High: A Journey across the Himalayas by Erika Fatland

An anthropologist establishes a unique rapport with the people she encounters on this unromantic trek through the mountains

A magnet for explorers, climbers and seekers of enlightenment, the Himalayas have drawn swathes of travellers over the years. The resulting outpouring of stories can leave one wondering quite what more there is to say.

But at the outset of this extended travel narrative, Norwegian anthropologist Erika Fatland, whose previous books include Sovietistan, distinguishes herself from the stereotypes. She is not a “spiritual tourist” on a mystical journey, she explains, nor is she a climber, or a star travel writer looking to stamp her identity over people and places. The “holy grail” Fatland pursues in the opening pages is a visa, and this quest sets the tone for what is a modern and unromantic approach to her subject.

A series of thoughtful chapters lead us on a trail through Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, China and Tibet. Writing with aplomb and sensitivity, Fatland observes the sights and sounds of cities, towns and villages; she visits temples and forests and explores the high plateau. Places are carefully contextualised with geopolitical and historical detail and she weaves in geology too, grounding the work in the land itself.

The book comes to life primarily through conversations with the many people Fatland encounters. We hear exchanges with strangers on buses, discussions with rangers, bureaucrats, spiritual leaders and even a king. Each one helps her assemble a vivid portrait of the many kinds of society that exist across the Himalayas’ huge range.

Paro Taktsang (Tigers Nest) monastery in Bhutan.
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery in Bhutan. Photograph: Suzanne Stroeer/Getty Images/Aurora Open

While Fatland is not a climber, she visits Everest, hiking up to base camp. On the whole, she rarely passes judgment on those she meets but the Everest contingent represents an exception – as one proudly explains, “many of us are Type-A personalities”, and indeed she finds them impatient, ambitious and extremely competitive. Fatland endures their company as well as a bout of altitude sickness.

Elsewhere she meets women who have lived under the Taliban, former child goddesses and survivors of trafficking and sexual violence. She travels to a remote region of Nepal where women on their periods are considered unclean and sent out of the house to sleep in huts. This practice has led to deaths from snakebites, carbon monoxide poisoning and exposure.

In the part of India known as Little Tibet, four giggling nuns avoid her questions until the monk accompanying them disappears; once he has left, they switch to English and fire a host of questions at Fatland. They discuss work, family, education, relationships and childcare. Through these moments of intimacy and occasional exasperation, we gain a detailed understanding of women’s lives across the region. It is this perspective that makes this book stand out: Fatland, as traveller and anthropologist, establishes a unique rapport with girls and women leading to precious insights into lives rarely recorded.

• Anna Fleming is the author of Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains. High by Erika Fatland is published by MacLehose Press (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Anna Fleming

The GuardianTramp

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