It has been a long while since I read any new (to me) fantasy. I’ve re-read Lord of the Rings a few times, will probably give Dune a second go at some point and, like millions of others, am waiting for George R. R. Martin to pull his finger out and finish Game of Thrones. But, those aside, and after cramming as much of the genre as I could into myself during early years, I kind of lost interest.
Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is not new – the first volume came out in 1995 and the series was completed in 2000 – but I’d never heard of it until I visited Scotland last autumn and was given all three volumes – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The first is by far the best. Northern Lights concerns the tale of Lyra, a deliciously repulsive young girl whose adolescence in an alternate-world Oxford is interrupted when her estranged father comes by and reveals a horrible secret. Lyra is then for all practical purposes kidnapped by her estranged mother, who she finds out to be horrid; Lyra escapes, takes up with alternate world travellers (gypsies) and sets off to the northern part of the planet.
Lyra, like all people in her world, has a daemon, a shape-changing animal that expresses the type of personality a person is. Children’s daemons, like children’s personalities, change; adults’ daemons are set in their form. The link between a person and her daemon is sacred and breakable only upon death – or so everyone believes. But both Lyra’s father and mother, for very different reasons, are finding ways to break those links. Lyra’s mother is trying, if not out of gratuitous cruelty, at least on behalf of the forces of nastiness (a kind of other-world Catholic Church); to her father, however, the severance of the bond is for a greater good.
What’s delightful about the first book is the inventiveness, the charming bond between daemon and child, the fact that Lyra is an obnoxious child but one who is interesting, and the setting, for most of the book, in the frozen wastes of the north. With the exception of a hook at the finale into the trilogy – which has the feeling of a hook grafted on – the book stands alone.
The second volume, The Subtle Knife, introduces Will, a boy in this universe, who stumbles into an alternate universe – and another – and another. Eventually he stumbles into one that Lyra has found herself in, and the two become friends. They become part of a cosmic conflict which builds further in the third part, The Amber Spyglass. This conflict is central to the plot, but I never really understood it. Sure, good versus evil, but why now? And the finale happens off-camera so I wasn’t sure who won or, come to that why it mattered. Or even why it happened – it seemed more of a plot device to bring Lyra and Will to their destiny than part of the plot. But, by then, Lyra has become such a sweet, well-behaved little girl that she’s completely uninteresting. As to WIll, I struggled to be interested in him from page one.
The two later volumes reminded me, in other words, why I lost interest in the genre: unchecked inventiveness. In Northern Lights, the inventiveness serves the plot. In the final battle of The Amber Spyglass, weird creatures are being introduced for no other reason than to be paired off with other weird creatures in mutual annihilation. Where Tolkien had orcs, goblins, trolls and elves, dwarves and hobbits each with distinct histories, Pullman’s creatures are a menagerie of placeholders, none convincing and few of them interesting.
Which is a shame. There were lots of parts of the trilogy I enjoyed. But somehow, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
Hong Kong Review of Books asked me to review two books on Hong Kong. Here are the reviews for Hong Kong on the Brink and Hong Kong Confidential.
I stayed at Rhona and Hugh’s excellent AirBnB in November. Apart from being wonderful hosts and fully deserving their five star rating, they introduced me to the writing of Sebastian Barry.
Days Without End is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century in America, and follows Thomas McNulty and John Cole through their military lives. A Long Long Way is also a soldier’s story, the life of Willie Dunne in the trenches in the First World War. So, two war stories. I’m not a great fan of war fiction as poetry to me seems the only way to do justice to the horror that is war, but these came pretty close.
Days Without End sees Thomas start as a teenage dancer, dressed in woman’s clothes at a coal-mining town. I have no doubt that Sebastian did his research and that such things happened in the lawless America of the mid-nineteenth century; I am far less convinced that the relationship between Thomas, who ends the book as a cross-dressing gay man, and a his partner, John, would go undetected or unpunished in that era – and that relationship is the plot. The wars, the atrocities against the native Americans, their effective adoption of a young girl, are all well-depicted in their futility, brutality and tenderness, yet are background. The plot is the relationship, yet, a homophobic era, Thomas’s and John’s fellow soldiers don’t even remark on it. This detracted from the overall believability of the story, which is a shame. It wouldn’t have taken much to address this.
