Lost Places: The Himalayan Kingdoms

The Himalayas, the forbidding 1,800-mile mountain range that divides the Indian subcontinent from Asia, have held a particular fascination for westerners. Not only are these barren giants physically treacherous, but the ancient civilizations they sheltered are especially alien to our own. Despite the intrusion of pilgrims and traders from the West, details of the social functioning of the dozens of tiny kingdoms there went largely unrecorded for centuries. As late as the end of the 19th Century, maps of the Himalayas still showed such large geographic areas as Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan as "unexplored."

Of all the people of the Himalayas, the most mysterious and thus most fascinating were the Tibetans. Except for a brief invasion by the British in 1904, Tibet remained shrouded in a thick veil of mystery.* Partly this was a matter of the physical remoteness of the plateau, but also it reflected a determination on the part of the Tibetans to remain aloof and apart. At any event, in "Seven Years in Tibet" we have one of the few in-depth accounts through western eyes of traditional Tibetan life.

Heinrich Harrer
In 1943, Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer, sportsman, geographer, and author, escaped with a companion from a British POW camp in the foot hills of the Himalayas. Two years later, they reached Lhasa, Tibet's capitol. Within a relatively short time, Harrer had risen from almost illegal status as an alien pauper to the position of tutor to the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of the country. In 1952, the Chinese invasion forced him to leave Tibet. "Seven Years in Tibet" is a rousing tale of adventure as well as an intimate journal of daily life in a social environment that has been lost forever. Because of the nature of Harrer's journey and because he is a very courageous but in other ways ordinary person, "Seven Years in Tibet" is unlike any other travel book you've read.

"Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya" is an adventure story of a different kind. It is the account by George Schaller, one of the world's foremost animal biologists, of his study of Himalayan
Bharal, or blue sheep
sheep and goats over the better part of a six-year period. These animals, known by such unfamiliar names as markhor, tahr, urial, argali and bharal, had been little studied before Schaller, who hoped to answer such fundamental scientific questions as whether the bharal was in fact a goat or a sheep. The biology of sheep and goats may seem a trifle esoteric, but Schaller in one of those rare scientists who can write absorbingly for the layman. Like Harrer, the scientist is attempting to preserve something in danger of being lost, and his passion for his subject informs every page. Neither book should be missed by anyone who enjoys armchair adventures.

If you go, as they say in newspaper travel sections, be sure to take Hugh Swift's "The Trekker's Guide to the Himalayas and Karakoram," still the only guidebook to the entire mountain system, including the hill regions of Pakistan (Chitral, the Gilgit River Valleys, and Baltistan); India (Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Garhwal, and Sikkim); all of Nepal; and parts of Bhutan (although more recent books such as Lonely Planet Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya (Travel Guide) explore parts of the area). Included in Swift's book are chapters on the history, cultures and natural history of the region, 22 maps, glossaries to seven Himalayan languages, and lots of advice for the would-be trekker.

All three volumes are illustrated with photographs or line drawings. (1982)

Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya by George B. Schaller
The Trekker's Guide to the Himalaya and Karakoram by Hugh Swift

*An earlier report, Western Himalaya and Tibet: A Narrative of a Journey Through the Mountains of Northern India During the Years 1847-8 by Thomas Thomson, first published in 1852, was recently restored to print. The explorer and naturalist, on a perilous eighteen-month journey to define the boundary between Kashmir and Chinese Tibet, made valuable contributions to the geography, geology and botany of the western Himalayas.

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