Monday, December 31, 2012

Ulchabhán nó siogairlín?

Thug Léna dom seo ar feadh leathanta saoire faoi deireadh. Mheas mé go raibh a fheicéail chomh ulchabán. Ar ndóigh, mbeadh sé chomhtharlú ann.

D'inis sí orm go bhfuil é mona ó Bhútáin. Is cosúil é go deich bpingin. Tú ábalta a scrúdú a dhéanamh é ar beagán níos mó méid iarbhír ar dheis.

Maisith sé leis giotán ó choréil agus glasghorm/gormghlas/turcaid. Is cuimhne liom go raibh dá chomh clocha lómhara ag imeall Tibéid. Sílím go raibh choréil a thabhairt go An tÁigean Indiach go dtí na Himíleach.

D'fhóghlaim eolas ó suíomh ar an ghreasán na díoltóra. Tá sé faoi ina bosca chun cinn a choinneáil paidir nó briocht ann. Tá sé ar taispeáint mar sheoid go minic.

Tá sé ainmnithe bosca urnaí "Gau" i Tibéid. Thug sé beannacht mar is gnách. Mar sin féin, is maith liom a shamhlú chomhartha dathúil seo chomh ulchabhán ciallmhar beag "leis sochair i bhfolach"!

Owl or pendant? 

Layne gave me this during the holidays lately. I reckon that it may look like an owl. Of course, it may be a coincidence there.

She told me that it is a coin from Bhutan. It's similar to a tenpence. You are able to examine it at a little more than actual size at the right.

It's decorated with bits of coral and turquoise (green-blue/blue-green). I recall that both are like precious stones around Tibet. I think that coral is taken from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas.

I learned information from the site on the web of the seller. It is a box to keep a prayer or amulet. It is displayed as jewelry often.

The prayer-box is called a "Gau" in Tibet. It carries a blessing, customarily. All the same, it pleases me to imagine this handsome token as a wise little owl "with hidden benefits"!

Siogairlín bosca paidir urnaí leis mona ó Bhútáin/ Bhutanese coin Ghau prayer-box pendant

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Brilliant Moon": Film Review

Narrated by Richard Gere, this documentary calmly relates the long life (1910-1991) of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who fled Tibet for Bhutan. There, he taught the present Dalai Lama as well as Dzongsar Khyentse (aka the film director Khyentse Norbu), and Matthieu Ricard, who has served as a translator and exponent of Vajrayana Buddhism to the West from this same Himalayan kingdom. It's a very straightforward presentation, just under an hour.

I watched wondering about what motivates the appeal, expressed by all fervently in their on-camera testimony, of one said to be "perfect" and enlightened, who chooses to leave a life of potential retreat (and a family he later fathered if kept by a devout patriarch at seemingly somewhat of a distance) to sit before others and watch them pay him homage, as the transmitter of wisdom. During this hour, his dharma teachings remained simply expressed, if difficult to master. The tone of this film, reverent and in awe, is not be gainsayed, but it's more a respectful hagiography than a critical exploration of a Tibetan exemplar's evidently wide appeal and lasting impact.

Therefore, it may please those already committed to his influence, rather than convince those curious. I'd recommend Matthieu Ricard's 1998 film (reviewed by me Dec. 2012), "The Spirit of Tibet," which uses some of the same archival footage from the Rinpoche's 1985 visit and that of his cremation and reincarnation, but which conveys a deeper sense of the "spiritual energy" of the teacher, as the Dalai Lama sums it up, as well as the "boundless compassion" for all, enemies and friends, as the "dzogchen" message.

As with his audiobook reading (reviewed by me Oct. 2008) for "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," Richard Gere provides an assured narration. Lou Reed, by the way, is featured in credits, but from my ear, it seems he speaks only a couple of voiceovers for past Tibetan masters who testify to the Rinpoche's love and compassion. The soundtrack, none of it credited to Reed, remains a tasteful blend of East-West world music that stands for the meeting of cultures epitomized.

What stands out most: Branko Teslic's animation team. The guru's early years unfold in a folk-style Tibetan series of imagery that moves gently, as if a graphic novel's soft, pastel tones come to life. This drew me in most, and showed how a thoughtful application of technology can enhance a film's content. As I said, it's a very respectful homage to a teacher, but the secret of his pull over so many may remain, perhaps suitably if elusively on camera or in a script, subtle for those coming to this film without already being captivated by its subject. (Amazon US 12-13-12)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"The Spirit of Tibet": Film Review

This is one of two recent documentaries about the influential Tibetan teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991). He taught the present Dalai Lama, as well as the director and writer of this 1998 forty-five minute film, Matthieu Ricard. The Rinpoche fled Tibet for Bhutan, but was able to return to his homeland in 1985 to start the restoration of the realm's oldest monastery at Samyé, ruined by the communists.

Most of his life, divided between Tibet and Bhutan, was spent exemplifying "boundless compassion." The Dalai Lama explains how his teacher's "spiritual energy" continued as lamas reincarnate to shepherd others along the Buddhist path. Certainly, the crowds that flocked to the Rinpoche demonstrate his genial, unruffled appeal. True, it's not a critical investigation, made by Buddhists for the same, so within these limits, it may narrow the audience to those curious about him.

Lots of this film comprises him sitting before those bowing respectfully. Yet, it's a challenge to see how the acclaim he generates for the teaching of the Buddha he embodies comes through on camera. Within a short span of a few minutes, cinematic "glimpses," as the subtitle promises, may be its rationale.

For Westerners or those unfamiliar with his reputation, this provides a more contextual--arguably less hagiographical if still unfailingly reverential--perspective compared to the 2010 "Brilliant Moon" documentary (see my Dec. 2012 review). Both are narrated smoothly by Richard Gere, and some of the footage repeats, understandably, concerning the visit to Tibet, the cremation of the teacher, and the recognition ceremony for his reincarnation.