A Long Long Way was the better book. The boredom, terror and strangeness of war are laid bare, as is its ultimate futility. What let me down was the ending, and this on two points. The first was a plot twist I found difficult to believe – not because I thought the betrayer would not do the thing that he did, but because I didn’t see how he was able to do it. But, more than that, the final two pages of the book shift voice – we go from being inside Willie’s head to outside. The book, it is true, starts outside his head when he was born. But there are 290 intervening pages, and all the shift did was tie up a loose end.
The plots of both books are linear, with almost no twists or turns, but this does is not to say there are predictable. What distinguishes the books, however, is not their plots, but the writing. Days Without End is told in the first-person using a semi-literate voice, yet one with great lyricism. Here’s a short passage:
Two miles on we got the shackles of heat lying on us again, so hot the country starts to shimmer like the desert. We had the sun half behind us to the south which was some mercy. Wasn’t a man among hadn’t had his nose skinned off a hundred times. Bear grease is good for that but it stinks like an arsehole and anyhow we ain’t seen bears for a long time.
And from the better-educated Willie Dunne of A Long Long Way
He sang like an angel might sing if an angel were ever so foolish as to sing for mortal men. His voice seemed strange and high, but not a counter-tenor. It just seemed to put a knife into the air; the notes were so clear and strong. Like a true singer, he could sing soft with strength, and sing loud without hurting the ears.
The language is polished and lyric: a pleasure to read. This wonderful use of the language made the books worth their flaws. I’m not sure I’ll finish Sebastian’s canon, but these two books were well worth the read. So thank you, Rhona and Hugh, for introducing me to his writing.
I am not a fan of Stephen King. After pressure from a few friends, I tried Carrie and found it puerile; I gave him a second chance with The Shining and found it only little less. It may be that I’m not much into the horror genre, but I found the plots were just a little too obvious (and I have not seen either movie, so hadn’t much of an idea what to expect). The characterisation was alright, but the characters themselves were neither very deep nor very interesting, and although the characters had internal conflicts, the external and supernatural events drove the plot as much as those conflicts.
So it was until I read Stephen King’s On Writing.
Part autobiography and part craft, it is a small book with much to offer. The first chunk of the book deals with him and his brother’s upbringing in a low-income family in the 1950s and 60s. The story is told with grace and humour, and goes through childhood, adolescent, the death of his mother, and his early success. By the time we come to an end of this, we are with a successful author who is drinking and snorting himself into a deep hole. He doesn’t tell us how he got out of that hole, but he did.
The second half deals with writing itself. He is not prescriptive on this: he presents it as what works for him, but claims no authority on what works for others. Like Robert Ludlum, King starts not with a plot, but with a situation and a character, and more or less leaves the character to get on with it. He doesn’t plot the book in advance, though he does have a notion of where he wants him or her to go. He goes through the processes of revision and rewriting, and the final audience (in his case, his lifelong wife, Tatty). He’s encouraging without setting expectations. All around a nice work to read. So perhaps I’ll give some of his later work a try one of these days.
King’s approach is in sharp contrast to that in Jonathan Falla’s The Craft of Fiction. Falla teaches at a creative writing school, and his book is for all practical purposes a text book. As such, it is quite prescriptive, setting out a methodology. Like King, he acknowledges that different authors have different approaches, but, unlike King, there is a kind of sub-text that the best approach is the one he proposes: a kind of fossicking approach where we wander out, find characters, find situations, insert conflict and – boom-ta-ra! – plot.
(An interesting approach to plot surfaced in an interview in the FT with William Boyd, starts with the closing scene, works backwards from there, researching in detail his settings, and not writing the book until it’s been extensively planned (Sophie Hannah, who writes psychological thrillers, said at a book that she also plots and plans before she writes), so not every author starts with the situation.)
