In her new book High, Erika Fatland traverses the Himalaya. Her journey starts in Kashgar in Western China. From her starting point in Xinjiang, she crosses the border into Pakistan and travels down the Karakorum highway onto Gilgit, Chitral and the Swat Valley. Dropping down to Lahore her journey takes her across the Punjab and into Indian Kashmir, then Leh, Manali, Dharmsala, Darjeeling and Sikkim before venturing onto Bhutan and Arunachal and Assam. Then in a second later trip to Nepal, Fatland goes trekking to Everest base camp, down to Lumbini and onto Upper Mustang then to before crossing into Tibet and onto Lake Manasarovar. After a short visit to a tightly-controlled Lhasa, her journey finishes in Zhongdian, the so-called Shangri La in Yunnan province.
Throughout the book her adventures are supported by a large amount of historical background. Fatland weaves history and politics into interviews and snapshots of daily life providing a dynamic portrayal of a dramatic landscape, home to some of the world’s most contentious borders, a region on the frontlines of climate change and one with a fascinating history. This is mixed in with information on religious and cultural practises along with anecdotes of western explorers and local legends, helping provide a rich representation of the areas she travels to.
Starting in Xinjiang, we are given a portrayal of an “inauthentic” and a repressed Xinjiang. Then in Pakistan, as she travels down the Karakorum highway, Fatland explains the dramatic impact climate change has had on the region and explains the dangers of rapidly disappearing glaciers. We are also given insights on Pakistan’s buddhist history, with a vivid description of the ruins of Takht-i-Bahi an ancient buddhist monastery. Fatland also speaks with some of the parents of the 130 children killed by the Taliban in December 2014 in Swat, their testimony is powerful and highlights ongoing political issues in northern Pakistan.
In India we hear about Mcleodganj, home to the Dalai Lama, and the hidden valleys of Spiti, the so-called “little Tibet”,before moving onto India’s North Eastern frontier. Here Fatland meets an Anglo-Indian woman searching for information on her father who died fighting in Malaya during WW2, her search hindered by the fact she doesn’t even know his name. There are also conversations with Naga independence campaigners and she goes hunting for remains of the old Burma road linking India with China.
In Nepal, a discussion on the child goddess Kumari is followed by a trek to Everest base camp, one of the busiest trekking routes in the country, then a trip to Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang, where Fatland has a conversation with Lo Gyalpo, the former king of Lo. Following these trekking sections there are discussions with struggling migrant workers in Kathmandu, interviews with volunteers working at centres to help women and combat in human trafficking, along with interviews with trans beauty contestants and debates about chhaupadi.
Then in the last section of the book she talks about pilgrims in Lake Manasarovar before heading to Yunnan where we hear how the Chinese government leant on Hilton’s famous novel Lost Horizon and the exoticism of the name Shangri-la to rename the town of Zhongdian in an attempt to kickstart tourism by changing its name.
This detailed and idiosyncratic account of travel through a fascinating region, is not without some flaws. There are some comments about the locals she meets that come across as tone-deaf. There is also some occasional clunkiness in phrasing and word choice that might admittedly be an artefact of translation from the original Norwegian. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that much has already been written on the Himalaya, Fatland’s pedigree as a travel-writer is much in evidence.