Book: Walking the Himalayas with Levison Wood

Walking the Himalayas
by Levison Wood 

Hodder & Houghton (2016)

So long as you’re not armed and come in peace, you’re willing to adopt local customs with sensitivity to culture and tradition and try not to judge too much – however tempting – you’ll generally be fine.

This is the second published expedition from former Parachute Regiment officer, Levison Wood.  His first, Walking the Nile, which was inspired by 19th century explorers such as Burton, Speke, Livingston, recounted his 2013/4 expedition walking the entire length of the Nile of 4,250 miles from from Rwanda to the Mediterranean and was commissioned as a documentary for Channel 4 in the UK.

In 2015, after a restless period in London, Wood decided its was time for another expedition and in 2015 he set out to walk over 1700 miles traversing the Himalayas, beginning in June in the west in the Wakhan Corridor, a finger of land separating Tajikistan from Pakistan in north eastern Afghanistan, and ending in the east in the kingdom of Bhutan in November.

This expedition was again commissioned as a documentary for television and the whole series is available to watch here on Channel 4.

The book however makes more than just an excellent companion and captures much more of the experience of Wood’s epic journey than a few short TV episodes ever could (good as the series is).  

It has more background and takes three or so chapters before the walk begins proper.  But, that enables Wood to relive a youthful backpacking trip during which he met one of his guides, Binod and also time to talk us through his frustration at finding himself back in London after walking the Nile.   We learn a bit more abut him and what motivates and inspires him and he sufficiently conveys his boredom as he reorganises his extensive travel library thematically and whiles away his time in Gordon’s wine bar in Charing Cross.

Having fixed on the region, Wood decides that, rather than breaking records or climbing mountains, he will use the opportunity to explore on foot the foothills and lower mountains of the Himalayas: 

For me it was the people I encountered that attracted me to travel.  And travelling on foot is the only way to explore the backcountry and villages that are hidden from the main trails and roads.  it is also the way people have travelled in these regions for millennia and there seems to be a common bond between pedestrians everywhere. The physical hardships, the risks, the user vulnerability mean that on the whole you will be looked upon as a fellow human being rather than a foreigner or, worse, a tourist.”

Wood is a great travel companion.  He is knowledgeable and informative on the region and its history having visited most of the places previously but is unpretentious with an easy manner.   He takes the journey’s difficulties in his stride (and despite being at relatively lower altitudes for the Himalayas, there were plenty.)  

Its about the journey, its about the people that you meet and its about sharing those experiences.

The personal, whether the characters he meets, people who join him for parts of the walk or about what Wood reveals of himself, are at the heart of this journey and make it one worth accompanying him on.  As you’d expect, he meets a wide variety of people and, while he approaches those he meets with openness, he has a healthy scepticism rather than a wide eyed naivety, which is refreshing.  

London’s travel bookshop, Stanford’s held an event with Levison Wood in February 2016 and is available as a podcast on iTunes via their blog on the Stanford’s website. (sorry, can’t figure out to how to embed it here.) Worth a listen (32 mins plus 15mins Q&A) to get a good sense both of Levison Wood and of the trip. 

Find out a bit more about Levinson Wood, his trek and explorer heartthrob status here in the Telegraph, here in Stuff magazine, here in the Stoke Sentinel, Wood’s local paper (as well as here and here).  You can also always try  Walking the Himalayas as an audiobook narrated by Levison Wood on a free trial from audible.com:

Book: Hopkirk – Foreign Devils on the Silk Road

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk John Murray

Among the oasis dwellers of the Taklamakan, strange legends of ancient towns lying buried beneath the sands had been passed down from grandfather to grandson for as long as anyone could remember.

Peter Hopkirk wrote several books about Central Asia, focussing on what Richard Bernstein of the New York Times called “the confrontation of Eastern exoticism with Western Imperial ambition” and has “made a career out of the historical adventures of Europeans in Central and South Asia.”

Hopkirk passed away last year, age 83, and in its obituary (reproduced on the Marlburian Club website), The Times newspaper paid tribute by noting that “Hopkirk was no armchair historian. He was an intrepid traveler who adeptly shrugged off the region’s ever-watchful authorities to piece together his rip-roaring histories.”  So, even though Foreign Devils is strictly more history than travel it nonetheless deserves inclusion; Hopkirk travelled widely in the regions about which he writes and brings the tales to life using contemporary travel narratives.

Foreign Devils was published in 1980 and was the first of Hopkirk’s six books about Central Asia. It recounts the explorations and adventures of British, Swedish German, French, American and Japanese archaeologists in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang province in modern China) at the end of the 19th and first part of the 20th century.

