An Interview with Charlie Carroll

Inspired by a long-time obsession with Tibet, high school English teacher Charlie Carroll, took a sabbatical to explore the country of his dreams, contending with Chinese bureaucracy, struggling across harsh terrain and encountering breathtaking altitudes. At a teahouse on the border of China and Tibet, he met Lobsang, a Tibetan exile who crossed the Himalayas years before. Carroll discusses his decision to tell the story of both of their journeys in the volatile region in Peaks on the Horizon, Two Journeys in Tibet.


  Longitude. One of the most striking things about your book is its unique structure. What compelled you to tell Lobsang’s story in alternating chapters with your own travelogue?

Carroll. Of all my books, this one took me the longest to write – in total, about four years. And, in that time, it progressed through a number of different drafts. In fact, the first few drafts were very traditionally structured, simply telling the story of my journey into and through Tibet, with Lobsang's story as a single chapter. And it didn’t work. One of the problems, I think, of writing travel is that the genre seems very fixed, and it can be hard to break away from the moulds that the greats – such as Theroux, Bryson and Thubron – have left us as their legacies. But the problem with trying to write like any of them is that it’s incredibly difficult – they are greats for a reason – and if you don’t get it right you can just end up sounding puerile or misanthropic or pretentious or – worst of all – boring. And that was the issue, really, with my first drafts. They were boring.

So I allowed myself some time away from it: I took on a new journey, I wrote a new book (No Fixed Abode, a travelogue about homelessness which was published a year before Peaks). Yet I could never quite forget about the Tibet book entirely. I knew there was still a book somewhere in those myriad journals I had filled through China, the TAR and Nepal, and so I returned to them. As I re-read, I came to Lobsang’s story, and it struck me how much I had condensed it to compact it into that single and seemingly insignificant chapter. I had abridged it so heavily because I had believed to tell it all would have ruined the flow of my narrative, but it occurred to me that Lobsang’s story was the narrative. His story was far more important than mine, and it deserved space.

The dual narrative structure was, I suppose, merely a means to an end. I wanted to tell both his story and my own (I worried that, if the book only detailed Lobsang’s journey, people might construe it as fiction, and it could thereby lose some of its power – keeping myself in the pages kept the book locked into the non-fiction world), and the alternating chapters were the only way I could logically work out of doing so without turning it into two discrete ‘travellas.’ Now that the book is published and out in the world, I remain quite proud of the structure. It may have started as a means to an end, but it culminated in a book which I don’t think anyone could say is borne from the moulds of the likes of Theroux, Bryson and Thubron. And that, in itself, is an achievement for me.

Longitude. What about Lobsang’s tale appealed to you among the many stories you witnessed as you traveled?

Carroll. I met a number of Tibetans inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and I was always grateful for their candour and their bravery (if they had been discovered talking to a writer, arrest would have been certain and incarceration likely). Each of them, I’ve no doubt, deserve their own book. I focused on Lobsang’s story above all the rest mainly for pragmatic reasons. He spoke to me for far longer than anyone else, providing me with enough detail for half of an entire book. Many of the other stories I was told by Tibetans could fill no more than a few pages, simply because that’s all they could get across to me throughout a twenty-minute conversation over a cup of yak-butter tea. I suppose it helped, too, that Lobsang’s English was excellent, and it’s no lie to tell you that he had a gift for weaving narratives himself. Had he the means, he could have written a far better book than I did. But lastly, and most importantly, I told Lobsang’s story because, in short, I promised him I would.

Longitude. How much artistic license did you allow yourself in the re-telling of Lobsang’s story?

