The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 12 September 2016

Forbidden Land

A Saga of Tibet

by Geoffrey T. Bull

"What illustrious names are linked with these spiritual assaults on the devil's bastion of Tibet!"

The absolute certainty of the missionary is enviable. That one is so sure that one's own religious faith is the correct faith that one is determined to take that faith to the benighted heathen masses is surely a sign of clarity and dedication we find hard to grasp in today's chaotic world. This kind of faith is blind, though, and, while missionaries have brought some benefits to underdeveloped countries, the imposition of one faith over another is also a sign of arrogance and cultural chauvinism. (On the other hand, modern moral relativism hasn't necessarily been good for anyone, either.) The now-defunct nation of Tibet was one such "darkened" land that attracted explorers and missionaries alike, largely because of its determined isolationism (how dare they choose not to interact with the world?).

Geoffrey Bull was a deeply religious man, determined by his faith in God's plan to evangelize central Asia, and bring the word of Jesus to those lost souls who know nothing of his one God. His faith had to be strong, for he endured significant hardships of a long trek across the Eastern Himalaya, learned the Tibetan language, stayed years away from home, all to declare direct to the natives that their Buddhist faith in compassion over human suffering was the very work of the devil, empty of any meaning without the God Jehovah. And there is no question Bull had his adventures. He traveled with George Patterson, who was a hero of Tibetan resistance to its invasion. During the communist Chinese incursion into Tibet, Bull was ultimately imprisoned for being a Western spy. Along with a few other Westerners trapped in Eastern Tibet, he spent three years in a communist re-education camp. Such experiences only strengthened his faith.

Still, this book, published in the US in 1966, is a travelogue over some of the most exotic physical and cultural terrain on Earth. The eastern Himalaya is a rugged and beautiful landscape, full of towering mountains and a population of diverse ethnic and religious origins. Bull tells us of his trip to Kangding, on the edge of the Khampa regions of Tibet, and two short journeys into the mountains as preparation for a longer planned journey all the way to Tibet's capital, Lhasa. The scenery, as always, is picturesque to the point of being overwhelmingly sublime. The people are rustic nomads living a simple and sometimes brutal existence on the thin margins that the environment affords. Bull is simultaneously impressed by these people and by these places, while also disdaining their habits, their faith, and even their poverty. The book serves as a prelude to later volumes of Bull's adventures, and ends with him fleeing deep into Tibet before the communist takeover of China's western towns and territories.

One might read this book for its look at eastern Tibet in 1948, just prior to the Chinese invasion, as seen through the peculiarly narrow lens of a devoutly chauvinistic missionary. It is a short book, a quick read light on some of the details of life on his trek. But it is also engaging for its particular point of view, and for the small moments when its authenticity peeks through its evangelical fervor. The reader will have to read When Iron Gates Yield to find out what happens next.

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