Most of The Craft, however, is taken up with the intricacies of craft, and in this respect it is useful in a way that King’s is not. If you take the book as a load of hints, it is very useful. My main criticism is that one of the most important parts of writing – editing and revision – is crammed into the last of seventeen chapters. By contrast, King gives this process a lot of space, including reproductions of some of his own revisions.
Not a bad complement to these two is Scott Meredith’s Writing to Sell. The late Scott Meredith was the agent of P.G. Wodehouse and, as such, had a large hand in changing the American publishing business from the collegial one it was (and that Britain’s still is) to the much more hard-nosed, auction-driven business it’s become. Unlike King and Falla, Meredith devotes quite a lot of pages to the plot. Any sellable book – and the only reason to write is to sell – consists of a series of escalating problems and, at each step, the solution to one problem creates a bigger problem.
This is, of course, very formulaic. Meredith makes no apologies for this: his book is what the title states. Writing to sell is not writing to win a Nobel prize (although Camus, Hemingway and other laureates were bestsellers of their day), but to make a living.
That is something to which I aspire, and, though I’m losing hope it will ever happen, which brings me to the last and most surprising book in this little review: Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, 2018. The last time I bought one of these was over a decade ago, and it has grown. It now contains lots of useful articles by authors, agents and everyone else in the process, most just a thousand words or so long, so very digestible. The nicest thing about what has become a collection of essays is that there is no theme, no authoritative voice to put up with. That, plus an up-to-date list of everyone you may need to know in the British publishing industry, makes it a sterling acquisition.
On 17 July, 2014, MH017 was shot down over the Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. Putin’s response was quick and decisive: he declared that the person who perpetrated this act was a common murderer, that the Federation of Russian States would spare no effort in hunting him down, and hunting down the people who had sold him the weapon he used. He offered full cooperation with Interpol, and the Dutch and Malaysian authorities (most victims were Dutch and Malaysia), and –
No, he did none of the above. He squandered the opportunity for Russia to come out of this crime as the good guy. Instead, he covered up, stone-walled, and did everything possible to ensure that that common criminal walks free to this day. And that the relatives of those murdered will never see justice done.
Stories such as this are one reason that the world needs something like the International Criminal Court: there are all too many countries where the very people who are most guilty are those with the most impunity, and the relatives of their victims will never see justice done.
The US never signed up to the ICC. It has always resisted the idea that any American can be tried by a non-American court. But the US misses the point: it’s clear from the charter of the ICC that it will step in only where an individual country’s institutions have failed, or cannot be trusted to act with impartiality and due process. Despite its excesses and biases, US institutions more or less work, and can more or less be trusted to act with impartiality and follow due process. So, although the ICC may be investigating alleged war crimes by US soldiers in Afghanistan, it’s unlikely that those soldiers would ever be in the dock in the Hague: the ICC would submit its report to US authorities and let them get on with it.
Which makes it disappointing on two counts that John Bolton went into mega-arsehole mode in the UN earlier this week, withdrawing ICC funding, etc., etc. If US soldiers were committing war crimes in Afghanistan – and I’m not saying they were – then a US that practised the justice it preaches would say something like “bring it on, let us be part of this.” And second, to this day, we live in a world where tyrants get away with murder: the US has not merely reduced the change of bringing those criminals to book; it has sided with them. Opportunity squandered.
Update on 19 Sep. The UNHCR report on the Burmese army’s genocide of the Rohinga people was released today. What better demonstration that an ICC is needed?.
Milan Kundera observed somewhere or other that one of the key things fiction does is ask the reader to suspend their disbelief. Three books I’ve read over the summer push that ask a little too far.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is a cold-war spy thriller set in contemporary times. The idea is that Dominika, a ballet dancer, is coerced into becoming an operative who specializes in honey-traps – i.e., using sex as a means of doing whatever needs to be done with targets. To become this, she is sent to the Sparrow school where she’s taught… well, other than watch porn and be fucked by any and all, we’re not quite sure what she’s taught. She graduates with flying colours and is sent to entrap an American agent who’s running a highly placed mole. This entails a whole lot of nastiness, the end result being that no one is happy and several die.