"The Spirit of Tibet" relates more basic background on Buddhism and its Vajrayana school popular throughout the Himalayas. It offers a wider perspective than "Brilliant Moon," so it may be viewed first as an overview. Still, "Spirit" may best be suited to those already convinced of this jovial, big, smiling lama's compelling message. If not, it may spark interest in this man's venerable example.
(YouTube in English; Amazon 12-13-12)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

John O'Hanlon's "The Buddhist of Castleknock": Book Review

Guess who's coming for Christmas? This Irish tragicomedy of manners as culture clash, set in a changing Dublin, features Jim O'Hanlon's twist on this storyline. John returns from London to introduce his new girlfriend to his family, the Sullivans. Mother Edie and father Seán, brothers Edward and DJ, and sister Tara meet Rai, "English, of African extraction," as the notes of this play indicate, and as Tara repeats at one tense point in the dramatic tensions that ensue. Despite the initial set-up and the dustjacket blurb, it's not racism per se which kicks this play into high gear so much as the fear of what the multicultural couple's stance represents to the Irish Catholic family.

John, like Rai, has embraced Buddhism. So, their renunciation of meat, alcohol, and Midnight Mass adds up to perceived insults in the eyes of some of the Sullivans. This complicates the traditional celebrations the family clings to at the holiday. Over Christmas Eve, Christmas, and St. Stephen's Day, O'Hanlon's play shows the conflicts that result when customs are challenged by John and Rai.

Adding to this, Edie's sister, Kathleen, and her husband Jimmy arrive for their usual visit, although Rai's predicament introduces a not altogether unexpected plot complication--or perhaps setting up a tidy resolution--in the middle of the action. This did not surprise me much, and it seemed too standard a subplot, but it allows the domestic situation to unfold as DJ's machinations stir up more of this seasonal scuffling. O'Hanlon arranges parts of this similar to a situation comedy with a moral, and this style does not allow nuance.

I found Jimmy's patriotic barstool rebel defense also very predictably handled, far too stereotypical to allow much nuance, but perhaps on stage depth might emerge from what's unsaid on the page. Whatever counterargument might be given for the sustenance of Irish culture or its ancient language in the midst of unprecedented globalization and migration does not get its own say here, at least from the script in my hand. The play works best when it's more sensitive, as in a scene where Rai, John, Seán, and Edward try meditation under her guidance; Tara watches with a vodka bottle nearby, bemusedly.

O'Hanlon, whose British writing-directing credits include episodes of the venerable "Coronation Street," handles this play with expected verve. Premiered by Fishamble in Dublin, 2003, it was published by New Island in 2007. The book version moves neatly, hitting the beats in what appears dependable fashion. For all its comforting craft, it handles the Irish Tara coincidence with Tibetan Buddhism's manifestations of compassion, Green and White Tara, neatly as a fitting symbol of harmony that may unite the (post-)Catholic with the globalizing present and future of Ireland. (Amazon US, 12-10-12)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Michel Peissel's "Mustang: The Forbidden Kingdom": Book Review

As a child, I learned about this thumb-shaped projection of an independent, feudal principality in Nepal that stuck into the Chinese-occupied Tibetan frontier. Michel Peissel, a French-born, English-raised explorer, wrote for National Geographic his account, as the first Westerner allowed to visit this tiny realm in 1964. Since Mustang for me meant in the late 1960s the fantastic Ford model, and secondarily a horse as I grew up, I wondered about connections--there aren't any.

Mustang derives here from Lo Mantang, the walled capital of a thousand people that at this time (since Nepal's Maoists took over in 2008, it's no more) continued medieval European equivalents into the modern era. Peissel, the first European who slept within its confines, takes two months to wander the land, looking for clues as to the origins of its kings in neglected chronicles. It took him two weeks to hike to the kingdom of Lo from Nepal, and few of its intelligent but isolated inhabitants had ever seen a "long nose" foreigner before.

His colloquial Tibetan, gleaned from a grammar abroad and then years of study, affords this Oxford-educated, Harvard Business School dropout a chance to enter the country, after a prime minister's assassination in similarly cautious Bhutan (he wrote about trekking across it in 1970's "Lords and Lamas") foils his plan to stay there. He longs to go deeper into the peaks and plateaus. Lo sits in the "great Himalayan breach" north of Annapurna and Dhalulagiri ranges, facing the funneled winds that bake it up to 90 in the day but freeze it at night. Given Tibet's capitulation, he cannot enter that territory, but he comes as close as possible. Mustang itself, patrolled by Khampas fighting a guerrilla war (see Peissel's later "The Secret War in Tibet") against the communists, proves an edgy outpost.

Even though he does not mention he's a diplomat's son, his negotiations enable him to elude trouble. He and his Tibetan comrade, Tashi, manage to figure out the background of the dynasty that hosts them, and parallels between medieval mindsets of Peissel's ancestors and those of the Lobas he gets to know during his residence can be insightful. He tends as in his later books to boost the advantages of the primitive over the jet-set, but he offers a patient view of the advantages the rest of us forget.

"The fortlike appearance of Kag spoke of a more valiant and warlike race, expressing in the majesty of geometrical sturdiness a taste more robust and less over-richly refined." (69) This as he broaches the divide between Hindu Nepal's "sickly mystery" and enters "the land of Lamas and Buddhism." Later, he spends a restless sleep in a Khampa "samar" war camp, and after Tashi confides his beliefs in spirits, Peissel ruminates. His uneasiness dominates his reflections, with no distractions in the tent, and medieval devils at night seem as real as a similarly outmoded God might in the day to protect him from avalanches and robbers. The next morning, "I had learned the meaning of fear as a direct product of faith. The fear of God, the fear of demons, the fear of famine, of cold, of fire, and of war. In Tibet faith equals fear; this inspires hope and religion." (83)

He continues: "It is faith free of doubt and questioning, it is the capacity to believe in the supernatural as a reality that is the foundation stone of a society of the medieval type. In such a society the incredible is believed, the unusual is not questioned, and the amazing is regarded as commonplace. I was now in the world of the 1,086 Tibetan demons that haunt man and beast and that are realities to the peasants and to Tashi, as they would have to be for me if I was to share the life and culture of Mustang." (84)

Peissel does fall hard for this little enclave, and his affection infuses this account. While he tires at the elevation and fatigue seems to do him in on his later forays away from the capital into the caves (I wanted to learn more about them, as at Yara, and the villages he passed through rather abruptly), it's a valuable reminder of what we miss as we evolve. "In fact we in the modern world all become half blind and half deaf from necessity if we are to admire beauty." (225) He observes how the Taj Mahal so photogenic is next to a "monstrous steel bridge," and how only the careful camera can rescue some places we admire from, say, the fate of the Acropolis, seen by him behind a chicken-wire fence.

