Review of ‘Travels in Zanskar’

12 Apr

by Rhea H. Boyden


‘Can I recommend a great book?’ I said excitedly to one of my colleagues at the language school last week. ‘My dad wrote it and it really is good!’ I exclaimed. My colleague looked at me with a teasing smile and said ‘This can hardly be an unbiased recommendation coming from you!’ I countered this by saying that I was arguably in a good position to give a fair judgement of the book PRECISELY because the author is my father. Given the very fact that I could cringe at something he had written, or read a joke in the book that he had already told a dozen times at the dinner table.

‘Nima gyalyung tokpo chunmo duk’ is a saying in Tibeten that I heard my dad repeat many a time when I was a kid, but I will confess that I actually never asked him what it meant. I guess it is normal when you are growing up to not show an interest in your parents’ creative pursuits. Now that I am writer myself I read my dad’s book with great awe and interest last weekend and I have now learned that ‘Nima gyalyung tokpo chunmo duk’ means ‘When the sun shines the streams come flowing’ and that this is a common greeting in the Kingdom of Zanskar in Tibet. And as I read I realise that my dad’s book really is pure poetry and there is not a word in it that makes me cringe at all. I praise it to the heavens.

My dad Mark Boyden and his friend Paddy O’ Hara hiked through Zanskar and Ladakh between April and August 1981 accompanied by a white horse which they named ‘Himself’. My dad stiched saddle bags for the horse to carry their supplies and they went off on an incredible adventure being welcomed at Buddhist Lamasaries, learning about local agriculture, customs, and acquiring an increasingly impressive command of the language which they had already swotted up on in West Cork, Ireland before embarking on the trip.

The horse becomes their companion and friend for the journey but not before it learns that it belongs to them and not to escape and wander off. My dad writes in chapter 5: ‘After four days, the morning came when, opening the tent flap, I was greeted by an abondoned tether. Paddy headed back down, and I up the valley, but when we met at noon neither of us had had any luck. Then something caught Paddy’s eye and he gestured to a tiny white speck high on the mountainside. Careful study revealed that it was in fact moving about, though by the time we gained his station and convinced Himself to rejoin us the day was done, and any progress would have to wait until another day.’

On another day my dad describes spotting a herd of yaks in the distance and he realises that this is a golden opportunity to restock their diminished supply of yak butter. My dad leaves Paddy to hike ahead and set up camp and he sets off in pursuit of the owners of the yaks. Upon reaching them, a deal cannot be struck before drinking endless cups of butter tea with them. The Zanskaris drink a tea with yak butter and salt in it which is a kind of bouillon that they drink by the bucket load to counteract the harsh and potentially dangerously dehydrating climate. My dad scores a deal and secures some yak curd to boot and after finding Paddy at the camp, proceeds to make some delicious hors d’oeuvres of apricot kernels and carrigeen moss fried in yak butter accompanied by Paddy’s delicious flat breads. I know what a fabulous gourmet cook my dad is and how he always seems to be able to whip up a delicious meal at home in Ireland seemingly out of nothing, even after I have been complaining to him that the cupboard is bare and we need to go shopping.It is clear that some of his early experimental cooking and eating was done on this trip in 1981 when he was 29 years old.

I have been writing very seriously for nearly 3 years now but because I live in Berlin I have had little opportunity to focus on descriptions of nature in my writing. Last year when I was in Santa Cruz, California I decided very consciously to become aware of my natural surroundings and try and bring these descriptions into my writing. I wrote about the crescent moon rising over the redwood grove and the chorusing Pacific tree frogs, the flowering dogwoods and azaleas, and the creature that fascinated me the most- the banana slug-which is the biggest landslug in North America. I wrote to my dad about this slug at the time and I asked him if he had ever heard of or seen this disgusting creature. Of course he had, he told me, reminding me that he had grown up in the Santa Cruz mountains.

So with my interest heightened in descriptions of nature, plants, trees, flowers, the heavens and the planets in order to improve my own writing I slowly savoured my dad’s descriptions in his book. Chapter 6 opens thus: ‘We slept through the clear, cold night and awoke to the sound of a distant avalanche. As the myriad mountains worked through a palette of dawn blushes we broke camp and headed off into the ice.’ On their travels they were constantly in search of a place to camp that held some grasses for the horse to munch and that had clean, clear water. They happen upon a willow coppice and set up camp there. Before crossing a river my dad writes that ‘there was an inviting coppice on a sun-drenched sandy shore. Forty dwarf willows had rooted and, with the season, had laid a lush carpet of down. The summer wind had strewn petals of rare briar about the down.’ This place was so beautiful that they sought it out on their return hike too and my dad writes of pulling out his watercolours to capture its beauty whilst Paddy practices his calligraphy.

And it must be added that both of my parents have always had a huge interest in astronomy. I remember my mother and my father pointing out Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn to my brother and me as children, so it comes as no surprise that my dad mentions the location of the planets and the moon throughout the book. In chapter 13 he writes: ‘Saddling up, we left Lamayuru as we found it, with a dusky Venus hanging there to the southwest to remind us we were on Earth.’ Elsewhere in the book he writes that ‘the quarter moon had cleared a lofty saddle to the south and now illuminated the barley.’

As I read the final word of the final chapter, a feeling of pride washed over me at what a beautiful book my dad has created. Its poetic vignettes are marvelous and I am in awe. And it gives me hope and inspires me for my own future as a writer. 33 years after going on this wonderful (and sometimes quite dangerous and challenging) adventure, his story has been published in a beautiful book. Sometimes good things take a long time to come into being and with writing you need time and patience with yourself. Patience my dad has proven he has in producing this gem of a book.

The book can be ordered directly from the publisher, The Liffey Press:

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