Monday, December 3, 2012

Mark Horrell's "Yakking with the Thunder Dragon": Kindle e-book Review

Mark Horrell, an English mountaineer, tells his take on the Snowman Trek, a twenty-three day hike around the north-west corner of Bhutan. He lands at Paro, joins his small band--mostly Australian, so as a "Pom" he's singled out. He oddly gets an early reputation for out-drinking his comrades. They  set out, after a day assembling, on the journey in September 2009.

There's not much on the culture of the land of the Thunder Dragon, Drak Yul aka Bhutan early on, as the trek dominates the account. It's told in a series of genial daily diary entries. Horrell relates the sights without as much nitty-gritty as one not familiar with such endeavors may expect. For all the supposed difficulty of the trek, considering the rather laid-back porters and less-docile yaks who bear much of the burden, and the use of stations along the way to replenish, it frankly did not appear as grueling as I anticipated, admittedly from my armchair and Kindle's perspective. Horrell, addressing as his helpful website shows his fellow trekkers, glides over coverage in this e-book of what's involved in outfitting such an expedition, what shape one needs to be in, how much it costs; a few photos enhance his descriptions. This material's already all-too-familiar to this insider audience, but as a non-mountaineer with a curiosity about adventure but not a first-hand immersion, I wanted more.

For all these images' accuracy as Horrell records the sights, the sameness of peaks, meadows, scree, slopes, and mud does add up, understandably, to a same-sounding recounting for long stretches. This may not be Horrell's fault per se, but fidelity to the feel of the effort. Yet the challenge for a travel writer in presenting such a journal in a memorable fashion rests in characterization, exploration of inner as well as outer tests of courage, and subtle or in-depth depictions of the native life and lore.

You do get some welcome sense of his exhilaration. The remote Lunaps and a bit more so Layaps, in Laya and Lunapa, by their very names betray the isolation (or connection, given the routes taken by trekkers and locals) of this region near Tibet. Horrell appears to savor this area, and as the trek reaches its highest passes, culminating at the 5326m Rinchen Zoe La, the freedom he finds for short excursions to ever-beckoning summits one after the other conveys the excitement and satisfaction he sought. Here, you at last glimpse why he and his fellow hikers make the effort they do.

Expense, however, adds up. A subtext I would have liked more of, how the 30-day Nepal trek he took before this compares, and why the Bhutanese porters, bargaining, costs, and cultural differences appear to not offer Horrell the same quality and far less price that the Nepal journey did remains hinted more than articulated. To his credit, a trash dump high up irritates him, and he notes the condition of the Indian workers brought in to do work the Bhutanese do not; I wondered where the fees exacted by foreign (if not holders of Indian passports) visitors goes. Horrell alludes to the facr those who conduct such tours prove very canny merchants. All the same, you don't get much sense of the local people--I assume this is natural as trekkers pass regularly and the novelty has surely worn off, not to mention the typical way natives react to tourists at a polite distance or regularized routine nowadays. But, there's less sense of the impact of Bhutan until the party descends from the heights.

At the end, they do get a bit of time in the modernizing (to a point) capital, Thimphu, which Horrell wants to visit more. The leeches, rain, and mud plaguing the latter part of their autumn slog give way to the encounter with people, comforts, and beer. Out of these brief opportunities, another book might emerge in the future, if Horrell returns here as he implies he may--as well as Nepal (he did climb Everest, the afterword reports, earlier in 2012). P.S. Compare Kevin Grange's 2011 report on his autumn 2007 trek "Beneath Blossom Rain" (Amazon review Nov. 2012) as another version of this same trek. This Horrell review, via Kindle, to Amazon US 11-17-12.

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