Ed douglass quixotic and densely packed history of himalayan peoples is not the book to read if you are looking for an easy contemporary analysis of the china-india confrontation on the roof of the world or the ecological catastrophe in the mountains that give birth to asias great rivers.
The modern-day tale of ngawang sangdrol, a tibetan buddhist nun who was beaten and tortured from the age of 13 by communist party thugs for demonstrating in support of the dalai lama, starkly illustrates beijings failure to understand the inhabitants of the high-altitude territory that mao zedong finally seized for china in 1950.
But her distressing testimony she was eventually released in 2002 and moved to the us is little more than a postscript in the penultimate chapter of himalaya.
By then, douglas has achieved something more valuable than describe current events: he has examined the ancient origins of those events with a scholarly yet entertaining synthesis of hundreds of years of history.
More than a century ago, for example a qing dynasty magistrate called zhao erfeng was responsible for so many atrocities in his drive to assert chinese control over tibet that he earned the nickname butcher zhao.
Sangdrols mini-biography is one of scores that pepper douglass book. he portrays not only nuns and monks but also courtesans, mountaineers, kings, horse-traders, tea merchants, spies, architects, botanists, soldiers and politicians from nepal, bhutan, tibet, sikkim, china, and india as well as from britain, the british raj, america, russia and continental europe.
For douglas, a mountaineer himself and biographer of the sherpa tenzing norgay who first climbed everest with edmund hillary, this book was a labour of love 25 years in the making.
You can detect a slight bias in the weight of his coverage towards the art of mountaineering and also towards the complex history of nepal there must be more detail on political intrigues in kathmandu and gorkha than even the most dedicated nepalese coup-plotter would want to know but douglass enthusiasm for diversions is infectious rather than obstructive.
Among other curiosities, the reader learns that the native habitat of rhubarb is on the fringes of the tibetan plateau and that this staple of fruit crumbles was highly prized in chinese medicine. george everest, the british surveyor who gave his name to the worlds highest mountain (otherwise known as chomolungma or sagarmatha) tartly insisted that his name was pronounced eve-rest not ever-est.
And when scotsman george bogle travelled to tibet in the late 18th century, his meeting with the panchen lama is described as the first meeting between political europe, in the form of a representative of the east india company, and one of the most powerful figures in the spiritual and temporal world of tibet.
If douglas has a political message, it is that the great powers have romanticised, neglected, betrayed or simply misunderstood the himalayan peoples, rashly ignoring knowledge of the region gathered over centuries by the sympathetic traders and pilgrims he lovingly describes.
In the popular european imagination, douglas writes, the geography of the himalaya was often characterised as blank, somewhere to be filled in by the courageous soldiers and explorers writing their own narratives...we are about to walk off the map, george mallory would claim in 1921, on his way to everest. but it wasnt true.
Himalaya: a human history, by ed douglas, vintage, rrp 22.99, 592 pages
Victor mallet is the fts paris bureau chief and author of river of life, river of death: the ganges and indias future
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