The author was a CIA spy, but experience that should be an asset, isn’t. The descriptions of spy craft come across as if he’s trying to avoid giving away too many secrets; the notion that there’s a school where women are sent to become skilled seductresses comes across as an old man’s masturbatory fantasy; the idea that a woman who had been coerced into this would be any good at it is laughable, and the idea that an uncle would be the one coercing is obscene. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt that there are some women who enjoy sex and because it’s for the country would be great Sparrows – but Dominika isn’t one of them. Add to this characters that go from two-dimensional to near parody, and I’d stopped believing the fantasy less than half the way through. (The film, which I stumbled across on a flight, was even less engaging – though the ending was cleverer than the book’s.)
Jo Nesbo makes no pretention to reality in his latest Harry Hole crime thriller, The Thirst – and it shows. The bullshit detector was past the amber light less than fifty pages in, and rattling on red by the time we’d found out that we have a killer who puts steel dentures over his teeth and bites his victims to death. To compensate for the fundamental implausibility of this, we get some pseudo-science (the human jaw, we are told, can bite down with a force of 70kg – but kilograms are a measure of mass, not force), we get an elaborate pseudo-psychology, and the usual Harry Hole distractions of alcohol and potted histories of the victims.
The other Harry Hole book(s – I’m not sure how many I’ve read) have at least had some measure of “yeah, that could just about happen in the country with the world’s lowest murder rate,” but not this one – and it isn’t to do with Oslo. Humans are carnivores. Our teeth are evolved to pierce and tear flesh. We don’t need steel dentures, and dentures sharp enough to make the piercing and tearing easy would leave the serial killer with a tongue in shreds. His isn’t. Bullshit detector on 100%. End of story.
Thus, by the time I pulled Dana Stabenow’s Silk and Song off the shelf, I wanted something nice to read, and the premise was kind of cool: in the early 14th century, Marco Polo’s granddaughter, Johanna, sets off on an adventure that leads her from Cambulac (modern Beijing) to Europe and England.
There were two problems with this saga. The first was that, by the last quarter, the author had run out of plot, so relied instead on incident. Not once, but twice, Johanna and her followers rescue prisoners from heavily fortified keeps – yet though she and her band face mortal threats, they never seem to be in danger.
But the real problem is that there are too many cultural blunders. There’s an extensive bibliography, but the author has Muslims in Kashgar face to the East when they pray, where in Kashgar, they face south west (Muslims face Mecca to pray). A Persian sheik plays a major part in the story, but Persia has no sheiks because sheik is an Arabic word – and, at one point, she has 14th century Persians speaking Farsi, which is the modern language and very different to the Persian of that era. Tauregs make an appearance, but Tauregs come from the south west of the Sahara and – look at a map – their tribal lands are just too far away.
And then there was the writing. The point of view could change twice in a page, and the copy-editing was lousy. These are from two successive short paragraphs (p. 146):
The risky desert journey had paid off an excellent profit for them all…
… the journey had paid off in good traded to their advantage
That’s the same wording, twice within one column inch. Here’s another, on p. 109:
Persian, Jew, Turgesh, Sogdia, Persian
No, that wasn’t a typo by me. Persian is mentioned twice in the same list.
All of which is a shame, because I wanted the book to work. But, like the other two books, it was set in an exotic location, and that location was too riddled with nonsense to keep my disbelief suspended. Jason Matthew transposes Soviet-era spying into this century, and still has characters rely on some easy-to-find clunky short-wave radio: no way. Nesbo has a killer with dentures sharp enough to pierce human skin twice (the external skin and the artery wall), yet his mouth isn’t full of lacerations; Stabenow sets her novel in an age of random, barbarous cruelty, yet never once is any of the main characters hurt.
It’s a shame these authors don’t seem to have read sci-fi/fantasy. Frank Herbert’s Dune, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, even Anne MacCaffrey’s DragonWorld are all more believable other planets than these three books set on this one.
Right now, the mood of the times is pessimistic. The predominant trend in the Anglophone world is not about what could be, but to revert to what was. The obvious ones are Brexit and Trump, but Trudeau is a humbug who has done nothing to rein in the tar sands, while Australia may as well append “Mining, Inc.” to its name. That leaves little New Zealand as the outlier – good for them!
