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Top 10 books about the Himalayas

Ed Douglas
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Kevin Frayer/AP</span>
Photograph: Kevin Frayer/AP

The Himalayas are the highest mountains on Earth, the stupendously wild boundary between India and Tibet and a magnet for countless adventurers, missionaries and spiritual seekers. Yet the region is no empty wilderness – it is the home of a richly diverse human population with a longstanding literary tradition. Writing my history of the Himalayas required an Everest-sized reading list, but when I’d finished compiling my bibliography I felt I needed to say more. There were lots of weighty histories but I realised the soul of this amazing world lay elsewhere, in fiction, memoir and poetry. Until recently, few writers from the region have cut through to anglophone readers.

That’s beginning to change. Writers such as Manjushree Thapa and Prajwal Parajuly, shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas prize for his debut short story collection The Gurkha’s Daughter, have built followings in Europe and North America. Some seminal work from previous decades is getting translated, one shining example being the Darjeeling writer Indra Bahadur Rai. Historians are also starting to break down the exotic myths that coloured our view of this extraordinary but misunderstood part of the world. This then is my selection of books that catch the human texture and shape of the world’s highest mountain range. Some of the writers were born there; some are outsiders with a particular insight. All, I think, are very readable.

1. The High Road to China by Kate Teltscher
This history of the first visit to Tibet by a Briton was garlanded with praise when first published in 2006. If anything, it has only become more impressive, as the re-evaluation of Britain’s colonial history gathers pace. George Bogle was a Scot working for the governor-general of India, Warren Hastings, when he trekked across the Himalayas to meet the Panchen Lama, second in importance only to the Dalai Lama. Bogle was affable and down to earth, liked the country and loved its people, a contrast to the racism that later permeated British views of Tibet. Teltscher’s great skill is telling a complex tale with great panache while allowing Bogle’s own voice to be heard.

2. There’s a Carnival Today by Indra Bahadur Rai
Until the 19th century, the now-bustling town of Darjeeling was forest. Then the British grabbed it, cut down the trees and planted tea. Those plantations needed workers, so huge numbers from across the Himalayas relocated, especially Nepalis. We tend to picture Darjeeling as a scene from Jewel in the Crown but the town was a melting pot, full of disparate voices fervently seeking change, a political hotbed captured by its greatest writer in his best work, brilliantly translated by Manjushree Thapa. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Janak, a prominent businessman and politician facing ruin, foreshadowing the issues of identity that currently grip the region.

Edmund Hillary (right) and Tenzing Norgay meet the press in June 1953 after their ascent of Everest.
Edmund Hillary (right) and Tenzing Norgay meet the press in June 1953 after their ascent of Everest. Photograph: STR/Reuters

3. Coronation Everest by Jan Morris
This is another book from the 1950s, a tumultuous time in the Himalayas as independent India found its voice and Tibet began its struggle against China’s occupation, yet framed within the crowning glory of the new Elizabethan era: the first ascent of Everest. Jan Morris was James Morris when she travelled to Nepal as a reporter for the Times, the expedition’s official newspaper, making shrewd observations of the climbers, “scribbling it all down in a tattered old notebook”, and using her secret code to get news of the successful climb to London before her rivals. She catches the mountain as somewhere fresh and hopeful, before the money took hold.

4. The Wayward Daughter by Shradha Ghale
The status of women in Nepal continues to hold the country back. Domestic violence is rife while women’s healthcare and education lag behind. Even the constitution is discriminatory. Highly regarded journalist Shradha Ghale knows this better than anyone, but her first novel is not at all clunky or overly worthy. Her high-school heroine Sumnima and the women around her are rounded, memorable characters making sense of changes to a traditional society that offers security as well as injustice in a world where poverty is never far away. It’s full of warmth and humour, and features a fearsome grandma called Boju who swears like a docker.

