Top of the world
Romantic visions of the region have obscured the real people who live in it.
We drove higher and higher, the road corkscrewed tighter, and the air grew thinner. It was September of 2019 and I was travelling with my wife and two sons in the Indian province of Ladakh, deep in the Himalaya. We were on our way to the Nubra Valley, a high-altitude desert in the northeastern part of the province, close to the Chinese border. The road crossed the 17,428-foot-high Wari La Pass, at roughly the same elevation as Mt. Everest’s base camp.
As we climbed, there was a pounding in my temples; I wondered if we’d have to use the oxygen cylinder in the trunk. Mostly, I felt the isolation. There was no cell-phone coverage, and the vistas were forbidding in their emptiness. It felt like the end of the world; I worried about a breakdown.
Then we turned a corner and saw a man in a black coat lying under a car, changing a flat tire. He clambered out as we squeezed past, waving and yelling a cheerful “Julley! ” (a Ladakhi amalgamation of “hello” and “goodbye”). I was startled by the man’s nonchalance. In the back seat, a woman was snacking on a banana. Our driver told me that the man was probably a farmer heading to market—just another harried commuter.
I was hardly the first visitor whose view of the Himalaya was shaped by romantic fantasies, or paranoid neuroses. Ancient Indian sages wrote tales of flesh-eating demons and singing spirits (the Mahabharata makes several mentions of the Himalaya, whose name is Sanskrit for “abode of snow”). The Greeks and Romans—purportedly including Alexander the Great—were enthralled by Herodotus’ tales of giant gold-digging ants in the mountains; scholars today assume that the traveller and historian was referring to the Himalayan marmot, a nervous, furry mammal that wanders the lower altitudes. “Mountains have always been places for lowlanders to exercise their imaginations,” writes Ed Douglas near the start of “Himalaya: A Human History” (Norton), his ambitious, learned account of the ranges. “The abode of snow has offered a vast white screen on which to project the fantasies of all comers: exiled kings, foreign imperialists, spiritual seekers, self-important explorers, archeologists, missionaries, spies, mapmakers, artists, hippies—and climbers.”
Douglas, an accomplished mountaineer and the author of eight previous books on the subject, is refreshingly aware of his own romanticizations. A child of the English suburbs, he writes that he was mesmerized by the mythic mountains, “a castle of impossible dreams”; on an early trip, he “found a door marked ‘adventure’ and stepped through it.” The Himalaya that Douglas seeks to capture in this book are at once more prosaic and more fascinating than the idealized version. Although he doesn’t overlook ecology or geology, his focus, as the subtitle indicates, is on the history of the people in the region. In twenty teeming—at times over-teeming—chapters, Douglas portrays a complex, populated landscape and an intricate patchwork of cultures. Some two hundred and forty million inhabitants speak more than four hundred languages and practice at least twelve religions. “Where did mythology end and reality begin?” Douglas asks. His book seeks to reclaim humans from geography, and to recapture the lived experience of the Himalaya.
The tendency toward mythologization is understandable. The greater Himalayan mountain system (which also includes the Pamir, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram ranges) stretches across some two and a half thousand miles and at least eight countries, from Afghanistan to Myanmar. It features the hundred highest mountains, such as Mt. Everest, K2, and Kanchenjunga. Salman Rushdie has described the Himalaya as “land’s attempt to metamorphose into sky.” This sense of awe—and otherworldliness—is deepened by the presence of fossilized shells and sea creatures many thousands of feet above sea level, remnants of a massive collision that occurred around fifty million years ago, when a fragment of the supercontinent Gondwanaland hit the Eurasian tectonic plate and the earth began crumpling upward. (The Himalaya are still growing by around two centimetres a year, according to some estimates.)
For centuries, this formidable terrain has sheltered the people and cultures of the Himalaya and also obscured them. Out of that obscurity rose a thousand gauzy tales about mysterious forbidden cities and enchanted Shangri-Las and Shambalas. Buddhism—Tibetan Buddhism, in particular—played a key role in these narratives, draping the Himalaya in an aura of benign spirituality and etherealness. Douglas painstakingly reconstructs a grittier history, of the region’s ancient wars, invasions, and dynastic bloodletting. The over-all impression is less of a region above ordinary human compulsions than of a hotbed of high-altitude Realpolitik.