I don’t think I am the only one who wants the world to move forwards, but who feels on the wrong side of history. So it was a joy to attend the Singularity University Summit in Thailand in June (I’ve been flat out since, hence the gap in posting). I admit that I’d been sweet-talked into attending by my friend Lloyd, who organized the event, and, as most IT “summits” are self-congratulatory gabfests; I had low expectations. Boy, were they ever exceeded!
You can watch the highlights on Youtube here. The fundamental thesis behind what Singularity University (SU) teaches is simple. With enough critical mass, the marginal cost of production of certain technologies becomes almost zero, and their uptake becomes so rapid that it’s disruptive – meaning that incumbents don’t have time to react, and collapse. Just as the transition from horse to the internal combustion engine was done and dusted in the single decade following the First World War, and the transition from music on discs to streaming music onto your phone has happened in the decade just passed, a whole raft of technologies is set to disrupt energy, transport, money, agriculture, and a whole bunch of other things.
Of course, boundless optimism cherry picks its case studies, and not all technologies are exponential. But the presenters knew their stuff, the sessions were much fuller of facts and cautions than the average gabfest, and, above all, there were those hallmarks of confidence in presenting: jokes. I emerged from two intense, twelve-hour days invigorated and renewed.
And then, there was the food.
Humanity is eating this planet into an ecological grave. Meat and fish are not the only problems, but removing them from your diet is the simplest thing you can do to mitigate the damage. Continuing to eat meat and fish – sorry carnivorous friends – requires invincible selfishness underpinned by wilful ignorance, the wilful part being founded on having the intellectual curiosity of a house brick when it comes to your food sources. We cannot feed the world by going organic, but we can not only feed the world, but return lots of it to other species, or more of our own, if we cut meat and fish from our diets.
To their credit, lunch had a small vegan corner. It was tucked away in such an obscure part of the banqueting hall that I missed it the first time; half a dozen or so of us vegetarians huddled there, watching the other thousand or so delegates stuff their faces with animal cadavers.
But the point is this: all of the speakers knew that meat and fish has to go. Many of them said it in their presentations, others in the socialising that went with the event. Yet the cognitive dissonance regarding diet is so overwhelming that that small corner was all they could muster in the way of action. Words, yes. Action, minimal.
So here’s my suggestion for the next SU summit.
- Be Bold. Tell the delegates that they’re going to be fed vegetarian food, and tell them why.
- Don’t be Boring. Offer food that is tasty and interesting.
- Donate the Skills. Most hotels haven’t a clue how to present a tasty vegetarian meal for a large number of people (actually, most chefs believe it cannot be done!). Send an executive vegetarian chef to the hotel, months in advance, not only to agree a menu, but to train the chefs how to cook it.
- Leave a Legacy. Encourage the venues to re-use the model. If nothing else, it’s cheaper to prepare vegetarian food than meat and seafood, so more profitable.
- So, SU, how about it?
Four Reigns was first published as a newspaper serial in Thailand in the 1950s. The author, Kukrit Pramoj, was in the first generation of Thais to undergo and overseas education – he went to Queen’s College, Oxford – and I can’t help but think that there’s a lot of his own life in this book. Which makes for an interesting if rose-tainted read.
The story starts with Phloi, a likeable child who leaves her father’s house to work as a courtier of King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of the current Ratanakosin dynasty (His Majesty King Vajralongkorn is the tenth). Phloi spends her late childhood and adolescence in court, has her heart broken once, but follows her father’s advice and marries well. She has four children and the book follows their intertwined lives as well as her own.
Phloi faces few conflicts – she has good karma – which makes the story itself is somewhat saccharine. Yet the characters are well drawn and, even if the book is rather free of incident in Phloi’s own life. One of her brothers becomes a degenerate, she has an evil half sister, and so on. On top of that, not only was Thailand affected by two world wars and the Great Depression, but the kingdom was also going through the throes of a massive modernisation. And, after the death of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), there was a series of short-lived monarchs between him and the late King Bumibol (Rama IX), all of which affect the lives of the characters.