The book (subtitled in its 1992 reprint "A Lost Tibetan Kingdom" or "The Forbidden Kingdom" in the edition I read from 1967) tends to rush the latter portion of his stay. He must have taken enormous amounts of notes. For a month's stay and two weeks trek in, it's a substantial report, although the rest of Lo outside the walls of Lo Mantang gets rushed and Peissel's health and stamina may have weakened his attention. Like an earlier, multinational English resident-author in or near these mountains Marco Pallis in Peaks and Lamas (see my March 2011 review), Peissel undergoes a subtle but telling change by the end. He is given a Buddhist name by a lama, Shelkagari, in his fragile state, and his awareness for all his Westernized skepticism appears to alter, after the title he inherits "Crystal Clear Mountain." (11-30-12 to Amazon US)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Michel Peissel's "Lords and Lamas": Book Review

Subtitled "A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan," this 1970 account of this renowned explorer's September 1968 trek over four hundred miles of footpaths reveals the realm at a crucial moment of transition from a feudal, medieval society to one finishing the first span of an east-west highway that will change the nation irrevocably. India's fear, in the Cold War, of Chinese threats south of Tibet caused them to fund a paved road to connect the shorter ones coming up steep valleys from India. Peissel, after six failed attempts to get royal and bureaucratic approval, finally is allowed in the country at this moment. Bhutan admits him as its first traveler to carry in foreign currency, and he resolves once inside to follow Captain Robert Boileau Pemberton's 1838 route across the six ranges and passes dividing the center of the difficult to traverse land.

As with this French-born, English-raised scholar-adventurer's 1967 report from a similar land, the nearby principality of Mustang, where he went with another breakthrough journey when he could not get into Bhutan back in 1964, Peissel emphasizes the comparisons with a peasant European past dominated by lords and clergy. Like Mustang, he finds Bhutan more in the company of its lords rather than its lamas. His knowledge of Tibetan enables him to more or less communicate well, and his guide Tensing forges ahead to lead the challenging way. He takes 650 lbs of luggage and over a hundred cartons of cigarettes, and he gives out fountain pens to win over lamas and lords on the way.

Peissel's testiness erupts. He rants against the West he loves and hates as much as parts of the East in equal doses. These qualities endear him to me, but others may find him boastful or irritable. He in Mustang and Bhutan opens up best as he connects the vanished customs of Europe with those still surviving fifty-odd years ago in the last feudal enclaves on the planet. He explains how not hereditary but acquired merit achieves status for many lords of the Law, those who rule the mountain fortresses alongside monastic figures, in the traditional Bhutanese model that places the administrative center and religious functions together, in great walled towers, in each district. It's a feudal democracy, he tries to show, in that peasants keep freedom while they must contribute labor and taxes to the state, and this equates even favorably, he surmises, with the harmony there recalling the medieval mentality and economy of Europe.

Wealth lacking, in what was then a barter economy, Peissel determines that "prestige and privilege are the true difference" between men. Rank is crucial, but a peasant can rise to be Lord of the Law if not the king. Each generation, therefore, could advance by an individual's own ambition. He also shows the more disturbing side of the old regime. "Zaps" as hostages or descendents of prisoners of war were made by the whip to dance at Tongsu, and twice he sees prisoners in chains at dzongs. Peissel muses on the efficacy of punishment carried out in public vs. locking up inmates as we do. 

He notes how those he meets may be as excited to buy modern machinery and consumer goods as he is to leave them behind for a tent beyond that ever-expanding road, where at its end a human pace and not a jet or jeep still determines how the rugged landscape unfolds before him. At Wangdu Photrang, the frontier opens: "Beyond it stretched the immensity of our planet reduced to the dimensions of man, to the pace of his feet and the size of his body." (65) Living in Tibet or Bhutan in "permanent uncertainty," furthermore, he reasons, beats the relentless scheduling of the West. The hinges, tools, and fashion, too, shows how technology may evolve parallel in many items and gadgets to adapt to a terrain similar to Switzerland, even though no contact was made between the two regions.

The adventure over thirty-one days, as with that in Mustang, unfolds unevenly. While this book is much shorter than that on Mustang, it shares a slow build-up in a Hindu land first, tangles with meddling officials that delay his departure, and an itinerary that due to his problems accumulating with altitude and fatigue weeks on end shorten in the descriptions and pace the entry into the most faraway hamlets of another daunting place off the map. The harrowing Ruto-La pass at 12,600 feet signals a decline in many ways as the endless trudge wears him down mentally and physically, and one closes this wondering how much Peissel left out from weariness or despair on the last stages across the eastern ridges and gorges that he saw as the first European since Pemberton in 1838. (Amazon US 12-5-12)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Earl of Ronaldshay's "Lands of the Thunderbolt": Book Review

The thunderbolt is the "dorje," the bell-like scepter wielded by lamas in the Vajrayana Tibetan tradition, the lands those of Sikkim, Chumbi, and Bhutan, the time, 1920. The Marquess of Zetland's account, while not free of the imperial qualities of its era, given the "practicing Presbyterian" author, nonetheless remains lively. His enthusiasm for leaving the humid plains of Bengal behind, and to begin his ascent at Darjeeling into what at that time was a series of Buddhist-ruled principalities separate from the rest of patchwork British India's jurisdictions, reveals one of the first visitors to the Eastern Himalayas who articulates a modern Western understanding of the mindsets he analyzes.

