Friday, December 7, 2012

Trish Nicholson's "Journey to Bhutan :e-Book Review

After two accounts of other autumnal treks to this Himalayan kingdom, I welcomed Nicholson's narrative. She traveled there long before the other two writers I read--although she does not reveal this until an afterword. While she did not take the full Snowman Trek reported in diary form by Mark Horrell (Yakking with the Thunder Dragon, 2011) in 2009 or in book-length detail
(Beneath Blossom Rain, 2011) by Kevin Grange from 2007, this now New Zealand-based anthropologist in her shorter, 100-mile expedition (as all, with other Westerners and a few guides, ponies, and yaks) allows more coverage of the before and after than her two male counterparts.

For instance, after the requisite airport frenzy in India (unlike most accounts, she does not land in Paro via Druk Air on that challenging descent), the harrowing jeep drive past the frontier, and up, down, across the gorges towards their point of departure in the central-west gains more attention, as does the hike up to Thanktang (Tiger's Nest) monastery, the archetypal site for photographers, and she notes the smell like sage and the shade alternating with blistering sun along the vertiginous trail well. More than other writers, she takes you into the dips and rises vividly, and the elaboration mixes guidebook-style references with her own challenge well. She characterizes her companions if at a slight distance, one as the Immaculate Blonde, and we get to know her and them a bit. She tends to keep to herself, and she must have kept copious notes all along her itinerary. After a rest at her house in Paro, one can savor why she wanted to stay and "breathing juniper in the land of the dragon."

Given the full title of this 2012 Bite-Size Travel e-book, "Journey to Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon," she even details why dragons are key to the lore of the titular Drukpa, and delves deeper into such lore than other popularized narratives I've encountered. Alternating personal reflections with sights and history, culture and conversations, this moves similarly to Grange's version. Nicholson's natural interest in the scenes mingles with italicized passages that seem more from her journal, her interiorized reactions to what in standard font represent by more direct observation. Photos (b/w on my Kindle Touch) enhance her prose.

The trail itself, entered after the first third of the Kindle book, moves along in expected fashion. With one woman named Arabella, a man named Jasny and another who goes by Doc, and guides nicknamed Cowboy and Genghis Khan, there's a whiff of exoticism here. Yak cheese, fiery chilli, , red rice, polite children, ornery yaks: all travellers note such here. However, as Nicholson takes what no other sojourner I've read does, a tape recorder for the sounds, this demonstrates her careful approach to get the most from her chance to pursue such a remote excursion. They follow in reverse up past sacred snowy Jholmohari the path taken by Tibetan traders and missionaries who brought Buddhist wisdom in early medieval times to this region. (Although they would likely have transported not a "wispy-bearded llama" but a "lama" unless vertigo's to blame.)

I suppose her own Tibetan travels alluded to earlier helped, although as she notes, altitude sickness strikes without warning. The days float past, jangles of the cook's pans and the chomp of a pony's grazing fill the air, lambent blue outside her tent.  I learned days in Bhutan are one ahead of the rest of the world, fittingly if oddly. Gentians, rhododendrons, and berries thrive. She adapts, "exhilarated in a landscape almost bereft of human impact--space for freedom of movement and thought." Up a slope, she finds in the wind how the "prayer flag cracks out its mantras in a staccato chant--half-worn away with its piety, its role to calm the unpredictable earth spirits."

Higher than the Matterhorn, half the height of Everest, inhaling cold air makes her giddy and frightened. "Gravity seemed irrelevant," she exalts. The scree, with Tibet in the distance above treeless and barren, overlapping slopes, reveals a "Dali landscape that distorted time and perspective."

As the trekkers prepare to return to the towns, they gather with the guides one last campfire night. The national anthem is sung by the natives as they sit by the riverside. "Their voices and the rushing water seem to make one song, conducted by the wind, symbolising one of the unique features of this country: man and nature in harmony. The musical score: a religion as fearful and as peaceful, as extraordinary and as commonplace, as nature itself, with the same penetration into every facet of life and death." You can see the mingling of outer and inner form and content in such reflections.

The last third of "Trish the Yak Tamer's" saga starts when the path down the mountains back from Nyile La pass and the hamlet of Lingshi widens into what a Land Rover could drive. That signals civilization. As she visited Thimphu, the capital, back in 1984, when only a few hundred tourists entered the realm, a hundredth the amount now yearly, changes must have been great. Still, as she relates the fun of shopping for traditional dress, and a ceremony at the venerable, vast Tashichho Dzong, shawms bellowing, and a tour of Punakha's Dzong with its Raven Crown, the sense of a less timebound majesty in this Buddhist kingdom settles in.

At the first dzong, the largest in Bhutan with over a thousand monks, she comes upon a ceremony in progress. "Their black, cropped hair and red robes form a pattern that blends with thangkas and murals as if the monks too are part of the temple's decor, melting back after the ritual until summoned by some unseen force to bring life and sound to the scene once again." Again, you see her focus.

She appends a few well-chosen book titles, a glossary of Dzongkha terms, a timeline that integrates larger regional events with those in the realm, and a brief overview of Drukpa within Buddhism itself. These will be helpful for those wishing to learn more, and this balances her journal entries, her "public" version, and her anthropological eye for detail well. Although a trained academic, Dr. Nicholson conveys her report free of theory, jargon, or the lectern, and I recommend this rendering.
(Amazon US Kindle 11-23-12 review with slight alteration)

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