Before the nineteenth century, there were a few intrepid explorations into the mountains—by Rajput kings and Mongols, by Marco Polo, and by a smattering of determined Jesuit missionaries. It wasn’t until the arrival of British colonialism, however, that the barrier was definitively breached. In 1802, the East India Company embarked upon what became known as the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, to produce detailed maps of the subcontinent. One of the greatest scientific achievements of the age—and perhaps of all time—the survey was conducted by an army of officials and human “computers” who dragged a half-ton theodolite (an instrument for measuring angles) and a mounted telescope known as a zenith sector across the country’s jungles and plains. The project was supposed to last a few years, but it took seven decades, and hundreds of deaths, for accurate measurements of the region, including the mountains, to be completed.
Opinion had long been divided on whether the Himalaya were indeed the earth’s highest range. But as the British inched forward, measuring one peak after another—Nanda Devi (25,646 feet), Dhaulagiri I (26,795 feet), and Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet)—the full gargantuan splendor of the mountains slowly unfurled. Finally, the surveyors set their instruments on a distant, fog-obscured protuberance that, measured at more than twenty-nine thousand feet, was revealed to be the highest mountain on the planet. The Tibetans called it Chomolungma (often translated as “Mother Goddess of the World”); for the Nepalis, it was Sagarmatha (“Peak of Heaven”). The head of the surveying operation instead named it Mt. Everest, after his retired predecessor, George Everest, who was by this time back in England and never set eyes on the mountain that bears his name.
Cartography is a form of control. “The Great Arc,” John Keay’s account of the surveying operation, argues that the undertaking was both a scientific triumph and an exercise in imperial authority. As the mountains were mapped and labelled, they began to lose their aura of inaccessibility. The Great Survey heralded a golden age of Himalayan exploration and exploitation, in which young European men, monocles firmly in place and teakettles securely lashed to their porters’ sacks, set out in the explorer-conqueror mold of Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook. But even as these exploits eroded the Himalaya’s inscrutability they marked a new phase of mythologization. The mountains became stages for mystical self-discovery and Nietzschean improvement. Francis Younghusband, the British explorer, author, and spy, wrote that the Himalaya offered an opportunity for “evolving from ourselves beings of a higher order.” George Mallory, who disappeared on Mt. Everest during an ill-fated summit attempt in 1924, is reputed to have said, “If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.”
A line runs from such ponderous (and self-aggrandizing) proclamations to more contemporary attitudes. The Beatles went to Rishikesh, India, to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, seeking—as they put it in one of their song titles—“The Inner Light.” (Their Himalayan fantasies were replaced by disillusionment with the Maharishi, memorialized in “Sexy Sadie.”) In 1960, in “Tintin in Tibet,” Hergé’s young hero established his bravery and selflessness in encounters with Buddhist monks and the Yeti; over the following decades, books such as Peter Matthiessen’s “Snow Leopard” and Andrew Harvey’s “A Journey in Ladakh” chronicled personal spiritual pilgrimages. In 1997, Jon Krakauer captured the popular imagination with “Into Thin Air,” an account of eight deaths during a crowded, tragic day on Everest. Although the book was a clear-eyed critique of Himalayan commercialization, its popularity ignited a boom in amateur mountaineering and adventure tourism.
Many millions of people now visit the Himalayan region in a typical year. Some four thousand climbers have attempted to summit Everest in each of the past two decades, a fifty-per-cent increase over the period when Krakauer wrote his book. Satellite phones and charter flights penetrate the formerly inviolable geography, and climbers on Mt. Everest have access to Wi-Fi at seventeen thousand six hundred feet. Himalayan myths endure, but old tropes about self-cultivation through adventure have been repackaged and commodified, marketed to eager consumers desperate for a taste of authenticity. The snow-capped peaks and dramatic glaciers have been reduced to props in a great big human reality show: backdrops for a thousand selfies and boastful social-media feeds—destinations, as the author Jamaica Kincaid puts it, for “people from rich countries in the process of experiencing the world as spectacle.”
Kincaid writes this as she boards a rickety airplane following a long hike in Nepal, near the end of her gardening-and-mountaineering memoir, “Among the Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya.” Originally released in 2005, the book has now been reissued by Picador, partly in response to what her publishers identify as the erasure of people of color in nature writing. One of the most compelling aspects of this slim, elegant narrative is the way Kincaid captures—gently, unpolemically—a similar tendency toward erasure by visitors to the Himalaya: a habit of relegating local people to the background, of accentuating the sublimity of landscape over what Douglas calls “Himalayan voices.”