Carroll. This was maybe the most difficult thing of all. It always is with non-fiction. Anyone who works with non-fiction – travel writers, documentary makers, war correspondents – we all essentially deal in other people’s stories. And the very process of re-telling someone else’s story requires a form of editing and adjusting. Artistic license isn’t just a consequence, it’s expected. Nevertheless, I knew I had to be careful. I was happy to flesh out events and characters and landscapes here and there, and I was happy to do it purely for the purposes of good storytelling, but I set myself a rule very early on. Nothing could be outright invented. So every conversation (which, of course, Lobsang had not repeated to me verbatim) had to be worded in ways which each ‘character’ would have spoken, based on what Lobsang had told me about them; no other ‘characters’ could be included if Lobsang had not mentioned them at least once; nothing could be re-ordered or removed to a different place or with different people. After a chapter was finished, I would check through to ensure I had adhered to my rule. Sometimes, it dismayed me to discover that I had not. Sometimes, I had gotten caught up in the flow-and-tell of the narrative. Sometimes, I had invented. Whenever I stumbled upon these little additions, I deleted them without hesitation.

Longitude. How did books fuel your life-long passion for Tibet?

Carroll. For a long time, they were all there was. So little ever comes out of the Tibetan Autonomous Region that, even today, filmed footage from the region is rare. Therefore, books about Tibet were all I had. And it all started with one in particular – a yellow hardback edition of Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, which I first read at the age of nine, and which I still read once every few years (I now own the same yellow hardback edition which I had fallen so in love with 25 years ago – a different copy, of course, but that’s immaterial). It’s such a wonderful book and, if you haven’t already, I urge you to read it. In fact, so much probably began with that book. It was the first piece of non-fiction I had ever enjoyed, and it put me on to other travel classics, which put me on to travel writing as a genre, which ultimately took me back to Tibet books again. For such an impenetrable country, there are more books about it than you might imagine, but some of my favourites are From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth, A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun, Sky Burial by Xinran and Fire Under the Snow by Palden Gyatso.

Longitude. Window seat or aisle?

Carroll. A window seat every time, and my legs despise me for it.

Longitude. How do you define your role as a passionate advocate for Tibetan people? What can you do to further their cause?

Carroll. “I welcome every opportunity for open-minded people to discover what is the reality in Tibet for themselves…I am convinced that as more people visit Tibet, the numbers of those who support the justice of a peaceful solution will grow…Go to Tibet and see many places, as much as you can; then tell the world.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama Regarding Tibet, this is, I suppose, kind of the credo that I like to live by. The most important, the most fundamental and the most crucial thing that we can do is to continue to talk about Tibet. With heightened Han immigration to the plateau, with Chinese schools teaching that Tibet has been a part of China for 1,500 years, with the appalling prospect that there may be no fifteenth Dalai Lama, Tibet is not just being squeezed off the map, it is being slowly whitewashed from history.

Another credo I maintain comes from my own land: Cornwall. Mez den heb davas a-gollas y-dir. The man who loses his tongue loses his land. The Tibetans may not yet have lost their language as we have lost ours in Cornwall, but they have been unable to speak of Tibet as a sovereign and independent nation for a long time. That is why it is important that we carry that baton for as long as Tibetans need us to, that we use our tongues while the Tibetans still cannot. Of course, I have written a book about Tibet to keep the word alive, but I also tell people about it in daily dialogue whenever I get the chance. It is one of the few remaining weapons we have, but it is a powerful one. Words always are. That’s why I went to Tibet: to see what it was like from a firsthand perspective and then to tell the world about it. And I will continue to tell the world about it because if I and others who believe the same stop, the dissolution of Tibetan nationhood will grow evermore final.

Longitude. What advice would you give to someone interested in travel in the Tibet Autonomous Region? Are there any precautions they should take?

Carroll. The first thing any traveller should do is follow the rules. They are obscure and ever-changing, they are infuriatingly Kafka-esque, and they exist to serve the interests of the Chinese rather than the Tibetans, but the rules demand to be followed. Any traveller who tries to do things their own way (such as crossing the border illegally or carrying a photograph of the Dalai Lama) will, admittedly, probably suffer no worse than deportation.

