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With a choice of 8 gateways. And connection to 200 cities beyond - старонка 18

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A.Prasad is a writer and lawyer and lives In Katimpong,

Jul/Aug 1994 H1MAL . 43






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When the

travel bug bites,

first buy

a guide book,

or buy them all

A review of

travel tomes.

, Gyatso Village,

^^\\^0>w$a Wiport to Lhasa introduces-youfb /fa ^to^aMimoTi-macte cctouts you M mcountet during vourstoy:

^VteKwHweitot teige mountains which stand In shaip contrast to ffie



Writings in Monochrome


by Charles Ramble


T
he preface to Donald Maclntyre's Hindu-Koh: Wanderings and Wild Sport on andbeyondHimaUtyas, opens with a curious apology: "The subject of Himalayan travel and sport is now so old a story, that art attempt to create further interest in it is an almost hopeless undertaking". That was in 1889. The author was writing even before the spate of publications on Tibet that was to follow theYounghusband expedition little more than a decade later. Travel books about the Himalaya in those days had the burden of rousing from cold the interest of armchair adventurers who had little hope of seeing these exotica for themselves. The recent reprinting of the book (New Delhi, AES, 1993) is perhaps justified by the grim truth that the subject is again hopelessly exotic: no long because readers cannot afford the passage, but because the fairyland of forest and steppe with wall-to-wall big game has gone for ever. Books about Himalayan travel for those who don't go there are still written, but they're not about hunting. One of the commonest idioms nowadays is the Inner Journey, also known as the Voyage of Self-Discovery, that is conspicuous in

varying concentrations in numerous books and magazine articles. For the Himalayan region, the genre may have been pioneered by Peter Matthiesen's The Snow Leopard. The quality of this kind of writing naturally varies considerably,but the prevailing idea is that of the physical journey as a metaphor for coming to terms with private affliction. Self-discovery seems to be resonant with the spirit of the Himalaya. Hindu literature (written, for the most part, by people who lived in the plains) speaks lushly of the Abode of Snows. Tibetan travelogues, in the form of pilgrims' autobiographies, tend to be more prosaic. Typically, the roads are long and difficult, and the hard-pressed writer has to cross many miserable passes to reach squalid villages only to be set upon by bandits and bitten by big dogs. But here, too, nature is vulnerable to revelation, Allsacredmountainsareshorn by visionary pilgrims of their individual character and reduced to much the same crystal stupa roofed with rainbow tents and ringed by divinities who mass there like clouds.

Western writers on the Himalaya are not usually given to 'visions, but the

tendency to transcendence is still there. At worst, the place is flattened to two dimensions, and the Himalaya becomes an exotic wallpaper where the writer hang sasequenceof monochrome portraits of his own soul. It all depends on how if s done, of course. Agony is readable only when it's crafted, and simply setting it in the finest scenery in the world is no substitute for skill. Flaubert said something like that in a letter to one of his mistresses: "Do not imagine you can exorcise what oppresses you in life by giving vent to it in art. No. The heart's dross does not find if s way onto paper. All you pour out there is ink."

Flaubert would have liked F. Kingdon Ward. Ward was a man who knew how to handle ink, and if there was anything that oppressed him in life he had the decency not to write about it. In fact, all he seems to have cared about were rhododendrons and meconopsis poppies, and it's a clear testimony to a writer's talent that he can distill the subject of collecting seed-pods into a page-turner. Plant Hunting on the Edge of the World (1930) is one of several of his books that were reprinted in the 1980s. Part of his

44 HIMAL . Jul/Aug 1994

secret may be a rare gift for saying appalling thirtgsabout places and people

- when he bothers to mention them at all

— without sounding peevish, and
somehow conveying the assurance of
being someone utterly devoid of malice.
Nor is it just a question of making
allowances for a writer who lived in the
Dark Ages of political correctness. Ward's
approximate contemporary, F.W. Bailey
(No Passport to Tibet) who travelled in
much the same area, makes for uneasy
reading by comparison.

So what is being written today by the successors of these early wanderers? Travel books about the Himalaya arenow legion, and cover a range of genres, from scholarly journeys over a vast terrain (notably David Snellgrove's Himalayan Pilgrimage, deservedly reprinted by Shambhalainl989)toglossypictographic cameos of one high valley or another. A minimal conspectus of travel-writingover the whole Himalaya would fill more space than any sensible editor would care to cede, so where should one focus? Guidebooks have proliferated faster than any other breed, and Nepal has undoubtedly spawned more such literature than any other Himalayan area. It might be hard to cover everything even within this narrowed field, but given the abundance of the material it would be equally perverse to begin anywhere else.