Lawrence John Lumley Dundas, the Earl (and later 2nd Marquess of Zetland), was the British governor of Bengal, and President of the Royal Geographic Society. His 1923 publication, part of a series on the subcontinent's culture, demonstrates a delicacy of style when delineating nature's colors and patterns over the hillside seasons, which he welcomes after one senses a long stint on the flat, sticky lowlands. He also evinces a sympathy for the atheistic, rationalistic teachings of the Buddha, opposed to the mystical and superstitious "catholicity" of Lamaism. He knows that only but a "stalwart rationalist who had succeeded on atrophying his emotional nature" will be comforted by the cold appeals of "pure" Buddhism's insistence on "an unchallenged self-reliance." (250-1) However, put off as he is by Lamaism's mad insistence on a "perversion of intelligence" (78) that reduces the Buddha's appeal to work out one's salvation one's self to a repetitive mantra, a riot of ritual, and an endless hierarchy of local gods, bureaucratic lamas, and folk practices, he admits the appeal of entering the lands of the thunderbolt, to learn how Lamaism took over Buddhism.

He's very much in the "faux-Protestant" reaction favored by British scholars a century ago who elevated Theravada teachings over a Mahayana panoply of deities, devotions, and disciples. He argues insightfully, within this orientation, for caution regarding the credence given by the unlettered to miracles, attributed once to the Buddha and in his own tenure to Gandhi. Given his own bias for a rigorous regard for Buddhism, he concludes his book with a consideration of its ethical emphasis. (I note that he never discusses Younghusband's massacre by machine guns in the 1904 British invasion of Tibet at Guru, but the Lord does nod to the need for peace in a post-Great War world.)  His narrative can be consulted today as his take on how traditional practices survived into the twentieth century, in ways obliterated in Tibet, and altered in the regions where Hindu influence has spread--and, of course, many more trekkers have flocked in the jet-fueled, hyperlinked decades since the end of the Raj.

The author rarely notices the natives. When he does, it's as the Governor. "Our baggage packed and shouldered by the sturdy Bhutia women who obligingly undertake the duties of pack animals, nothing remained but to grasp our staves and set foot on the tortuous mountain path which we had decided to follow." (15)  From our perspective, it's easy to scoff at this, but he avoids the romanticization common to later observers who elevate these same inhabitants to a mystical height.

Rather, the Earl of Ronaldshay prefers to balance, if in uneven fashion despite his literary skill and intellectual depth, a Sikhim-to-Chumbi (where Tibet juts between Sikkim and Bhutan) trek and then along the Nepal frontier exploration in the autumn of 1920, and a briefer foray through Bhutan from Tibetan Phari to Paro to Ha'a the next fall. At Taktsang, he mentions his party were preceded by only two Europeans to that iconic, and now must-see destination. The trip through a harsh and often unpeopled terrain, on both journeys, may account for the relative lack of encounters, as well as the need for interpreters. An enigmatic Elder ("a man of weight") and also The Cavalry Officer accompany him, but they are shadowy, if alluded to with wit.

So, it can be a detached report of the actual expeditions, but the passionate interest the Lord demonstrates in the natural beauties and bleak summits emerges: "Through a frame of fir trees rose the snow-white cone at Panding, pure and inaccessible like the heart of--a child." (170) In the "suffocating forests" of Sikkim, he compares to Walter Scott's medievalist tales the "tree sprites," "woodland elves," and "gnomes" of the Lepcha attendants in their finery, one as if a "knave of hearts." A man reminds him of "Friar Tuck" and his sturdy daughter a "stalwart wench." Similar to Michel Peissel's "Lords and Lamas" and "Mustang" (both reviewed by me Dec. 2012) in the 1960s, Ronaldshay views these Eastern Himalayan redoubts as feudal enclaves of a society which has vanished from Western Europe. He watches "mummers" at Gangtok in a Black Hat dance, and then it's into the "vault of blue," up into the Himalayas and even over into the disputed border of Tibet.

He notes, being a British official, the wrangles over the last century between the Crown and China, India, Bhutan, and local rulers over this strategic frontier, as around Chumbi. He passes into Bhutan "where the religious hierarchy vies the temporal government in pomp and circumstance," which charmed its first British visitors (see my review Nov. 2012 of Kate Teltscher's "The High Road to China") but repelled finicky Victorians. The Earl recounts in a spirited chapter on Bhutan's history its intricate contentions, and how those promoting the Raj met with liver-plucking, tendon-severing, morally "depraved" royals and serfs bent on practical jokes and diplomatic finagling.

The photos are handsome, the narrative style erudite and nimble, the scope limited but no more than many contemporary accounts narrowed by necessity, expense, and geography. It may be consulted by those wishing to contrast later visitors' reports with one of the first from the past century, at a time when few Europeans had entered these regions. While it documents the mindset of a sympathetic but skeptical British official, its mentality--no less than those books published today on the region--cannot help but preserve how these fabled lands have persisted in the popular imagination as eerie, difficult, and/or captivating. (In slightly altered form to Amazon US 12-15-12)

(P.S. This book cover is an Indian reprint, misspelling the once Lord, Earl, then Marquess' name, but it has a better picture [note the font size for the last of the three lands, tellingly] than the blue jacket with a heraldic design that I read as a 1987 reprint from Snow Lion Graphics, Berkeley CA. Unfortunately, while the author's b/w photos remain, the original's necessary fold-out map is absent. See: Lawrence Dundas, 2nd Marquess of Zetland [Wikipedia].

P.P.S. The Earl was unable to deliver the awarding of Knight Commander of the British Empire to Bhutan's first king, Ugyen Wangchuck, in 1921 as he was charged to do. As part of the Earl's string of surnames is "Lumley," given the Raj associations, I wonder. For, in 1931, Lt. Col. J.L.R. Weir and his wife returned to give the honor to the successor to the throne, the king's son Jigme. In 1997, their granddaughter, Srinigar-born Joanna Lumley of "Absolutely Fabulous" fame, followed their three-month-plus trek, in her BBC documentary and book "In the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.")

