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Review | 2 wonderful new books take armchair travelers to the Himalayas

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“Till the summer of 1904 if one had been asked what was the most mysterious spot on the earth’s surface the reply would have been Lhasa.” So wrote John Buchan about the religious capital of Tibet in “The Last Secrets: The Final Mysteries of Exploration.” In that 1923 book, Buchan — author of the classic thrillers “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “Greenmantle” — summarized a dozen (largely) British expeditions to the most far-flung corners of the world, devoting three of his best chapters to the Himalayan region: “Lhasa,” “The Gorges of Brahmaputra” and “Mount Everest.” Even now, a century later, these places are still almost reflexively associated — at least by many Westerners — with snowy romance, spiritual wisdom and high adventure.

As it happens, two excellent new books examine the more complicated reality: John Keay’s “Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World” and Erika Fatland’s “High: A Journey Across the Himalaya Through Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and China.” The pair complement each other perfectly. Keay, a British journalist and historian, focuses on topography, climate, wildlife and, above all, exploration, while Fatland — a Norwegian social anthropologist — tirelessly interviews some of the ordinary and extraordinary people who live in the Himalayan region today.

‘A Gentleman of France’ is a classic adventure tale

Two of Keay’s earlier books, “When Men and Mountains Meet” (1977) and “The Gilgit Game” (1979), covered the West’s fascination with, and clashes over, this forbidding mountainous territory during the 19th century. This latest takes up the story with Francis Edward Younghusband’s successful 1904 British incursion into Tibet, but then steps back to dive deep into the area’s geological and cultural past. Keay explains the plate tectonics that created the Himalayan peaks, traces the origins of the Tibetan people and emphasizes the importance of the ancient religion known as Bon, which preceded Buddhism. Subsequent chapters discuss glaciers and glaciation, take readers on a visit to the ultra-sacred Mount Kailash, and describe the work of various Indian, Tibetan and European scholars and explorers.

The bulk of Keay’s book, however, continues his two earlier histories of the region, treating the reader to a series of mini-biographies. For example, we learn about Emily and David Lorimer, who, in the 1920s and ’30s, managed to master “the scriptless Burushaski” spoken in Hunza: “With its seven words for ‘mother,’ its four genders, twenty-eight plural endings, numerous syntactic oddities and subtle meaning shifts, it was the sole surviving relic of India’s pre-Aryan languages.” The explorer and government agent Frederick “Hatter” Bailey — his nickname alludes to the Mad Hatter — so filled his diaries with lists of the animals he had shot that they read like “game-books.” Yet Bailey lived in a compound surrounded by animals and, with his wife, introduced the Lhasa apso terrier into Britain. Keay also tracks the careers of the swashbuckling Swedish explorer Sven Hedin and the highly spiritual Alexandra David-Neel, who in 1924, disguised as a monk, became the first European woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa.

Almost inevitably, this excellent book’s final section surveys the repeated, often disastrous attempts to scale not only Everest — ultimately conquered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay — but also K2 and other Himalayan peaks. Annapurna and Nanga Parbat are particularly deadly, killing a quarter or more of the mountaineers who undertake an ascent, though not the semilegendary Maurice Herzog and Reinhold Messner.

Keay closes “Himalaya” with a plea that this “garden of God” deserves all the conservation safeguards that can be devised. Fatland’s “High: A Journey Across the Himalaya Through Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and China” reinforces this same message: When she visits the base camp of Mount Everest, she notes that tourist trash and human waste have become both an eyesore and a disposal nightmare. In general, though, Fatland focuses less on the Transhimalaya’s history and ecology and more on its inhabitants, who are caught in various geographical power struggles, mainly between China and India.

If you’ve read “The Border” (2021) — Fatland’s account of a journey through all the countries that abut Russia — you already know she’s a superb reporter, with an engaging personality and boundless curiosity. Moreover, thanks to her exemplary translator, Kari Dickson, the English versions of her books convey her immense vitality and charm. Fatland, for instance, confesses that she was first drawn to this part of the world when, as a little girl, she reveled in the comic-book adventures of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge set in “the hidden valley of Tralla La, high up in the Himalayas.”

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During Fatland’s 2018 travels, she discovers that “the story is the same throughout the Himalayas: the borders are closing as nation states pull back to protect themselves and plug any holes with military posts.” China, she wryly notes, “has spent more money on domestic security than on the military — and China’s defense budget is the second largest in the world.” Everywhere, Fatland is confronted by supercilious officials or hostile bureaucrats. Despite these obstacles, the multilingual reporter perseveres: “I wanted to discover what life stories and cultures were to be found there, beyond the well-trodden paths, high up in the valleys and villages of the mountains with the beautiful name.”

Thus, she talks with three living goddesses in Kathmandu (whose feet must never touch the ground), sits at the feet of priests from various faiths, drinks endless cups of tea with the estate manager of a tea company in Darjeeling and interviews a trans beauty queen in Nepal. She visits Rishikesh, the capital of yoga; learns about the training needed to join the elite Gurkha brigade; and listens to the stories of girls who were sex-trafficked. She even journeys to Malana, said to produce the world’s best cannabis, and consults several astrologers who give her conflicting predictions about her future. Everyone knows somebody who has glimpsed a yeti, albeit from a distance.

In Nepal, Fatland signs up for the “Royal Massacre” tour, during which a visitor can see the places where, in 2001, crown prince Dipendra murdered his father, the king, as well as his mother, brother, younger sister, two uncles, two aunts and his father’s cousin. In Srinagar, located in Kashmir, she stops by the grave of Jesus, who according to local legend survived crucifixion, then secretly traveled east and died in this Himalayan town. In Bhutan, she marvels that 19 different languages are spoken by a population of roughly 800,000 inhabitants and that every year the country calculates its Gross National Happiness.

Neither Keay nor Fatland neglects the religious conflicts so sadly endemic to a region inhabited by devotees of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other faiths. Nearly everywhere Fatland hears about atrocities carried out by governments, religious groups and terrorists. As she resignedly notes at the end of one such recitation, “I cannot count the number of kitchen tables where I have sat and listened to these same words and accusations, spoken with the same endless grief and pain, only in another language, in another country.”

By now, I hope it’s obvious that both John Keay’s “Himalaya” and Erika Fatland’s “High” are ideal books for armchair travelers, packed with information and entertaining anecdotes. You will learn a lot from them — though not, of course, the way to reach fabled Tralla La. That must remain a secret.

Exploring the Roof of the World

A Journey Across the Himalaya, Through Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and China

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