• She is from Portugal, he is from Japan, and for 20 years the Tibet Heritage Fund they work for has restored Tibetan structures from Lhasa to Mongolia
  • Team members often spend months at a time in remote spots and harsh conditions; they pass on skills to the locals they work with

The 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet follows the adventures of Austrian mountaineer and former Nazi SS officer Heinrich Harrer, who escaped a British prisoner of war camp in India and travelled more than 1,200km (750 miles) to Lhasa on foot and by yak at the tail end of the second world war.

It was in the Tibetan city that Harrer, played in the film by a fresh-faced Brad Pitt, met and became the 14th Dalai Lama’s English teacher and lifelong friend.

Harrer, who renounced Nazism before he died in 2006, wrote the 1952 book on which the film was based.

But to a group of contemporary Tibetan heritage experts, it is Peter Aufschnaiter, Harrer’s fellow escapee, who has the more memorable story. That’s because Aufschnaiter laid the groundwork for the group’s mission to rescue traditional Tibetan architecture and craftsmanship from the brink of extinction.


A temple in the heart of the Tibetan city of Lhasa that was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
A temple in the heart of the Tibetan city of Lhasa that was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. © Alamy

Aufschnaiter, an Austrian engineer and cartographer, had lived in Tibet before the war and spoke the language, helping him and Harrer pass safely into the region. He was hired by the Lhasa authorities to plan irrigation channels, conduct the first detailed survey of the city and produce a proper town map. He was forced to leave Tibet for good, however, after the Chinese army marched in and took over in 1950.

Nearly four decades later, in 1987, German backpacker André Alexander arrived in Lhasa on a first visit. As the young historian learned more about Tibet’s history, he became concerned at the rate at which old buildings were being razed. In 1993, he and a friend set up the Lhasa Archive Project to keep a record of the buildings before they disappeared. Their most important reference? Aufschnaiter’s 1948 map.

Many of the 869 significant buildings Aufschnaiter recorded had fallen victim to China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which aimed at purging “old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits”. But to the team’s dismay, nothing was being done to preserve the remaining valuable structures, including 17th-century mansions in the old Barkhor area surrounding the Jokhang Temple.

By the mid-1990s, the archive had attracted a few more dedicated campaigners, including a Portuguese artist called Pimpim de Azevedo.

“We realised that documenting was not enough. Something else needed to be done,” she says. “So we founded the Tibet Heritage Fund in 1996 and started talking to the Lhasa municipality about restoring buildings in the old city. The mayor arranged for the cultural relics bureau to work with us. In four years, we restored 13 residential buildings, all built in traditional materials with very refined styles.”

Azevedo, who trained with master craftsmen in Lhasa, advocates a community-based conservation approach to ensure traditional know-how gets passed on locally. She was speaking to the Post in Hong Kong, where she and Japan native Yutaka Hirako, programme director at the fund, catch up with administrative and fundraising work when it is too cold to work in the Himalayas.