A few notes on Nepal

One of my favourite books on Nepal, A Glimpse of Eternal Snows, has appeared in an audio version, read by the author Jane Wilson-Howarth herself. It’s a beautiful evocation of a little-visited part of Nepal, the lowlands of the western Terai near the Indian border, but it’s also the moving story of the short life of Jane and Simon’s son David, and an enquiry into the limits of modern medicine.

 Jane (and Simon) and I both have our British bases in Cambridge, and of course we use the same hospital! I first met her when she was Bradt Travel Guides’ house doctor, providing medical text for some of my early books. She actually started out as a biologist, obsessed with creepy-crawlies, and then transitioned to medicine; she’s had a busy career since then working on health projects in the Global South (while Simon does irrigation work). At the same time she’s been writing about travel health, travelling with children and other topics – notable titles included Shitting Pretty and Bugs, Bites and Bowels (although their titles were later boringly watered down to How to Shit Around the World and The Essential Guide to Travel Heath). However, having been the travel health columnist at Wanderlust magazine since it first appeared in 1993, she was dropped by them in March 2022 (apparently they’d been wanting increasingly dumbed-down material anyway). Not a problem, as she has other interesting ventures afoot – she’s publishing a series of ‘Alex and James eco-adventures in Nepal’, Himalayan Kidnap, Himalayan Hideout and most recently Himalayan Heist, children’s adventure stories with a strong ecological angle (also based on her family, though perhaps not on real events). These and other books are being issued in electronic and audio formats, and are well worth looking out in whatever format suits you. (She’s also written about Madagascar, which, alas, I know nothing about.)

 The events described in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows took place in 1993-96, and the book took ten years to write, plus a bit longer to find a publisher, so she is partly looking back at her younger self. In 2014 she also published Snowfed Waters, a novel based on the same period living in the Terai. The backbone of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows (and you have to get to the end of the book to see the irony in the title) is the story of the short life of their disabled son David, with dreadful experiences of the medical machine in an English teaching hospital, with non-empathetic Clever Doctors who could only see him as an Interesting Case, and the happy life he was able to have once they reached Nepal, despite all its well-described challenges. But there’s much more to the book, with warm insights into the rest of the family, some very different Nepali characters and various expats too – her behind-the-scenes insight into development work is also valuable. There are descriptions of several hiking trips into the hills too – she has a great eye for nature, not just the wildlife but also the piles of shit that lie in wait everywhere (and she’s not afraid of the s-word!).

 I’ve also happened recently to read Into Thin Air – not the famous one by Jon Krakauer about disasters on Everest, but an older one by John Pilkington. I vaguely know Pilks, and I used his excellent An Englishman in Patagonia where I was first working in that part of the world. His Into Thin Air is about a trek in 1982 in western Nepal, not the Terai but real hills to the north, bisected by immense valleys. As he wrote, ‘The road west from Kathmandu ends after 150 miles, just beyond Pokhara, by the side of a lake. This lake, Phewa Tal, marks the termination of motor cars, electricity, hospitals, pizza – in fact all the elements of civilised life. Beyond Phewa Tal you enter another century, and you, of course, enter it on foot.’ He had some learning experiences along the way, but – of course – made it all the way across to the Indian border. Even today this area sees few foreign visitors, but this book would still be a useful introduction if you fancied a trek there. It’s entertaining, with excellent descriptions of both people and landscapes.

Community homestays

 For some years I was a trustee of Rural Assistance Nepal, which mainly supported nurses and teachers in remote villages, as well as village homestay projects. The charity no longer exists, but its founder Marianne is still working on community homestays, which ties in very well with the background focus of my career as a guidebook writer, trying to shift tourism from big hotels owned by big companies to local accommodation in less crowded places.