Setting aside the historical background, the book is also brought to life, especially in the early parts, by the detailed descriptions of a court life that is no more. I am not in a position to know if the details are authentic – and I suspect that many of them are recollections of the author’s own mother – but they are beautifully sketched. I was also fascinated by how much, and how little, the social mores of Thailand have changed – how Phloi is happy to ask her husband if he’d like her to find second wives and concubines (he declines), how wives and husbands separate, how the hierarchies of wives change.
Four Reigns is regarded as a classic – the eyes of a Thai sitting next to me on a plane popped out of his head when he saw me reading Tulachandra’s translation into English – yet although the book was never boring, and although it was not written as a page-turner, what let it down was a one-sidedness. The characters covered the good, the bad and the ugly, though no one was evil, but they were all upper-class and well-heeled. There was no hint of the grinding poverty that is the lot, even today, of many Thais. Somehow for me, that left a void in the centre of the novel – I’d hope for more of a seven hundred page epic.
No one, however, could accuse Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (and translated by Annie Tucker) as lacking in evil. Though written in 2011, the novel is set in broadly the same period as Four Reigns, albeit in Indonesia.
The book starts with Dewi Ayu, Halimunda’s greatest prostitute, rising from her grave, twenty years on, to avenge those who have wronged her and her daughters, but covers the time from her birth to her (first) death, overlapping the First and Second World Wars, up to the early years of Indonesia’s independence.
Often hilarious, the book describes a world of the other-natural, with ghosts and spirits, bold and cruel characters, and with lots of incident. Its world is one of fleeting relationships, of husbands who rape and husbands who love, of women determined and manipulative. It depicts the hierarchies of Indonesian towns, where crooks and cops carve up the power and populace bumbles along as best it can. Where in Four Reigns, the karma of one life determines the karma of the next; in Beauty, payback does not take that long.
Yet, despite the vivid writing and continuous invention, Beauty wore me down. Most of the final fifty pages concerned Dewi Ayu’s grandchildren and, by then, I didn’t much care. Those pages left me wondering where the book was going, and wishing it would get there sooner. As it happened, there was a neat ending, but it could have got there much sooner.
That aside, read together – and it’s mere serendipity that I did – the books are an immersion into a world as strange and wonderful as any sci-fi. Go out and buy them!
A few years ago I was involved in raising lots of money to build a data centre in Thailand. During that time I met David. David told me about an island called Flores, in Indonesia, where he and his associates were building hotels and the like but – and this caught my attention even then – with a difference.
In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes how, in the aftermath of the 2001 tsunami, global hotel chains used the devastation of coastal communities in Sri Lanka as an excuse for a land grab. Those who had already lost their livelihoods and homes were shoved back to the inner shores while the luxury resorts fenced off beaches and made damn sure that the last thing you’d see on the beach would be the fisherman and his family who used to live there, and the last means of subsistence those fishermen would have, would come from the seas they’d once fished. As to the environment – well, as long as it looked nice, pump raw sewage out to sea and no one would know. This is one of the reasons I avoid beach resorts.
David wanted his company to be everything that the big chains are not. He wanted to include the communities, to make sure that the developments would accord with their wishes – most communities are keenly aware of the threat to their environment that development brings – and that would offer a future for their children.
I was impressed by his passion, but had neither the time nor the available money to get involved. However – a story for another post – the data centre didn’t come off, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I was meeting David’s management team:
Well, not quite. These are the famous Komodo Dragons. They are not at all sweet and cuddly: their drool is poisoness enough to kill a grown man with a bite, and they are quite capable of eating small humans and large land animals. Here are some of the last guests to register a complaint:
Komodo Dragons eat whatever they kill whole, bones and all, and excrete the latter. We wandered around in the company of a guide and came across a young one
Who then sensed lunch in the proximity
At which point we made a speedy exit .
So, that’s a major draw to the area. The dragons exist on only three islands, which collectively form Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As such it’s protected, but here’s our little area outside it:
Not quite untouched, but in this filling-up world of ours, it’s as close as you get.
