5 classic Himalayan reads

Tsemo Gompa, Leh | Richard I'Anson
Tsemo Gompa, Leh | Richard I'Anson

The Himalaya have long been a source of inspiration for the armchair traveller. Whether undertaking a pilgrimage deep in the mountains of Kashmir, exploring high and remote passes beneath the mighty snow-capped peaks or wandering the borderlands of the vast Tibetan plateau in search of the elusive snow leopard, all were compelling reasons that drew our own Indian Himalaya expert and veteran trekker Garry Weare to Kashmir nearly 50 years ago. 

Long before the National Geographic Channel and countless internet influencers, it was the inspiring narrative and vivid imagery of acclaimed authors that captured the imagination of the traveller. Below, Garry lists five of his favourite reads that led him to embark on a life of adventure.

 

That Untravelled World - Eric Shipton 

Huddersfield Public Library, Yorkshire, October 1973. Two months after returning from leading my first trek in Kashmir I was at a personal cross-roads. I was torn between a career as a third rate academic and finding the means (and confidence)  to forge a life organising treks in the Himalaya. 

Heading to the travel section of the public library a title caught my eye  That Untravelled World by Eric Shipton. What a pretentious title I thought, but as I flicked through the chapter headings I began to appreciate the wonder of a life devoted to adventure. His expeditions to East Africa, Patagonia, Kashgar, the Karakoram and the Garhwal Himalaya read like a boys own annual. While hailed as one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers he takes his resignation of the joint leadership on the British Everest expedition in 1953 in his stride. 

While more than mindful of my limited experiences I made my mind up there and then that the teaching profession was not for me. 

In between leading treks I still flick through my well used copy of the book. It still brings back truly inspiring memories.

Eric Shipton: That Untravelled World

 

An Area of Darkness - V.S. Naipaul 

When planning my first trip to India I made up my mind to visit Kashmir and join the 25,000 Hindu pilgrims trekking to the Amarnath Cave. The pilgrimage is undertaken during the July/August full moon when Lord Shiva is said to have related his theory of reincarnation to his consort Parvati. An Area of Darkness was my required reading for my indeed journey including the chapter where Naipaul describes the final approach to the Cave. He said later that this passage was  an example of his finest writing. Here was a mountain, there a valley and a river; the geography of these ranges was simple, easily grasped. But one had brought them to the scale of a smaller managed world, and it was only at times like these, seeing a line of men swiftly diminished within what seemed a small space that one realised what distances these Himalayas held. 

In the late 1970’s early 1980’s I regularly returned to the Cave. This time a group of Australian trekkers accompanied me. For the groups the pilgrimage offered an unrivalled opportunity to witness this sheer mass of humanity ascending trails leading deep into the Kashmir Himalaya. 

V.S. Naipaul: An Area of Darkness

 

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen 

The Trans Himalaya regions of Nepal and Ladakh have also held a special place for me. This includes the remote region of Dolpo that was only opened to trekkers in 1991. Peter Mathieson’s The Snow Leopard is far more than a travelogue. The author trekked to Dolpo with the renowned wildlife expert George Schaller. For Schaller it was a search for the elusive cat while for Mathieson it was a spiritual search undertaken shortly after his wife died of cancer. A journey that explored the profound teachings of an ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture that underpinned Dolpo’s cultural history.

However Matthiessen did create an impression that the odds of seeing a snow leopard is on par with winning the lottery. This is not the case. In Ladakh which is often described as the snow leopard capital of the world there are regular sightings each year. I will be taking my next group to Ladakh in February 2022. It’s a specially devised trip with a more than even chance of seeing a snow leopard while providing much needed  support to the snow leopard conservancy in Ladakh.

Peter Matthiessen: The Snow Leopard
 

 

Where Men and Mountains Meet – John Keay

January 1981. I was flying to Hobart to give a talk on the delights of trekking in Kashmir and Ladakh. Each year I became more confident with my talks as I acquired greater insights into the rich cultural history that my treks offered. On the flight I settled into reading Where Men and Mountains Meet written by John Keay, a Scottish historian who set the benchmark on the exploration of the West Himalaya in the 19th century. 

To say I was impressed was an understatement. His writing reflected years of painstaking research that focused not just on the history but also on the remarkable personalities that made their mark on Himalayan exploration. John Keay’s books helped me immensely with my Lonely Planet guide Trekking in the Indian Himalaya as well as my Long Walk in the Himalaya – from the Ganges to Kashmir, and more recently my historical narrative Kashmir: A Journey through History

 

John Keay: When Men & Mountains Meet
 

Wild Hearts, Wild Places – Allen Smutylo 

The vast Tibetan borderlands are the home of the Changpa nomads, the original inhabitants of Ladakh who have roamed this wild and remote landscape for the best part of 2,000 years. Until a generation ago the Changpa’s lifestyle had not changed significantly. They still migrated across the vast windswept plateau following time honoured trails in search of grazing for their huge herds of goats which provide the fine wool for the famous pashmina shawls. It is a lifestyle that Allen Smutylo portrayed after many years accompanying the Changpa on their seasonal migration. Wild Hearts, Wild Places includes incredible images of the migration. Yet these are not photographic images. Smutylo is a highly regarded Canadian artist whose paintings capture the essence of this wild and remote region

I have also regularly led treks that visit the Changpa nomads encamped in the vicinity of Tso Moriri, the high altitude lake on the borderlands of Tibet. No doubt, Wild Hearts, Wild Places will inspire you to visit their homeland too. 

Allen Smutylo: Wild Places, Wild Hearts
 

What travel literature are you reading at the moment? Share your favourites below with our community.

 

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