Kincaid’s journey is inspired by a horticulturalist friend, who invites her to go hunting for seeds of rare flowering plants in Nepal. Botany, as both Kincaid and Douglas explain, has a long history of entanglement with colonialism. Kincaid, who grew up in Antigua, is acutely conscious of this history, even as she hunts for exotic species to decorate her New England garden and struggles to remember the names of her native attendants. (She refers to them instead only by their functions—“Cook” and “Table.”)
Her prose is limpid, her descriptions of nature knowledgeable and often exquisite. But there is a kind of auto-subversion at play in this writing, its abstruseness—the litany of Latin plant names, the author’s frequent evocations of “Eden” and “idylls”—serving as an implicit reminder of all the surrounding reality, the lives and names, that she overlooks. “I was making this trip with the garden in mind,” Kincaid writes, “so everything I saw, I thought, How would this look in the garden?”
It is the fall of 2002; Kincaid is dimly aware that the King of Nepal has dissolved parliament and that it has something to do with the Maoist revolution convulsing the nation. As she drives past the royal palace, she reflects, “I should have been properly interested in that, but I was not at all.” At the airport, she sees soldiers in blue camouflage fatigues, but her thoughts turn quickly away from politics, and again to nature (the blue, she reflects, must be to match the Himalayan sky). Still, evidence of human perturbations mounts. There is a shortage of beer in small mountain towns (the revolutionaries proscribe alcohol), and Kincaid notices red stars and writing on the walls of schools and bridges. A succession of extortionist Maoists show up, demanding payments from Kincaid’s party and subjecting them to political lectures and anti-American tirades. Kincaid begins telling people she’s Canadian.
The tension builds in this way—gradually, subtly, so that a book about gardening improbably takes on the effect of a thriller. Toward the end of the hike, in the village of Donje, Kincaid’s party comes across a police station that has been burned down by Maoists, and a school and a religious building that have been shuttered. Soon a group of men appears, the lapels of their shirts and jackets marked with red stars, bringing with them an air of violence. That night, as Kincaid lies in her sleeping bag listening to booms in the distance that she is told are Maoist bombs, the reality of these mountains is undeniable: in the twenty-first century, the true hazards (and adventures) of the Himalaya emanate not so much from their daunting topography or arduous terrain as from human beings, riven by clashing ideologies and allegiances.
Late at night on June 15, 2020, on a ridge above the swirling waters of the Galwan River in Ladakh, an argument over a border post escalated into a fierce confrontation between members of the 16th Bihar Regiment of the Indian Army and troops from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The skirmish reportedly lasted around seven hours, and at its peak some three hundred men were involved. Because mutually agreed-upon rules barred the use of firearms in the area, the soldiers resorted to rocks and nail-spiked clubs. Twenty people died on the Indian side; the number of Chinese casualties remains unknown. Many of the troops died from hypothermia, or from falling into the icy river below.
The world, more accustomed to India’s conflict with Pakistan, was astonished by news of this clash with the region’s other military heavyweight. For Indians, the incident was an unexpected upsurge in hostilities that had largely receded after the brief but bloody Sino-Indian War of 1962. I grew up on stories of that war. My grandfather’s brother was killed in it—mowed down, according to family lore, by Chinese machine gunners high in the Himalayan glaciers—and my history teacher in high school was a retired Army general who spent time as a prisoner of war in China. These killings more than half a century later were a dismal indication of how the Himalaya remain crisscrossed by conflict. Most of the history Douglas recounts takes place in the distant past; readers are more likely to come away with images of horse-mounted, spear-wielding warriors than of tanks and nuclear weaponry. Yet the mountains occupy one of the most politically fraught corners of the world, marked by contested borders and roads, and great-power rivalries that are likely to shape international relations for the rest of the century.
