Michael Palin, Basil Pao (Photographer)
Michael Palin’s amazing journey across the whole length of the Himalayas, beginning in Pakistan and ending in what was once known as East Pakistan, and covering on the way India, Nepal, Tibet, a small part of China, and Bhutan. What really comes through is the range of perspectives the author gains and shares with us through the journey itself, but more importantly, through the people he meets.
Isolated tribes beyond Peshawar who would seem to be living in a different era altogether, the dangerous sports they indulge in, probably a minor sport compared to the inherent dangers of their frontier life, the second highest mountain in the world that intimidates by its sheer presence, the first glimpse of a river that spawned a civilisation, the fading yet glorious remnants of Mughal architecture in Lahore, the current power that resides in Rawalpindi, the modern planned fusion architecture in Islamabad and meeting with Imran Khan all give us a peek into what makes Pakistan.
The influence of Tibet and Buddhism in Mcleodganj, a meeting with the pragmatic spiritual leader – the Dalai Lama, the beauty of Dal Lake where an aging houseboat owner tries to keep everything afloat (literally too), a sense of peace that the beauty of the place provides even while being a hotbed of violence, Ladakh, the famous roadsigns (Better Mr.Late than Late Mr.) and Thikse monastery – before he leaves for Nepal.
The chill of being present when a person is abducted by the dreaded Maoists in Nepal, spending time with a man who has scaled Everest twice! (the second time napping on the summit while his team caught up with him), a chopper ride that offers a glimpse of how civilisations have grown, realising the cultural difference in viewing death, on the banks of a river and on to Tibet.
The Everest base camp and hearing the stories of Mallory for the first time, the slow conversion of Lhasa into a state sponsored tourist attraction, while simultaneously encouraging the dominance of Chinese culture. Into China proper – a matrilineal society in Yunnan, with the face being an ex-model who found fame across the globe, Naxi music and a touch of the supernatural in Lijiang, an earthquake prone area which is trying to balance modernity and old ways of life, packaged minorities (with imported faux actors) and a village where you can keep one leg in Burma and one in China.
Nagas comfortably living as Christians. A duo traveling on a train in Digboi – one, the offspring of a sahib and a teaplanter and the other, the granddaughter of the sahib’s sister. A celibate sect devoted to Vishnu with an all male Ramlila cast.
Bhutan and its unique Gross National Happiness index, where a king tries to pace the steps towards modernity in a country which is still in ‘unison with the earth’.
The ship breaking industry at Chittagong that’s on a slow decline, the pragmatic acceptance of bribes, the crowded Dhaka and its secular brand of Islam, a steamer ride towards the Sunderbans and a final adventure as part of filming a sunset.
These are a few of the many instances and places in a book that spans 125 days of travel. Sometimes the author comes across scenarios – places and cultures that have remained unchanged for centuries, even as the world outside moves at a dizzy pace. The diary style of writing gives you a feel of traveling with the author, the photographs helping us visualise the people and the places, and the musings helping us go beyond the actual chronicling. A very good read!