Them and Us

So let's imagine that the works of Maclntyreand Ward and others of that ilk had achieved theiraim of inspiring interest in the Himalaya, and that we are living in the present day when access presents few problems. And let's imagine a duly inspired but clueless Anglophone couple arriving in Kathmandu and gravitating towards the nearest bookshop in search of something that doesn't merely inspire but informs. They will be staggered to find more than a dozen books offering to guide them through various parts of Nepal. Which should they buy? As they begin to leaf through the display, considering (let's say) only English language publications since 1990, perhaps we can look over their shoulders...

Unlike Maclntyre, writers of guide books don't have the task of stimulating the reading public's interest in an area. They merely have to feed it. Coffee-table books form the vanguard nowadays. However, one of their major concerns

must be to balance the quantity of information that needs to be put across against the absorptive capacity of the reader. Only a well-established reputation for excellence can let a guide book get away with didacticism, as in the case of France's merciless Guides Bleues, For the rest, compilers have to remember that we're on holiday and are liable to rebel against anything too redolent of education. Nor surprisingly then, most guides have a tabloid ethos that helps the stuff go down with a variety of sweeteners and cosmetic devices.

The blurb on the back of Nepal, the Rough Guide (second edition, 1993), ad vertises its subject as "themost complete travel handbook" for the country, which is only slightly more modest than the claim of the first edition to be "the only complete handbook". If completeness is measured in terms of the quantity of subjects covered, the obvious casualty is



Prakash A.Raj: he has the best bargain.

detail. The treks are necessarily trimmed to highlights, but do at least enable first-Hme travellers to narrow their focus onto a suitable region. Generally, the book adopts the Briefing-for-a-Descent-into-Hell approach to guidebook writing, with the author firmly on the side of a reader apprehensive about acquiring disgusting diseases and walking into the mantraps of mortifying cul rural gaffes. But therange of information is indeed impressive, even more so than in thecase of its predecessor, and if the same misquotation of Kipling is in there, I didn't seek. The presentation of the material is imaginitive, and the style of the author, David Reed, has a cutting edge that is unusual in this kind of writing. A book that badly rjeeds — and deserves -- an updated edition is Kerry Moran's Nepal Handbook (Moon Publications,1991). Moran's greater

osmotic familiarity with the country is evident not just from its rich content but also in the omissions of national pecadilloes (stone-throwing children, open sewers, incompetent bureaucrats and suchlike featured in the Rough Guide) that familiarity renders invisible. She's already more Them than Us, but the journalistic professionalism that tackles the complexities of thecountry restore the reader's confidence.

Ifourprospective purchasers, having budgeted their trip on the basis of prices quoted in a superannuated guide find themselves strapped for cash while seeking something more up-to-date, they should certainly go for Prakash A. Raj's Kathmandu and the Kingdom of Nepal (Nabeen Publications, 1993), at Rs. 240 the bestbargainon the wholeshelf. Now in its eleventh edition, the book served for five incarnations as the Lonely Planet Guide. One of its agreeable features is the inclusion of extracts from correspondents' tetters. Most are anodyne, a few salutory, but they contribute to a general user-friendliness.

The current Lonely Planet guide, Nepal, a Travel Survizml Kit (1993), retails at nearly Rs. 800, something that may tilt a potential buyer in favour of its nearest rival, the modestly-pricedRoHgJi Guide. It calls Newars Newaris, derives Tamang from horse trader, defines Bon as "the animist religion of Tibet prior to Buddhism" (but then so does everyone else), and gets Bhot and Bhote the wrong way round in the glossary (though not in the text). Detailed trekking information is limited to Helambu, Khumbu, and Annapurna. Six other areas are potted in a few lines each. But these are quibbles, andit'shardtofindsomethingunpleasant to say about the book: the sheer quantity of information it provides,fromtheserious tothefrivolous,itssensibleadvice,andits agreeable presentation, make it arguably the best guide in the market.

