Climbing the Himalaya With Soldiers, Spies, Lamas and Mountaineers

A Human Historical past
By Ed Douglas

Once I first got here to India, I requested one of the erudite politicians within the Indian authorities a query I had been scared to pose to anybody else however that appeared basic to understanding the area: Why does India have so many individuals? Geographically, it’s a 3rd smaller than the US however its inhabitants is almost 5 instances bigger. The politician, who had had a protracted profitable profession in the US as a enterprise govt and appeared completely satisfied to clarify absolutely anything to a brand new correspondent, stood up from his desk and walked over to a big wall map. He tapped a sure area, shaded brown and white.

“The reply,” he instructed me, “is the Himalaya.”

He defined that the world’s highest mountain vary, dwelling to Mount Everest and numerous myths and counter-myths, had created such an immense river community that it left behind staggeringly wealthy soil throughout an enormous swath of Asia. It’s no accident, he mentioned, that on both aspect of those mountains lie the world’s two most populous nations, India and China. Should you embrace Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, all of which also greatly depend on rivers sourced in the Himalaya, we’re speaking about almost half of humankind tied to those mountains.

The vary, a part of an excellent vaster highland area stretching greater than 2,000 miles from Kyrgyzstan within the west to Myanmar within the east, has formed Asia greater than any geographical function has formed another continent. The forces that drove faith, commerce, studying and human interactions flowed throughout these mountains and their foothills for 1000’s of years. Even right now, a number of the rawest flash factors in Asia, which may ship armies dashing to the border and fighter jets roaring by means of the sky, lie excessive up within the Himalaya. The professionals by no means put an “s” on the finish of the phrase; it’s simply Himalaya, which in Sanskrit means “abode of snow.”

In “Himalaya: A Human Historical past,” the journalist Ed Douglas untangles the historical past of the mountains ranging from once they have been shaped, about 50 million years in the past, to the Everest climbing craze right now. His e book is the fruit of an infinite quantity of analysis that focuses on the conquest of the mountains and the interconnected kingdoms and states that vied for management. His observations are sharp, and in lots of passages, his writing glows.

“As you allow the scruffy frontier city of Saga,” Douglas writes, “Tibet dries up like a husk. Touring the identical latitudes as Algeria, you go sand dunes within reach of white summits. The sunshine at daybreak is luxurious, turning the decrease hills the colour of honey and caramel, but it surely’s laborious to think about something dwelling in such austerity. You then spot wild asses, khyang in Tibetan, cropping the meager white grass struggling out of the stony floor. The air is skinny at 15,000 ft; the whole lot feels nearer, but the huge scale of the panorama reduces you. It’s straightforward to see why a philosophy stressing the illusory nature of a person consciousness, as Buddhism does, would possibly prosper right here. ”

What’s so attention-grabbing, Douglas says, is that the Himalaya have at all times “carried out two contrasting roles: as a spot of non secular retreat and separation from the world, but in addition a gathering floor the place radically completely different cultures met and traded on a long-established community of excessive mountain trails.” Numerous legends have been born on this clime, and a giant a part of Douglas’s mission is sifting out the truth from the parable. For example, lengthy earlier than James Hilton patented the idea of Shangri-La in his 1933 novel, “Misplaced Horizon,” Tibetans had been speaking of one thing comparable, a utopian realm often known as Shambhala. Funnily sufficient, some Tibetan students mentioned Shambhala was in Europe.

Although our picture of Tibet is of a closed-off, sealed-up place, that’s misguided: It had been a cosmopolitan buying and selling hub and cultural powerhouse for a whole bunch of years. Within the 1600s, an Armenian service provider began poking round, searching for musk, an extremely profitable fragrance ingredient that got here from glandular secretions of Tibetan musk deer. The British adopted quickly after, as a part of the East India Firm, and by 1856 they’d measured the tallest mountain on the panorama. It was named after a British surveyor, George Everest, pronounced “Eve-rest.” Across the similar time, the East India Firm, by no means identified for its altruism, despatched tea thieves to China posing as hapless retailers. They sneaked out 1000’s of tea crops to develop on the opposite aspect of the Himalaya. Thus started India’s gargantuan tea trade.

The Himalaya right now are as stuffed with intrigue and contested as they’ve ever been. Simply this previous June, the deadliest violence in decades between China and India, each nuclear armed, broke out alongside a barren stretch of their Himalayan border, which has by no means been formally marked. Dozens of troopers have been killed, many pushed down rocky gorges. It’s nearly not possible to attract a line by means of these peaks, and the nations have competing variations of the place the boundary lies. Each are decided not to surrender an inch.

Douglas, an skilled mountaineer who has spent years out and in of Nepal, masking a Maoist insurgency and writing greater than a half-dozen different mountain books, clearly has an affection for this a part of the world. However this e book in itself is a little bit of a mountain to climb, almost 600 densely packed pages — its personal Everest. At instances, the story disappears, like a street really fizzling out, right into a jungle of info. Douglas is a madman for info. You need to know the title of probably the most well-known individual born in the identical city because the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci? Or how snowfall on the Tibetan plateau impacts Canadian winters? Or which a part of yak fur is greatest for making tent ropes? Don’t have any worry. Douglas has bought it.

The narrative is most fun when it’s targeted on mountain climbers. These guys, greater than the anthropologists, the spies, the nation builders, the non secular seekers or the crafty lamas who populate these pages, appear to exude true knowledge. Possibly it’s a self-selecting group: Solely you probably have such knowledge and presence of thoughts are you able to scale partitions of ice, attain the roof of the world the place the oxygen degree is about one-third that at sea degree, lose fingers and toes to frostbite and are available again alive.

Douglas attracts the climbers like astronauts, specimens of brawn and mind, and the alpine competitions between nations, particularly within the interregnum between the world wars, really feel virtually like a preview of the Chilly Battle area race. Nationalistic governments ferociously backed their groups within the title of science and bragging rights, working their diplomatic contacts simply to get permission to climb the world’s tallest peaks in Nepal, India and Tibet, after which lavishly celebrated their wins. Throughout one German-Austrian expedition, climbers fueled themselves with Panzerschokolade, “tank chocolate,” an amphetamine utilized by German tank crews in World Battle II.

The climbers clearly revere the mountains, and you’ll sense how alive they felt in that panorama the place they have been nothing however a string of darkish, slow-moving specks crossing the sensible white snow.

“There are few treasures of extra lasting price than the expertise of a lifestyle that’s in itself wholly satisfying,” wrote Eric Shipton, one of the revered mountaineers of the Thirties. “Such, in spite of everything, are the one possessions of which no destiny, no cosmic disaster can deprive us; nothing can alter the actual fact if for one second in eternity we’ve actually lived.”

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