Monday, December 17, 2012

Kate Teltscher's "The High Road to China": Book Review

In 1780, the Panchen Lama asked the Qianlong Emperor of China to enter into friendship with the Governor of Hindostan (northern India), George Hastings. As he was also the head of the East India Company, which had been opposed by the same Chinese power in their attempts to trade more than tea with the profits the Company amassed after taking control of the Bengal markets, this appeal by the lama to the Emperor appeared bold or odd. Stymied by the imperial ruling, the Company had appealed to the lama and a diplomatic detour into the realm another way. Hastings and the Company reasoned that Tibet might afford a byway into China.

George Bogle's report on his 1774-5 expedition to the lama that sparked the amity between Tibet and Britain inspired Teltscher to assemble her retelling of this story, and how it prepared the way for the Lama's 1779-80 foray into the heart of the Chinese empire. (As the latest Dalai Lama was not an adult yet, the Panchen Lama reigned.) Bogle, a young Scotsman, had been chosen by Hastings as possessing the patience and acumen needed to cross Bhutan and win over a Tibet cautious about any alliance with the Company or the Crown, as the British peered north over Asian barriers. Out of cleverly chosen samples, the trade mission lobbied to sway the lama. "How else to seduce a nation than with a tempting display of luxury goods, scientific instruments and mechanical toys?" (21) 

The ensuing 2006 account efficiently summarizes and cites Bogle's correspondence, and archives from the British Library and Indian government. It moves through the material carefully, and draws upon primary sources often (although to my frustration, one I wanted to track down is listed as an unpublished paper.) A London-based academic, Teltscher admirably avoids cant or jargon, although I wish she had given in certain endnotes precise references from the Enlightenment thinkers she nods to. As she had been intrigued by her main source, her quotes allow us to see him evolve on his great journey, the first Briton and the first European in decades to enter much of this remote and mysterious region. Getting acclimated to Tibet, Bogle wrote Hastings: "I assumed the Dress of the Country, endeavoured to imitate their Manners, to acquire a little of the Language, drank a deluge of Tea with Salt and Butter, eat Beetle [betel-nut] in Bootan took Snuff and smoked Tobacco in Thibet, & would never allow myself to be out of Honour." (qtd. 110) He adjusts happily to wearing Siberian furs and playing chess with Tartar pilgrims, settling in nicely.

The last third of the book, after Bogle ends his visit to the Panchen Lama, relates a lot of Company bickering and diplomatic negotiations over the Lama's eventual plan to lobby for Chinese-Company trade routes that could revive exchange that did not depend on tea, or entrance via Canton. He also wanted to reconnect Tibet with the cradle of Buddhism, India, where since 1192 it had been eliminated by the invading Moghuls. Bogle, by 1779, was invited back to see the Lama in Tibet. 

This coincided with the Lama's plan to visit the Chinese emperor for his seventieth birthday at the imperial palace, the Xanadu-like Chengde, just north of the Great Wall. The monarch had built there between 1767 and 1771 a version (a third the size, a false facade) of the Dalai Lama's residence. The emperor regarded the Lama's visit as a sign of fealty; the Lama interpreted the Chinese monarch as a patron, backing the mission of his spiritual superior--a cognitive mismatch with long-term impact.

A year away, the Tibetan procession eastward took time. Smallpox loomed, Mongolia stretched, and the Qing dynasty lavished funds and presents on the retinue as it advanced. The Chinese were bent on making the Panchen Lama's approach a sign of submission to the grandeur of the Qing hegemony. Even the initial gesture at their meeting, an attempted kneeling in the Tibetan version, a prostration in the Manchu, demonstrates the symbolic meaning underlying the power of the two leaders, a bow of respect for one, a kowtow for the other. 

For the Lama, a model monastery had been erected. A few months later, the entourage together entered Peking. The go-between long employed by the Company, Purangir, reported that the Lama and emperor had discussed Hastings and the possibility of trade, but the Lama suddenly sickened and soon died from the dreaded smallpox. 

Bogle, who had been waiting for his passport, had to return to Calcutta amidst "office politics." He sent back to Britain a mixed-race daughter to be schooled. His career was rising when he too died suddenly, drowning of a hemorrhage at thirty-four. 

Hastings selected Samuel Turner for the next mission through Bhutan to Tibet, where he met the infant Panchen Lama, the Fourth incarnation. Turner grabbed the chance to remind the toddler of his predecessor's friendship with Hastings! But, relations deteriorated as Nepal sought expansion. The new Governor General, Lord Cornwallis, did not want to get involved, but the Qing army rushed into Tibet to subdue the Gurkhas; the Company stayed clear of the conflict.

Meanwhile, the British with a warship arrived at Canton's harbor, determined to impress the Qing. This 1793 display failed. But the British spread a rumor that the late Lama had been poisoned by a perfidious ruler who hated the British and those who tried to advance the interests of the Company.

The Qing cracked down on Tibet, justifying their suppression as a mistrust of British skulduggery. The Manchu cut the line between Bengal and Tibet, blocking trade at the Bhutanese frontier. Purangir died defending the Panchen Lama's monastery against robbers.

Bogle's three "natural-born" children were baptized, and two survived. These girls were raised in Scotland. For the next eighty years, their father's journal and papers were unedited, while his memory faded. 

Teltscher revives his friendship with the Lama, and she traces in her epilogue the Indian and British echoes of his journal's "valedictory image of Tibet" after it was published in 1876. One who read it was Sarat Chandra Das, the model for Rudyard Kipling's "Kim," (see my June 2012 review) where the "Teshoo Lama" also repeated from Bogle's own rendering. Teltscher senses that the relationship of the orphaned Irish boy Kim and the Lama may find its evolution from the Bogle-Panchen Lama's bond. She also finds in the bloody, bold Francis Younghusband incursion commanding 1903 Sikh forces into Tibet a fantasy that the leader imagined, the first (in his erring knowledge) to enter the realm since Bogle on "an official Mission." His team justified their invasion with Bogle's journal.

