No other part of the world appeals to the adventurous and spiritual heart as much as the Himalaya.
A large body of literature has been produced by visitors who adopted the Himalaya as their (temporary) home. Their accounts stole the hearts of those who longed for new discoveries or for a mystical, harmonious place, far removed from the industrialized world.
This book presents the 19th and 20th century's most inspiring Himalayan visitors and their accounts. These captivating stories from 'the abode of snow' provide an intimate insight into the hardships and delights faced by those who fell under the spell of the Himalaya.
Lucia de Vries (born 1964) is a Dutch journalist who has lived in Nepal since 1992. Fascinated with the image of Nataraj, the Lord of the Dance, as a child, she first travelled to South Asia in 1988, and kept corning back to travel, write and meditate, until she finally moved to Nepal in the early 90s. Here she co-founded "Face to Face" and "Haka Haki" magazines, and together with friends established a publishing house for children's books. Apart from reporting for the Dutch media and providing communication services, she helped establish animal welfare in Nepal.
De Vries is the (co)author of a number of books, including Nepal, ZoutZoet, and Magic Days.
This year marks my 25th year of living in close proximity to the Himalaya. Although I have moved houses countless times during this period, all my homes have had a view onto the foothills bordering the southwestern portion of the Kathmandu Valley. Each day I have watched Champa Devi and her sisters gradually being revealed by the morning sun, or silhouetted - especially during bright winter days - against a darkening sky during sunset. From the roof top, facing north, I have observed the towering Himalaya queens, their 'crowns' stark white in the early morning, growing strangely pink in the course of the afternoon.
When I first set my eyes on the snow covered mountains, in Gilgit, Pakistan, in 1988, I thought I could be an explorer. I made plans to journey throughout the Himalaya (long before the Great Himalayan Trail was born) and dreamed of expeditions to undiscovered peaks. Just three months later, after inconveniently positioning myself in a shoot-out during a demonstration at the Jokhang temple in the heart of Lhasa, I found myself in a snow storm somewhere in the high Himalaya, without proper trekking gear, entirely lost and quite worried. I did eventually stumble across a nomad's tent, but not before I had suffered severe frostbite. The unfortunate incident forced me to leave the Himalaya and travel to Austria, to a hospital treating mountaineers and unqualified trekkers such as myself.
Today no outward signs remain of this ill-fated trek. However, after spending a few weeks in the presence of toe- and fingerless fellow patients, and months of physiotherapy, I readily gave up my dream of becoming a mountain heroine.
Instead I became an armchair explorer. Once in a while I would go on a trek and occasionally found myself back in that unpredictable world of snow, but basically I limited myself to watching the unforgiving mountains from a distance, from the safety of my house or a well-equipped lodge.
To satisfy my hunger for adventure I started to read about the real heroes of the Himalaya. I was interested in how their lives were shaped by their time on the roof of the world. One of the first authors I read was Peter Mathiessen. I followed the American zen practitioner across the Dhaulagiri to Dolpo, grieved with him for his deceased wife, and understood his reaction when he failed to see a Snow Leopard. Matthiesen was followed by Alexandra David-Neel, that formidable French explorer. Dressed as a Tibetan beggar, I followed her across the Tibetan Plateau, sleeping in caves and nomad tents, till at last we saw the Potala Palace, the first European woman to do so.
Other writers I enjoyed when I first moved to Kathmandu were Thomas Hale, the missionary with a great sense of humour, and Ruskin Bond, India's 'mountain writer', with whom I associate myself as his Himalayan life appears even less adventurous, at least outwardly, than mine. I also discovered Desmond Doig, whose deep appreciation of the heritage of the 'emerald valley' inspired me to spend more time in its bahals and temples.
I started to develop a special interest in other Dutch who spent time in the Himalaya. I first came across Samuel van der Putte, who in the 1720s and 30s travelled to Lhasa twice, once through Nepal and once via the Kokonor lake, and who reportedly spoke fluent Tibetan. Unfortunately, upon his request, the elusive explorer's documents were burned after his death. His map of the eastern Himalaya remains in a Dutch museum.
I made attempts to learn more about the Dutch missionary Petrus Rijnhart, husband of Canadian physician Susie Rijnhart, who became close friends with the abbot of Kumbum monastery but got killed during a fatal journey towards Lhasa in 1898. I discovered The Vissers, the mountaineering couple who in the 1920s, accompanied by their loyal Tibetan Mastiff Patiala, mapped many unexplored parts of the Karakoram.
Wanting to know more about early Nepal explorers I discovered the accounts of William Kirkpatrick, Brian Hodgson, Henry Ambrose Oldfield, Perceval Landon and Laurence Oliphant.
Slowly my collection expanded.
In some cases the books were hard to obtain. Although Kathmandu's bookshops are real treasure houses, at times I had to order them through the internet and wait a full year before collecting the parcels at my family home in The Netherlands. Wondering if others faced the same problems, the idea of bringing all these wonderful writings together in an anthology began to grow.
For someone who grew up in a country whose horizons are unmarked by any kind of elevation, located partly below sea level, living in the Himalaya was not an obvious choice. As a child I was captivated by the image of the Lord of Dance, Nataraj, and I believe that is what ultimately took me to Kathmandu. The reason I feel so much at home here partly relates to my upbringing: the former island on which I grew up, with its own language and costume, is considered an isolated, deeply religious place. In the past it was romanticized and demonized in much the same way as the Himalayan kingdoms have been. For all the cultural shocks I experienced after moving to Nepal, there was an underlying sense of connection and a sense of comfort in living in a tight knit community, subject to the forces of nature, whether they be mountains or sea.
