Book Reviewfrom Travelers To Rights Activists

The following article is from the Winter, 1998 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Sky Burial: An Eyeiuitness Account of China's Brutal Crackdown in Tibet, by Blake Kerr 189 pp., black & white photos, $12.95 Reviewed by Whitney Stewart in The Austral Asian, Oct. 24th-Nov. 7th issue, 1997

In the business of saving oppressed people, advocates come from many corners; they are inspired for myriad reasons, some nobler than others. Blake Kerr, and his close friend, John Ackerly, joined the cause for Tibet not simply because they recognized Tibetans to be lovely, smiling people, not to advance their Hollywood careers, but because in October, 1987 they were caught up in actual crossfire in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

Witnessing the slaughter of unarmed Tibetan men, women, and children who had staged a nonviolent demonstration against Chinese authority, the American adventure travelersone a lawyer, the other a doctorsuddenly quit daring each other on new exploits, to document human rights abuses and to treat injured Tibetans. Little did Ackerly know what the two would witness in Lhasa when days before the demonstrations he held up a piece of Chinese canned meat and declared, In the spirit of epic adventure, may Everest pale compared to our next and even greater expedition. It paled.

In the summer of 1987, inspired in part by Heinrich Harrer and Alexandra David-Neel, Kerr and Ackerly set out on a rough trip across the Kun Lun mountains from Golmud to Lhasa by bus. One of their goals was Everest, to climb as high as they could on the Tibetan side if they acquired climbing gear, tents, and food along the way. Most travelers would never dream of leaving such preparation undone, but Kerr and Ackerly have a history of train-hopping, hitchhiking, and mountain climbing in the wilds without fancy accoutrements. They did not fear inclement weather or traveler's gut.

Although Kerr is not as lyrical as such genre writers as Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) nor as reflective and detailed as Krakauer (Into Thin Air), he uses language that is fresh, immediate, and sometimes coarse. His anecdotes cause a big guffaw or an outburst of tears from one paragraph to the next. The text could be a miiTored image of the authoremotional, fiery, impatient, spunky, empathetic, and unadorned.

In Part One, Kerr introduces a varied cast: a compassionate American grade-school teacher who falls for him, a rebellious, barley-beer drinking Tibetan man, a Westerner who adores the Chinese and argues heatedly with Ackerly, and dozens of raunchy alpinists who let the two renegade climbers carry loads up Everest in exchange for cold-weather gear and American junk food. The dialogue, recorded as accurately as Kerr's journal could capture, sharpens the author's vivid characterizations.

Kerr quickens his pace in Part Two. Lhasa erupts into chaos. Tibetans are shot dead. Kerr and Ackerly are arrested and berated by Chinese officers. And Western tourists unite and declare themselves information gatherers until official media can cover the violent crackdown in Tibet. This segment leaves readers horrified by brutality, saddened by cruel human nature.

In Kerr's final segment, his text is almost abbreviated in short scenes and conversations. He and Ackerly have been internationally mediablitzed; their photo hit the cover of the New York Times and was later picked up by major publications. Bernard Shaw interviewed them for CNN, and the two addressed the Congressional Human Rights Conference with more information than the US State Department wanted public.

What John and I have witnessed in Lhasa changed our lives, writes Kerr, describing Ackerly's work with the International Campaign for Tibet and his own postponement of his medical residency in order to write this account. Both men returned to Tibet to document tort ure of Tibetan political prisoners and forced sterilizations of Tibetan women, and they visited Tibetan refugee centers in India to tell the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans about the current situation in their Himalayan homeland.

In the foreword to this Tibet travelogue cum human rights report, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, states that now more than ever the world needs to heed Tibet's message of nonviolence and respect for all living beings. In the introduction, Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years in Tibet, exhorts readers to understand how desperately Tibetans need help to survive. Kerr follows the lead of these well-respected men and tells readers that China and the West have much to leam from Tibet; but there is little time left. ä_æ

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