So does China today, as Teltscher cites a 2000 statement quoting the Panchen Lama's submission when Bogle had tried without Peking's permission to trade with Tibet. The book ends by restoring these key players to their place in history, while acknowledging that this moment passed and will never return with such enthusiasm and hopes as when the emperor, Lama, and Scotsman intersected. (Amazon US 11-21-12)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Teamhair Ghlas

Bhí ag scríobh léirmheas de 2003 dráma An Búdaí na Chaisleáin Cnucha le Séamus Ó hAnluain faoi deireanach. D'inis sé faoi teaghlach Shúillebháin i bruachbhaile i mBaile Átha Cliath. Creidim go raibh an drámadóir ag curtha i bhfoirm coiméide-dráma chomh insporáid a phósadh féin leis bhean a tí féin ó An Afriach Thuas.

Filleadh John, an mac níos óg, ó Londain go Éireann leis a leannán cailín nua, Rai. Tá sí ó theaghlach gorm a d'aistrigh ó An Chéinia go dtí an Bhreatain. Tá siad ag fhóghairt do gach anois ar an dá Búdaíochtái.

Osclaíonn coimhlint ina teach ar feadh Nollaig. Cruinníonn na Shúillebháin ar chéile mar is gnách. Nach bhfuil siad go leir ar sásta a chloisteáil ar an nuacht ó John agus Ria.

Bheul, léigh mé in aice leis a deireadh uaidh faoi comhtharlú ó bhéal. Tá fhíos agam, ar ndóigh, go raibh 'Teamhair' sa Ghaeilge agus na teangacha na hIndia dá. Insíonn Ó hAnluain faoi seo, go cuí.

Is Teamhair (ghlas nó bhán) an bandía na trócaire ar Hiondúchaí agus Búdaíochtaí. Is Cnoc na Teamhreach suiómh dóiteán i gContae na Mhí ag imeall na hAbhainn na Bóinne. Is maith liom an chomhtharlú ársa seo.

Green Tara. 

I was writing a review of the 2003 drama The Buddhist of Castleknock by Jim O'Hanlon recently. It tells of the Sullivan family in a suburb of Dublin. I believe that the dramatist put into the form of a comedy-drama for inspiration his own marriage to a woman from South Africa.

John, the younger son, returns from London to Ireland with his new girlfriend, Rai. She is from a black family who moved from Kenya to Britain. They announce that are now both Buddhists.

Conflict opens in the house during Christmas. The Sullivans gather together as usual. They are not all happy to hear the news from John and Ria.

Well, I read near the end of it a verbal coincidence. I know, of course, that "Tara" may be in Irish and the languages of India both. O'Hanlon tells about this, fittingly.

Tara (green or white) is the goddess of compassion for Hindus and Buddhists. The Hill of Tara is a ritual site in Co. Meath around the River Boyne. I like this ancient coincidence. 

Póstaer le/Poster by Matthew Amey

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Elsie Sze's "The Heart of the Buddha": Book Review

Marian disappears in Bhutan after reporting to her twin sister, Ruthie, her love for a monk, and her wish to follow him to Tibet. Ruthie in turn goes to Thimphu, the capital, to hunt for Marian and to learn the fate of her sister, her passion, and the monk, Lopen Pema, who shook up three lives. A Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based librarian, Elsie Sze conveys this story steadily.

Sze avoids the New Age rapture or predictable blather that some accounts of this Himalayan kingdom perpetuate. She integrates information into her story to situate Marian and Ruthie within the admittedly challenging scenario they find, and this allows a reader to consider what the two protagonists reflect upon--their Chinese Catholic upbringing, their Canadian identity, and their position in a realm where Buddhism is the state religion, where a benign monarchy and compliant press rule.

Set in late 1998 and early 1999, some changes that have come to Bhutan did not happen yet, and others challenging it are not addressed here.  The background shared by author and her twinned protagonists allows her to explore cultural identity and religious allegiance, and sets up a linguistic advantage used cleverly in the complications which ensue. Some of these for me were underwritten or--given the epistolary nature of how we learn about Marian's predicaments--muffled or distant in their impact. Certain elements click into place in a way that may happen far more in fiction than reality, but this is entertainment, not journalism. However, Sze hints at discontent in a half-Canadian, half-Bhutanese young woman, and this subplot could have been elaborated more to provide a perspective that early sections set up--how do those who cannot reconcile the "happiest place on earth" with their own ambitions, wanderlust, or self-worth fare in Bhutan?

Pema and Tashi, the young girl, represent two natives who find their restlessness drawing them away from their homeland. But forces conspire in the plot (it picks up after a slow start and expected exposition) to keep the momentum and to establish counter-forces, as the monk Pema generates an antagonist who ramps up the energy of the story. It's all handled efficiently and although some of the elaborated plot gets wrapped up in tidy fashion, Sze demonstrates her interest in the terrain, both spiritual and physical, that challenges her characters. Of course, the outsider's gaze dominates, but Sze does try to flesh out some natives to show their side of the scenario, as trekkers and tourists come and go.

An exchange early on shows the perceptions of Marian via Ruthie, filtering often rapturous accounts by Western devotees:
"'I want to write about my time there, something creative and true,' Marian said during one of our last suppers at home before she left. Holding a spoon of soup suspended between her bowl and lips, she looked into the distance with a hunger in her eyes that no food could satiate.

'My Sojourn in the Dragon Kingdom?' I volunteered.

'Or How I Lost My Heart in Bhutan, and Found My Soul,' she said.

"That's so platonic. Hope Bhutan lives up to your expectations.' I heard sarcasm in my voice, and added with redeeming sincerity, 'Will I get to read it?'