For about three and a half decades, Indians and Pakistanis have been fighting—and dying—on the disputed Siachen Glacier. (At some twenty thousand feet, it is often referred to as “the world’s highest battlefield.”) Pakistani and Afghan troops likewise engage in skirmishes along the mountainous Durand Line, which separates their countries; India and Nepal tussle over twenty-one of their twenty-six adjoining districts; and last year, shortly after the Sino-Indian clashes in Ladakh, China laid claim to a swath of territory in Bhutan. Such disputes take place alongside a number of armed insurrections and mini civil wars: in Kashmir, in Tibet, in the province of Balochistan, and in the Terai region in Nepal. Many of these conflicts are the legacy of vaguely or illogically drawn colonial maps, but have been heightened in recent years by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, Xi Jinping visited Nepal, long considered by New Delhi to be within its sphere of influence, and pledged to build a trans-Himalayan railway that would run from Tibet to the Indian border. Partly in response, the United States offered Nepal five hundred million dollars in loans. A Chinese-government spokesperson, in turn, decried America’s “arrogance, prejudice, selfishness, and narrow-mindedness.”
Such geopolitical tensions are intimately linked with another human scourge: the catastrophe of global warming. According to a recent report, more than a third of Himalayan glaciers may melt by the end of the century, even assuming dramatic reductions in global carbon emissions. Without such reductions, the figure is closer to two-thirds. The region’s rivers, which help sustain nearly two billion people and run through at least sixteen countries, could dry up, and the dwindling glaciers are already prompting a rush for control of ecological resources. Sunil Amrith, a professor at Harvard University, has noted that some five hundred dams are currently being built or planned in the region. These projects threaten to displace populations, flood ancient homelands, further jeopardize already endangered species, and heighten rivalries between neighbors.
The unfolding ecological catastrophe on what is often called the planet’s third pole receives considerably less attention than similar disasters playing out on the other two poles. A more familiar image of environmental crisis in the Himalaya is of waste on one particular mountain. Krakauer, among others, vividly described discarded oxygen cylinders and piles of human feces tainting the slopes of Mt. Everest. As always, the tallest peak stands in for the entire range. But, as dispiriting as such reports are, they greatly understate the real problem.
In an upcoming book, “The Next Everest” (St. Martin’s), Jim Davidson, an American mountaineer and an author, in some ways follows in the literary trail blazed by Krakauer. He includes now familiar descriptions of a cosmopolitan tribe of experienced and amateur climbers who gather outside tents and in shared kitchens, equipped with G.P.S. devices, satellite phones, and other accoutrements of their trade. When it comes to the environment, though, Davidson is more sanguine than Krakauer, describing recent efforts by governments and civil-society organizations to clear refuse from Everest.
At the same time, his narrative suggests the sheer scale of the remaining challenges. He provides a gripping account of a series of avalanches on Everest on April 25, 2015, which followed a powerful earthquake in Nepal. Davidson was on the mountain that day as an avalanche swept through base camp and killed at least nineteen people, making it the deadliest recorded incident on those slopes. The earthquake also claimed almost nine thousand lives across the rest of the country.
Although Davidson doesn’t make the point, the disaster was likely exacerbated at least in part by climate change: scientists have been warning for years that warmer temperatures, which disproportionately affect higher altitudes, are loosening snowpacks and weakening glaciers, increasing the risk of avalanches. The impact of global climate change is evident even to casual visitors to the region. On my recent trip to Ladakh, I saw brown and black patches in the distant glaciers, the result, I learned, of a substance known as cryoconite—an accumulation of microbes and dust, soot, and other forms of pollution—which floats in from coal plants and forest fires. The patches are like bruises; they are the toll exacted by the growing human presence on these once sacred peaks.
In “Among the Flowers,” Kincaid and her hiking party, as they descend from the mountains, pass flowering begonia, poinsettia, and datura, and traverse roaring glacier-fuelled streams. They meet a man who, they later find out, will be stripped and robbed by the revolutionaries, and they end up in a village where they sit naked in a river drinking bottles of beer. Kincaid leaves her group and, seeking to relieve her bladder, heads into the empty hills—“somewhere I thought it would be impossible for me to be seen.”
As Kincaid crouches along the river, exposed, she spots a stretch of blue on the other side of the water. She assumes it is part of the landscape: perhaps where water meets sky. But then the water and sky wave at her, and they cheer, and Kincaid realizes that there are villagers on the opposite bank. Their presence has been concealed by the brilliant Himalayan blue. People are everywhere in these mountains; as travellers should have understood from the start, it is wise not to overlook them. ♦
Published in the print edition of the January 25, 2021, issue, with the headline “Top of the World.”
Akash Kapur, is the author of “India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India.” His latest book is “Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia.”