Interview with Bruno Baumann
June 2003 (abridged)
In your books and in the press, you're described as an ethnologist, an adventurer, a photographer, a desert specialist, and a Tibet expert. Those are all "job titles". What kind of person are you really?
Those descriptions are a somewhat helpless attempt to fit me into a category. But it's difficult to categorize me, because there are so many different aspects to what I do. I see myself as someone who has set out on a journey to find himself through traveling, cultural exchange, and experiences in nature's most extreme environments.
What started it all?
I came from a very limited world and I wanted to see beyond my own back yard. I grew up in a little village outside of Graz, Austria, in a family environment that I perceived as being oppressively middle class. I wanted to escape. It was just as much a form of rebellion as it was a reaction to the feeling of being boxed-in. Back then, I couldn't find anyone who wanted to travel with me, so I went by myself - and it was a good thing, too, because traveling alone with very little money really forced me to come to terms with and accept the local culture. I learned that traveling is more than just moving from point A to point B, more than just a vacation, or a little diversion. Traveling was my means of discovering the world, and experiencing things that couldn't be learned from books. For me, traveling was the key to worlds that I would never have had access to otherwise. But I didn't just want to travel as a hobby outside of work or school. I wanted to make traveling my life.
How did you manage to find a way to make traveling your life's work?
Actually, the circumstances were not exactly ideal for achieving the life I lead today, particularly with respect to the tools of my trade, that is, my form of expression, oral and written, and my photography and film work. I'm completely self-taught. I never took any courses or had any formal training in photography or script writing. In school, my grades in German were barely satisfactory. When I had to get up and speak in front of the class, my throat would close up and I couldn't even get a word out. That was one of my biggest challenges. But the more experience I acquired, the better I was able to express myself. I'm forever grateful to Gutenberg for inventing the printed word, because books opened the door for me to learn about people of generations past. I have a lot of respect for books, although there's a flood of them on the market these days, and they use up so much paper, they're not exactly environmentally friendly. That's why I only write a book when I feel I have something new to contribute - granted, that's a subjective opinion. My goal in life is to live to write and write for a living. I haven't quite achieved that yet, which is why I had to find other ways to earn a living, like lectures, and films - as a last resort. Because actually I'm more of a loner, and making films is something that requires teamwork. On the other hand, film is a medium that can communicate messages to a large audience. I use the different media of books, film and photography to broaden the spectrum of my means of expression, which in the final analysis, is another goal of mine - to go from looking, to seeing, It's a life-long process. Although, I would never describe myself as a photographer. Photography for me is just another tool for me to illustrate the things I want to say.
You've traveled a lot and experienced a lot. What would you say has influenced you the most?
The experiences I've had being outdoors in nature. Those situations where I've had to put myself completely at the mercy of the environment, and had no one but myself to rely on for my survival, force me to tap my inner strength and potential and make me feel alive again. It's a feeling you can only experience up in the mountains or in the desert.
You've crossed the Taklamakan and the Gobi Deserts in Asia, and were in Africa's Tibesti. What is it that fascinates you about the desert?
The desert touched a chord in me from the moment I first set foot in it. I had experienced other landscapes - mountains, the Amazon, you name it. Then, I entered the desert's "empty zone". I had been carrying around an image of the desert in my head, which I'd gotten from books, from stories I had read about the famous explorer, Sven Hedin, who had gone into the desert and met with disaster. My first experience was the Taklamakan in 1989. Such absolute reduction, such an unbelievable silence - I'd never experienced anything like it before. The desert is a landscape that forces you to think, reflect, to travel the road inward. It cuts deep into the soul. Prophets had gone into the desert; entire religions were created as a result. It is an extreme environment of enormous power and energy that compels humans to follow the basic dynamic principle of life - to stand still in the desert means death - the only way to survive is to keep moving. Just as in life, when we stop moving forward, we're as good as dead. The desert forces us to learn to trust in ourselves and in our own potential. We discover strength inside us that we never could have found living in a safe and sheltered environment. Experiences like this are profoundly enriching. They give you something no one can take away from you - they're the only things that have any permanence.
You re-enacted Sven Hedin's expedition across the Taklamakan, because you didn't believe that his ill-fated journey had really gone the way he had described it. He wrote that two of his men and several camels died. You ran into almost the same trouble on your trip. What happened?
I figured the odds were in my favor that the search for traces of Hedin's historic expedition was not going to be all that risky. I had had far more desert trekking experience than Hedin had had when he'd first set out. and he'd had to travel without the benefit of detailed maps or any GPS navigation system. I tried to create similar conditions for the trip, although there was only a limited comparison that could be made between a trip taken back in 1895 and one taken in 2000. That was why I chose to travel in the spring, the same as he had, at the height of the sandstorm season. I wanted to get a feel for what had really happened back then, because I just couldn't understand how Hedin's expedition could have met with such a disaster. So, I set out with about the same number or men and camels. In the end, I learned the hard way that at that time of year, the Taklamakan was impassable - and that is still the case today. My biggest question was whether Hedin had simply mismanaged his water supply. Had he made the mistake of loading up the camels with too much unnecessary equipment instead of water? Or was a "bad guy", a "water thief" to blame? I doubted it. Hedin's own heroic "sole survivor" story was questionable as well. It was little wonder that Hedin was the only one who had any strength left in the end. The caravan had been traveling as a two-class society - he rode a camel while his servants marched on foot. He took more water rations - he was the Master. True, we lost just about everything on our trip, including the lives of several of the camels. But we did prove one thing - that much of Hedin's published account was an outright lie.
