the Himalayas, in mid-winter and without maps, to India. His mission was to plead the cause of Tibet to the outside world, and to alert them to the crushing invasion about to happen.

As we toured Tibet under the bored eye of our Chinese "guides" I began to realise George's value as a friend to these isolated and ultimately doomed people.

One thing in particular sticks in my mind. Wherever we went we were automatically welcomed with huge smiles and endless pots of po cha, or yak butter tea. It was disgusting stuff, with the sour taste of rancid fat, and the texture of candle-wax floating in oil.

Anxious not to offend, I would sip lamely at this stuff unable to swallow it. George would rescue me by discreetly switching his empty bowl for mine and knocking it back. He'd finish with relish, and a much applauded burp or two.

George's enthusiasm for this ancient way of life showed me the selflessness of his love for these extraordinary people and their disappearing world.

Seeing evidence for the first time of China's "civilising" of a land that he had known and loved, George's enduring admiration and support of the Tibetans revealed to me the true nature of his unswerving Christian soul. For George Patterson, our brief trip into Tibet was the missionary's last sight of home.