Dodgy dentists. The Dalai Llama. High-altitude polo players. Maoist rebels. Yak herders. Imran Khan.
Just a few of the diverse personalities professional funnyman turned adventure traveller Michael Palin met on his epic 125-day journey across the world’s greatest mountain range, the subject of his most recent book Himalaya.
The former Monty Python member embarked on his sixth expedition in 15 years to be filmed by the BBC on 12 May 2003 at the Khyber Pass, Afghanistan. He and his team reached the final milestone, the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, on 17 April 2004.
As with his previous adventures Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle, Hemmingway Adventure, and Sahara, Palin penned an account of the journey.
The result, Himalaya, is written in the form of a travel diary – a continuous narrative intact except for a few rest days and flights, according to the author – which provides a window in on the day-to-day experiences traversing the 1,800 mile spine of mountains. A journey that would pass through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Tibet, Yunnan (China), Assam and Nagaland, and Bhutan.
Not a bad accomplishment for a geography-loving working class lad from Sheffield, England, whose childhood summer holidays were spent at the not-too-distant southeast seaside town of Norwich.
Throughout the book Palin demonstrates a deft skill in creating a sense of place. His descriptions of the geography, cultures and peoples of the places he visits successfully walks the tightrope of taste, and his narrative thankfully avoids descending into over-the-top gushing reports of his exploits.
Instead, you find a modest account not intent on thrusting the author into the limelight, but which allows the human interactions that take place to reveal more about the realities of life in the mountain range. The geology of which spans deserts, rivers, peaks, and glaciers, and plays home to diverse cultures founded on Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism.
Speaking from his London home, Palin says that both the book and the TV series “were honest” in their portrayal of the adventure.
“We didn’t set things up, we filmed what was really happening, we don’t do multiple takes. We do try to keep it as spontaneous as possible, to give you an idea of what those countries are really like. We’ve done this through the local people, rather than through interviews with lots of politicians.”
Palin writes as he speaks, and both his conversation and narrative are underpinned by a mellow humour, which he uses sparingly to prove a point or make light of a troubling situation rather than cracking one-liners all the way.
His ability to make people laugh must have been a source of relief for his fellow journeymen, especially during a couple of the more major setbacks which occurred.
Apart from the expected problems generated by the realities of traveling one of the word’s harshest climates – bone-shaking jeep rides, non-existent roads, and bureaucratic run-ins – the team had two major problems to deal with.
Whilst visiting a Gurkha recruitment exercise in a remote village Nepal, three of their escort went missing when they were “visited” by Maoist rebels. Not too many days later, as they made the rapid ascent to the Tibetan Plateau, a team member had to be evacuated when he was struck with severe altitude sickness.
Fortunately everyone either turned up safe and sound, or recovered from their illness.
Palin is straight about how his perceptions were affected by these events, resulting in him projecting his feelings on to those around him. “When I am happy, they must be happy. Now I’m suspicious, they must be too. Their expressions give nothing back. They get on with their work and I get on with my insecurities,” he writes, after the Maoist incident.
His most vivid memory of the journey was “the first real view of Himalayas, from Nepal to Tibet. The whole sea of peaks was absolutely mindblowing.” For encounters, the greatest was his 40-minute interview with the Dalai Llama in Dharamsala, India.
Unfortunately this is one point where his narrative falters. Maybe it was better on film, but the interview in the book is underwhelming to be honest and it reveals little more than the fact that the Dalai Llama seems to be a decent chap. The author does scratch the surface on how stage managed events in Dharamsala can be, but fails to dig deeper about the Dalai Llama’s own part in this.
Nevertheless, this is a minor point to be fair, and throughout the rest of the book Palin uses an even hand to shed light on the complex political and cultural realities that he comes face-to-face with.
He intelligently portrays the situations in Tibet, Afghanistan, and Kashmir, and vividly describes the contrasts between the intense poverty and vibrant cultures, dirty wars and high-altitude paradises that make the Himalayas one of the world’s most inspiring destinations.
“They seem to face the situation [the war in Kashmir] with remarkable stoicism,” he writes of the Kashmiris. “I’m back among the mountain people – patient, taciturn, and politely wary of outsiders. Masters of survival.”