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.
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.)