Climbing the Himalaya With Troopers, Spies, Lamas and Mountaineers
A human story
By Ed Douglas
When I first came to India, I asked one of the most learned politicians in the Indian government a question that I was afraid to ask others, but that seemed fundamental to understanding the region: why is India like this many people? Geographically, it’s a third smaller than the United States, but its population is almost five times larger. The politician, who had a long and successful career as a company director in the United States and seemed happy to explain just about everything to a new correspondent, got up from his desk and went to a large map on the wall. He tapped a specific region that was shaded brown and white.
“The answer,” he told me, “is the Himalayas.”
He explained that the highest mountain range in the world, home to Mount Everest and countless myths and counter-myths, created such a vast river network that it left surprisingly rich soil in much of Asia. It is no coincidence that on either side of these mountains are the two most populous nations in the world, India and China. If you include Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, all of which are heavily dependent on rivers in the Himalayas, we are talking about almost half of humanity tied to these mountains.
The area, which is part of an even larger highland region stretching more than 2,000 miles from Kyrgyzstan in the west to Myanmar in the east, has shaped Asia more than any other geographic feature of any other continent. The forces driving religion, commerce, learning, and human interactions flowed over these mountains and their foothills for thousands of years. Even today, some of the harshest flashpoints in Asia are high up in the Himalayas, where armies can storm the border and fighter jets roar through the sky. The pros never put an “s” at the end of the word; It’s just the Himalayas, which means “abode of snow” in Sanskrit.
In “Himalaya: A Human Story” journalist Ed Douglas untangles the history of the mountains from their formation around 50 million years ago to today’s Everest climbing mania. His book is the result of an enormous amount of research focused on conquering the mountains and the interconnected kingdoms and states that vied for control. His observations are sharp and his writing shines in many places.
“When you leave the neglected border town of Saga,” writes Douglas, “Tibet dries up like a shell. When traveling the same latitudes as Algeria, you will pass sand dunes within sight of white peaks. The dawn light is lush, coloring the lower hills the color of honey and caramel, but it’s hard to imagine anything living in such austerity. Then one discovers wild donkeys, khyang in Tibetan, cutting off the meager white grass that struggles its way out of the stony ground. The air is thin at 15,000 feet; Everything feels closer, but the vastness of the landscape reduces you. It is easy to see why a philosophy that emphasizes the illusion of individual consciousness, as Buddhism does, could thrive here. ”
What is so interesting, says Douglas, is that the Himalayas have always “played two opposing roles: as a place of spiritual retreat and separation from the world, but also as a meeting point where radically different cultures met and in one for a long time established network of high mountain trails. “Countless legends have been born in this climate, and a large part of Douglas’ mission is to sift reality out of myth. For example, long before James Hilton patented the concept of Shangri-La in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, the Tibetans had spoken of something similar, a utopian empire called Shambhala. Funnily enough, some Tibetan scholars said Shambhala was in Europe.
Although our image of Tibet is of a closed, sealed place, that is wrong: it has been a cosmopolitan trading center and cultural powerhouse for hundreds of years. In the 1600s, an Armenian merchant began looking for musk, an incredibly lucrative perfume ingredient made from the glandular secretions of Tibetan musk deer. The British soon followed as part of the East India Company and had surveyed the highest mountain in the landscape in 1856. It was named after a British surveyor, George Everest, who pronounced “Eve-Rest”. Around the same time, the East India Company, never known for its altruism, was sending tea thieves to China posing as unhappy merchants. They snuck out thousands of tea plants to grow on the other side of the Himalayas. This is how India’s gigantic tea industry began.
Today’s Himalayas are more fascinating and competitive than ever before. It was only last June that the deadliest violence in decades broke out between China and India, both nuclear armed, along a barren stretch of their Himalayan border that was never officially marked. Dozens of soldiers were killed, and many fell down rocky ravines. It is virtually impossible to draw a line through these peaks, and nations have competing versions of where the line is. Both are determined not to give up an inch.
Douglas, a seasoned mountaineer who has spent years in and outside of Nepal, reporting on a Maoist uprising and writing more than half a dozen other mountain books, clearly has a fondness for this part of the world. But this book in itself is a mountain, almost 600 tightly packed pages – his own Everest. Sometimes, like a road that tapers off, the story disappears into a jungle of facts. Douglas is crazy about facts. Do you want to know the name of the most famous person born in the same city as the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci? Or how does snowfall on the Tibetan plateau affect the Canadian winters? Or which part of the yak fur is best for making tent ropes? Have no fear. Douglas got it.
The narrative is most exciting when it focuses on mountain climbers. These guys, more than the anthropologists, the spies, the nation builders, the spiritual seekers, or the cunning lamas who populate these sites, seem to exude true wisdom. Perhaps it is a self-choosing group: only if you have such wisdom and presence of mind can you climb walls of ice, reach the roof of the world, where oxygen is about a third of the sea level, and fingers and toes lose frostbite and come back alive .
Douglas draws the climbers like astronauts, muscles and brains, and the alpine competitions between nations, particularly in the interregnum between the world wars, almost feel like a preview of the Cold War space race. Nationalist governments wildly supported their teams in the name of science and bragged rights, worked on their diplomatic contacts to obtain permission to climb the world’s highest peaks in Nepal, India and Tibet, and then lavishly celebrated their victories. During a German-Austrian expedition, climbers supplied themselves with tank chocolate, an amphetamine used by German tank crews during World War II.
The climbers clearly adore the mountains, and you can sense how alive they felt in this landscape where they were nothing but a series of dark, slow-moving patches that crossed the crisp white snow.
“There are few treasures of more lasting value than experiencing a way of life that is entirely satisfactory in itself,” wrote Eric Shipton, one of the most respected climbers of the 1930s. “After all, these are the only possessions that no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us of; Nothing can change the fact if we have truly lived for a moment in eternity. “