5. A Rage for Rock Gardening by Nicola Shulman
Imagine for a moment Nancy Mitford wrote adventure yarns and you’ve got this jewel-like biography of Reginald Farrer, the Edwardian who put a rockery into every back garden in Britain. Born into privilege in 1880, Farrer suffered horribly, from a cleft palate and his overbearing ambition. What he wanted was to be considered a serious littérateur, but his talent was for plants, particularly alpines, and he became famous as a gardening writer, exploring the eastern Himalayas, serious bandit country in those days, before dying young in the jungles of Burma. Shulman approaches him with a sort of ironic, tough-minded compassion and her book dazzles.

Down-at-heel labyrinth &#x002026; Kathmandu.
Down-at-heel labyrinth … Kathmandu. Photograph: imageBROKER/Alamy

6. Kathmandu by Thomas Bell
Tom Bell went to Kathmandu as an eager young foreign correspondent, reporting for the Daily Telegraph on the Nepali civil war that began in 1996. Then he fell in love, with his future wife and also with the city. Bell wasn’t the first outsider to be beguiled, but none have written about the Himalayas’ greatest city so well. Kathmandu is as rich a literary hunting ground as Istanbul, but unlike the Byzantines, the ancient Newari culture that built the Kathmandu valley’s lilliputian city-states has survived, even as the city has swollen and evolved. Bell is a subtle guide through this tantric, down-at-heel labyrinth, teasing apart the layers.

7. Thamel by Rabi Thapa
Most tourists visiting Kathmandu spend time in the frenzied chaos of Thamel, once a sleepy village on the outskirts, now, as writer and editor Rabi Thapa calls it in his travelogue, the city’s dark star, “all grown up and demanding a pair of Levi’s”. Knock-off Levi’s probably. Filled to the gunnels with cheap hotels, cheap bars with bad house bands and endless souvenir shops, I’ve watched this steroidal neighbourhood evolve over a quarter of a century but Thapa tells it from a local’s perspective, of how he came of age drinking in sticky Thamel bars, capturing the city’s self-absorbed bustle and trying on new identities.

8. The King’s Harvest by Chetan Raj Shrestha
Sikkim was, until India swallowed it up, a tiny Himalayan kingdom of immense strategic importance located between Nepal and Bhutan. Like Prajwal Parajuly, Shrestha was born in the Sikkimese town of Gangtok and his debut, which won the Tata first book award, is a pair of novellas that are wholly different in tone but both absolutely Sikkimese, the first unpicking the aftermath of the brutal murder of a policeman by his abused wife, featuring a bingo-loving, tough-minded female police chief. The second tells an otherworldly fable about a long-isolated farmer bringing the king of Sikkim his share of the harvest, only to discover the world has changed beyond all recognition.

9. The Waiting Land by Dervla Murphy
I could have picked any of Dervla Murphy’s Himalayan books, the others being Tibetan Foothold and Where the Indus Is Young, written after she became a single mother, but The Waiting Land catches something of the drift and lost opportunities of 1960s Nepal. But I include her as an inspiration, just getting on her bike and pedalling off to wherever takes her fancy. Always courageous, her writing mixes a cheerful toughness and a sensitive eye with a kind of practical common sense in the face of the world’s problems – as well as a touch of madness. Lots of westerners wrote books as the Himalayas opened up but Murphy’s stand up.

10. Tibet on Fire by Tsering Woeser
Barbara Demick’s book about self-immolation in Tibet, Eat the Buddha, has won lots of plaudits but I’d like to recommend also this earlier work, from the Tibetan poet and blogger Tsering Woeser. Born in Lhasa, Woeser is a quarter Han, her grandfather serving in the army of the Kuomintang. Her father was an officer in the PLA. Yet she has become one of the bravest and most insightful critics of China in Tibet, and among the few Tibetans writing in Chinese, with a prominence that has brought house arrest and close surveillance. Tibet on Fire is an outline of the reasons why so many Tibetans set fire to themselves and also a cry from the heart.