These archaeologists were searching for the cities, monasteries, grottos and stupas which had grown up along the Silk Road during its first 800 or so years from the time of the Han dynasty.  An immense network of trade routes stretching thousands of miles between the Mediterranean and China along which precious goods such as silk, gold and ivory were carried, the Silk Road gave birth to many oasis towns.  Ideas, as well as goods were carried along the Silk Road, including Buddhism which spread along the trade routes from North West India, over the mountain passes and into Central Asia where it flourished and with it, art and learning.

However, as trade along the Silk Road declined, so too did its oasis cities and over the years, they fell into obscurity and ruin.

Their imagination fired by the accounts of Chinese travellers such as Fu-Hsien in the 5th century and 7th century monk Hsuan-tsang, these predominantly European archaeologists and explorers set off to re-discover cities which had been lost for centuries and lay buried in Central Asia’s desert sands.  Hopkirk traces the passions, obsessions and adventures adventures of Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, Albert Von Le Coq, Paul Pelliott, Langdon Lownes and Japan’s Count Otani as they set out at great personal risk and raced one another to redicover hidden Buddhist cities.  

The focus of their efforts was the vast Taklamakan desert which Sven Hedin called “the worst and most dangerous desert in the world” and access to which access is restricted on three sides by mountains (Tian Shan to the north, the Pamir to the west, and the Karakoram and Kun Lun to the south) and by the Lop and Gobi deserts on the fourth. 

In an engaging, exciting and interesting read, Hopkirk tells of the treasures that they found and how literally tonnes of manuscripts, frescoes and statues were removed before the Chinese authorities finally put a stop to the removal of antiquities.
This books is the perfect introduction to a remote and difficult to visit area and Hopkirk includes general introductions to the Silk Road and the cities of the Taklamakan; which is useful, if like me, you have no previous knowledge and the region is a bit of a blank on the map.   This book brings the region to life.

Foreign Devils left me longing to drop everything and head straight out of the door in Hopkirk’s footsteps to see the region for myself and wanting to read more about the area and its history.  Fortunately, many of the first hand accounts on which Hopkirk’s book is based are available online for free in a variety of formats, for example, those by Sven Hedin (Through Asia, volume 1 and volume 2) and Sir Aurel Stein (Sand Buried Ruins of Khotan).

Book: Overland to Singpore by Landrover, Tim Slessor

First Overland SlessorFirst Overland: London – Singapore by Landrover by Tim Slessor
Signal Books Ltd, 2005

 

 The good road ended like all good roads do
In 1955, six Oxford and Cambridge graduates, confident “almost to the point of arrogance” set out on an 18,000 mile journey from London to Singapore which lasted just over 6 months.
Styling themselves the The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition (only one of the team was in fact an Oxford graduate), they set off in two factory fresh vehicles provided by Landrover, with money sufficient to buy a clockwork camera and some film provided by the BBC (thanks to Sir David Attenborough, producer in charge of he BBC’s Exploration Unit at the time) and sponsorship from 8 other firms (including a distiller, cigarette manufacturer and Brook Bond tea).
They went because they wanted to, explains Tim Slessor in his preface.  Although he is not drawn into trying to explain or justify the expedition more deeply he points out that their motives were not simply superficial.  No doubt with 6 participants there were a variety of reasons and motives but they could hardly be blamed if the opportunity to turn names on maps into places they had seen and to undertake an epic overland journey not previously completed were not reasons enough.
The film Sir David Attenborough provided them with was put to good use and was turned into three programmes broadcast on the BBC after the expedition returned.  Surviving  footage gives a glimpse of the expedition:
It is hard not too look at the footage and see that, in many respects they travelled through a different world.  Two years before they set off, Hilary and Tensing had summited Everest.  Only months after they completed their outward journey, Nasser had renationalised the Suez Canal and by the time they had returned home, Britain had launched its invasion of Egypt.  Within another couple of years Lebanon and Iraq were both engulfed by civil war.
Making their the post war period, they witnessed the closing  They are assisted on their way by representatives of the Brook Bond tea company  Within months of  different to a world As they prepare in Calcutta and set off from Assam into Burma along the Stilwell road and into naga territory there is a sense of the real adventure beginning, recalling the importance of the area in WWII as they listened to radio reports when they wee young and heads no doubt full of reports if Hunt/Hillary Everest expedition they call their last stop in India ‘base camp’ and in their last telegram home before setting off use a code word in the manner of James Morris reporting to london that Hilary had successfully conquered Everests summit.

 

 

 

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Book: Barbara Greene, Too Late to Turn Back

Too Late to Turn Back, Barbara GreeneLate to Turn Back: Barbara and Graham Greene in Liberia
by Barbara Greene (with an introduction by Paul Theroux)

published by the Travel Library

Too Late to Turn Back (also published as Land Benighted) is Barbara Greene’s account of her trek with her cousin, Graham Greene, through the Liberian bush in 1935.

