Journey to a time and world that have disappeared. Tibetan expedition in 1940

Tibetan Venture: In the Country of the Ngolo-Setas. Second Guibaut-Liotard Expedition, by Andr'e Guibaut. Translated by Lord Sudley. New York: Oxford University Press. 206 pp. $7.95, paperback. DURING the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when the world was largely unmapped and undescribed, travel writing flourished. Recently, with interest in travel literature renewed, publishers have been reissuing these earlier books - many long out of print - and nowadays one finds on the bookshelf, alongside Paul Theroux's latest work, new editions of Richard Burton and Isabella Bird, Carl Bock, and Gertrude Bell.

Obviously, we cannot respond to these early travel books precisely as readers responded to them when they first appeared. We are just as likely to be awed by the difficulty and daring of some of the journeys - perhaps more so in this age of easy travel. But in some instances, we may find that the information that fascinated a less-informed audience today seems tedious or inaccurate. In others, we may find the travelers' attitudes - so closely linked to colonialism or missionizing - morally dubious.

One contemporary view of traditional exploration was expressed in a recent, less-than-flattering review of Wilfred Thesiger's autobiography, which criticized the great explorer - famous for his travels among the Arabs - for his unawareness of ``how much his expeditions depended on poor, tractable people in dictatorships and colonial regimes,'' and concluded: ``Now perhaps it's time for the tribes to tell their side of the story.''

If travelers belong to a specific time and place, readers do as well, and we respond to early travelers' attitudes, interests, values, and biases with our own. This difference in world view is part of the interest in reading travel books of other eras. All have historical value, but the best endure as books in their own right, their value enhanced, rather than limited, by the historical perspective.

Andr'e Guibaut's ``Tibetan Venture,'' for example, is surely as moving - and as gripping - today as when it first appeared in 1947. It is the story of the expedition Guibaut undertook in 1940 with his friend Louis Victor Liotard, their second Tibetan journey together. (The first took place in 1936-37.)

The expedition's aims were geographical and anthropological - to map out certain river sources and mountain ranges and to gather information about the little-known Ngolo-Seta tribes - and its tenor was patriotic: ``Whatever success may be granted to our mission,'' writes Guibaut, ``we shall be working for that French community, by adding to its spiritual heritage if we succeed, and by offering our exertions, perhaps even our lives, if we fail.''

From the beginning, Guibaut feels both excitement and misgivings about his journey, and his descriptions - of the magnificent topography, the splendid monasteries, the Tibetans' godliness - reflect both emotions. Recounting his experience at a religious service, he says, ``I feel through these high stone walls the magic of this enormous desolate country which, by the thinness of its air, seems to be the roof of the world; the magic of this scorched land in which the mineral carcass of the earth springs up everywhere, thrusting aside the thin skin of life, and where man, that accidental creation, clings on by a thousand-year-old process of acclimatization, in such unsheltered conditions that he can only resort to prayer.''

Gradually, the journey grows more ominous. Mishaps occur, there are delays. A mysterious man on horseback appears late at night, on some urgent, inexplicable mission. A sinister group of horsemen reappears, and the members of the expedition suspect they are being followed. Finally, at a pass, they are ambushed by brigands, and Liotard is among those killed. Distraught, disoriented, Guibaut, accompanied by two guides - one of whom is badly injured - makes his way to the monastery at Dekho, where the lamas care for him and arrange for his passage to safety.

Guibaut is a wonderful narrator: intelligent, humane, honest, yet wisely reserved. He is also a good writer, and his acknowledgment that he is creating a text intensifies the narrative's power.

What if they had not at a certain moment delayed? he asks. What if they had turned right as they were supposed to rather than left as they did? Would their fate have been averted?

``When one reflects upon the circumstances of well-known exploring disasters,'' he says, ``...one is sometimes amazed at the apparent acquiescence of leaders of expeditions in the decrees of fate. Each time it seems that they have been driven to the crisis, at the very place where it was fated they should die, like lambs led to the slaughter. One is over-inclined I think to criticize these expeditions in a `wise after the event' manner and to study them like Greek tragedies, forgetting that, though the author of a play may know in advance how it will end, the actors of these real dramas who write them by their deeds, know nothing of the ultimate turn of events.''

As Pamela Nightingale says in her introduction, Guibaut's story has been rendered still more poignant by the events that have occurred since it was written - by the communist takeover of Tibet in 1950, and the destruction of the monasteries, the shrines, the spirituality so vital to Tibetan life. The world described by Guibaut has disappeared.

Like most other early travel books, ``Tibetan Venture'' is not entirely free of biases, though on the whole what condescension exists is counterbalanced by Guibaut's respect for people and does not detract from his superb account. In a sense, perhaps the biases must be taken as a part of the historical record - a part we may condemn, but that we cannot, and should not try to, disown. Like markers in our past, they can tell us the distance we have traveled, and how much further we have to go.

Gail Pool reviews travel literature for the Monitor.

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