Life in the Himalaya is not as many envision. Although I live close to the dhobi community of Patan and am only a walk away from the old city, that treasure house of temples and bahals, Kathmandu today is a far cry from the place I fell in love with three decades ago. The different armed conflicts to which the Himalaya are the backdrop prove that the region is no stranger to injustice and violence. Increasingly the 'pristine' Himalaya are exploited for political and monetary gain, leading to unregulated urbanization, bad road construction and environmental abuse. Add climate change to this picture, and one understands that the Himalaya, like the Antarctic, have never been more vulnerable than they are today.
It is time to heed the haunting plea by naturalist George Schaller: "For epochs to come the peaks will still pierce the lonely vistas," Schaller notes, "but when the last snow leopard has stalked among the crags and the last markhor has stood on a promontory, his ruff waving in the breeze, a spark of life will have gone, turning the mountains into stones of silence."
The Himalaya are wounded mountains, but this does not mean the magic is no longer here. Whenever the snow-covered Himalaya appears above the built-up city, or when I go on a hike in the hills surrounding the valley, I still feel a similar sense of excitement to the one I felt in 1988. Once more I dream that this elevated land of rock and snow, this glorious roof of the world, is saving its discovery for me, and for me alone.
I hope you as a reader will experience a similar sense of excitement when meeting those who ended up mountain bound over the past two centuries. Through their writings, I hope you experience some of that profound attraction that mountains, particularly the Himalaya, have had on us throughout history.
When journalist, artist and photographer Desmond Doig landed in Kathmandu in 1954 it was love at first sight. He would continue to travel, often to other destinations in the Himalaya, but Nepal was to be his "Shangri-la", which he regarded as his long lost home, and the place where he wanted to spend the rest of his life and be remembered.
Desmond Doig was not the only one. Throughout the ages, people from all walks of life felt the urge to travel to the Himalaya, captivated by a landscape located somewhere between earth and sky, a testimony to the endurance of human spirit. Through its combination of stunning beauty, extreme climate and unique cultural and religious traditions no other part of the world appeals to the adventurous and spiritual heart as much as the Himalayas, considered terra incognita till deep into the 20th century. Throughout the centuries foreigners travelling or living in the Himalaya, be they explorers, administrators, missionaries, mercenaries, mountaineers, spies or mystics, shared their experiences with audiences back home. From the memories of the British Raj, to contemporary accounts inspired by a stay in the mighty mountains, a large body of literature has been produced by those who adopted the Himalaya as their (temporary) home. By sharing their unique experiences with armchair travellers back home these pioneers became guides into an unknown world, far removed from the comforts and certainties of Western society. A world that would steal the hearts of those who longed for new discoveries or for a mystical, harmonious place, isolated and far removed from the industrialized world.
This anthology presents a selection of writings from the Himalaya in the 19th and 20th centuries. The changes that took place on the roof of the world during these two centuries are epic.
When Captain Samuel Turner published his account of a journey into Tibet and his meeting with the infant Panchen Lama in 1800, Tibet and large parts of the Himalaya were largely unmapped. That quickly changed: the race for filling in the blanks was on. By 1998, the year American researcher Ian Baker discovered the largest waterfall in Tibet's Tsangpo Gorge, a source of myth and geographic speculation for over a century, the last white spot on the Himalayan map was finally erased.
During Turner's days it could take half a year to reach India from England by boat. Preparing an expedition could take months or even years. Accommodation, apart from local homes, was unavailable; the famous "dak bungalows", serving travellers with connections to the East India Company, were built only in the 1840s. Supplies and outfits generally were purchased in Europe, and shipped to India. Those who could afford it did not compromise on their physical comfort, nor the number of servants and porters. Turner has his iron canopied bedstead and European furniture carried from Calcutta to Shigatse. The diplomat himself is carried in a palanquin, by eight bearers. Baron Von Hugel sets off for Kashmir three decades later with 36 servants, 60 bearers, and seven ponies. Apart from a hookah, lit by a Hookahburdar, a specialised servant, the party carries preserved meats, wines "and drinks of various kinds" and preserved fruits and sweetmeats.
By the end of the 20th century travelling to the Himalaya became a matter of catching a flight, travel to the road head by vehicle, and entering the mountains with the help of GPS or quality maps. Provisions became available locally and comfortable lodges with extended menus and foam mattresses developed along most routes. The journey from Calcutta to Shigatse and back which took Turner and his contemporaries a year, nowadays can be done in a day or two. While Turner's only means of communication was through messengers who hand-carried letters to his office in Calcutta, today's travellers are almost instantly connected through (satellite) phones and the Internet.
What has not changed though is the nature of the landscape, glorious but unforgiving, and the awe and reverence which so many of us experience in the presence of the highest mountains on earth. "Memsahib" Nina Mazuchelli experienced it when in the 1860s she exploredthe Himalayas from Darjeeling and noted: "As I stand in these vast solitudes I do so with bent knee and bowed head, as becomes one who is in the felt presence of the great Invisible." Explorer Francis Younghusband felt it when he first set eyes on the Himalaya in 1884: "This world was more wonderful far than I had ever known before. And I seemed to grow greater myself from the mere fact of having seen it. How could I ever be little again?"
Climbing legend George Mallory was well aware of the power Mount Everest had over him. "I can't tell you how it possesses me," and "at what point am I going to stop?" he wondered in his letters. Michael Hollingshead, hippie par excellence, was on a high when arriving in Kathmandu in 1969. "The spell of the Himalayas was upon me," he confessed. "The beauty of my surroundings began to penetrate a hardened carapace, for these mountains had begun to exercise a magic thraldom all their own." And it was no one less than Salman Rushdie, who gifted us with a magic description of "a mountain, especially a Himalaya, especially Everest," as "land's attempt to metamorphose into sky; it is grounded in flight, the earth mutated--nearly--into air, and become, in the true sense, exalted."
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