Here are some neighbours:
Houses on stilts in this case. The fishing communities in Flores are poor. Flores takes its name from the Portuguese, and the island is predominantly Catholic and its main export, priests (if you thought Indonesia is full of bomb-throwing Islamists, change your newspaper). However, the fishermen are predominantly Muslim and tend to live in remote bays, inaccessible by road, with minimal access to secondary education, health services and, in many cases, reliable drinking water.
So, what does David’s company intend to do with this pristine patch of paradise? Whatever it will be, it won’t be this
That hotel is typical of rapacious resort development. They’ve built right up to the plot boundary, have put a hideous, maximum density pile of concrete on top of it and the beach – if it hasn’t been permanently destroyed by the construction – will be a narrow strip of sand on water where, in the afternoon, you can most likely watch your very own breakfast turd float past – and those of the other 500 guests.
I bought into the company – Asia Land and Sea – and they’ve put me on the advisory board. It’s as much a responsibility as anything I’ve taken on. On the one hand, it’s a company, not a charity, and needs to make money. On the other hand, all of us on the board are committed to growing the company in a way that respects the local communities and nurtures the environment. That’s a tall order, riven with conflicts, and I wonder if I’m up to it. At least I know where I’ll end up if the management team decides that I’m not…
“What are you trying to prove?” asked a friend of my latest Himalayan trek, the Manaslu Circuit. It’s a fair question. Yes, I’d like to summit a 6,000m / 20,000ft peak, probably Island Peak, but I’m not at the stage of becoming an Eight-thousander (of which more below…) Well, not yet. But, for an answer, read to the bottom.
My partner in pain was again DC – short for Diamond Card, which sums up his lifestyle – and our guide was Hari. Our porter was Sorach – 4’3″ and I doubt he weighed as much as me with our bags, but, as our bags included two bottles of dietary supplement (whisky), I carried his rucksack. This slowed me down and speeded him up, so that worked well. We again (quick plug because they’re nice guys who started from nothing, as well as because they do a good job) used Outfitters to arrange everything, and they again did an excellent job.
The Manaslu Circuit was very different to Ama Dablan Base Camp. At 288km total distance, including excursions, it was equivalent in distance to a marathon every two days for two weeks; at a total ascent of 7,500m it was, in Scots terms, a Monro starting from sea level every two days. All things considered, Ama Dablan was a stroll.
This trek was also much more social. The Khumbu (Everest) region is a superhighway. The only conversation we struck up was with a fellow who’s been going there every year for the past twenty years, for many of which he’d taken groups of schoolchildren. This trek was much less crowded, and most parties of trekkers moved at about the same speed: we met a group of four Slovakians, a pair of ladies from the UK who struggled, a pair from Australia who seemed far too casual but outpaced us, four Danes who looked the part of Vikings, a married couple the husband of which had dashed from the wedding ceremony to ascend a 7000m peak near Sagarmatha, and various others. This may make it seem crowded but, to the contrary, we were on our own for most of the trail. We met – and re-met – the groups at “tea houses” – the hostels on the route – night after night, as we ascended.
The bottom reaches were full of road construction with the consequent dust, noise and litter, so had little to offer. This fine sight greeted us on arrival at the second night’s town:
However, once in the conservation area, the litter all but vanished. While I don’t absolve trekkers from the mess, it became clear that the construction workers were as, if not more responsible as us.
For the next two days, we progressed through one layer after another of desiduous and pine forests, rhododendron forests, of barren high-altitude valleys; of Tibetan villages beneath towering peaks. It rained for much of the way up, and I am not a good enough photographer to capture scenes in the rain, So here’s a flower:
A warning. On the first day of rain, a trekker got ahead of his guide and took a wrong turn. Realising his mistake, he turned back, slipped on the muddy path, and fell to his death in a gorge. This was at well below the 3,000m at which Acute Mountain Sickness sets in. Mountains are dangerous places.
A day or two later, I topped a rise and saw this.
I stood, stunned. Even if we had to turn back, that view made it worthwhile.
From there, our home of the next two nights, Samagoan, was an easy two hours away. The mountain from which the trek takes its name was wreathed in cloud when we arrived, but popped out the next morning: .