From that adventure, Graham Greene produced Journey Without Maps.  Barbara’s account, to borrow from Paul Theroux, is however “quite a different pair of shoes”.

The difference between Graham and Barbara’s accounts can be characterised by the books they took with them to Liberia.  While Graham took Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and produced the darker more introspective Journey Without Maps, Barbara travelled with Saki and Somerset Maugham and produced a more accessible, vivacious travelogue.

While Too Late to Turn Back is considered valuable as a companion piece to Journey Without Maps and as a portrait of Graham Greene, there is, along side the self-effacement and modesty of its author, much more to Too Late to Turn Back.

Barbara Greene was 23 years old when, having been “merrily drinking champagne”, she met her cousin Graham at the wedding reception of Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) (Although this article suggests that Barbara may have disguised her real age).

Greene’s plans for his Liberian adventure were already well advanced and, because everyone else had refused, Greene asked his cousin Barbara if she would accompany him. Barbara promptly agreed although she “had no clear idea of where he was going to”.

Both Graham and Barbara were later to recall the rashness of their decision to travel to Liberia.  Barbara described them both as being “two innocents” whose “ignorance was abysmal”.  Regretting her “champagne decision”, Barbara hoped her father would forbid her from making the journey but, to her surprise, found that he approved and so, within a fortnight, they were on their way.

As Barbara later acknowledged, it was “unusual then for young girls to adventure off into the wilds”, but “adventure off” she did and what follows in Too Late to Turn Back is the account of a young woman from a privileged existence who had admitted to enjoying her creature comforts roughing it through the African bush.  

As a travelling companion, Graham Greene was complimentary about Barbara, describing her in Ways of Escape as being “as good a companion as the circumstances allowed”.  He also recalled that she left all the decisions to him and never criticised when he made the wrong one.  An arduous journey is likely to strain even the closest of relationships of friendships and theirs was no exception.  Graham noted that, towards the end of the trip they would “lapse into long silences” but found this “infinitely preferable” to raised voices.  Barbara recalled many years later that they “never quarrelled, not once” and also that, although she had not, at any time, been the least bit helpful she “never, never complained”.

This last detail is a telling one.  Despite the seemingly carefree manner of her departure and references to the Savoy Grill and her privileged life in London, Barbara must have had considerable pluck to undertake a journey on foot through the West African bush as a lone woman with a cousin she regarded only as an “acquaintance” and an entourage of 29 carriers, cooks and guides.  They faced many hardships during their trek and Graham’s health progressively worsened prompting Barbara to fear he may die.

Although the book is the sort of travelogue that her cousin was keen to avoid writing, and despite the journey’s hardships Barbara’s account is engaging, revealing small details (such as Graham’s slipping down socks) which lend the narrative intimacy, warmth and humour. She is overly modest, although genuinely so and displays respect and admiration for her cousin, particularly over his handling of the carriers as well as for his presence, intelligence and intellect.  (At one point,  Greene admonishes Barbara over a pair of shorts she was wearing.  Barbara doesn’t repeat his words but, chastened, simply records that Graham “told me with all wealth of phrase at his command exactly what I looked like in them. It was worse than I imagined and hurriedly and humbly I gave the shorts to Laminah.”)

Theroux, in his 1981 introduction notes that Barbara changes during her journey from “scatty socialite” to “hardy and courageous”.  He notes her modesty, dignity, bravery and loyalty and suggests that her transformation shows that “however lighthearted a departure is, if the traveller is generous, observant and dedicated to the trip, the traveller will be changed.

Barbara later confessed to being unsure of how much the journey changed her although  admitted it must have done unconsciously.  She thought that managing “to stick through all difficulties to the end” showed “no particular merit” on her part as they had reached the point of no return early in their trip.  Although probably turn to a certain extent, one senses that this is more modesty and self effacement.

Unlike her cousin, Barbara never returned to Africa.  Remembering the trip in later life, Barbara identified the treasure that she brought back from their Liberian journey as being one that she kept in her heart: “a dream of pure beauty and peace, a vision of moonlit villages in the jungle, friendly people dancing to the twang of a native harp and the beat of a drum , simplicity where material values were of no account and where understanding could be reached without words.”

In Ways of Escape, Graham later stated that Barbara writing her book was the one thing in which she had disappointed him.  He had been so busy with his own notes that he had not even noticed that Barbara was making her own.  Greene was, however, grateful that Barbara had at least waited until a few years after his own had been published.  In fact, Barbara never meant for her book to be published and had only re-written her notes so that she had something to read to her father when he became ill.

Originally published as Land Benighted in 1938, Barbara’s account was reprinted in 1981 with a new forward by her and with an introduction by Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print but second hand copies can be found online.