Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Little Bit of Lhasa in Liskeard

Like my mum, Liz's loves books and there are always plenty of interesting ones to read when we're visiting. She's particularly into travel writing and there's a small pile of books on the Himalayas and Tibet which I've taken a fancy to. Starting with the most recent and going back...
Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard (1978) is an account of a two-month trek in north-west Nepal, accompanying the field biologist George Schaller. Schaller's purpose was to study the Blue Sheep (well, it is cold in those parts); Matthiessen's was less clear, but was partly to visit an extremely remote monastery (which was closed), meditate and 'find himself' - an elusiveness of being that chimes with the wild cat of the title - rarely seen, almost mythical. There's lots of musings on Buddhism, but the beauty of it for me were the descriptions of the hike itself, which reminded me of Liz and my much shorter trek a bit further east, 20 years ago. 
Maurice Herzog's Annapurna (1951) is set a few valleys away and tells how a French expedition was the first to climb an 8,000m peak, three years before Hilary & Tensing conquered Everest. It came at a price however, with Herzog and his partner losing fingers and toes to frostbite on the way down. Herzog died only a few months ago, aged 93.
Alexandra David Neel's Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929) is an astonishing book, if it wasn't so badly written. Born in Paris in 1868, by 18 she had visited England, Switzerland and Spain on her own; she then travelled to India, sang opera in Vietnam, got married in Tunisia, lived in a cave in Sikkim for two years, took up with a young monk (whom she later adopted) and famously was the first western woman to set foot in Lhasa in 1924. She lived to the ripe old age of 100. I'd tried to read this a few years ago when, bizarrely, I spotted a first edition in our local library in Bangkok, but hadn't got on with it. Tried it again, in a new edition, but against all the odds it was still boring.
And finally, most obscure of all, is Philip Caraman's Tibet: the Jesuit Century (1997) which chronicles the independent explorations of seven Jesuit monks between 1614-1721. Actually, they didn't all go to Tibet, some went to what are now Nepal, Bhutan and the remotest parts of China, but certainly they were the first Europeans in this neck of the woods. (Marco Polo, if he went to China at all, took the Silk Route, north of Tibet). If the escapades of the three above authors was tough, spare a thought for the Jesuits whose hardships must have been unimaginable.  


  1. I believe there is some doubt about how true David-Neel's account is. Read it years ago - no, not the most exciting book. Thinking about it, I was with you in Bangkok when you found it!
    Have also read Matthiessen's book.

  2. Yes, I seem to recall that (a bit like Slavomir Rawicz's Long Walk), and yes you were there in that Bangkok library!