Sunday, May 06, 2012

[Books] Book Look: Trespassers on the Roof of the World, by Peter Hopkirk

Book Look: Trespassers on the Roof of the World, by Peter Hopkirk: I read this as part of research on a writing project I am toying with for when I'm done with the current writing project I'm toying with, and I was mesmerized.

The stories concern the opening of Tibet to the outside world. Geographically isolated and inhospitable and relentlessly xenophobic, Tibet was one of the last great mysteries of the age of exploration. A dangling forbidden fruit, the intrepid came from far and wide to try to be the first ones to get a taste.

Much of this takes place at the peak of the British Empire and the major concern for the British was Russia. It was feared that were Russia to make inroads and alliances with Tibet, that would put India's northern border in peril. The earliest journeys were completed by Indian nationals, called “pundits", in the service of the Raj. These were astounding men who surreptitiously counted paces to measure distances over thousands of miles and used boiling water measure altitude. Even so, none ever made it to the ultimate goal, the Tibetan capitol of Lhasa.

Many non-English Westerners also tried to reach Lhasa for various reasons -- gold, evangelism, adventure and the royalties that would come from the books they wrote. These included at least two women. All were turned back. (A Japanese explorer, who for obvious reasons could pose as one who belonged, did make it for a brief time, but even he was eventually discovered.) The Tibetans, showing remarkable reticence, often simply blocked their paths for months and eventually offered guidance and supplies to make their return.

It took an armed expedition of some 5000 soldiers under British command, and no small amount of violent action, before the first modern white man set foot in Lhasa. Although originally suspicious and hostile toward the British for this action, the Tibetans came in time to become friends with the British, perhaps especially so because the alternatives for the technologically backwards plateau were so much worse, as they proved to be with the 1950 invasion by Mao's forces.

Hopkirk is the premier historian of “The Great Game" -- the cold war between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia -- but he eschews the academic and weaves the facts into wonderful narratives. Whatever his bona fides as a historian, Hopkirk is a gifted storyteller. (In this way he reminds me a bit of Byron Farwell, whose work I've written of in the past. Both take history of of the dusty shelves with style and a tilt towards celebrating Imperial derring-do. This, I expect, sends purist historians into fits.) Should you read Trespassers...? Sure. It's a fascinating point in history that has relevance for the region today (Free Tibet!!) magnified by its telling through wonderfully written stories. I was sorry when I finished it. I need to pick me up some more Hopkirk.