You almost died of thirst when you crossed the Gobi on foot, but you were alone then. When you re-enacted the Hedin expedition, which you only managed to survive with a lot of luck, you were responsible for the lives of the rest of your party and the camels. Is it right to expose others to such risks? Where do you draw the line?
I would have crossed the line if I had set out on the trip in full knowledge of the risks involved. I confess, at the time I was 100% sure that the expedition wasn't going to be dangerous. Otherwise I never would have brought along a 60-year old partner with no desert experience.
So you underestimated the risk?
Maybe the reason I underestimated it was because there's a world of difference between going into the Taklamakan today and climbing Mount Everest. Every inch of Mount Everest has been charted, climbed, and photographed. In the desert, I was entering uncharted territory. Except for Hedin's own accounts, there was almost no written information that would have been of any use to me. There was nothing to tell me how long a camel could go under certain conditions. In that respect I relied completely on the experience of the native camel drivers. I told them we had to cover a waterless stretch of about 185 miles. I'm not trying to shift the blame here, but they were certain that the distance was doable. After all, these were their own camels, their livelihood. By the time we first saw signs of trouble, we were already well past the point of no return. Without any water, we had no other choice but to try and escape the situation by going forward, whatever the price. Losing the camels - no human lives were lost - was the hardest thing. It was an absolute nightmare, one that haunts me to this day. I guess I could have taken the Darwinian approach and said - survival of the fittest - I'm the strongest, the most experienced, I'll go find water and save myself. But then we would have lost everything. We survived as a team. We grew closer together as a result. It was a great experience, and at the same time it was a journey that tested all of us to the limit.
Let's move on to another important subject in your life: Tibet. You're a recognized authority on Tibet. But before you can know something, you have to GET to know it, which to my mind means, you have to have a certain curiosity and even a certain affection for the object of interest. Why Tibet? What started it? It was defining moment in my life. In 1985, I went backpacking in China, just shortly after the country had opened its borders to foreigners. I wanted to get a feel for the land and the culture. I went to school in the 1960's and back then everyone was raving about Mao. But it was one thing to spout Mao's words here in Europe, and quite another thing to experience them in practice in China. I wanted to discover the truth for myself. Westerners were nothing but barbarians with no culture, illiterate "long noses", the perfect image of the enemy of the faceless masses. I was greeted by such a coldness in the people there - it was a real shock for me. I wanted to get away, anywhere, where I could breathe, where it wasn't a constant battle over every little thing, like the simple act of buying a train ticket or finding a bed to sleep in. I wanted to see smiling people. I fled to eastern Tibet, and there I saw self-confident women, open, friendly people who took me into their homes. I experienced human warmth. It was love at first sight. After that, I wanted to see more of Tibet. After all, I had only just scratched the surface. Several trips followed. In 1987, I went to Mount Kailash. Thereafter, I began systematically developing an ongoing involvement with Tibet.
Westerners often have an idealized image of Tibet. They speak of "mythical Tibet", an image created by accounts of people like Alexandra David-Neel, Sven Hedin and others. What part of the myth of Tibet is true, and what isn't?
The Tibetan landscape has a quality all its own. You feel closer to the sky there. There, the mountains seem to be more than just mountains in the physical sense. The landscape is spiritual through and through, as if the land has a soul. Prayer flags wave high atop windy mountain passes marked by sacred mani stones. It is a world steeped in religion. On top of that, the Tibetans have the Dalai Lama - and that fact alone sets them apart from the rest of the world. Westerners have come to believe, incorrectly, that the Tibetans have the market cornered on enlightenment, but they're human just like us. We've projected our own ideals onto the Tibetans, and it's something they're rebelling against.
Your Kailash lecture and slide presentation makes viewers want to visit Tibet. Anything you would want to give potential tourists for the road?
Basically I have nothing against tourism in Tibet. The Tibetans themselves see tourism as an expression of moral support. But visitors shouldn't go into it completely naïve. They should read up on Tibet ahead of time and attune their senses, so that they don't just see what's on the outside, but also recognize just how oppression works. It is a form of Apartheid, a form of neo-colonialism. Sure, there are Internet cafes, shopping centers, etc. and I'm not criticizing modernization per se - it's something the Tibetans want themselves. But one also has to understand that the Tibetans only have very limited access to all these things. The Tibet issue is still about fundamental human rights and autonomy. It's not about raising old Tibet from the dead - that's senseless. It's about the here and now.
Your next project is a feature film about a Tibetan grandmother and her granddaughter who go on a pilgrimage across Tibet. You'll be making it in cooperation with Eric Valli, who became famous for his film "Himalaya". Why are the Chinese letting you film on location in Tibet?
Because the film is not political. We are not going to be expressly dealing with the human rights situation there or the Han-Chinese settlement policy. We're also not going to be dealing with the past, the way other films like "Kundun" or "Seven Years in Tibet" did. We want to depict present-day Tibet, a country full of contradictions, torn between tradition and the modern world and the conflicts of two generations. The younger generation of Tibetans, those born after about 1950, no longer have the same blind devotion to their religion that the older Dalai-Lama generation has. The younger generation doesn't accept things simply because "that's the way it's always been done". They question tradition and are trying to find their own road to the future. Of course, that isn't exclusively a Tibetan phenomenon. That's something all cultures experience. The Chinese aren't implanting their own traditions in Tibet, but rather, the globalized way of life. It's an interesting concept - similar to my own situation - a young girl who leaves the world she grew up in to escape the sense of confinement she feels. The pilgrimage is just an excuse for her to get out of her village. She isn't interested in going to Kailash, she just wants to get out and experience big-city life in Lahsa. The film will use the two figures of the girl and her grandmother to explore the tension that exists between the generations, the modern and the traditional, in Tibet today.
When will be able to see the film in theatres?
In spring of 2004.