The Himalayas exert a pull on Western imagination

Explorers, armies, and tourists over centuries wrought changes to the Tibetan plateau, writes John Keay in “Himālaya: Exploring the Roof of the World.” 

Dar Yasin/AP/File
A Kashmiri villager and his grandson keep a watch over their cattle on the outskirts of Srinagar, India. Set in the Himalayas at 5,600 feet above sea level, Kashmir is a valley surrounded by snow-topped mountains.

Few places in the world remain as wrapped in mystery as the Himalayas, a region of high plateaus and soaring mountain ranges at the heart of Asia.

In “Himālaya: Exploring the Roof of the World,” Scottish historian John Keay introduces us to the European explorers who flocked to the region during the colonial era and beyond. They were lured by a romantic idea of summiting peaks, charting rivers, and encountering novel religious and spiritual practices.

These Westerners ventured into one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth, inhabited by an enticing array of cultures. Over a hundred languages are spoken in the region, which is home to Buddhists and Hindus, as well as Islamic sects and animist groups.

Keay’s account begins over 50 million years ago, when the continental plate bearing India and South Asia collided with the Asian mainland causing a massive uplift 1,500 miles long. The Himalayas are so geologically young that they continue to rise. They are subject to frequent earthquakes, which wipe out entire towns and trigger landslides that change the course of mighty rivers like the Indus and the Brahmaputra overnight.

The range boasts impassable river gorges that dwarf the Grand Canyon, glaciers (in Pakistan’s Karakoram) that are larger than any outside of Greenland and Antarctica, and sky-blue sacred lakes that appear like mirages on the desert steppe. The region has the highest average elevation on the planet, making it uniquely unsuited to human life. Over millennia, Indigenous people have adapted to living in a low-oxygen environment.

Only the hardiest – or most foolhardy – outsiders ventured into the Himalayan hinterlands (an area that Keay calls “the world’s most hostile terrain”) during the early years of exploration in the 19th century. More than any other place on earth, he writes, the Himalayas served as a kind of blank slate upon which the Western world projected its fantasies and ambitions.

Some saw it as a mythic paradise (Shangri-la) populated by happy, long-lived people who had renounced worldly pleasures for the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. The people of Bhutan were “industrious, faithful, hospitable, honest, grateful and brave,” 18th-century Scottish adventurer and diplomat George Bogle effused. Others like the French explorer Alexandra David-Néel became converts to Indigenous religions. David-Néel (the first European woman to enter Lhasa in 1924) wrote “Magic and Mystery in Tibet,” an account of her travels that helped to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the world.

For still others, the enchantment with the Himalayas was less spiritual than physical. Alpine climbers were drawn to conquer the highest peaks on earth. Geographers were fascinated by a place where many of the major features were still unmapped well into the 20th century. American archaeologist John Vincent Bellezza, a research fellow at the University of Virginia who fancied himself a

“Tibetan Indiana Jones,” mounted a number of expeditions in the early 2000s in a mostly fruitless search for lost cities and evidence of great pre-Buddhist civilizations.

“The book may seem as disjointed as the Himalayan skyline,” Keay warns us in the preface. True to his word, the author moves dizzyingly between far-flung fields such as history, plate tectonics, paleontology, and religion. The textbook-like account can seem almost too comprehensive, making for a tedious read in places.

It is also, frustratingly, very much written from an outsider’s viewpoint, focusing on the “exoticism” that Western visitors felt on their initial contact with the inhabitants. There are few Indigenous voices in the book. One would have liked to read more about how the residents of the Himalayas viewed their strange visitors, and the changes Westerners wrought in the lives of Indigenous peoples.
What keeps readers interested is the author’s relish in describing the labyrinthine history of the region, which remained closed to the outside world until the 20th century.

"Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World," by John Keay, Bloomsbury Publishing, 432 pp.

One highlight of the book is Keay’s examination of the massive 1904 Younghusband expedition, an ostensibly diplomatic mission that turned bloody when Tibetans resisted the British incursion. The defenders with their matchlock rifles didn’t stand a chance against machine guns and cannons, and the British marched into Lhasa, after slaughtering hundreds of ill-equipped Tibetans along the way. Ultimately, the British gained little from the campaign beyond securing trading rights and keeping the Russians, who also had designs on Tibet, at bay.

Oddly, given the inhospitable terrain and the limited economic importance of an area whose main exports were wool, salt, and the scent glands of musk deer, the Himalayas have been historically a place where empires have collided, and invaders from Mongols to Maoists have flocked over the centuries. The mountains occupy a strategically critical juncture between India, China, and the Islamic world, where disputed territories are being fought over to this day on what Keay calls “the world’s most elevated battlefield.”

The Chinese invasion in the mid-1950s marked the end of Tibet’s (historically fraught) autonomy. We read that there are more Han Chinese today in Tibet than Tibetans. The Tibetan language and culture are being actively suppressed, and the region’s natural resources exploited.

Recent discoveries of gold and other metals, including vast deposits of uranium, have transformed the Tibetan plateau from an economic backwater to “the Treasure House of the West” (what some in modern-day China call Tibet). Over 100 large-scale mining sites have been identified on recent satellite images. Pristine forests in eastern Tibet are also rapidly being destroyed for timber. And China has already started work on a huge hydroelectric project in the Tsangpo River gorge that will potentially create three times more electricity than the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, and divert Tibetan waters to eastern China.

Keay also bemoans the impact of hordes of climbers and the hundreds of thousands of yearly trekkers on fragile Himalayan ecosystems. Base camps have become garbage dumps, pristine rivers are polluted, and popular trekking routes are being deforested to meet the demands of the soaring numbers of tourists.

The Himalayas are one of the most ecologically important regions on earth, Keay writes. Over a fifth of the world’s population depends on the water flowing from the high Himalayas (“Asia’s great water tower”) for agriculture and power generation. Yet the glaciers are melting fast (more so in the eastern Himalayas than in the west, where they have remained more stable). Continued global warming could lead to massive floods and possible future water shortages in two of the world’s most populous nations, India and China, as well as much of Southeast Asia.

The isolation that once protected the roof of the world from outsiders is a thing of the past. The region is now “hopelessly fragmented ... much disputed over and more environmentally endangered than anywhere,” Keay writes. The world, which has mobilized to save other threatened eco-zones like the Antarctic, needs to do the same now for the Himalayas, he urges at the end of the book.

Keay calls for a global conference to protect the region from future environmental threats. “‘The garden of God’ deserves recognition as somewhere special,” he writes. “It cries out for whatever conservational safeguards can be devised.”

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