That being a rest day, we took a side trek to a monastery. On the way there, I saw an avalanche on the lower slopes of Manaslu and was very glad to be on the opposite side of the valley. Here’s the monastery – not open until summer.
Here’s a pleasant place to spend a few years seeking god,
And here are DC and Hari, on the way back.
On return to town, we came across a puja. There were bells and gongs and drones, and the villagers came out to present the headmen with kata, white silk scarfs used to show respect.
For some reason, DC and I were deemed worthy of respect, draped with white scarfs, and offered a small taste of the local hooch. The puja, we were told, was to distribute rice to the villagers, and I assume that the village heads are those on the ground being thanked for contributing that rice. Later that evening the temperature plummetted, the rain started, yet the villagers were unfazed outside, distributing rice as we huddled inside drinking our whisky (Hari told us that garlic thins the blood which is good for altitude; I hold that whisky does the same.)
The rain turned into snow and the next day’s walk was through a winter wonderland:
It was a short day to our next stop, Samdo, so DC and I headed up the nearest hill, taking the steepest route up. Having got as far up as we wanted, we struck out to traverse down, only to become ensnared in juniper bushes (very much like heather). That took some navigation – the blob is DC struggling to remain attached to the hill.
We got back to bad news. The weather was forecast to set in and, although we’d planned to spend two nights in Samdo, Hari recommended a single night and an attempt on the high point of the trek, a pass the morning after that, a day earlier than scheduled. Although I’d hoped to take a side trek to a glacier, prudence (DC’s mostly) won the day, so we set off the next morning to the camp.
That walk was uneventful and quick, so that afternoon we popped up a hill behind it for the view of the pass. It’s in the middle of the photograph, a long way from where I took it. A very long way.
On the way down, I got talking to one of the Slovakian group :
`Oh, Peter’s here to do his sixteenth eight thousand meter peak.’
`Um,’ said I, `there are only fourteen such peaks.’
`Yes, after this he’s going to ascend Everest, come down to 7,000m for a day, then ascend Lhotse. Two 8,000m peaks in three days.’
What was a trek to us was training for Peter. (I thought at the time that only Reihhart Messner and Andy Hinkes had summitted all fourteen of the world’s 8,000m peaks, but post-trek I found out that a few dozen people have managed the 14 – and you’ll find Peter’s name on that list. That leaves 7 billion, myself included, who haven’t.)
After a crap night’s sleep, due to a rucksack that refused to play pillow and a tent pitched on an incline, at 4:00 a.m. we started up the pass. My camera isn’t good enough to capture the stunning beauty of the night sky at altitude, but it’s good enough to capture the dawn:
And here we are at the top, with me squinting in the sunlight.
Then ascent, through fresh snow, turned out to be the easy part. We had a 1,500m descent down the other side of the pass, over steep snow, without crampons or ice axes, leading out on to a glacial moraine, and more steep stuff, with not a tea house in sight. By the time we arrived at Bimtang, that first Gorkha beer went down very fast.
That was it, we thought. A three or four day trek back down and we’d be off to Kathmandu. We hadn’t counted on the weather dumping four inches of snow overnight; and the next day was, in the word’s of one of our Vikings, “This is the best ever!”::
Rhododendrons were in bloom:
As we descended, it got greener and greener.
So; why the title of this blog? As I mulled on Peter’s massive achievement, it struck me that, at the end of the day, bagging peaks is not so very different from bagging the “big five” African game animals, the “Seven Summits” and all the others. But does it address this?
That’s Samagoan, where we spent two nights. I do not mean this in a derogatory way, I do not mean to allocate blame, and I have no reason to believe that the villagers are unhappy. But the squalor is Medieval. Here’s a town we saw further down, where the end of our trail joins the beginning of the Annapurna circuit:
That’s US$450 they’re asking for. Over 100,000 trekkers pass that way every year, every single one of whom has spent more than that to trek. And this sign probably says it best
That’s Samagoan’s school sign. There is no other. So what do I hope to achieve? That you, reader, will chip in to my friends at Room to Read, who are doing their best for schools in poor countries..