 At the moment she’s exploring the Taplejung area, north of Gorkha, and Phaleung, in the far east with great views of Kanchenjunga. This reminds me of the trek to Sandephu (or Sandakphu), also with wonderful views of Kanchenjunga, which I did from Darjeeling in India back in 1983 (my first real mountain hiking). Marianne (who also did it from Darjeeling in 2005) tells me that there’s now a trek from the Phaleung side too.

Trains in Nepal??

 And finally, quite by chance, passenger train services started a few days ago from Jayanagar in the Indian state of Bihar to Janakpur and Kurtha in Nepal – it’s not quite the first railway in Nepal, but the others have never been much use or lasted very long. This line should be extended within the next few years to Bijalpura and then Bardibas, on the East-West Highway, at which point it might actually be of interest to more than local travellers. (The very slow construction of the East-West Highway features in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows, as it happens.)

H is for Hawk – and for Hardwick

For the last few years many friends have assumed that I’ve read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, as a classic of modern nature writing, and one that is set largely in Cambridge, where I live – in fact much of the action takes places on a hill just a couple of miles from my house. (And I vaguely know one of the people vaguely alluded to.) I hadn’t got around to it, because I’m a travel writer not a nature writer, but I found a copy on my sister’s bookcase and read it over Christmas. It’s a classic of modern nature writing, indeed, but also a classic of the woman-coming-to-terms-with-her-father’s-death genre. The latter is not of great interest to me, and only partly because I’m not a woman who is going to lose a father. In short, a Cambridge academic loses her father suddenly, gets a goshawk to train, tries to become one with nature and wildness, takes it too far and basically goes off the rails, then gradually becomes resocialised as a human being, until her father’s memorial service provides closure (and she begins taking antidepressants) – problem solved, as she realised that everyone went through the same process. Oh, she also mentions a missing twin, but not that she has since identified as non-binary. Complicated….

 In addition to Cambridge, there are a few other locations in her story that were of interest to me – Walton-on-Thames, where I often visit friends, Carmarthenshire, which I cover for the Rough Guide to Wales, and Uzbekistan, which I have also written about and where she had a formative encounter with a goshawk the year before her father’s death.

 In any case, Cambridge is currently a major but rather unlikely centre for nature writing (unlikely because of its largely flat and uninteresting landscapes, and the pace at which it’s being covered in housing and science parks) – we have the great Robert Macfarlane, Jessica J Lee and Tim Dee, and now Merlin Sheldrake has also appeared with a Cambridge PhD and a book on fungi that was acclaimed by Macfarlane and Macdonald (although he’s not living in Cambridge).

 Macdonald’s pal Olivia Laing is not in the same category (and she recently left Cambridge for nearby Suffolk) – when she wrote that Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard was ‘about the death of a wife’ I’m afraid I lost interest. It’s a wonderfully luminous book, about travel in a very remote (and then closed) region of Nepal, about snow leopards and other wildlife (thanks to his zoologist travelling companion), and about Buddhism (both Zen and Tibetan) – there are digressions about the meaning of death, but I’d totally forgotten the bit about his wife’s death. But then I’m clearly from Mars and women are from Venus, and for me that was definitely background context only.

 As a guidebook writer and a hiking guide, it’s always been important for me to know exactly where I am – and of course travel requires a somewhere to travel to, as well as a somewhere to travel from. As Eliot wrote, ‘the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time’. Painters in particular have long explored the idea of ‘genius loci’ or ‘spirit of place’, but the phrase has recently come to mean something different in academic and cultural circles. In 2016 and 2017 I rather randomly came across a rash of events and exhibitions dedicated to the sense of place – in June 2016 the Balham Literary Festival’s theme was A Way of Being in the World – celebrating landscape, that summer I found an exhibition on sense of place at Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett, and at the end of 2017 I found another, in Victoria BC, called Point of Contact – On Place and the West Coast Imaginary. At a bit of a tangent, 2017 saw the publication of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, which divided us all into ‘somewhere’ and ‘anywhere’ people, partially as a way of explaining why British voters were so passionately for and against Brexit. And 2018 saw the publication of Nicholas Crane’s The Making of the British Landscape (also tangentially relevant but so good) and John Sutherland’s Literary Landscapes; charting the classics of world literature. Then sense of place largely gave way to the new nature writing.

