Climbing the Himalaya With Soldiers, Spies, Lamas and Mountaineers

HIMALAYA
A Human History
By Ed Douglas

When I first came to India, I asked one of the most erudite politicians in the Indian government a question I had been scared to pose to anyone else but that seemed fundamental to understanding the region: Why does India have so many people? Geographically, it’s a third smaller than the United States but its population is nearly five times larger. The politician, who had had a long successful career in the United States as a business executive and seemed happy to explain just about anything to a new correspondent, stood up from his desk and walked over to a large wall map. He tapped a certain region, shaded brown and white.

“The answer,” he told me, “is the Himalaya.”

He explained that the world’s highest mountain range, home to Mount Everest and countless myths and counter-myths, had created such an immense river network that it left behind staggeringly rich soil across a vast swath of Asia. It’s no accident, he said, that on either side of these mountains lie the world’s two most populous nations, India and China. If you include Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, all of which also greatly depend on rivers sourced in the Himalaya, we’re talking about nearly half of humankind tied to these mountains.

The range, part of an even vaster highland region stretching more than 2,000 miles from Kyrgyzstan in the west to Myanmar in the east, has shaped Asia more than any geographical feature has shaped any other continent. The forces that drove religion, trade, learning and human interactions flowed across these mountains and their foothills for thousands of years. Even today, some of the rawest flash points in Asia, which can send armies rushing to the border and fighter jets roaring through the sky, lie high up in the Himalaya. The pros never put an “s” at the end of the word; it’s just Himalaya, which in Sanskrit means “abode of snow.”

In “Himalaya: A Human History,” the journalist Ed Douglas untangles the history of the mountains starting from when they were formed, about 50 million years ago, to the Everest climbing craze today. His book is the fruit of an enormous amount of research that focuses on the conquest of the mountains and the interconnected kingdoms and states that vied for control. His observations are sharp, and in many passages, his writing glows.

“As you leave the scruffy frontier town of Saga,” Douglas writes, “Tibet dries up like a husk. Traveling the same latitudes as Algeria, you pass sand dunes within sight of white summits. The light at dawn is sumptuous, turning the lower hills the color of honey and caramel, but it’s hard to imagine anything living in such austerity. Then you spot wild asses, khyang in Tibetan, cropping the meager white grass struggling out of the stony ground. The air is thin at 15,000 feet; everything feels closer, yet the vast scale of the landscape reduces you. It’s easy to see why a philosophy stressing the illusory nature of an individual consciousness, as Buddhism does, might prosper here. ”

What’s so interesting, Douglas says, is that the Himalaya have always “performed two contrasting roles: as a place of spiritual retreat and separation from the world, but also a meeting ground where radically different cultures met and traded on a long-established network of high mountain trails.” Countless legends have been born in this clime, and a big part of Douglas’s mission is sifting out the reality from the myth. For instance, long before James Hilton patented the concept of Shangri-La in his 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon,” Tibetans had been talking of something similar, a utopian realm known as Shambhala. Funnily enough, some Tibetan scholars said Shambhala was in Europe.

Even though our image of Tibet is of a closed-off, sealed-up place, that’s erroneous: It had been a cosmopolitan trading hub and cultural powerhouse for hundreds of years. In the 1600s, an Armenian merchant started poking around, looking for musk, an incredibly lucrative perfume ingredient that came from glandular secretions of Tibetan musk deer. The British followed soon after, as part of the East India Company, and by 1856 they had measured the tallest mountain on the landscape. It was named after a British surveyor, George Everest, pronounced “Eve-rest.” Around the same time, the East India Company, never known for its altruism, sent tea thieves to China posing as hapless merchants. They sneaked out thousands of tea plants to grow on the other side of the Himalaya. Thus began India’s gargantuan tea industry.

The Himalaya today are as full of intrigue and contested as they have ever been. Just this past June, the deadliest violence in decades between China and India, both nuclear armed, broke out along a barren stretch of their Himalayan border, which has never been formally marked. Dozens of soldiers were killed, many pushed down rocky gorges. It’s virtually impossible to draw a line through these peaks, and the nations have competing versions of where the boundary lies. Both are determined not to give up an inch.

Douglas, an experienced mountaineer who has spent years in and out of Nepal, covering a Maoist insurgency and writing more than a half-dozen other mountain books, clearly has an affection for this part of the world. But this book in itself is a bit of a mountain to climb, nearly 600 densely packed pages — its own Everest. At times, the story disappears, like a road tapering off, into a jungle of facts. Douglas is a madman for facts. You want to know the name of the most famous person born in the same town as the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci? Or how snowfall on the Tibetan plateau affects Canadian winters? Or which part of yak fur is best for making tent ropes? Have no fear. Douglas has got it.

The narrative is most exciting when it’s focused on mountain climbers. These guys, more than the anthropologists, the spies, the nation builders, the spiritual seekers or the cunning lamas who populate these pages, seem to exude true wisdom. Maybe it’s a self-selecting group: Only if you have such wisdom and presence of mind can you scale walls of ice, reach the roof of the world where the oxygen level is about one-third that at sea level, lose fingers and toes to frostbite and come back alive.

Douglas draws the climbers like astronauts, specimens of brawn and brain, and the alpine competitions between nations, especially in the interregnum between the world wars, feel almost like a preview of the Cold War space race. Nationalistic governments ferociously backed their teams in the name of science and bragging rights, working their diplomatic contacts just to get permission to climb the world’s tallest peaks in Nepal, India and Tibet, and then lavishly celebrated their wins. During one German-Austrian expedition, climbers fueled themselves with Panzerschokolade, “tank chocolate,” an amphetamine used by German tank crews in World War II.

The climbers clearly revere the mountains, and you can sense how alive they felt in that landscape where they were nothing but a string of dark, slow-moving specks crossing the brilliant white snow.

“There are few treasures of more lasting worth than the experience of a way of life that is in itself wholly satisfying,” wrote Eric Shipton, one of the most respected mountaineers of the 1930s. “Such, after all, are the only possessions of which no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us; nothing can alter the fact if for one moment in eternity we have really lived.”

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