Himalaya by Michael Palin

Suzie Eisfelder

Another book by the great Michael Palin. I do wonder if Palin is tired of having words such as ‘great’ attached to his name. All of them are well deserved, but I just wonder how he feels about it all.

I’ve no idea where or when this book appeared in my house. It was published in this edition in 2005 and I don’t think it’s been here this long. And that’s all the provenance I can give you for this copy.

Himalaya is six months of Palin’s life. With a very small crew he embarks on a journey from one end to the other. They started in the Khyber Pass and finished in Bangladesh. It is full of a lovely narrative which illustrates the beauty of the region they are passing through and also illustrates the people they meet.

He’s quite damning with some of the things he says. He talks about the railway that was built up to the Khyber Pass. His sentence ‘Construction began in the 1920s, amply fulfilling the criteria for a colonial railway, being both expensive and difficult to build.’ A very tongue in cheek sentence telling us that in order for it to be a colonial railway it had to be both difficult to build and expensive. I wonder if he’s also thinking about who might have profited from that expense.

We get a bare bones discussion on the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The British seemed to do all they could to create problems with the location of the border, only giving a few hours notice of the exact details. Palin notes there was much death and even more migration with the British army staying out of sight and not helping to calm matters. You can read the book if you want more detail on how he talks about this dreadful time. Or Wikipedia is a big help.

I love the passage about Dal Lake in Kashmir. Apparently outboard motors are banned so it’s really peaceful. The distraction to enjoying the scenery are some flower sellers. But not content with selling flowers they’ll try to sell seeds as well. If you’re in a car it’s easy to wind up the window and end the conversation. But if both parties are in rowing boats then it’s not so easy. Palin ended up buying six-colour lotus seeds, no, they didn’t make it home.

Here they are, in Nepal. Apparently three Israeli students were approached by Maoists for money. One of the Maoists was armed so the students eventually gave over some money. And received a receipt in return. I smiled broadly on reading this passage. Terry Pratchett must have known this as he had his thieves issuing receipts in Ankh-Morpork.

And when they went over the Chinese border in Nepal I found another moment that seems so familiar now. This was recently after the SARS epidemic was over so he filled in a quarantine form. The man in the white coat checked it, pointed a gun between Palin’s eyes, looks at it and then writes down his temperature. This is what happened early in COVID. I always asked the person if I was alive, anything to lighten the mood, sometimes they laughed. We bought a new thermometer as soon as stocks became available at our chemist. It became a source of great joy while I had COVID, with the whole family taking everyone’s temperature.

There are many other things of interest I could talk about. Such as the fact that China, despite being such a large country, only has one time-zone. Or the fact that Sir George Everest used to pronounce his name ‘Eev-rest’. His name is on the mountain but I’ve not heard anyone pronounce it how Sir George pronounced it. It’s interesting how English morphs.

Essentially, it’s a great book, I enjoyed it tremendously. If I can just track down the documentary series which could accompany this book I’ll be happy. From all I’ve heard, and the little I’ve seen, this area of the world is stunningly beautiful. I’m unlikely to ever visit so reading other people’s insights is the best I can do. If you want to buy the book here is a link. If you just want to click the link and make me happy, feel free.

  1. thanks for the review. I spent an enjoyable week on a houseboat on the lake in Kashmir and a few days hiking in the Himalayas in 1989. I have ordered a copy of the book. You can watch the documentary on GooglePlay for $16.99 for the 6 episodes or you can order the DVD from UK. It is region 2 so you will need a multi-region DVD player. Michael Palin's series In Iraq is streaming on SBS On Demand.

    1. It sounds wonderful. Glad you made it there.

      That's good to know. I might watch his series on Iraq while I can and then think about Himalaya after that.

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