Levison Wood: Walking The Himalayas

Walking The Himalayas cover“You come all this way to see the views and get out of breath? What a strange people you are.”

This is the successor volume to Levison Wood‘s Walking The Nile, which recorded his journey on foot from the source of the Nile to the Mediterranean. It’s a companion to his TV series of the same name on Channel 4.

Walking the Himalayas was always going to be a more nebulous undertaking than walking the Nile. There’s no definite start and end point to the Himalayan range, and no unique line of travel. Wood’s route takes him well south of the mountaineering traverse carried out by Graeme Dingle & Peter Hillary in 1981 (detailed in their book First Across The Roof Of The World, which I’ve reviewed here). Dingle & Hillary’s route linked Kanchenjunga in Sikkim to K2 in Pakistan. Wood covers more of the range, from the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan to Gankhar Puensum in Bhutan, but by travelling at a lower level he avoids much weaving to-and-fro, so he actually covers less distance than Dingle and Hillary—a “mere” 1,700 miles compared to their 3,200 miles.

The book makes a fine companion to the television series. It records much that didn’t make it past the editing process for television, as well as providing space for Wood to give us a little history of the region, as well as some personal reminiscences. If I have a grumble, it’s the way the narrative blithely edits out the intermittent presence of a film crew, and indeed proceeds as if there’s no TV documentary involved at all. For instance, it’s difficult to believe that the “spontaneous” decision to hire a helicopter and fly off to look at Mount Everest didn’t have something to do with the involvement of a film director and producer lurking in the background. But Wood isn’t alone in this sort of thing—Gus Casely-Hayford managed to get right through his book, The Lost Kingdoms Of Africa, without ever mentioning the documentary film crew who were travelling with him.

Wood’s book, in contrast to Dingle and Hillary’s, isn’t really about the mountains at all. Apart from a high col at the start of the journey, and a nameless ridge at the end, he doesn’t do much deliberate  mountain climbing; he walks on roads a lot of the time. Instead, he’s much more interested in the people he meets and the cultures he encounters along the way.

The book gives us all the major incidents that turned up on television—crossing wonky bridges and eroded paths, dealing with tense border guards, wading through crocodile-infested rivers, losing the route on rough ground at nightfall, trekking through the monsoon, evacuating a rapidly flooding camp at dead of night, and of course the near-fatal car crash that interrupted (and very nearly ended) the journey. But we also get to read about Wood’s anxious stay in Kabul before the journey started, holed up in a fortified safe-house under the care of a security consultant. Then there’s his audience with the Dalai Lama, in which the wily old sage quickly identified Wood’s journey as potentially good publicity for the Tibetan cause; and his meeting with the Hindu holy man Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, whose PA reminded Wood, “Don’t forget to like us on Facebook.” We also get to hear a great deal more about Wood’s longstanding friendship with his Nepali walking companion and guide, Binod Pariyar.

Through it all, Wood comes across as the same cheerful, calm, reasonable person that he seems to be on television. There’s a suggestion in the book that he might have had enough of long-distance walking—but then, there was a suggestion at the start of the book that he’d had enough of long-distance walking. So watch this space, I think.

(Added March 2017: And so it turned out. I’ve now reviewed Wood’s next book, Walking the Americas. Here’s a link to the relevant post.)

Note: For interest, I’ve prepared the map below comparing the route taken by Wood with the earlier traverse by Dingle & Hillary. (Both routes were interrupted by problems with direct border crossings, necessitating detours to official crossing points, but Dingle & Hillary incurred a much bigger gap at the Kashmiri Line of Control.)

Comparison of Himalayan traverses
Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood (2015) and Dingle & Hillary (1981)
Click to enlarge
(Original base map)

4 thoughts on “Levison Wood: Walking The Himalayas”

  1. Will check out this book on amazon.ca. sounds good.
    Can’t imagine anyone walking the Himalayas mostly on “roads”, which may be a rather loose description of the tracks that feature in the Himalayas ( in the Kumbu for sure )

  2. His Walking the Nile is also excellent.
    From the TV series, it’s clear that surfaced roads feature fairly frequently, complete with the danger from heavy truck and bus traffic. He strings together a lot of towns – Gilgit, Srinagar, Dharamsala, Shimla, Rishikesh, Pokhara, Kathmandu, Thimphu, so he’s walking along major transport arteries in many parts of the journey. He’s in the wilds mainly at the beginning (west of Gilgit), the end (east of Thimphu), and also in the remote western and eastern parts of Nepal.

  3. I feel the title of this book is misleading. When one thinks of the Himalayas, one thinks of the high barren mountains above the tree line. For Indians, some of the most famous parts of the Himalayas include Gangotri, Kendar Nath, Gurudwara, etc and the sources of the Ganges. Wood takes a route that is very far from the true Himalayas walking along roads in tropical jungles hundreds of kilometers from the true Himalayan mountains. He performed an impressive physical feat – but he did not “Walk the Himayalays.”

    And I agree that not mentioning the film crew was unforgivable. I had no idea until I read the acknowledgements.

    This, and his repeated reference to “rattlesnakes” in Walking the Nile have made me rather dubious of this guy. I don’t think he’s an explorer-traveller in the old sense of the word. This feels like some light-weight, pseudo-adventure kind of travel writing.

    1. He is, I suppose, rather lumbered by having to come up with a short themed title for the TV series – his third trip, Walking The Americas, is even more nebulously named, and even more misleading about what to expect from the journey.
      It’s certainly a very different expedition from Dingle & Hillary’s hardcore traverse of the Himalayas.
      I guess if we draw a line between Dingle & Hillary and Michael Palin, we could plot Wood somewhere along it, perhaps slightly towards the Palin end.
      I very much enjoy the books (and the TV programmes) but, while they do contain the occasional daunting adventure when things go wrong, I certainly wouldn’t classify them as featuring any kind of exploration.

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