 There is much that is wonderful about the new nature writing, but it does also set itself up for satire – Kathleen Jamie asks, in her best David Attenborough tones, ‘What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge!’. Mentioning no names – but of course women are now fairly well represented too. I’m a white, middle-class member of the Anglo-Irish diaspora living in Cambridge, but I don’t really do rapture, so it’s definitely not me. The greatest strength of the movement is that it stresses that we humans are of nature, and not something separate and free to exploit and destroy. It’s also good at pointing out the extraordinary restorative power of nature in coping both with that destruction and with trauma and loss.

 Anyway, the next on my reading list has to be The Rising Down by Alexandra Harris, which was to be published (by Faber) in 2021 but is clearly running late. It’s about sense of place, local history and changing perceptions of landscape. She looks at a specific area of the South Downs, where she has previously followed Virginia Woolf’s walks from Rodmell – which brings us back to Olivia Laing, who has done the same thing. (Woolf’s walks in London have been done in depth too, by other writers.) However Harris is in Oxford, not Cambridge (fine by me, as I have a foot in both camps).

PS In February 2022, soon after I posted this, Helen Macdonald made a BBC TV programme about training her new goshawk, Lupin, a rather different process with a happy balanced human working with another goshawk-fancier, rather than in isolation – I wish them all well!

The hill – with the radio tower that gets mentioned once or twice

‘Roses Down the Barrel of a Gun’ – a review

I first went to Georgia in 1998, when there was no street lighting (often no power at all), foreigners were being viciously mugged in Tbilisi, and Svaneti was a no-go area unless you had bodyguards. Jo Seaman arrived in February 2001 to take over the nascent British Council operation, and stayed until August 2005, having fallen in love both with the place and its people. My memories of the time are a little vague, but her book ‘Roses Down the Barrel of a Gun’ brings it all back with wonderful clarity. Not only does she well describe the feeling of those early days and the transformation that followed, but she also lays out the political progressions in parallel with the development of the British Council’s mission.

 The title refers, of course, to the Rose Revolution and Misha Saakashvili’s ascent to power, with the massive clean-out of corrupt officials that followed. I have to say that Jo’s rôle was more activist than I expected, verging on a political stance, despite always being aware that the British Council had to be apolitical – there’s a heartwarming moment near the end when she was told the Rose Revolution might not have happened without her support for exit polling.

 My experience was different to Jo’s because I spent much more time out of Tbilisi – in fact this may be the only book about Georgia you’ll ever read that doesn’t once mention Kakheti and its now semi-compulsory winery visits. Just a couple of hours from Tbilisi, but it seems it wasn’t the place for romantic weekends away at that time. Which reminds me that one of the book’s attractions is the love story, which is nicely handled – although there are so many casual mentions of a certain somebody as ‘the man from the Embassy’ that it would be hard not to guess that something was brewing.

 We had one or two friends in common, but we didn’t overlap that much. Still, it’s great to see so many familiar names – Mark Mullen, Amy Spurling, Peter Nasmyth, Giorgi Margvelashvili, David Lordkipanidze, Wato Tsereteli, not forgetting the Hotel Apollon in Bakuriani. But I regretted that she didn’t always name and shame – who was the strange British jazz musician? And the annoying video artist?? But happily HM Ambassador the MacLaren of MacLaren is not spared for his possibly alcohol-related unpunctuality.

 The book is slightly under-edited (some commas are missing, and a few words – has anyone else noticed that this is increasingly common, presumably as missing words just aren’t noticed by spellcheckers?) – but that didn’t stop me from greatly enjoying it. Jo’s account of her hectically successful time in Georgia (and all in unsuitable shoes) is illuminating and also lots of fun.