Magazine article Geographical

White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas

Magazine article Geographical

White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas

Article excerpt

WHITE MOUNTAIN: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas

by Robert Twigger; Weidenfeld and Nicolson; 20 [pounds sterling] (hardback)

'My plan, such as it was, was to try and work out what was "special" about the Himalayas. This would require both historical research and some tramping around.' So writes Robert Twigger at the outset of his thoroughly entertaining new book. In order to discover 'why for centuries man had hurled himself at this huge rocky spine,' Twigger dispenses with a conventional narrative and wanders here and there, through space and time. You'll either regard this as a bold experiment in literary collage, or as an undisciplined muddle. Either way, the stories are so fabulous that it doesn't matter.

Alongside predictable tales of yetis, Tibetan death rituals, and a good many mountaineers, Twigger offers potted accounts of more curious chapters in the region's history. He is excellent on the beautiful mythologies inspired by the Himalayas and the sections on the ancient past are full of surprises. Oh to have been a spectator when, so the legends tell, rival monks engaged in contests of spiritual mastery and goaded each other with boasts of their deeds: one of them behaving, as Twigger puts it, 'like an egoistic rapper'.

Highlights from more recent times include Twigger's portraits of Rene von Nebesky-Wojkowitz, the scholar from Vienna University who delved deeply into the history of Tibetan demonism, and Ekai Kawaguchi who made it to Lhasa in 1902 in search of Buddhist scriptures: Twigger describes him as 'one of the world's most unlikely explorers' but 'the equal of any of them'.

The volume's tone is one of wonderment and open-mindedness. Twigger aims to set aside 'metro-sceptical' attitudes and allow space for a little magic: appropriate enough in a place which encourages one to leave the 'leaden, prosaic world behind.' The volume's structure Is deliberately chaotic. Whenever Twigger bumps into an idea he feels free to explore it and the range of topics is wide: from geological formation to religiosity, from the selection processes for a Dalai Lama to the troublesome antics of Nazis testing out their theories of race by measuring the heads of the Himalayan peoples. …

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