Unlike Mark Horrell, a veteran mountaineer in his diaries (exactly two autumns later, in 2009; see my Nov. 2012 review) Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Epic Snowman Trek, Grange does not address his fellow trekkers or assume familiarity with the logistics and exertions of such an expedition. He takes the time, therefore, to tell us how difficult it is: more people have climbed Everest than finished the Snowman Trek, and of fewer than 120 who try each year, half finish. I remained hazy (as with Horrell) as to what preparations people make, given their ages and occupations, before spending $8000 on this excursion. I did wonder as with my reading of Horrell how tough a trek might claim that offers skilled porters, modern gear, lots of food, and beasts of burden despite the dangers of altitude sickness, weather, and weariness--but I did learn about the remote wonders and climates Grange and his eight companions, guided by natives, encounter.
He's bent to finish what he could not on a previous trip. Sacred snowy Jholmohari, unclimbed home of a goddess, borders Tibet, and represents the first of the places that beckon Grange, unhappy at 33 with his life's direction. He vows to make it to Thanza in the Lunana, a Shangri-La in his fantasy if belied by its name as "The Dark Inner Region." and this shimmers as his fabled destination of wonder.
Reality, unsurprisingly, intervenes by day three. "After lunch the mighty Himalayan range began to assert itself. The trees thinned, shrinking as if scared, and the soft rolling mountains transformed into immense ridges, rocky folds, and scree chutes. This change in the external environment was mirrored in me internally--my breath grew shallow, the pressure in my head increased, and the altitude popped in my ears like kettle corn." (76)
Grange as this shows takes the time to alternate between his physical and mental struggle and that of his comrades, as well as the beauty they witness slowly unfold in the clouds or meadows. "Far down the misty trail below, my trekking companions looked like brightly colored confetti flakes with feet." (108) His interest in Buddhism, as well as a comely German woman, Ingrid, a day's march behind his team on her own trek, impels him to advance, and his eventual arrival at the holy glacial valley of Kephu reveals that Lunana, and soon Thanza, will appear.
"After lunch, we followed the river down the valley, crowned with sharp ridges that shot out of the earth like giant arrowheads. The trail meandered along, alternating between the open sunshine of the river and the shadowy enchantment of the mossy forest. It was is as if whoever had cut the winding trail was so enthralled with the surroundings that they couldn't decide which was prettier, woods or river, so they chose both. In the forest, birds sat unafraid on the branch and anytime my attention drifted inward and I'd get lost in thought, a waterfall crashing down sheer rocks would suddenly appear and catapult me back to the present moment. Waterfalls were the meditation bells of the Snowman Trek, they'd always suddenly sound and appear when you least expected it, pulling you out of your thoughts and waking you up to wonder once again." (214)
I cite this at length to show the interplay of nature, spirituality, and attention to phrasing that at its best Beneath Blossom Rain evokes. Its title comes from Kevin Grange's wish to see rain and sun fall at the same moment, "metok-chharp" in Dzongkha, and what this descent of elusive grace connotes. I sense that while Grange may not be a "born writer," if any exist, that he crafts much of his story carefully and attentively. One shortcoming, as an earlier reviewer on Amazon raised: Grange must halt his gait to insert conversations about religious, natural, or cultural topics that don't feel true to the actual moment, as they're aimed more at the reader than the fellow trekker. (As an aside, if he had as he shows studied up on Bhutan before his arrival, I doubt if he'd be as "shocked" by the phallic imagery adorning walls and houses as he makes himself out to be for the newcomer. He also discusses "polygamy" when he means "polyandry"--and this from a university press title?) As an aspiring screenwriter, he needs to recognize how difficult this exposition can be to carry off well. It does throw off the pace of the book, which works best when he focuses upon his own reactions to his trail actions.
He shifts between his inner tension and his mental reverie, as he learns to take that phallocentric Divine Madman of Bhutan Drukpa Kunley's advice to heart: "whatever happens is the path of release." He applies the Buddhist idea that its teachings are like water that finds its own container, and he learns to adjust to the trail as he must his return to asphalt, a Thimphu house party, and trucks and airports--as if, he notes, he returned from war, so jarring is the initial jolt back into civilization.
His tale fills with the joy of having your needs met (food, campsites, water) despite the drawbacks of the chilly, windy, snowy trail. He finds the clutter of his mind silent at times, enabling him to tune in to his own nature, free of distraction. Gradually, trekkers regress to a childhood adventure, complete with stalking deer, running horses, herding or fleeing yaks, wandering slopes, sipping Pabst--and in the author's case, reading Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet by flashlight under the sleeping bag's warmth at night in a tent and watching a girl's coming-of-age dance.
Grange witnesses an old woman's demise, another girl's suffering, and the privations those in these hinterlands endure amidst yak herds and raw farms. He conveys literary and cultural references to bring readers unfamiliar with Bhutan into the contexts he elaborates. These sometimes call attention to themselves, but he does strive to reach out to the reader, to connect our understanding with his as it unfolds. It's not always as fluid as the passages I've included, but it's worthwhile alongside Jamie Zeppa's Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan for a Westerner's attempt to make sense of the off-road expanses of this often romanticized realm.
Grange tries to listen and watch those with whom he walks and those he meets. Peter McBride's photographs enhance at key moments the narrative, and this proves a welcome addition to any armchair or real traveller's shelf. As he notes near the end: "The backache of camping was a blessing; it gave me a key to the city of stars." (270) (Amazon US 11-19-12)