'Absolutely,' she said between slurps of soup. 'You may be the only one to read it. I have no intention to publish right now.'" (11)
Novels set in the "land of the thunder dragon" being rare compared to travel narratives and photojournalism, Elsie Sze has chosen an apt setting for her dramatization of promises made out of love as they contend against those out of duty. Reading groups or teachers might select this to spark discussion about the choices the main characters must make. (Betraying my own academic bent, I wish more about the monk's acquisition mid-way into the narrative had been provided: I was curious about the actual items sought.) Although apparently a self-published effort distributed by a small press venture, "The Heart of the Buddha" respectably adds to the short shelf of representations by Westerners of this increasingly romanticized realm, with a dose of reality in how people live there and deal with the opportunities and temptations brought in with foreigners. (Amazon US 11-25-12 without the extended block quotation.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kunzang Choden's "The Circle of Karma": Book Review

This 2005 novel, the first in English by a Bhutanese woman, tells over forty years the story of Tsomo. At fifteen, in the remote region of Kurtai, she soon falls in love with another woman's husband. This leads soon to pregnancy, but the results spur her not to a happy marriage, but family strife. She flees to pound stones to pave the first roads across the kingdom, putting this section somewhere about ten years after the Chinese suppression of Tibet. Years aren't mentioned; the novel unfolds in an indirect narration by Tsomo, who finds unhappiness often, and exiles herself to India.

It limits the range of her thoughts. Choden chooses a stolid, often nearly static, representation of her reflections. "She thought of her chipped enamel cup and decided to buy a nice white cup. Why should she drink out of a chipped cup. Mother would have been appalled. She believed chipped utensils brought bad fortune. Tsomo did not need any more bad fortune." (115)

Such a choice, while adding verisimilitude, slows its pace. Not much happens for long stretches, as it may in anyone's real life, but readers may find this stolid expression of a traditional woman's mentality a welcome alternative to the romanticized mindset applied to Bhutan (more often than India's) natives. After Tsomo leaves for the capital, Thimphu, to labor on the road south to India, she tells her similarly suffering friend: "Our stories are so similar and yet so different. Everything happened because we are women. You loved a man and suffered. I hated the man and suffered." (109)

Bad fortune follows her, but she realizes that she is complicit in perpetuating suffering, the circle of karma. "Women internalized their problems and grief and believed that they were all at fault. Women were the thieves, stealing husbands from each other, living in suspicion and hate." (271) She vows to reform her life and seek a better path. As a woman, she is already considered without the merit necessary to find enlightenment on her own, but she longs to be a nun. She cannot read or write, and her second marriage to a feckless would-be lay monk falters, but strengthens her series of pilgrimages to holy sites once she settles in Kalimpong (in India's former Buddhist principality of Sikkim) to weave and support herself, while she seeks a cure for her distended belly, her "cursed karmic illness."

By the story's end, surviving brutality, poverty, betrayal, and abuse at the hands of men, she finds fulfillment through her religious quest. Buddhism here is integrated into her life so thoroughly that it is shown usually as natural, as a source of guidance and not suppression. Her guru Rinpoche tells her: "Remember only those moments of harmony." These are few and far between for great stretches of Tsomo's life, but Choden tries to realistically align her own power to control her destiny as much as she can. Returning to a changed Bhutan, where the capital hosts many women who have been unmoored from customary roles in villages, Tsomo now stands for a generation caught between the timeless roles to which religion and rulers and husbands have relegated them, and their own confrontations with modernity and the declining control of the monasteries and lords over women.

P.S. You can learn more about Choden and her restoration of her family's former feudal estate at Ogyen Choling in the east in "Bhutan Heartland," reviewed by me Dec. 2012. Amazon US 12-8-12)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Launsell Taudevin's "With a Dzong in My Heart:" Kindle e-book Review

Recently, e-books self-published or by similar initiatives with publishers have proliferated on all topics. Bhutan among them, and this reissue of a 1994 title for Kindle in 2010 adds to the lengthening list. This Australian-born, Singapore-based, nomadic pan-Asian financial consultant offers a flintier glance at this faraway kingdom, from an extended stay earlier on in its transition to modernization.

Contrasted with So You Are Thinking of Going to Bhutan by James W. Gould (Kindle, 2012), this is extensive and well organized. Unlike Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Epic Snowman Trek by Mark Horrell (Kindle, 2011), Taudevin favors then-emerging centers, even though these were in more primitive, less populated form a quarter-century ago. Compared to Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson (Collca e-books; Kindle, 2012), "With a Dzong in My Heart" (much more drolly and dryly) breaks from the mountains to cover the sights and the capital but shares an ethnological interest in the impacts of a professional Westerner's 1988 stint.

He's posted there in Thimphu to serve the Departments of Agricultural-Animal Husbandry-Forestry, so his perspective alters from the trekker or tourist. Apropos: "The difference between a tourist and an aid worker is that the tourist has to pay for his travels, while the aid worker travels for his pay." He observes from "Columbus to World Bank experts, travelers carry a multi edged sword of opportunity in the one hand and a dagger of cultural, even human destruction in the other. It makes no difference whether the traveler is in an air-conditioned limousine or carries a backpack." Development enters with experts like himself, along with destruction of a culture he seeks to capture as it globalizes.

The "patient chaos" of Calcutta, where he waits for a week, earns his clinical eye as an freelance aid worker assigned to Bhutan by the Asian Development Bank. Coming from Jakarta, he notes the effects of colonialism and how they endure even as a bit of his hard-won tropical cynicism acquired in facing down bureaucrats and toadies eases with the smiles he notices in India's crush on the streets. Back then, he can't find much to read in Calcutta about his destination, so he lands knowing little.

But he explains the architecture of its stacked dwellings smartly, enough detail to get beneath the typical tourist's glance. He rides a Bondey farm's monorail, built by Japanese. He passes Dobji Dzong, restored to house the kingdom's worst criminals. He inspects the Indian border town of Phuntsholing and the Bengali counterpart of Jaigoan with its predictable jostle and bustle. And, he considers how due to the kingdom's single lateral road's exposure to landslides, trade must often detour down into India before returning up to Bhutan.

Although the capital, Thimphu, was one-eighth its present population, the dogs, flies, stench, and cynical bargaining appear in firm place before his jaundiced gaze. "The problem was to avoid being becoming mesmerized by the exotic at the expense of the reality." He notes, for instance, amidst the centuries of accumulated cat urine, dust, and pigeon droppings at the decrepit but bustling Wangdiphodrang Dzong the monks' combination of devotion and lassitude, or the trash littering the monastic courtyards at Paro. 