However, any Tibetan they have been in contact with (and this can be as tenuous a connection as a market-seller you bought a prayer-wheel from as a souvenir) will be placed in immediate danger, and while the traveller will just be escorted from the country, the Tibetan may suffer arrest, imprisonment and even torture. I was intimately aware that the very act of conversation with a local could endanger him or her. Spies and informers are everywhere. One man revealed he only spoke to me in a teahouse because I had chosen to sit in the corner of a room. If I had sat in the middle, it would have been too easy for others to listen in. All the notes I made in my journals were encoded and (except for Lobsang, whose words I tried to record in real time just to keep up) after the fact, alone in my guesthouse room.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t talk to anyone. You absolutely should. Many Tibetans are desperate to tell their stories to foreigners – this is, as I’ve written above, one of the only ways their stories will survive. But be quiet, be considerate and, above all, follow the rules.

Longitude. What books do you recommend for the traveler to Tibet, or anyone interested in the region? Are there books to avoid?

Carroll. Please see my suggestions above for good books about Tibet, but to add to it I would say that, if you can get your hands on anything by Tsering Shakya, you should without question read it. Tsering Shakya is perhaps the world’s leading historian on Tibet (and a Tibetan historian on Tibet, which is ludicrously rare), and his landmark The Dragon in the Land of the Snows will tell you everything you need to know about exactly what happened to Tibet between 1947 and 1999. It’s a long and arduous read, compounded by the consistency of appalling facts and statistics about the spiraling plight of the Tibetans as the years passed, but it will inform you about the country perhaps better than any other single book can. In terms of books to avoid, I would say that any book about Tibet, no matter how poorly written, has its worth, simply because, by its very nature as a book about Tibet, it continues to spread the word.

There is one book, however, which should be avoided. I found it in a Chinese guesthouse and have it in front of me right now. It is called China’s Tibet: Facts and Figures 2005 and is published by New Star Publishers – a Party-approved company based in Beijing which publishes English language books. I talk about this book at length in my own, so will refrain from doing it again here. All I’ll do is quote a single paragraph from the book, which details China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet’s capital, Lhasa: “The military forces of the PLA in Tibet entered Lhasa smoothly and they were greeted by a grand welcoming ceremony consisting of more than 20,000 people including officials from the local government of Tibet and the monks and the lay people. Wherever the troops arrived, they were welcomed by the Tibetan people. By this time, Tibet was truly liberated and the unity of the Chinese mainland was achieved.” I could give you a radically different version of events to these, lifted from numerous sources, a version which involves riots and shellings, uprisings and martial law, machine-guns and prayer-beads. But I’d rather you did a quick online search and found out the truth yourself.

Longitude. Do you have plans to return to Tibet?

Carroll. No. I’d love to. Tibet was spectacular in ways which other countries I’ve travelled have never come close to. But still no. It’s too hard. It costs a fortune (most of which goes to the Chinese businesses who own the Tibetan tour companies); the borders are notoriously unreliable; it’s dangerous; it’s frightening; it’s upsetting. It saddens me irrevocably that I may never go there again. But it’s still a no. For the time being, at least.

Longitude. At the end of the book, you note that the absence of a Free Drolma campaign on the internet signifies Lobsang has not yet made it out of Tibet. What efforts have you made to locate Lobsang and Drolma again, and can you offer us any hope of ever knowing the end of their story?

Carroll. I still regularly scan social media sites for any news, and I had a friend who worked as a teacher in Kathmandu and did a lot of volunteer work with Tibetan refugees entering Nepal. We stayed in touch until he left Nepal in 2013, and I would always ask if he had come across anyone who fit Lobsang's (or Drolma's) description. He never did. However, he did tell me one thing. In early 2010 - just a few months after I left Tibet - the Chinese government declared a rather hushed but still fairly comprehensive amnesty for political prisoners across China and including the TAR. I have no idea whether Drolma was released as part of this amnesty or not, but I do like to think that she was, that Lobsang found out and returned to Lhasa to be reunited with her, and that the two of them live there together still. It's not much, I know, but it's what I like to believe, and perhaps my readers might, too.