Trekkers and Sahibs

Having solved the problem of their survival, the shoppers may well want to expand their knowledge of subjects that receive cursory treatment in these all-purpose guides. For trekking, they would do well to stay with the stalwarts ( Stan Armington, Hugh Swift and the excellent Stephen Bezruchka), although they'd enjoy O'Connor's Adventure Trekking in Nepal. The proportion of other kinds of

Jul/Aug 1994 HIMAL . 45

supplementary material varies a fair amount from one book to another. Some are basically survival manuals with guest appearances by various specialists. The Trav Bugs guide (1992) is a nice com­pilation with contributions on a variety of subjects. Information in the main text is sometimes a trifle shaky: for example, the passage on caste in Nepal is actually a rather abstract summary of varna in India; Rara was not the first national park, created in 1956 {it was actually gazetted in 1976), and Kawaguchi was not the first foreigner to visit Bodnath. Captions to photos sometimes evoke visions of an exhausted editorial crew labouring into the small hours to meet a printer's deadline. A very lovely portrait of a purple-robed woman, worthy of Gauguin, is a "dark-skinned Nepalese beauty". But these observations shouldn't deflect us from buying what is generally an agree­ably written and well illustrated book.

Survival tactics are relegated to the small print in the Insight Guide; Nepal, a book intended less for guerilla tourists than for travellers of officer class. It's bigger, designed to be kept in an Antler suitcase rather than the thigh pocket of a pair of combat fatigues. Probably the best in this particular sub-genre. (Insight have incidentally brought out two pocket guides, slenderer volumes but still for pretty deep pockets: Txbei, Lhasa-Kathmandu by Steve van Beek, and Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong, by Wendy Brewer Lama. Both are well researched and competently written, but the Have-a-Nice-Day prefaces and other gadgetry take reader-friendliness to the threshold of invalid care.

Since we've parenthetically crossed theborder north of Nepal, if sworthnoting thatthere area number of more substantial guides to Tibet. Gary McCue's Trekking in Tibet (The Mountaineers, 1991) has justly enjoyed considerable success since its

appearance. This might also be an appropriate place to welcome onto the bookshelves Vi ctorChan's Tibet Handbook (Moon Publications, 1994). A -damned thick square book, as the Duke of Gl oucester once remarked to Gibbon, the Handbook underwent a disturbingly long period of gestation that earned it the nickname of the Grey Annals. If s pleasing to see that the end resul thas nothing grey about it. The mixture of conventions used for rendering Tibetan names mightirritate some readers, but on the whole theauthor and his editor must be congratulated for hewingan extraordinary massof material down in toa crisp,relatively slender eleven hundred pages.

Nepal (Nelles Guides, 1990), edited by Susanne von der Heide, is rather unusual as far as guide books go in that it delegates the major topics to experts in the appropriate fields. The main essays are supplemented by a number of cameo entri es on a wid e range of topics, including an incisive little piece on art theft by Axel Michaels. While readers will certainly learn a great deal from it they may be irked by the large number of typos - again, perhaps, a symptom of editorial fatigue, since the work was translated from German. (And incidentally, the photo on page 201 is of a forest leopard, not of a snow leopard.) Butif we're relaxed enough to overlook these slips, the book is worth buying asa well-balanced combination of popular and scholarly writing.

A few other works on particular areas of the country are worth a mention. Trekking in the Everest Region by Jami McGuinness would be a good choice for anyone planning on going to Khumbu. Pedants they might wish that, instead of suggesting a spectrum of possible meanings harvested from uninformed sources about the etymologies of Sagarmatha and Qomolongma (or however you want to render it; Jo-mo

glang-ma in Tibetan), the author had simply got someone to look the names up in the relevant dictionaries. One of the many pleasant features of the book is the brief history of early attempts on peaks in the area: the portrait of Tichy smoking his way to the top of Cho Oyu with his two companions, one suffering from sciatica and the other under par from having once been shot through the lung, is a gem.

For adventurous spirits without the time or energy to trek in the mountains, AimickHoM'sKathmandu,theHiddenCity, will be a handy little companion. It's something like one of those computer games thatlead you throughdingy vaults to glittering prizes in marble palaces, except that the prizes here are the hidden details of the dungeons themselves. {The fact that the author is an experienced potholer may notbeentirely coincidental.) The impression is enhanced by the Macintosh graphics-pro gramme maps and the Image-writer print; one half-expects to be confronted by a sword-waving dwarpala in the next bahal. The only problem is that there's not enough of it. A short introduction, and more information about selected places would have been a useful prophylaxis against readers setting out on the proposed itineraries armed with the oeuvre of John KXocke and Mary Slusser. Let's hope for a bolder second edition.

We could go on,butthafs probably enough to keep our bewildered visitors busy for a while. If s just as well they heard about the recent reduction in visa fees and decided not to remain mere armchair travellers: a couple of months ago they could haveasked a friend to buy them everything on the Nepal list for the equivalent of a week's visa and still have had change left over for a year's subscription to Himal,

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