Taudevin shares with Michel Peissel's 1968 immersion into a then still-feudal land (recounted in Lords and Lamas: A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan) a keen eye for bureaucratic sinecures and rank-pulling functionaries who thwart him; he plays the game of giving in to get ahead. He glimpses the reality behind the royalty, as opposed to many accounts when the authors thank the monarchy in acknowledgments which may obscure the disparities in evidence.

However, he welcomes the chance to get away from Thimphu (much as Peissel), and he marvels at how "your every sense is controlled by the splendid confines of what nature allows you to see." A glimpse of a farmhouse, a dzong, a splendid vista follows, as the winding highway and the slow pace forces one to adjust to a landscape brooding and spectacular.

As his rainy stay lengthens, he misses the livelier Asian posts of his career--and vegemite. "All too often, I experienced the sensation of being in a deserted street, windows shuttered on all sides, hiding Bhutan from me and me from Bhutan." He recognizes Bhutan's allure; he understands the gap between those who live there content and himself, nostalgic for a return to more unsettled settlements to the south. He tries golf, he watches soccer. It's often a testy narrative, but his direct personality and blunt thoughts make this an honest report.

He explains Mahayana Buddhism well; he delves deep into bodhisattva concepts, six realms of  existence, and chhortens. I learned about the Tibetan chhaktshello ritual and syllabic meanings for "om mani peme hung." He finds that the many small lhakang chapels, without a fixed center,  gather the viewer to find enlightenment around one, "somewhere inevitably, gently." He considers how Western attitudes draw away from the uncertain, the intuitive, the open-ended. "We are afraid of impermanence, and live our lives by fixed principles and plans. Is that not a paradox in itself?"

Speaking of fixations, some typos enter; slips crept in. The second rather than the third son traditionally entered a monastery; Fr. [William] Mackey, the Jesuit who founded Bhutan's first college, was not American but Canadian; the ubiquitous phallic decorations are attributed more to stand for the yab-yum generation of compassion or to ward off evil, than they are "fertility symbols."

However, this proves an engaging set of reflections. He segues from a vandalized, littered campers' shelter on a miserable night high on Phojuding to a scene of a funeral below down the slope, and then to a discussion of death rituals. He connects more cheerful visits to Thujida and Cherri to a poignant sense of what travelers claim to find but what may elude them, as journeys such as his, removed from family for long periods, do not broaden the mind but only one's parameters. Among these, he must search for meaning, and wonder what his photos (lost, stolen?) cannot capture from Bhutan for him. (Amazon US 12-9-12)

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)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Kevin Grange's "Beneath Blossom Rain": Book Review

Twenty-four days, half a million steps, 216 miles, eleven mountain passes (seven over 16,000 feet): how does a surfer-screenwriter hopeful from Orange County (albeit, as many, a transplant--from New Hampshire) push himself to his limits? Quests appear regularly (this is one of three recent accounts, for instance, I've found on this Snowman Trek alone). So, what distinguishes Grange's 2007 mission, as his subtitle explains, "Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World"?

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)

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.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

James W. Gould's "So You Are Thinking of Going to Bhutan": e-Book Review

At 8400 words, this reads like a series of blog entries about the history, religion, and culture of a bit of Bhutan as seen by the author over a week, in between his Indian journey in from Calcutta and out to New Delhi. Gould has written other e-books on visiting that nation and a few others, so I assume this follows the pattern. Very straightforward: he lists among his advice earplugs to ward off barking dogs, acetolizide for altitude sickness, exchanging little money for tangerines and souvenirs as it's hard to transfer it back, and temple socks to wear to avoid butter spilt from the lamps--there, one must not point with a finger to a statue of the Buddha, but only with the palm of the hand.

James W. Gould lands in Paro at the airport. He visits the capital, Thimphu, sees the National Library, an arts and crafts school, textiles, and a Takin reserve. Next, off he goes to the Dochula Pass with views of the Himalayas. Punakha, his destination, has a dzong (monastery-fortress center) called, promisingly, the "Palace of Happiness." His appended itinerary notes that he was to tour "Wangdue Phodrang, an old, isolated town" but I am not sure if he did, as the original schedule apparently was altered and his account does not elaborate on this stop.

He recommends, again I am unsure if he narrates this location explicitly, to backtrack to Paro's dzong, "The Fortress on the Heap of Jewels." He does devote time to recommend a Leki-knockoff walking stick for the formidable 700 steps up to often photographed "Tiger's Nest" monastery. A grueling ascent despite the tearoom midway up the famous trail, which dissuades many from its incredible views high up a cliff face. Even though he lost a toenail and blistered his feet, he praises the sight. He advises that the afternoon be spent at Kyichu Lhakhang and the National Museum.

Nearly 30 photos (my Kindle is b/w) accompany this primer. He delves into the titular theme near the end. It's the best part of the book, as he considers the impact of the Gross National Happiness plan, the urbanization of Thimphu and the diminution in subsistence farming, the struggle as the King gives up power to a possibly corrupt or incompetent constitutional democracy, and how the lack of sudden wealth (it rests in a steadier resource, hydropower) may be a blessing as modernization inevitably arrives. While 10% of the people are monks (government-supported now), 10% also get diarrhea yearly. Challenges loom for literacy and healthcare and skills to be taught. Given the alternative to be crushed underfoot (China), the Bhutanese as the mouse opt for riding the back (India) of the proverbial elephant, caught between two emerging superpowers.

If the narrative had followed the game plan, it would have flowed easier. As it is, it feels like a term paper of basic Buddhism combined with an array of notes from one on a brief tour. Ten or so typos mar the finish. I would have liked more depth about what he saw and what it did to him, rather than standard recitations of dharma and historical summations found easily elsewhere. Given the energy and expense exacted to tour this region, while the results of his quick tour have satisfied Gould, insight as to why this reward comes about remains too often too reticent here. (Amazon US 10-31-12)